On the 20 September 1939 I entered Broadcast House in Whiteladies Road, Bristol. It was a lovely late summer’s day without a trace of autumn chill in the air, so it would have been very pleasant to spend the day outdoors rather than in a sterile broadcasting studio which remained chilly no matter what the weather was like outside. I was all set to sing in several broadcasts that day, as had been my routine since the outbreak of the war a few weeks earlier. Sometimes I gave a solo recital; at other times I sang duets or in ensembles with other singers. Today would be a mixture of all three.Rather absentmindedly I collected my letters from the receptionist and gave them a perfunctory glance as I made my way towards the studio. I recognised Marina’s distinctive bold handwriting on the fattest envelope in the pile and looked forward to reading her latest voluble screed when I had a moment to myself during the course of my busy day. There were a few typed business letters but they could wait until I returned to my digs at the end of the day, although I did pause for a moment to thank heaven that I was now in a position to pay any outstanding bills. I wasn’t exactly a world-beater yet, but I was an established and respected singer, never without work, and most of that work had been far better paid than the work I was doing right now on the staff of the BBC.I noticed yet another envelope written in a hand I recognised, but, just for a moment, I could not place who had written it. The postmark was smudged so I looked at the back of the envelope for a return address. As far as I could recall, I knew nobody in Wigton. I had been to most places in the country during the course of my work and knew the town was in the north of England quite near the Scottish borders, but I certainly had never been to the town. Surely it wasn’t a fan letter? I had told our agent to hold all my fan letters until I returned to London. Perhaps this was one that had slipped through the net. Then I saw the name, “Mrs F. Davey”. Even then, for a few moments I couldn’t place that name, but it didn’t take me too long to figure it all out. Trevor Davey had been the co-respondent named by my solicitors in my divorce from Felicity in 1931.
It had taken me years to recover from Felicity’s desertion and I had spent a great deal of my spare time searching for her in every town I went to sing in on the remote off-chance that she might be living there. If she had contacted me in the years immediately after she deserted me without even as much as a goodbye letter, I would probably have been only too relieved to find her again and perfectly prepared to forgive her. Had I known she was in Wigton I would have taken the first opportunity to go there and bring her straight back home where she belonged. I wouldn’t even have asked her to explain what she had been doing during her absence. It was ironical that she was writing to me after all this time, when I had reached the stage when I hardly ever thought of her at all. So instead of feeling relieved and happy to see her familiar hand-writing once again as I would have felt years ago, I was apprehensive, fearing that she might be about to disrupt the even flow of my life.
I had looked on Felicity as my soul mate. If she had stayed with me I would never have looked at another woman. Her unexplained disappearance had turned me into a cynical womaniser. Nearly all the women I met afterwards were only too willing to go to bed with me and I often wondered whether I responded to them with equal willingness because I was trying to prove to myself over and over again that there was nothing wrong with me, and that Felicity was the one who had made a big mistake by deserting me. Even when I married Sally who truly loved me, I had betrayed her trust and hurt her immeasurably with my affair with Marina. I thought that I might at last be happy when Marina and I were finally married, but I couldn’t even manage to remain faithful to her for very long either.
“Why, there you are, Malcolm.”
As though from a great distance, I heard the producer call my name. I was always punctual for my professional engagements, so it was no wonder that he was surprised that I wasn’t already in the studio with the others, ready to begin our day’s work.
“We’re all waiting in Studio 1 ready for the run-through – when you’re quite ready.”
“I won’t be a moment,” I replied, hastily stuffing all my letters into my music case.
I was late, knowing full well that my colleagues were waiting for me. I was wasting their precious rehearsal time, but somehow I still couldn’t face going in right away. I didn’t dare open Felicity’s letter in case it upset me and spoilt my performance, but I needed a few moments on my own before I could even begin to think of singing and putting on a facade of bonhomie in front of my colleagues. I went into the cloakroom and splashed my face vigorously with cold water, trying to bring some colour back into my cold and pallid cheeks. Then I braced my shoulders and marched resolutely towards the studio to begin the run-through before the broadcast.
Usually singing invigorated me, but that day I found the work exhausting, and knew my singing wasn’t up to the usual standard I set for myself. I was distracted. All I could think about was Felicity’s letter lying unopened in my music case. I went through all my broadcasts like an automaton. The last one was a programme of romantic duets with Margaret Finnemore, a popular soprano, often heard over the airwaves in those days. She was a short plump brunette. That particular evening she was encased in a tight purple dress with a low-cut neckline which displayed a great deal of her voluptuous bosom. Her almost naked breasts quivered tremulously every time she drew breath. As we sang together I forgot my worry and distraction for the first time that day. I had sung with Margaret many times before and had never thought of her as anything more than a colleague, but suddenly all I could think about was what it would be like to bury my head in those breasts and have her comfort and soothe me until I forget all about that unopened letter. We finished our recital with The Indian Love Call. I was usually very disciplined in my singing, but I was so out of sorts that I took an unwritten high note at the end of the song. I had sung the same note in my recording a few years earlier and the critic in Gramophone had described the ending as “an astonishing piece of white singing”. At the time I had not been able to work out whether this comment was intended to be praise or blame!
“Where did that note come from? You completely drowned me out with it,” laughed Margaret as soon as we were off air. “I don’t think you knew you had a note like that in your range!”
“I was carried away singing with you, Margaret, dear,” I smiled. “Despite that phantom note, I think we did all right, tonight, don’t you?”
Margaret was engaged to a dance band clarinettist who had recently joined the army. Like me, she had been hastily billeted in digs the BBC had found for her. We were allowed only a pound a week to cover the expense of our digs so none of us could live anywhere in Bristol in unfettered luxury on that small amount.
“My digs are just round the corner. Would you like to come back with me for a night-cap?” she asked. “It’s rather lonely being on our own here, isn’t it?” she added plaintively.
I sensed that Margaret might have far more than coffee in mind to round off our evening. For a moment I managed to forget all about that letter as I concentrated my mind on the supreme satisfaction I would have if Margaret allowed me to unzip her tight dress, letting it fall to her feet, revealing her plump little figure. The idea of the possible encounter made me light-headed with desire, but, regretfully, I managed to pull myself together in time.
“I’d love to, darling,” I replied, “But we have an early start in the morning and I really must write a few letters before I go to bed.”
I could see that Margaret was hurt and disappointed by my refusal, but she was not a pushy woman so did not insist, as many other more determined young women had done in the past, and usually succeeded in breaking down my defences. I kissed her briefly on her soft cheek, amazed at the unusual restraint I had displayed.
It was late when I reached the home where I had been billeted. I don’t think Mr and Mrs Broadbent, the elderly couple who owned the large house, had expected to have a guest who kept such irregular hours living in their spare room, but they probably looked on my presence in their home as their contribution to the war effort. They hardly ever seemed to sit down to eat a proper meal at their imboua dining room table, although, in those early days of the war before food rationing was strictly enforced, there was always a good supply of food of all sorts in their cool pantry. They had given me free rein to prepare my own meals because my hours were so unpredictable. Mrs Broadbent was not the keenest cook and was lost without her staff. They had recently left her “in the lurch” to enlist in the various armed forces. Thank goodness I had always enjoyed cooking and was perfectly able to cook food for myself.
I wasn’t particularly hungry that night but I forced myself to make an omelette before I went to bed. As I sat in the large old-fashioned kitchen in the basement of the Broadbent household, forcing myself to eat, I looked at the two letters which I knew I had to read before I slept that night. Marina’s letter was definitely the more welcome of the two, but I dreaded having to open the letter from Felicity, fearing what I might find in it. I had reached the conclusion that her letter could only mean that there would be some unwanted disruption to my relatively tranquil life, if you could call living in a country at war a tranquil existence.
Certainly I was having a much easier time than men younger than me, who were signing up in vast numbers and leaving their families to go off for rigorous basic training in preparation for the active and dangerous part they would play during the course of the war.
Britain might have been at war, but so far we had not needed to wear the gas masks we were obliged to carry about with us everywhere, or to make use of the air raid shelters which had been erected long before war had even been declared, or for the protection of the sandbags stacked up high outside every important building in the city centres. The Germans had not dropped a bomb so far. The fact that we were now at war had not yet brought about any great change in our circumstances.
I decided to read Marina’s letter first and leave Felicity’s letter unopened for as long as possible. Marina’s frothy letter was full of what she had been doing with her parents, telling me how impatient she was to start working again at a time when there was no theatrical entertainment taking place in the country, except for all the ENSA concert parties busy rehearsing their acts to entertain troops abroad, and the wounded soldiers who might soon be flooding hospitals in the UK when the war got going in earnest. In fact, only that day we had heard that a list of the first British casualties of the war had been published on the previous day.
Marina mentioned that her older sister and her husband had asked her to dinner at their palatial home and were inviting some of her old friends to meet her again. She had promised to sing for them after the meal, so at least she would be keeping her voice in trim during her enforced break from the stage.
Marina’s letter ended on a sentimental note.
I really miss you, darling, and long to join you in Bristol. Even if I’m not allowed to broadcast with the BBC, I know I should be entertaining in some way or other. I’m pestering Bernard to find me something to do as soon as possible. Of course Mummy and Daddy are very kind to me, but I feel like an innocent little girl again, living at home with them. Do you know what the worst part is? It’s going to bed at night all by myself. I know then that I am very far from the innocent little girl my parents think me for I can only get to sleep if I imagine you in bed with me, holding me in your arms, making love to me, touching me in those secret places, until I cry out.
For a moment I forgot I still had Felicity’s letter to read. I tried to put the vision of Marina, lying in bed all by herself in her parent’s spare bedroom and imagining I was with her there, out of my mind.
I opened Felicity’s letter at last. It read as follows:
My husband, Trevor Davey died suddenly last week leaving me a widow with two young sons, Graham and Edgar. Edgar, the younger boy, is Trevor’s son, but almost from the time Graham was born, I knew that he was your son, and although Trevor never mentioned it, I think he knew this too. I would never have dreamed of contacting you while Trevor was alive, but now that he is gone, I feel it is only fair to tell you about Graham so that you have a chance to get to know him before it is too late. He is musical and sings in the local choir. He is nearly thirteen years of age.
If I had known that he was your son I would never have run away with Trevor in the first place, and perhaps we might have had a chance to sort everything out that was wrong in our marriage, but Trevor was very good to me and after you divorced me, we got married and were happy together until his death although I never stopped loving you, but I grew to love him too and miss him terribly now that he has gone.
I have no right to put any pressure on you as I know I was entirely to blame for the break up of our marriage, but if ever you are singing anywhere in the Wigton area, I would like you to meet our son. He loved Trevor and regarded him as his father, so I wouldn’t want him to know about your true relationship with him until he is much older – if at all. I enclose a recent photo of Trevor, Graham, Edgar and myself. It was taken three months before Trevor’s death. I am sure you will see a close likeness to yourself in Graham.
I’m very sorry I hurt you all those years ago, but a lot of time has passed since last we met. I hope you can forgive me and that you will choose to meet your son one day soon even if you want nothing more to do with me.
With all good wishes,
I can’t explain how peculiar I felt after I read that letter. At first I wondered how I could possibly know that Graham was really my son. Perhaps she was just trying to get money out of me by telling me a pack of lies. But if the boy really was my son, I needed to meet him, although I wished I could do this without ever having to set eyes on Felicity again.
Eventually I cast my eyes on the photograph Felicity had sent along with the letter. It was a snap of a happy family group. Felicity looked much as I remembered her although she had filled out somewhat through the passing years, and somehow had managed to tame her unruly curly red hair into a smooth, fashionable style. I studied Graham carefully, half-hoping that he bore a strong resemblance to the elderly Trevor Davey rather than myself. But no matter how much I wished to deny that this unknown child was my son so that I could carry on with my pleasant life and forget Felicity forever, I might have been looking at a photo of myself just at the time my voice broke and I had to leave the Cathedral and return home. Marina was still adamant about not wanting children, preferring to pursue her career, so Graham might be the only son I would ever have. No matter how Graham might change the course of my life, I had to see him.
I went to bed at last but found it very difficult to sleep. As I lay awake in my cold and rather lumpy bed, I wished with all my heart that I had gone home with Margaret after all. I could have spent the night with her, curled up in her arms, my head resting on her generous bosom, feeling warm and sated from making love to her, still completely ignorant of the disturbing, yet exciting contents of Felicity’s letter
I knew I would have to reply to the letter tomorrow and that I needed to meet my son at the first opportunity, but I wondered what it would mean to Marina? I could not decide whether to tell her about Graham while we were still apart, or wait until we were together again, or, better still, take the line of least resistance, and never tell her anything about him at all. While I was eager to meet my son, the thought of any kind of renewed relationship with Felicity was difficult. By running away with Trevor Davey without any explanation she had changed the way I felt about myself, and about the way I had responded to other women after her departure.
Eventually I fell asleep, and as I woke the next morning, just for a moment I felt cheerful, looking forward to the day ahead at Broadcast House as though I hadn’t a care in the world. Then my heart sank as I remembered the quandary Felicity had presented to me. My first broadcast was scheduled for 10 am that morning so I had no alternative but to rise from my bed, bathe, and dress, make a sketchy breakfast, where I had the ordeal of having to pull myself together and make meaningless small talk with my hosts, who happened to be eating breakfast at the same time. Eventually I headed for Broadcast House. As a professional singer I was expected to give a good performance regardless of what might be weighing on my mind…
She has also written a volume of short stories and several non-fiction books about the lives and careers of Webster Booth and Anne Ziegler. All her books have a musical theme as she is a classical pianist and singer, and taught singing and piano until her retirement at the end of 2010.