October 28, 2011
Up early and Camilla makes bacon rolls for everyone. We’re on the road by ten and today that’s all there is, a travel day up to the Lyth Arts Centre, up by Wick, just a few miles south of the end of the world.
We drive back up through the mountains. Some of it looks like Patagonia and some is reminiscent of Montana, but there’s a wild beauty that is all its own. The sun is out and the autumn colors of the fields and forests make Nancy and me homesick for New England, homesick for America, homesick for home. Two months is a long time to be away and while we wouldn’t have missed this ride for the world, we’re ready to get back.
We drive past the world famous Loch Ness and stop for lunch at the Eden Court Theater in Inverness. Camilla and Catherine and I have the turnip and whiskey soup, which sounds bizarre and is delicious, and afterwards hit a big Tescos in town, buying supplies for the next two days.
There’s a different tenor on this drive, a minor chord you can hear creeping into our conversation.
We all know that the last show is tomorrow, the course is essentially run and the whole enterprise, rehearsal, opening and then the tour, is drawing to a close. It’s always this way in the theater, especially with a new and untried piece.
There’s an intense and usually effortless bonding, a group of people united against all odds to deliver a show. Then the shared hardship and terror of opening night and, if it comes off at all, enormous celebration and an orgy of mutual admiration. Add to this the physical toll of touring, driving and sharing meals, experiencing new venues, lodging together and after a few days you become a pack, a band, a tiny wandering tribe with its own language, jokes and customs, looking out for each other, observing the ways and habits of the townspeople, taking their money each night in exchange for some laughs and songs and then moving on the next morning, on to the next gig.
There’s the natural bond of workers doing specialized labor in different environments, everyone knows their responsibility and respects and relies on everyone else’s contribution, but there’s also something beneath this in the theater: a private, usually unacknowledged glee that bubbles up and carries you along on tour. On some level you all know that what you’re doing is essentially quite silly, something children do naturally and then grow out of as they age, and yet here we are, the oldest touring company on the road, still doing it, still playing and pretending and jumping around in front of people and not only are we getting away with it, but they’re paying us as well.
Pete and Lisa join us at a restaurant about sixty miles below Wick, having driven up from Edinburgh this morning. Except for Tim’s Jackie, back home in Leith, the couples are all reunited.
We walk into the aptly named La Mirage in Helmsdale, a small town’s fish and chips joint where the world’s finest collection of kitsch has come to die. A mannequin of what looks like a California Highway Patrolman, drawing his service revolver stands right in the middle of the place, hard up against half of a chorus girl with long, fishnet-stockinged legs whose torso is now a lampshade. Countless curios and figurines crowd the windowsills and shelves and we sit at a table in the back and look around, grinning and pointing in quiet awe.
A sign out front proclaims La Mirage serves one of the six best fish and chips in the kingdom, as determined by Clarissa Dickson Wright. My comrades all nod respectfully when they see her name and my joke about judging from the picture of Ms. Wright displayed next to her pronouncement, she has clearly sampled all of the fish and chips available in Britain, falls flat. We order coffee only, saving ourselves for Tim’s special pasta tonight. Our waitress disapprovingly takes our order and returns with six Nescafes, which we suffer in penitent silence.
The sun goes down as we continue north below enormous black clouds in a dark purple sky. We arrive at the Lyth Arts Centre and are shown to the artists housing across the parking lot, a five bedroom, two-storied dream of a guest house. Tim commandeers the kitchen, chopping vegetables, frying onions and preparing sauce. I settle into the living room with a glass of whiskey and feel the miles slip away from my shoulders and back.
We devour Brinkhurst’s Surprise, smoked salmon and garlic, onion and cherry tomatoes with ziti. The wine flows, the whiskey evaporates and we shout across the table, trading stories of the last few weeks, suddenly launched on a full-on, late-night tear which lasts until the small hours and we slip away, one by one, falling into our beds, happy and blessed to be in Lyth and nearly at the end of the journey.