Short story (1000 words approx.)
As I get older I sense turmoil before it happens.
Davina wore her fur coat even though it was still September and the choir is, in any case, warmer than the nave. If she’d added her voice to the hymn rehearsal I hadn’t heard it. Her lips were moving now since the Magnificat chant was new to everyone and Lisa kept on stopping us to correct the stresses. At each break I saw Davina nod and smile, as if approving Lisa’s instructions. Lisa’s face was impassive.
But the turmoil was beginning and it made me shiver.
Another hymn and I watched sideways. Davina remained mute, head up, smiling serenely, detached from a humdrum part of practice. The confrontation must surely occur in the anthem. But I hadn’t allowed for Lisa’s growing impatience.
“I’m not satisfied,” she said. “It should be brisker.”
The hymn, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, six months out of place on the calendar, had been chosen by the curate because he “liked it”. I must have sung it in services twenty times. I checked my hymnal, unneeded until then, and saw maestoso. Played the performance back to myself: Stately? Dignified? We’d been both.
“Take the tempo from me,” said Lisa. We were all attention now and I’ll swear the speed was identical. Yet Lisa stopped abruptly. “There’s a strange reluctance about you all tonight. Davina, show them how it’s done?”
“Of course, Lisa,” Davina purred. “If your hand could be a tiny bit more demonstrative.”
Lisa’s jaw tightened but she increased the tempo and Davina effortlessly matched it. Not with words, though - humming!
The battle lines were in place. My stomach churned.
After two minutes of the anthem Lisa, smiling frigidly, stood up from the small practice organ. “Davina, dear. Not humming this time, but now you're marking.”
“Of course. I must protect my voice.”
“Do you really need protection? Your solos are very short, I’m not sure… In any case the choir needs to hear you clearly.”
That so-serene smile. “Not if you cue them.”
Lisa remained calm. “I’d rather we relied on the music. They won’t see me during Evensong. Perhaps you’d prefer to step down for the moment. Who’d like to sing solo? You, Edna?”
A shock which did nothing for my stomach. I glanced at the score – an accompaniment to Psalm 121 written by Roger Quilter in his student days. Simple, almost banal, short of top C. I nodded.
I sang well but didn’t enjoy it, feeling Davina’s seemingly amiable scrutiny. After, I made an excuse and took what Lisa calls a comfort break, sitting on the church toilet, eyes closed.
Lisa drove me home since I hate using the car at night. “You sang well, Edna” she said.
“But Davina will solo on Sunday.”
Lisa said, “I’m powerless. I discipline her as best I can. But she’s untouchable.”
Davina was the latest soprano paid to sing with our choir under an endowment from a long dead member of the congregation. Some said a failed mezzo. Dismissing her would require a two-thirds majority in the parish council. To whom Davina was an exotic, somewhat frightening character. The slight German accent ensured that.
At home I wanted to talk away my tension but Geoff was buried in Gardening Times. After I'd taken out the bins he'd already gone upstairs and his bedroom door was emphatically shut. I had a bath, refreshing the hot water several times.
On Saturdays I visit the salon in preparation for Sunday. It had happened before and as I took my seat Davina was paying at the counter. Her hair, dyed of course but very skilfully, looked like a golden flame. “I’ll wait,” she said. “We’ll have tea at Betty’s.” A command not an invitation.
We sat opposite each other in the bow window, the best table in the café. How so on a busy Saturday afternoon? Already there were pins and needles in my thighs. I refused milk and asked for lemon. I hate lemon tea.
“You sang well at practice,” Davina said.
I nodded, conscious of the mousse holding my hair together.
“Better than me.”
I was startled. Didn’t know where to look. Davina made me look at her. I knew she was five years older but the careful eye shadow and emerald studs said differently.
She raised a manicured hand. “You dislike me.”
“Not dislike? What are your feelings then?”
I hesitated but realised Davina could absorb anything I said. “We are a simple Anglican church choir. Better than many because we have a strong choral tradition. It is unusual outside cathedrals to have a professional soloist. Perhaps, as a result…”
“We are unbalanced?”
Exactly. I said nothing.
She sighed. “I trained in Dresden. At twenty-two I sang Tatyana in Onegin. My father was political and we had to leave. In Britain I sang where I could. Amateur opera.” She laughed harshly. “Les Mis. Without training my voice did not develop. Onegin became a memory.”
I remained silent. She said. “But I love music.”
The word “love” seemed out of place.
“I have done what I can with my voice. It was enough for – what did you say? – ‘a simple Anglican church choir’. On Sundays I sing for the congregation. That helps.”
She stared. “On other days I pretend. I’m in Salzburg and von Karajan, that dear dead man, wants me as Elvira. I am indulged, I act the prima donna. It disturbs people, I know. But a prima donna must be disturbing. Pathetic you say. I mourn what I lost and this is my way of mourning.”
She left a ten-pound note on the table, three times what was necessary. Walked slowly towards the door, graceful on her stilettos. Then, at the door, turned, smiling faintly.
Reminding me… Covent Garden 1995. I am sitting in the stalls holding the hand of the man I still love but who is not my husband. On the stage the pretend Marschallin delivers the silver rose. Years later, marriage teaches me that pretence takes many forms.