It was on an easy walk with the Ramblers Association that Sammy first met Felicity Pryce-Jones and learned about womens black tights.
Felicity was an attractive woman in her early fifties, wearing a jade green anorak that set off her auburn hair, and she had a clear, lilting voice that seemed to carry for miles. As he helped her over a stile, Sammy lost the weight of his seventy-two years, and soon they were deep in conversation. He learned that she was a member of the Proscenium Players, who were about to hold auditions for the Merry Wives of Windsor.
"Were desperate, darling," she said. "We need seventeen good men and theyre hard to find. I dont suppose ?"
Here we go again, thought Sammy. As a student he had once played Willie Mossup in Hobsons Choice and later helped out with local church groups, but that was many years ago. However, Sammy was still very susceptible to a handsome womans charms, and the darling bit went to his head. He found himself promising to attend an audition set for the following week.
"Oh, thats super," enthused Felicity, before Sammy could change his mind. "And please call me Fliss. Ill pick you up at seven on Tuesday." And grabbing Sammys arm, she squeezed it tightly, much to his delight.
Tuesday night found Sammy being pushed through the stage door at the back of the Proscenium Players Theatre. It was cold, dark, and dusty, and Sammy felt completely out of place. But Felicity took his hand and dragged him through a baize-covered door and on to the stage. He peered down into the gloomy auditorium and was disconcerted to find the front three rows dotted with aspiring actors.
Fliss darlinged everyone and ushered Sammy down to meet the company, who seemed very pleased to see him.
"Now, this is Otto, our director," said Fliss, and Sammys hand was grasped by a huge paw. Otto was enormous! Completely bald and with a broken nose, he seemed like a fugitive from a rugby scrum, although the effect was spoilt by his customised sweatshirt, which was candy pink with the words Proscenium Players emblazoned in green across the front.
The auditions got under way. Sammy, huddling into his thick coat, watched with interest as the players went through their paces. There was keen competition for the womens parts, but it seemed obvious to Sammy that Fliss couldnt fail to be cast as one of the Merry Wives.
Halfway through the evening, mugs of hot coffee were miraculously produced, and Sammy was approached by Otto. "Fliss tells me youre a bit out of touch," he said, "but I think Ive got just the part for you. Its a servant, John Rugby, and hes only got six lines. All you need to do is to walk slowly, stoop, and shuffle a bit. Nothing to it! How about trying?"
Without waiting for an answer, Otto called out, " Derek! Read Doctor Caius so that Sammy can try his lines."
So Sammy found himself on the stage with only Derek for company, watched by three rows of interested spectators. Feeling very nervous, Sammy did his bit, and the director seemed satisfied in a noncommittal way.
At about ten oclock, Otto called a halt. "Right folks!" he shouted. "Thanks for coming along. Well be in touch."
A few days later, Sammy received a letter offering him the part of John Rugby, and so rehearsals began. Having only a small part, he attended once a week and spent most of each rehearsal watching the play take shape. He was very impressed by the standard of acting and the players dedication. Some of the men were now sprouting beards in various styles and he followed the growth of these with interest, particularly that of Falstaffs, which developed at a prodigious rate.
Sammy soon knew his six lines by heart. Each time, before he went on stage, he muttered the incantation: "Slow, stoop, and shuffle a bit. Slow, stoop, and shuffle a bit," and got through without too much trouble.
A week before the show, Sammy was approached by a steely-eyed lady with an insistent invitation to visit the costume department. Having previously provided personal measurements, he was presented with a high-necked apricot velvet jacket that buttoned down the front. It also had a short frilled skirt, which Sammy eyed with misgivings. To complete the costume, he was given a flat Elizabethan cap in the same material and a pair of soft black slippers.
"Now, all you need are some black tights," said the lady. "Dig into the box to see what you can find."
And thats where the saga of Sammys tights began. Stripping to his underpants, Sammy hopped on one leg and began to learn the feminine art of tights-donning. At one point in the search he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and was appalled. The tights sagged at the crotch, and he looked like an illustration from the book of coarse acting.
Resolving to cut his toenails at the first opportunity, Sammy finally found a pair of tights, which fitted very well, and he felt quite sensuous as he smoothed them and straightened the seams. He put on the rest of his costumeand it was then that he nearly gave back word. He felt a real clot and abandoned all hope of impressing Fliss. But, muttering his personal mantra, " Slow, stoop, and shuffle a bit," he went back on stage.
The dress rehearsal was called for the following Sunday evening. As Sammy had predicted, Fliss had been cast in the plum part of Mistress Page, one of the Merry Wives, and was eager to help.
"I dont suppose you have your own make-up, darling," she said sympathetically. "But dont worry. You can use the clubs kit at a pinch, and Ill help if necessary."
But Sammy was way ahead. Hed already unearthed the tattered canvas knapsack from the back of his spare room wardrobe. It contained the almost-petrified remains of his earlier thespian efforts that hed clung to out of sentiment. That evening he catalogued his kit. One Bruno Flake tobacco tin containing the remains of a few dried-up greasepaint sticks. A red Tobler chocolate box in which was a pink hairnet, solidified spirit gum, various safety pins, and a grubby coil of brown crepe hair. And to complete the kit, an empty tin of removing crème and a box of blending powder. All he needed was a tin of crème and hed be in business!
That Sunday evening found Sammy and eight other members of the cast fighting for mirror space. Thinking of Fliss, he judged that he had facial lines enough without redrawing them and decided to get by with a basic stage makeup. He then put on his costume, struggling again with the black tights, and looked into the mirror. God, what a sight, he thought. Theres something wrong somewhere. Talk about the picture of Dorian Gray! But it was far too late for alterations. Muttering his litany of "Slow, stoop, and shuffle a bit," he climbed the stairs to his baptism of fire.
In the event all went fairly well. It was the Proscenium Players custom to invite other members of the company to the dress rehearsal, and as it was a large and thriving concern there must have been about twenty people in the audience.
For some reason Sammys first entrance was greeted with subdued titters from the audience, but he pressed on. " Slow, stoop, and shuffle a bit," he muttered as he followed his master, the French Doctor Caius, about the stage. At any rate, he thought, they seem to be enjoying it. And strangely enough, so was Sammy.
All too soon the rehearsal came to an end, and Sammy peeled off his tights. The consensus of opinion was that he had done very well. "You were absolutely wonderful, darling" said Fliss later, much to Sammys relief. "I loved your shuffle. See you in the bar. You can buy me a drink."
Sammy climbed the foyer stairs and pushed his way to the bar counter. The rest of the cast had not yet arrived, and the bar was crowded with members who didnt know Sammy. Everyone was talking sixteen to the dozen, and nobody recognised him.
In one corner of the bar were two very attractive young ladies, one with magenta hair and the other with a very fetching Paddington Bear hat. They were discussing the play, and Sammy eavesdropped unashamedly. He learned a great deal about his stage companions, especially the ladies!
And then he heard the name John Rugby. They were talking about him.
"Otto must be scraping the bottom of the barrel," said Paddington Bear. "Who was that playing John Rugby? Completely miscast! His makeup wasnt so bad, I suppose, and I liked his stoop, but those legs were a dead give-away. I tell you, I wouldn't mind a pair like that. The man's obviously too young for the part. Ah! Here's Otto. Wonderful show, darling. It'll go well."
Sammy enjoyed the next week and was thrilled when Felicity accepted his invitation to dinner and a show. Ah, well, he thought, shaking a shapely leg. Some people have it, some dont. But thats life.
Ron is 80 years old and served with the British Army in India (and Ceylon) during World War II. He retired from the teaching profession in 1985 and, following his wife's death shortly afterwards, took up creative writing as a hobby. Since then he has had short stories and poetry published and broadcast. The North West Network of the B.B.C has broadcast seventeen of his stories.