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Ring the Nurses!

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Patsy wasn’t as excited about her new play as she should have been. There were too many moving pieces in the script, and too many pages. There would be cuts, many of them. The play had too many characters. Characters would have to be cut, many of them. But she wouldn’t turn down the part. She was the lead, of course. At this point in an illustrious career, she had come to expect nothing less.

On the first day of rehearsal, she sat in front of her dressing table teasing her hair and shellacking it into immobility atop her head. She wore a striking new dress, a metallic emerald sheath that she'd had godsend Tony Amos tailor, and red lipstick in a blend that was supposed to last all day. She knew she needed to be able to move for rehearsal, but she needed to make a good impression. One might not believe it, but the inimitable Patsy Mount had her moments of insecurity.

The character she was playing was too like her for comfort, really, a straightforward, efficient nurse who had little time for foibles or games. As an actress, Patsy perhaps allowed more time for games than Nurse Millicent Beckwith did, but she didn’t appreciate leisure time the way the more frivolous actresses in her friend group did. After all, she was serious; she had attended LAMDA.

An hour before rehearsals were set to begin, she breezed out of her flat into one of the first blue days of the summer. She was pleased to be able to wear her sunglasses, purchased in hopes of better weather on one of her outings with her best friend Trixie. Trixie was a terrible over-spender, spreading her exorbitant debt throughout London like a disease, still hoping a call from Hollywood would pluck up her cheeky smile.

“Oh, sweetie, those look divine," Trixie said of the sunglasses. "It would simply be a crime against humanity to leave them on the rack.”

Ever since drama school, Trixie could make people do what she wanted. Her charming personality worked on everyone, mail carriers, store clerks, children, dogs, cats. For whatever Trixie desired, from a hot cocoa to a jeweled necklace. It certainly worked on directors; she was never out of work, though she was typecast as flirtatious blond with little substance. Patsy didn’t think that her friend ever did much to disrupt this illusion – on or off-stage – though she knew that Trixie had the power to display depth in both arenas.

For her part, Patsy had purchased the sunglasses and spent the next summer month trapped in grey skies and drizzle. But on this first nice day, she’d have to spend her time in the dark Apollo Theatre, where it could be any time of day.

Just as she was about to go inside, a young fan hurried up to her, her face flushed with nervousness. “Are you Patsy Mount?” the girl squeaked. The girl’s mother came up behind her.

“I am.”

The girl was starstruck and grew too shy to speak. Her mother said, “We saw you in 'Oliver!' months ago before it closed. Ethel can’t stop talking about it. You could say she’s smitten.”

Patsy kneeled in front of the little girl. She was still thrilled by meetings like these, though she was statuesque enough to be regularly spotted by adoring fans (typically men). “Do you want to be an actress, Ethel?” she asked.

“Oh, gosh, no!” Ethel giggled.
*

Delia’s stomach gurgled from an ill-chosen breakfast of milky coffee and Welsh cakes. She’d only lived on her own for two years since she’d left the dormitories at drama school, and was a woefully inept cook. She only knew how to make pasta and the Welsh cakes. She’d only learned the latter from her mother from years of forced lessons on Sundays, but she’d only made them twice, for a girl she’d wanted to impress. That morning, she'd offered the leftovers to her roommate, a no-nonsense, 60-something nurse called Phyllis Crane.

“How do you think I lived this long without getting sick a day in my life, Ms. Sugarplum?” Phyllis had asked when Delia had offered her a second Welsh cake. She’d planned to have enough to offer Eleanor one with her tea whenever she came by, but Eleanor made it clear that she would not be coming by Delia’s again.

Delia shrugged at Phyllis’ comment.

“Because I’ve given up meat, and eat sugar very sparingly!” Nurse Crane disdainfully looked at Delia, who was on her third cake to quell her nerves for that day's rehearsal. “And I might suggest you do the same. You are an actress, are you not?”

On the tube ride to the Apollo, Delia wished she’d eaten something more sensible for breakfast. Porridge maybe. The sugar and milk had done a number on her stomach, as had her falling out with Eleanor. She looked at a man stroking a woman's face on the train, and felt sick about her own prospects. She would never meet a woman who would commit to her the way she would. If Delia could do anything, it was commit, no matter how difficult that commitment might be.

But when she reached the Apollo Theatre, she wished she hadn't committed to acting. The space was certainly the largest theatre in which she’d performed in so far, and posh, with its ornate gold and plush red seats. Laurence Olivier had performed here, and now so would Delia Busby, from Pembrokeshire. The thought was enough to make Delia chuckle, and she did, stopping her smile with her hand so she didn’t look like a lunatic to the rest of the cast. Here she was, her first day at the Apollo, and she was already going mad.

Delia surveyed the rest of the cast of "Ring the Nurses!" The title was stilted, and silly, there was no way the production would give Delia the experimental theatrical experience she wanted. She only had a minor role, a friend of one of the main characters, but she was glad to see a cast of mostly women for once. She was only three years out of drama school, and she already couldn’t see herself playing a host of maids and governesses to the tuxedoed gentlemen of 19th-century drama for the rest of her career.

The script may not be cutting edge, but it would be the biggest credit to her name thus far.

As she walked down the aisle toward where the cast had assembled, she recognized some of her fellow cast members. There was the stately Louise Julian. She wasn’t surprised (there was a bimbo nurse in the script), but was somewhat starstruck, to see Trixie Franklin. She paused in her confident stride when she spotted the absolutely legendary Antonia Cavill. Delia was thoroughly intimidated now – she’d seen Antonia play a devastating Nina in Chekhov’s "The Seagull" years ago on an shocking (to her mam) class trip planned by a persuasive drama teacher. Delia assumed Antonia was just a figurehead in this show; she’d even heard around theatrical circles the elderly woman had dementia.

The cast was so dynamic – Delia had the impulse to run.

But spotting her somewhat-friend Barbara Gilbert calmed her nerves. She’d met Barbara only once at an acquaintance’s flat party. They’d drunk champagne together, and Barbara told her about the clergyman to whom she’d once been engaged.

“Tom said, ‘A wife is meant to follow her husband,’” Barbara had laughed, “This was in 1961, Delia, 1961! Not the Middle Ages. Now I’m not the hippest cat in the barnyard, or whatever that expression is, but I took off the ring that I bought – for myself, of all things! – and told him that I had an obligation to myself and my craft first.”

"You let him have it!" Delia had said, impressed.

Barbara was a modern woman, though today she was wearing her hair in a very square headband. Delia herself wore a black velvet pantsuit and had curled her hair out at the bottom. She wore eyeliner, though she feared it had smudged all over her face on the hot car. She felt great anxiety when she started a new production, never quite believing that anyone could take a country girl seriously on the London stage. She never used her Welsh accent for any part, and even when she talked normally, as herself, she could tell her innate vowels had modified in her six years practicing posh English elocution.

Out of this same sense of self-protection, she was nervous to sit next to Barbara, concerned that Babs wouldn’t remember her from the party. But god forbid she sit alone. She slid in next to her acquaintance with a hope and a prayer, and whispered, “Remember me?”

Barbara squealed, and said, “Of course, I do! We’re going to have so much fun. You’ll never believe who is in—”

But then, Barbara’s babbling was silenced by what felt like a great hush in the room. The rest of the cast stopped their nervous chatter and turned as the last cast member to arrive strolled down the aisle. It was hot outside, but the woman wore a short coat over a green dress and pulled off a pair of calfskin gloves as she sauntered toward the stage. She slid off a pair of sunglasses to reveal killer blue eyes. The auditorium seemed to pulse with excitement.

Delia knew her. She was Patience Mount, the most beautiful woman Delia had ever seen.

Patsy nodded to the other cast members as she passed them, as if they were all attending her garden party, and took her seat in the very front row of the auditorium. She slapped her gloves into her hand and called to the director, who was deep in conversation with another man onstage, and said, “Mr. Sebring, I believe we’re all quite ready to begin!”

She might be the most beautiful woman Delia had ever seen, but she also suspected Patience might also be the most difficult.