by Paula Williams
Maggie stood tall, straight-backed, her throat almost closed, her eyes over-bright. Her only thought was to get away without having to speak to anyone. Without having to see the pity and embarrassment in their eyes.
Too late to wish she'd never come. Too late to wish she'd never let Lindsay talk her into it.
"It'll be good for you, Mum," Lindsay had said. "You used to love choral singing – and look, it says here the Cathedral Choral Society is looking for new singers, especially tenors."
"But tenors are male voices," Maggie said with a smile, knowing Lindsay didn’t share her love of classical music. "I'm an alto. Or, rather, I was. Who knows what I am now? I haven’t sung for years."
"Then why not give it a try?"
Maggie felt quite guilty about the way her well meaning daughter, who had enough to do with a young baby, worried about her. Even now, more than a year after John's sudden, shocking death from a massive heart attack, she kept finding things for Maggie to do, as if a succession of non-stop activities could somehow fill the un-fillable hole in Maggie's life.
But this time, maybe Lindsay had got it right. Maggie used to belong to the Cathedral Choral Society years ago but had to give it up when the demands of her job and family had made it difficult to attend the weekly rehearsals. When she saw they were doing Bach's Mass in B Minor this coming season her heart did something it hadn't done for a long time. It gave a little lift of joy. Bach was one of her favourite composers and she knew she'd enjoy singing those wonderful soaring choruses again.
John used to shake his head at her, puzzled and laughing, as she tried to explain how she got almost as much pleasure from looking at Bach's music, with its undulating lines of musical notation rippling across the pages, as she did from hearing or singing it. He, like Lindsay, didn't 'get' classical music.
Going into the cathedral for the first rehearsal of the new season was like meeting up again with an old, dear friend. She'd forgotten what a thrill it was to walk through that awe inspiring building, darkened except for the lights in the rehearsal area. She'd always loved the feeling of having the place to herself (or, at least, her and the other hundred or so members of the Choral Society) now the tourists had gone home.
She loved, too, the deep shadowy corners, the sonorous echoes, but above all the feeling of reaching back across the centuries as the music she was helping to make soared heavenward into the cathedral's highest places, the different voice parts weaving in and around each other like ribbons around a maypole.
It felt good, too, to take her place among the altos again Not that she knew any of them now. And she certainly didn't know Simon, the conductor, a young and ambitious man who was, according to the woman on her left, destined for 'great things.'
As the rehearsal got under way, she realised he was a much more exacting task master than his predecessor. James had been a soft spoken, gentle man who coaxed the music from his chorus. Simon, on the other hand, demanded the highest standard right from the very first rehearsal. But, to her surprise, Maggie found that as her confidence returned, she actually relished the challenge.
"You do realise there's an audition, don't you?" the society secretary had explained. "Simon likes to do it after rehearsal. Probably in a week or two. Is that ok?"
"That's fine." Maggie remembered all too clearly when auditions had been introduced, back in James's time. Everyone had got very agitated and worried about it, but in the end, it was all done very calmly and kindly. A bit of sight reading and a few easy scales to show you weren't tone deaf which Maggie had managed with ease.
Simon, however, did things differently.
On the third week, during the break for notices he announced he would be holding auditions after that evening's rehearsals and would those this applied to please stay behind.
Her first instinct was to put on her coat, hurry out and not come back. Particularly when she realised the auditions were not going to be like last time, when one by one they were called into a private room, with kindly James urging them to relax and telling them it was nothing to worry about.
Instead, they clustered around the piano in the middle of the rehearsal area, which was still bustling with people chatting in small groups, or busily putting the chairs away. She stood in line with the other hopefuls, all of whom appeared much better prepared than she was.
She felt her first moment of panic when the first singer opened her mouth. She had a beautiful soprano voice and gave a near perfect solo performance, her clear pure voice rising above the hubbub of one hundred plus people making their way home.
As, one by one, the line grew shorter, each voice was the same stunning standard as the first. Maggie grew more and more uneasy, a sick feeling in her stomach, her hands clutching her music as if it were a life raft and she had just leapt off the Titanic.
She'd decided she was going to sing the Dona Nobis Pacem chorus they'd been rehearsing that evening. It was something she knew well and figured that at least she wouldn't make a complete fool of herself by losing her place.
There was no encouraging smile from Simon, seated at the piano. Just a one bar introduction, during which Maggie forgot all she ever knew about breathing, still less about pitch. What came out of her mouth was the kind of sound her dog made when someone stepped on his tail.
"I- I'm sorry," she stammered. "I – I'm a bit nervous. I forgot to breathe. Do you mind if we start again?"
He didn’t exactly sigh and look at his watch. But she could tell from his body language it was a close run thing.
This time, Maggie forced herself to relax and focus on the music. The beautiful, beautiful music that had made her cry the first time she heard it. The beautiful, beautiful music that deserved the very best of voices.
She was half way through the seventh bar when her throat, which had been getting tighter and tighter, finally closed over completely and she gave up. Simon played on for a few more bars then, when it became apparent she wasn't going to join him, stopped and looked at her.
"That'll be a no, then?" Maggie said, trying to make it sound casual, like it was no big deal. He nodded and she walked away, back through the still lingering groups of people. She walked briskly, shoulders back, her head held high, not looking at anyone. Not wanting to see their pained expressions – or worse still, their pity.
And that was the day the music died for Maggie. She'd sung all her life, from as far back as she could remember. She sang when she was happy and sometimes when she was sad. She sang when she was driving and when she was out walking the dog. She sang when she was working and when she was playing.
Until the night of the audition when something inside her, that little kernel of joy that was everything music meant to her, shrivelled and died. Like a frost stricken rose.
After that, she never sang again. Not even Happy Birthday to Harry, her little one year old grandson who was born three months after his Grandad John died. Instead, she just mouthed the words as her daughter and son-in-law sang.
"So I was wondering, Mum if you'd mind looking after Harry tonight?" Lindsay asked a couple of weeks after the audition. "Unless it’s your rehearsal night?"
"No. I decided not to go after all," Maggie said. "I didn’t really enjoy it that much, you know. My voice isn't what it was. And it's – it’s not so good coming home to an empty house. I'm still not used to that."
"I understand," Lindsay said quietly. "But what a shame. I thought you loved it –"
"What time do you want me tonight?" Maggie cut in. She wasn't exactly thrilled about being asked to look after Harry. Not that she wasn't very fond of him. He was a dear little chap, with a smile to melt your bones.
But, the truth was, she wasn't very good with babies. Never had been, when she came to think about it. John was always the one who could calm Lindsay and her brother down when they were little. He was one those people who was completely at ease with small children. Not awkward and over anxious like she was.
He'd have made such a lovely granddad. They'd have made lovely grandparents together. But on her own, she wasn't much good. And young Harry was teething, which meant he was far from being his usual sunny self.
Add to that the fact that she'd never actually looked after him on her own before. Rob's mother, Jenny, was a much more hands on grandma than her and Maggie was quite happy to stand back and let her get on with it. But Jenny was away visiting her other son that week. So it looked as if, as far as Lindsay was concerned, it was Maggie or nothing.
Lindsay and Rob hadn't been gone ten minutes when, to Maggie's dismay, she heard the first fretful wailings coming through the baby monitor. She left it for a few moments, hoping he'd go back to sleep. No chance.
By the time she got to his room, his cries had all the volume and passion of the Hallelujah Chorus in full throttle. His little face was scarlet, his cheeks glistened with tears.
She picked him up, jiggled him around a bit the way she'd seen Lindsay do, offered him a bottle, changed his nappy, even tried to interest him in his toys. But it was no good. Nothing she said or did had any effect. The screaming got louder and shriller, and he was pushing at her with his little fists.
"Oh John, where are you when I need you?" she thought desperately. "If you were here, you'd know what to do. But then, if you were, he wouldn’t be in this state in the first place."
She felt like crying along with Harry – and it would have been a toss up whose wails would have been the loudest.
Then, a long forgotten memory tip-toed into her head. She cradled the unhappy baby in her arms, took a deep calming breath and, very softly, very gently, began to sing.
And amazingly, Harry stopped crying, looked up at her and smiled.
So she took another deep breath and sang some more. And she didn’t stop singing until Harry, with a little sigh, finally went back to sleep.
Puff the Magic Dragon wasn't exactly Bach. But it was a start.
About the author
Paula Williams writes the Much Winchmoor series of murder mysteries, set in a small Somerset village which bears an uncanny resemblance to her own, the first of which, Murder Served Cold can be found at https://mybook.to/murderservedcold. She also writes a monthly column, Ideas Store in the UK magazine Writers' Forum.Paula blogs at paulawilliamswriter.wordpress.com