THE OLD HOUSE – A JO’BURG STORY

“It’s the big move on Saturday,” said my friend, Helen. “I can’t wait for it to be over.”

     “Can I help at all?”

     I knew I had to ask although I prayed her answer would be no. Helen is a good friend just surfacing from the morass of her divorce from Charlie. Hence, the move from her elegant home now occupied by his mistress, the soon-to-be Mrs Bryant, Mark 2.

     “A red face brick bungalow with a tin roof,” Helen had told me without enthusiasm when she first bought the bungalow. It was all she could afford with the money she had been granted in the divorce settlement.

21 Juno Street, Kensington

     “Would you really help me?” asked Helen hopefully. “It would be a godsend if you could be at the house to receive the furniture until I get from one place to the other. I’d be quick. You’d only need to be there for an hour – or two at the most.”

     “Give me the address and I’ll be there. No problem,” I said, dispensing regretfully with my slothful Saturday plans.

     Helen was already fishing around in her copious handbag.

     “Twenty-one,” she said, handing a set of keys to me. “Twenty-one Juniper Street.”

     It was a very hot day, but a shiver passed through my body.

     “Are you sure of the number?” I asked faintly.

     “Yes. Look, the address is on this label attached to the keys in case you forget it. Are you all right, Meg? You’ve gone quite pale. You should forget all that dieting nonsense. It doesn’t do you any good at all.”

      “I’ll be fine,” I said, taking the keys from her with a trembling hand. “I’ll see you on Saturday at Juniper Street.”

     I drove off abruptly, wondering why I hadn’t blurted out the reason for my discomfiture. Forty years ago, I had been nineteen, still living at home with my elderly parents. 21 Juniper Street was our address.

-0-

     I arrived at the bungalow an hour before the removal van was due. I had passed the house now and again on trips to the shopping centre on the other side of the hill. The thick bougainvillea creeper with heliotrope blossoms still enclosed the stoep where we had sat on hot evenings. As I climbed the familiar steps to the stoep, I felt as though I was a young teenager again, arriving home from school to receive a rapturous welcome from Shandy, our little brown and white dog of indeterminate breed.

shandy

     I was surprised to see that the same wallpaper my parents had plastered on the walls in 1963 was still in the hallway. I could almost smell the goo that pervaded the atmosphere while we were having the place redecorated. I remembered my mother discussing the wallpaper with my singing teacher and the difficulty they were having in finding something they liked.

     “If you manage to do that job yourself you’ll be a better man than I am, Gungadin!” he had laughed.

     I had been curious enough to check the origin of the dated expression and traced it back to Rudyard Kipling.

     The telephone, where I had sat for hours, chatting to my best friend, Sally in the days when it cost a tickey to make a call and talk for as long as we liked, was in the same place in the passage, although it had been replaced by a more up-to-date model than our sombre black set from all those years ago.

Sally and I studied singing with Marina Baxter and Derek Bailey, the famous English singers who had moved to South Africa from the UK in the mid-fifties. We had both been successful in our auditions to join the SABC choir and, at Marina and Derek’s suggestion, had sought each other out at rehearsals. Sally, like me, was originally from Glasgow. We both loved singing, hoped to make careers in music, and we both thought the world of Marina and Derek. Sally, a soprano, was short and plump with piercing blue eyes and honey-coloured hair. She was the youngest of three sisters and was far more outgoing than me. I, a contralto, the only child of elderly parents, was tall and dark and fairly reserved and reticent until I got to know people.

     The house was completely empty but suddenly the phone rang: not the computerised sound of today’s telephones, which, in my advancing years, I cannot always hear clearly. This ring was loud and jangling. No difficulty in hearing it, but did I have the right to answer? I hesitated but the ringing continued. Perhaps it was Helen calling about the movers.Eventually I picked up the receiver.

     “Hello,” I said tentatively.

     “Is that you, Meg? You sound strange this morning. Did you have a late night?”

     It wasn’t Helen after all but the voice was certainly very familiar. It was the voice of a young girl.        Usually girls of that age call me Mrs Johnson and ask to speak to one or other of my teenage children.

     “Yes, this is Meg. Who’s speaking?” I asked rather suspiciously.

     “You’re joking with me,” the girl laughed. “I just wanted to know how your accompanying in the studio went this week. Did you pluck up courage to ask him to dinner? Is he going to come?”

     Suddenly I felt cold and shivery. At last I knew who was speaking.  I recognised the voice of my best friend, Sally, who had died at the age of nineteen, forty years ago. I was rooted to the spot unable to speak.  My younger self took over the conversation, while I, the middle-aged woman, looked on helplessly.

    “What did you sing at your lesson today?” I heard myself asking Sally looking forward to a long chat about our heroes.

     “I cancelled my lesson. I was far too excited to go. Can you keep a secret, Meg? Mum told me not to breathe a word, but I have to tell someone. You won’t believe what has happened to us!”

     I waited expectantly. We never cancelled our singing lessons if we could possibly avoid doing so. We’d have to be on the point of going to hospital before we would think of staying away.

     “We had a telegram this morning,” Sally said solemnly.

     “Oh, I’m sorry. Has someone died?” I asked.

     All the telegrams we ever received in our family had born bad news of one kind or another.

     “Not that kind of telegram, silly. One from the bank to say we’ve – or rather – Mum has won a prize in the Rhodesian Sweep. Not first prize, you understand, but a fortune all the same.”

     She paused tantalisingly.

     “How much?” I asked.

    “Forty thousand pounds!”

    That was a lot of money in 1963. You could retire on the interest of money like that. Sally’s father didn’t retire, but he and her mother bought a bigger car, went on a first class trip back to Scotland, and had a kidney-shaped swimming pool built in the back garden.

     After we got over the excitement of her parents having riches beyond our imagination, our conversation reverted to how I got on as a very keen, but inexperienced studio accompanist to Derek Bailey.

     “Sally, it was wonderful, the best time I’ve had in my life. He was so kind and understanding. My sight reading has improved so much, and guess what? He was thrilled when I asked him to dinner and he’s going to take me to Dawson’s Hotel for lunch sometime next week as well.”

Dawson's label

Label for Dawson’s Hotel.

     I was waiting eagerly waiting to hear what she thought of my news, but the line was dead. She was gone and I had no idea how to get her back again.

     I looked into the empty lounge still with its Adam ceiling and bay lead-light window. Even the fireplace remained although it was fitted with an anthracite heater now. In our day we had an open coal fire which filled the house with comforting warmth we never enjoy in winter today. Periodically the McPhail’s coal truck would arrive to replenish our coal cellar. ‘Mac won’t Phail you,’ read the slogan on the truck.

     Our big radio with its green cat’s eye to fine-tune the stations stood on a table next to the fireplace and was the sole source of our entertainment as the Nationalist government banned TV from South Africa until 1976, fearing that the population might be influenced by radical ideas from the outside world. The piano was in the opposite corner, where I must have distracted the neighbours practising singing and piano scales early each morning.

    As I stared round the room remembering the way it had been, bemused at the vivid conversation with dear Sally who had died so many years ago, I suddenly saw my parents and Derek, chatting together over an after-dinner whisky. I was there watching my younger self, clad in that bottle green velvet dress I had thought so attractive. It was the first time I had accompanied for Derek in their singing studio on the eighth floor of a building in the centre of the city, while Marina was away on a trip. He was on his own at home, so my mother had suggested he should come to dinner one evening.

     He loved our little dog, Shandy and encouraged her to sit on his lap, shedding her hair on his Saville Row suit.

     “My girl friend,” he said contentedly, sipping the whisky, stroking Shandy, and regaling us with tales of their days in variety when they had appeared on the same bill with the likes of Max Miller. Rawicz and Landauer and Albert Sandler.

rawicz-and-landauer-2

Marion Rawicz and Walter Landauer (pianists)

albert-sandler

Albert Sandler (violinist)

     The scene faded as quickly as it had begun and, once again, I saw myself standing on the bougainvillea-covered stoep with my parents bidding him goodbye after a wonderful evening.

     “Thank you for looking after Meg,” said my mother.

He smiled at me in a kindly fashion. “I think it’s Meg who’s looking after me,” he replied.

     My heart warmed at his words, just as it had done forty years ago when I had first heard the same words spoken in that very spot. He was a kind and gentle man with none of the conceit one might expect from a great and famous tenor.

     We watched him drive his jaunty blue convertible up the hill of Juniper Street. He gave a gentle hoot on his horn to bid us goodbye.

     That scene vanished as quickly as it had appeared and reverted to being one of my indelible memories once again. I was alone in a cold and empty house, longing to return to those happy innocent days, sad that my parents, Derek and dear Shandy were gone forever, knowing that the moving van and Helen would soon be here, and knowing too that I couldn’t possibly share what had happened – or what I had imagined had happened  –  with Helen, or with anyone else on earth for as long as I lived.


Jeannie C©

1 August 2011 

Updated 4 October 2016.


















 

On Wings of Song – a musical story of a rejected Pop Idol.

ON WINGS OF SONG

Sally Roos waited restlessly in the line of contestants auditioning for the pop singing competition. Only ten more to go and then it would be her turn. Nobody had made it to the next round for quite a while. She watched the live broadcast of proceedings in the audition room on the giant TV screen: the judges were not at all forthcoming, sometimes even downright rude, making no allowances for the nerves of the contestants. Many were told bluntly, ‘You can’t sing. Promise me you’ll never sing again.’

Sally could see that in many cases they were right, but it was mean to deflate people’s egos so completely. Singing is such an integral part of a person, and it takes courage to sing in public, only to be callously ridiculed. Each failed contestants did a doleful walk of shame, trailing past the waiting hopefuls to the exit door. Many were tearful at having their dreams and self-confidence shattered so abruptly; others were angry and voluble, promising to show everyone that they could still be stars regardless of the flash opinions of the four powers-that-be. But most of the rejects were simply numb from their ordeal, longing for the comfort of home where they could pretend the lowering experience was a nightmare that had never happened. After the excitement of preparing for the competition, the only thing they had to look forward to was that their failed audition would be repeated over and over on TV, reinforcing the debilitating experience in their own mind and the collective mind of the nation.

Worse still, for those still waiting, were the whoops of delight from the few who were given the nod to the following round. Everyone cheered the victors with seemingly unselfish delight, although each one knew that another person through meant there was one less place for them.

Despite the disastrous audition process, most of the crowd were still full of hope. Sally was amazed at the confidence of some of the contestants, who thought nothing of singing in front of everyone at the top of their voices. She wondered whether being a complete extrovert was a prerequisite to becoming a pop star. Some could sing, but many others, equally confident, should never have been there in the first place.

Sally was wearing jeans and an emerald green top to match her eyes and complement her auburn hair and translucent skin but she realised that her mode of dress was conservative in comparison with the girls with pink hair, bare midriffs, low necklines and tight jeans or micro mini-skirts.

Sally had been studying piano since she was small, and classical singing for the last three years. Although Sally loved classical singing and had a pleasing soprano voice, she enjoyed pop music and could party with the best of them. She was doing music for matric, and only three weeks ago she had sung the final ABRSM singing exam. Her teacher, Barbara Boucher had been pleased with her performance and thought she would do well. But her schoolmates egged her on to sing the pop songs of the day. She knew she could do passable imitations of Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, Cher or Britney Spears, in voices quite distant from her own natural soprano. They all thought she was great and encouraged her to enter the pop competition.

She had decided to sing Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’, which had certainly been a popular song in its day, and Charlotte Church had sung it in the film she had made recently. It had jazzy rhythms and she could use her own voice rather than do an imitation of a pop star.

On one side of her was a confident girl with synthetic red hair, dangly earrings, and full stage make-up, her skimpy sequined top and a pink mini skirt barely covering her neat behind. Her shapely legs were clad in fishnet tights and she was frozen on this cold morning. But her spirits were warm and hopeful.

‘I’m ready for this,’ Lauren told Sally, as she rubbed her cold hands together. ‘It’s been my dream since I was a little girl to be a pop diva. I was born to be the new pop idol of South Africa. After that I’ll take on the world.’

Sally was impressed at her new pal’s supreme confidence. She wished she felt as positive about her own pop singing ability, but she knew she was a bit of a sham. How could a classical singer expect to become a pop star overnight? She wasn’t even sure she wanted to be one. She was certainly not as hungry for such a title as she was meant to be.

The boy on her other side was wearing a bright orange woolly hat. Unlike Lauren, he was nervous and twitchy. Periodically he had been up and down to visit the gents, which was no wonder, as apart from his nerves playing havoc with his bladder, he was drinking copious amounts of water from a large bottle.
‘My mouth is so dry,’ Sizwe told her. I’ll never be able to sing properly when I get in there. The judges don’t seem to know what they want. I’ve only just started with a voice trainer. She says I just have to get my voice more mature, and then there’ll be no stopping me. But I’ve only had lessons for three months. Maybe I’m not ready for this. Who’s your voice trainer?’

Voice trainer reminded Sally of a dog trainer. She had a singing teacher, which she presumed was the same thing as a voice trainer, just in different parlance.

Suddenly it was her turn. Lauren had shrieked her way through a Whitney Houston hit with the appropriate accent and ornamentation. She had been suitably berated for imitating her idol and emerged deflated from the audition room, leaving without a word.

Sally wondered what she herself was doing here. At least at the classical music exam she had been well prepared and confident that the examiner, a music professor from the Royal Academy, worked according to the rigorous standards set by the examining board. He had been polite and had not made her aware of his feelings – approving or disapproving – of her singing. The examiner would have written his report with due care. Whatever she achieved in that exam would be her true worth as a singer and musician.

This competition was simply entertainment for a TV audience of couch potatoes, slopping on their sofas, swilling beer, smoking fags, and munching chips and chocolates. A singing competition made a change from Rugby, ‘Big Brother’ or ‘The Weakest Link’. The potatoes could mock the bad singers and laugh at the antics of the cocky know-it-all judges, who were playing up to the cameras by being rude and dismissive to contestants. Even at a cut throat theatrical audition, the director was never rude to those auditioning.
It was too late to leave. She had been called to say a few words to the energetic presenter before her ordeal. Now she was going into this audition room where fairness and politeness were not to be expected from those in authority. Some good singers had been rejected, while poor ones had gone through to the next round. Sally did not rate her chances highly.

‘Just enjoy yourself,’ said the hearty presenter. ‘Show them what you can do, girl!’

Sally walked into the vast audition room, feeling cold, and nervous despite herself. After the preliminaries, she launched into ‘Summertime’. She had more or less found the right key for her unaccompanied performance. Eventually she was aware of a peremptory hand waving to her to stop in the middle of a phrase.

‘You have a good voice,’ admitted the female judge grudgingly. ‘You can sing.’

She was relieved to hear that much.

‘But you’re too operatic,’ said the next one. ‘And that’s not a pop song. Maybe you could make it in musicals, but not pop.’

‘You sing too high,’ said the third judge. ‘You’re not a pop singer. You should stick to opera.’

‘It’s a ‘no’,’ growled the chief judge, yawning and bored.

Sally felt quite dispirited to be turned down so uniformly. At least they hadn’t told her to stop singing under any circumstances. In her case, the judges were right. She wasn’t a pop singer. She didn’t long to be the second Madonna. She had only entered the competition because her mates had persuaded her to do so. Classical singing was far more satisfying and challenging, and what she had been trained to do. She would stick to it in future.

As she gathered up her belongings, she could see Sizwe on the TV screen, adopting a pseudo-confident stance to face the judges, still clutching his water bottle. She wondered what he would do with it while he was singing. Perhaps he would pretend it was a microphone, or the object of his serenade.

They wasted no time with him. He managed to stumble through a few lines of his song. She could hear the judges’ belligerent voices following her as she did the walk of shame.

‘Why are you wasting our time?’ the cocky young judge asked indignantly. ‘You can’t believe you can sing?’

‘And why do you sing in that false accent when you’re a home boy from Soweto, Bru?’ asked another.

‘Don’t even sing in the shower,’ said the third.

‘It’s a no,’ the other mumbled, making no attempt to hide his giggles at the boy’s egregious performance.
Sally was glad she didn’t have to see the crushed expression on Sizwe’s face when he emerged from the audition room. Her boyfriend, Pierre, squeezed her hand sympathetically and led her to his waiting car.

‘The judges don’t know what they’re talking about, Sally. You were the best singer there!’

‘But not a pop singer. They’re right about that.’

One look at her pale tired face told her parents that she hadn’t made it through to the next round. Her mother made everyone a strong cup of tea and brought out her special homemade ginger bread, still warm from the oven. No doubt, she had made it as a treat to celebrate if Sally had gone through to the second round. Now it was comfort food, complete with melting butter.

‘The results from the Board arrived,’ said Mrs Roos casually. ‘Can you face them after that awful audition? I’ll save them till tomorrow if you like.’

‘No, Mum. Where’s the envelope?’

Some colour reappeared in Sally’s face. If she was a flop as a pop singer, perhaps she had fared better in the classical singing exam. She opened the envelope and glanced through the examiner’s report, looking for the all-important mark.

‘It’s Honours!’ she cried. ‘I’ve never had such a high mark for an exam before. At least I’ve managed to do something right.’

Enclosed with the results was a letter asking her to sing at a gala concert for high scorers. There was even a chance she might qualify for a scholarship to one of the British music academies as a result of her high marks.

Pop singing was forgotten as she phoned her singing teacher excitedly to tell her the good news. They planned some extra lessons to prepare for the forthcoming Concert at the Linder Auditorium, where there would be no electronic instruments, no microphones or screaming teenagers in sight, just the grand piano, the accompanist, the singer and a quiet appreciative audience.

Sally would not forget this harrowing day in a hurry. Her musical journey might lead her along a different path to the one followed by pop singers. She might not be destined to be a pop idol, but singing would still play a large part in her life. She could not wait to begin.

The Record Contract – a musical story

THE RECORD CONTRACT

 

Gingerly Heather Craig nibbled on the thin slice of dry toast and drained her cup of weak black tea. The morning sickness was getting worse and she didn’t know if she could hide her pregnant state from Malcolm for much longer. She was relieved that she had an appointment with her gynaecologist that morning, and not a moment too soon.

Mrs Hubbard bustled into the dining room with the first post. Malcolm’s agent had forwarded the week’s fan mail, so she put the pile of letters at Malcolm’s place. The pile was not quite as high as it had been four or five years earlier, but it was still sizeable. In contrast, Heather received a few accounts and the weekly letter from her mother. Heather noticed that the month’s copy of Gramophone had arrived, probably containing the anticipated review of Malcolm’s first long-playing record.

Heather decided to read the review before Malcolm came down for breakfast. He was due at the recording studios later that morning for his regular recording session. She had difficulty in locating the review as it was much shorter than she had anticipated. As she read the brief review her nausea returned, this time brought on by shock and dismay. One sentence stood out above all the others.

“Only Malcolm Craig’s most ardent fans will enjoy this innocuous collection of highly forgettable songs.”

Heather heard Malcolm’s footsteps on the staircase and hurriedly hid the periodical under her chair. This spiteful piece was the last thing he needed to see before his recording session and the Watford concert that evening.

“You’re up early, darling,” he remarked as he planted a kiss on the top of her blonde head. “Have another cup of tea and keep me company while I eat.”

Malcolm poured some strong tea into her cup, but she knew she would not be able to take a sip of it.

Malcolm glanced perfunctorily through his post.

“No sign of the Gramophone?” he asked casually.

“Perhaps it’ll come by the second post.” Heather tried to sound light and cheerful, willing her warring stomach to settle down. She bent down and somehow managed to hide the offending periodical under her red dressing gown, before fleeing from the table. Just in time she managed to reach the privacy of the bathroom before nausea overwhelmed her completely. Malcolm would have to wait until tomorrow before he faced some unpleasant reading.

-0-

It was March 1951 and Malcolm Craig’s recording contract was due for renewal. The ritual was always the same. Each year, for the last twenty years, Frank Downey, the managing director of the famous BRG recording studio in Wigmore Street, would arrive before the session and invite Malcolm into his office to sign the new contract when he had finished his work. The business concluded, Downey would offer him a tot of his excellent single malt whisky.

“How are you, Malcolm?” Frank Downey greeted Malcolm Craig effusively. “Would you mind calling into my office after your recording session? I have some business to discuss with you.”

Malcolm Craig recorded the eight selected songs in less than three hours. He was an excellent sight-reader, so all he needed was a brief run through with the eminent accompanist, George Manning, before he was ready to lay the cake on the table.

He listened to the takes with his producer and George Manning, then, satisfied with the morning’s work, made his way up to Frank Downey’s sumptuous office to find the gentleman already hovering at the door ready to greet him.

Downey ushered Malcolm to the plush leather chair facing his large oak desk. Usually the contract was lying on the desk waiting for him, a gold Schaeffer pen near at hand, ready for him to sign on the dotted line. But today the desk was bare and Malcolm speculated about the empty desk and why Downey appeared so fidgety and uncomfortable.

“Is the contract late?” Malcolm asked, trying not to show concern.

“That’s what I wanted to discuss with you, Malcolm,” Frank began. “What with the advent of the LP and changes in people’s taste since the war, your records are just not selling the way they used to.”

Downey watched Malcolm’s rugged face slowly lose its colour. He really had not reckoned on the man passing out on him.

Despite his pallor, Malcolm spoke in measured tones.

“Frank, I’ve known you too long to listen to a lot of soft soap. Are you telling me you’re not renewing my contract?”

“I’m so sorry, Malcolm. I fought against it of course, but I was outvoted.”

As though to console Malcolm, he added brightly, “You’re not the only one to suffer – we’re not renewing the contracts of many of our gifted pre-war artistes. They’re all still in good voice, but there’s no demand for them these days. I’m really sorry.”

Malcolm’s legs were trembling. Despite being nearly fifty, and one of Britain’s’ greatest and most versatile tenors, he was close to tears. He was still in the prime of his vocal life, and here he was being discharged like an indolent office boy. He was due to sing at a concert in Watford that evening. After this blow he would need all his professional expertise to carry the engagement off successfully.

He rose to his feet, willing himself to leave with dignity before he broke down.

“There’s nothing more to be said then,” he said baldly. “No doubt you’ll send any money owing to my agent.”

“Please don’t leave like this, Malcolm! Have a whisky with me for old time’s sake,” pleaded Downey.

What was there left to discuss now that he had no contract binding him to the company? The whisky would choke him. He turned on his heel and walked out of the office, and left the building without a word of farewell to anyone. He gained the privacy of his Wolseley, lit a forbidden Capstan and drew on it deeply. Concert and radio dates had been falling off a bit lately, but he and Heather relied on the steady income from his recordings to keep them in comfort. What was he to tell her?

He made his way to his comfortable home in Hampstead, aware that he would probably never drive the same route again. He wondered whether his voice, the splendid gift he had taken for granted since childhood, could be failing him. But that couldn’t be right. He had just heard the recordings he had made that very day. His voice sounded better than ever. As he edged the big car slowly up the driveway, he glimpsed Heather, in tiny pink shorts and a bright seersucker top, sunbathing on a deck chair near the rose bower.

He had met Heather in a concert party in Margate, a few years after he had signed his first record contract, a gorgeous blonde of twenty, with sea green eyes and a complexion like a ripe peach. Her stunning looks and charm excused the fact that her voice, though pretty and sweet, was merely run of the mill. She had managed to make a stage career for herself because of her looks and charming personality.

They had fallen in love, and spent every free moment together, mingling with the holidaymakers licking cornets, while their children were having special treats seated on the staid donkeys on the beach. The light-hearted atmosphere on the seafrom contrasted with their seaside lodgings where they were surrounded by elderly corseted widows in the dining room and the lounge.

They were married at the end of the season and Heather was only too happy to stop attending audition calls to take on her new role as Malcolm’s dutiful and loving wife. In those heady days he was in great demand for West End musicals, oratorios, Masonic Concerts, recording and broadcasting for the BBC, Radio Luxembourg and Radio Normandy.

Malcolm’s successful singing career gave them all the luxuries of life, but their mutual desire for children remained unfulfilled. Heather had twice fallen pregnant, but had miscarried both times. They eventually accepted that they would be childless and transferred their thwarted parental instincts to their two Scotties, Whisky and Soda.

Malcolm emerged from his reverie and watched Heather as she lounged, half-asleep in the sun without a care in the world. The two dogs had been cavorting around the garden, always with half an eye on their beloved mistress, but now they bounded in his direction to greet him with an effusion he found difficult to reciprocate that day.

-0-

Heather had kept her appointment with her gynaecologist. Dr Urquhart, an elderly Scot, did a thorough unhurried examination to which Heather submitted with stoicism. She had been through such inspections before to no avail. At the age of forty she had not held out very great optimism that she could have a child at such an advanced stage of life.

“I can safely say your pregnancy is going smoothly, Mrs Craig,” he said with a rare smile. “You’ll have to take things easy for you are not young as far as child-bearing is concerned and you have had two problem pregnancies before, but if you look after yourself I see no reason why you shouldn’t carry this infant to full term.”

-0-

“Darling!”

Heather had seen Malcolm’s car at last and hurried to him, eager to kiss him and tell him her glad news right away, but her elation evaporated at the sight of his haggard face.

“Did you sign your new contract?” she asked uncertainly, knowing before he spoke that all was far from well.

“There is no new contract,” Malcolm murmured under his breath. “I’m finished at BRG. I’m sorry, darling.”

Heather took his hand in hers, hurt to see her usually cheerful uncomplicated husband so downcast.

“It doesn’t make sense. You’ve never sounded better. Did Frank give you an explanation? There must be a mistake.”

“They’re getting rid of a lot of us pre-war singers because public tastes have changed. The British public prefers crooners these days. I fear my days as a singer are numbered.”

“Nonsense! As soon as other companies hear you’re free they’ll jump at you,” said Heather hopefully.

“I don’t think so,” replied Malcolm dejectedly. “I’m getting an old man.”

“Rubbish!” she said. “You’re not even fifty. You have years ahead of you as a singer.”

“I’m too upset to talk about it. I still have to get through that concert in Watford tonight, though I don’t know if I’ll have the strength to do so.”

Her heart went out to him in his misery. She decided to postpone her news until after the concert. The copy of the Gramophone was under her side of the mattress. It would be a while before she would produce it. He didn’t need another knock for a while.

Malcolm bathed and changed, then sat on his favourite chair in the drawing room, absentmindedly stroking one of the Scotties, idly regarding the Spanish cabinet, the Chappell grand piano, the Wilton carpets, and the fine antiques, all the beautiful possessions he and Heather had acquired from the money he had earned over the years. How could they afford to go on living like this now his career was on the wane?

He was surprised to see Heather emerge in her low-cut red evening gown – always his favourite – with the diamond necklace he had given her for her last birthday gleaming at her throat.

“‘You take my breath away Heather,” he remarked with a gentle smile. “I didn’t know you were going out this evening.”

“I’m going out with you to your concert,” she replied. “It’s a long time since I heard you singing in public. You‘re still the greatest tenor in Britain whether you have that contract or not.”

He knew she was being kind but he was comforted by her presence on the trip to Watford. The concert was sold out, and a group of ardent fans was waiting for him at the stage door of The Playhouse.

Thousands admired his voice, but this small coterie of fans bought all his records, collected his press cuttings, and travelled to all his concerts up and down the UK if they had money to spare. Over the years, he had developed a personal relationship with them and he and Heather sent them Christmas cards and sometimes complimentary tickets for one or other of his appearances.

Singing had certainly given him an insight into vagaries of human nature he would never have experienced had he been voiceless and working in the family butchery alongside his two older brothers.

Heather watched him brace his shoulders to face his fans with good grace. Although it was the last thing she felt like doing, she smiled as she wafted quickly through the crowd, knowing it was Malcolm they really wanted to talk to.

“Hello, Geraldine. Don’t tell me you’ve come all the way from Manchester just for tonight. David and Veronica – lovely to see you again.”

Malcolm was always genuinely pleased to greet his loyal fans. Tonight especially it cheered him to see their friendly faces glowing with pleasure at his kind words.

“We couldn’t believe that review in the Gramophone,” said Veronica. “I’ve already written to the editor to say that it was a disgraceful criticism. The reviewer ought to offer you an apology.”

“The review? You mean the review of my LP record?”

For the second time that day, Malcolm’s face lost all its colour.

“Was it very bad?” he asked in a small voice.

“Quite uncalled for,” said David, as the others nodded their agreement. “But don’t you worry, Malcolm. We think you’re still the greatest tenor in the world – never mind just in Britain. We’ll all be buying your LP.”

Malcolm tried to smile.

“I hope you enjoy the concert. I’ll probably see you all afterwards. God bless you for being here tonight.”

He went to the Green Room to warm up with George Manning, who had played for him at BRG earlier that day, and had booked him for tonight’s concert.

“I’m so sorry about the contract, Malcolm,” George said. “Frank was distressed when you left so suddenly.”

“Not half as distressed as me!” replied Malcolm dryly.

He caught a glimpse of his beloved Heather sitting in the prompt corner and raised his hand to her. Even without the record contract and news of the bad notice in the Gramophone, he was still the luckiest man alive to have such a beautiful and loving wife. As he walked onto the stage, the audience rose to cheer him before he had even sung a note. He was engulfed in the warmth of their sincere affection.

He raised his hand and immediately they sat down, waiting in silence for the recital to begin. George began playing the opening bars of Schubert’s To Music. Malcolm’s earlier ordeal had put him on his mettle. He sang better than he had ever done before. They were stamping for him at the end and he sang several encores, finishing with I leave my heart in an English Garden from Dear Miss Phoebe by Harry Parr-Davies. The show had opened at the Phoenix Theatre the year before and was still running.

Although his mood had lifted, he dreaded the mayoral reception, but it was in his honour so it would be bad manners to disappoint the guests and go straight home as he longed to do.

When he and Heather entered the reception, the guests applauded, although most of them were not music lovers, but the well-heeled influential great and good of Watford. To Malcolm’s surprise, he saw George, already settled with his whisky and soda, chatting easily to Frank and Lucille Downey. He thought he had seen the last of Frank for a long time and he certainly didn’t want any more of him now, but Frank was bounding towards him relentlessly.

“I’ve never heard you sing better,” he told Malcolm effusively.

“So why is my contract not being renewed?” enquired Malcolm.

“We may still be able to offer you a bit of work on an ad hoc basis here and there, with all the music we’ll be putting on to the LP format. That’s what I had wanted to tell you before you rushed off this morning. After all, aren’t you one of the most versatile tenors in Britain today?”

Frank Downey was relieved to see that Malcolm was slightly mollified by his remark, although he said nothing.

Heather and Malcolm left the party early. He longed to shut out the world of fans, admirers, detractors and record producers, without giving a thought to singing. He wanted to relax with Heather in his arms.

When they were in bed, Heather said, “I have some news, but it might not be as welcome as I thought it would be when I saw Dr Urquhart.”

“You’re not ill?”

Malcolm realised that the cancelled record contract was nothing in the scheme of things compared with his darling Heather being in poor health. Now that he looked at her properly, she did look ratherpale and drawn.

“I’m pregnant, darling. I have been for a few months but I thought I was starting the menopause early so I didn’t say anything until I saw Dr Urquhart today. He seems to think I’m over the danger period, but I’ll have to take things very easy for the rest of my pregnancy.”

Malcolm took Heather gently in his arms and kissed her, all thoughts of the lost record contract and the bad review forgotten.

“I’ll make sure you take things easy, darling,” he said. “The contract pales into insignificance when I think of holding our baby in my arms at last.”

It had been a funny old day with highs and lows as wide as his extraordinary singing range. He was glad it had ended on a high, he thought, as he lay close to Heather.

Towards the end of 1951, he signed a lucrative record contract with Mellotone Records. A week later Heather gave birth to their adorable little boy.

 

Good Reads Book Reviews

The Moon And SixpenceThe Moon And Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Apparently Strickland was based on the artist Paul Gauguin, but if this was the case, there is a very loose connection between the two for this in not a novel a clef. The book held my interest while the narrator had personal contact with Strickland and his wife. Almost from the beginning of the novel, before Charles Strickland had appeared, I thought him a thoroughly reprehensible character.

Admittedly his wife was not an imaginative woman and used her established position in society to cultivate the society of writers and artists although she appeared to be devoid of any artistic talent herself. She obviously regarded her "dull" husband as nothing more than a meal-ticket and she had never encouraged his artistic inclinations. It is only after he leaves her to her own devices that she manages to pull herself together, fend for herself and look after her children without being dependent on a man any longer.

The portrait of a completely self-centred, inarticulate Strickland, who does not care about the opinion of others was well-drawn but after the narrator is no longer in personal contact with Strickland and the rest of the story of Strickland's life is related to him by a third person the story is less satisfactory. I have to admit that I did not finish the last fifty pages of the book. Although I like Maugham's work, this was not my favourite Maugham novel.

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