So here I am, working on a new book for the Costume Collection, kindly grant-aided by Museum Galleries Scotland, and the first thing I required to do was to cast my mind back as to why the feck we had started collecting costumes or old clothes in the first place! And of course, the answer was that for more than 20 years, Moira and I acted in, produced, costumed, prompted, and wrote for at least three local community drama groups of various ages and composition. Almost immediately, one of the people involved in the above said to me: ‘I hope you are going to include the drama man’. To explain, the drama man was a short story that I wrote for the WRI magazine almost twenty years ago, which was much admired (he says modestly!) and was indeed reprinted in a volume which contained ten of the best short stories that they had ever published. So, we thought that we would give you the chance to read it. The decision whether to include it in the book, which is by the way going to be fa-bu-lous!, has yet to be made…
The Drama Man
I suppose that one of the comforts of life is the fact that we are almost always totally unprepared for the disasters that are about to befall us. It was therefore with no portent of catastrophe that I answered the telephone one evening some years ago…’Hullo’ said a strong confident mature voice, ‘Is that the Drama Man?’ It was at this point, in retrospect, that I should have hung up, or replied in a broken mid-European accent, that she had the wrong number. Instead, like a lamb to the slaughter, I said ‘Yes it is’. ‘This is Meg Smith of Gateside WRI’, she said. ‘We’d like you to produce a festival play for us. Ye see, Margaret Barrett thinks we should go in for it. There’s only five folk, mibby six or possibly seven. Mind you, we’re no very good, although we do a wee thing at Christmas, ye ken, a sketch or something and they aye laugh, but we’re quite prepared to try oor hand at anything, ye ken. It was Robert McCarter suggested your name, Ah met him at Jackie Parker’s the ither night, an’ he said to gie Mr Ferguson a ring and ask him -.’ She paused for breath, my mind which had been blank when she began, was now racing wildly; who did she say she was; what did WRI stand for; who was Jackie Parker? I knew Robert McCarter – I’ll kill him, I thought to myself. As she finished speaking, I covered the receiver with my hand and whispered in a panic to my wife who had been summoned by my frantic kicking on the lounge wall. ‘WRI?’ I beseeched here. ‘Women’s Rural Institute’ she replied with a withering look, and retreated back into the lounge and shut the door. The telephone which had now been transformed into an instrument as deadly as a cobra, was making shrieking noises as Meg Smith’s voice oozed through my fingers. ‘Ur ye there Rubert?’ she cried – ‘Rubert’ I thought. We’ve never met and already my name is corrupted. ‘Could you manage on Sunday, 2 o’clock at Gateside Hall, that’s fine’ she said, not waiting for an answer, she hung up.
My conscience tormented me for three days. I would be a professional laughing stock; I would never be able to hold my head up in a theatre again; I had nightmares. A stage with five, maybe six, possibly seven women all in matching twinsets and tweed skirts – Lady Macbeth coming down the steps with a cream sponge in one hand and six matched brown eggs in the other. It had to be stopped. ‘Tell them I’m sick‘ I said. ‘You can’t‘ said my wife. ‘Imagine the repercussions, we’ll be snubbed at every cattle show for miles around, they’ll dump tons of dung at the gate in the middle of the night, the pony will get the staggers or something‘. To calm her rising hysteria, I said ‘OK, I’ll go‘.
Sunday dawned cold, dreich and snowy, a portent I thought. My wife and I were, by this time, no longer corresponding orally. My note said: ‘I won’t be long, will see them and explain I can’t do it’. Gateside Hall, I knew of old. The collection of old Land Rovers, sawn off mini-vans and the bike with the canvas chain guard should have prepared me for the sight that met my eyes. They looked like Amazons or Eskimos, each one in fur boots or wellies, long parkas or sheepskins giving tantalising glimpses of lisle or hand knitted woollen stockings, heads and faces hidden by mohair scarves or balaclavas, little eyes glittered in the gloom, and as I entered unseen, they were grouped round an enormous vacuum flask, screeching with laughter – visions of the Alloway Kirkyard in Tam O’Shanter, or the witches in Macbeth seized my crazed mind – I turned to run, but too late, I had been spotted.
They split up and came towards me, their mittens extended like aliens in Dr Who. ‘Hullo Rubert’ said the leader, ‘A’m Meg Smith’. ‘He’s only a boy’ said another one in a stage whisper. ‘Whit ur ye for a Ferguson?’ said another. ‘Ah don’t really want a pairt’ said a third. ‘A’ve the mulkin at four’ said another. ‘Can you stop a Land Rover that won’t turn off’ said a nervous voice. Run, I thought, run, but eager hands were pulling me towards the flickering paraffin heater and the vacuum flask. ‘Good God’ I thought. ‘An initiation ceremony’. Meanwhile, the company pulled at each other’s scarves and sheepskins like souls demented, and as the mist of terror cleared from my eyes, I saw them for what they really were.
What they were and are, of course, are one of the nicest, merriest, most hard-working and uncomplaining bunch of actresses I have ever had the pleasure of working with. They learn their words, listen to what I have to say, try and try again, and most important of all, they laugh; the rehearsals are great fun and although we haven’t won anything, I’m sure we all have a treasury of memories, mostly amusing, which will last us all for years – and something else: I like being called ‘Rubert’. I like constant coffee and home baking, and the friends we have made make me thankful for the day the voice on the telephone said ‘Hullo, is that the Drama Man?’