I am moved by Lady Percy 's expression of love. CLICK HERE - see if you agree.
Otherwise my novels, short stories, verse, family, music, memories, vulgar interests, detestations,
responses, apologies. I hold posts to 300 words* having found less is better than more.
I re-comment on comments and re-re-re-comment on re-re-comments.
* One exception: short stories.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

The food of love?

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.

“I… ”

She raised a manicured hand. “You dislike me.”

“No, no.”

“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.


  1. There's no way Davinia could have seen Edna in 1995, is there?

    Cool, so cool.

  2. Very nice. Of course the last para had me scrambling to research, and I will want to reread later with my "knewledge" in hand.

  3. Hah. Fascinating, Roderick! I can't read this without awareness of my own North American context, since that's what I know, so there are a few jolts: "choir" instead of "choir stalls," for instance, and the unlikeliness of a fur coat as well as a church that cold. But these are little quibbles. I'm delighted to see how you took the choir context and used it to explore your favorite subject!

  4. "Stalls" threw me too. A great read on the second pass. Rich with tension, notes of sacrifice throughout. Lemon, no milk...for the voice. Quite a little treatise on relationships, the close practically insists that it be re-read.

  5. The Crow: I'm often vague about dates and passage of time in short stories unless they're absolutely vital. For one thing they're so clunky and they hold up the flow. However given that I've made myself a hostage to fortune with 1995 I can say that it's quite possible D was at least living in the UK at that time.

    But... but... Could D have afforded Covent Garden? There are hints that she didn't have an awful lot of money (couldn't afford singing tuition, for instance). But since she "loves" music perhaps she went without meals. Even so, E (Very young if you notice) was in the stalls - very, very expensive - and I suspect D would have been way, way up in the gallery (what we call "the Gods").

    All of which is a complete nonsense, of course. You the reader are now in charge, not me. If you like the thought of their meeting, have it happen. But you'll start to notice that such a meeting would be part of a completely different story.

    Beth: Actually I've had to work hard to make use of North American details in a UK context. I'm pretty sure paid singers in parish churches are as rare as hen's teeth. Hence the endowment, etc. The point about the fur coat is it's being worn despite the outside temperature (September, warmish). Also, D only hummed the hymn, she marked during the anthem - though I'm making this clearer.

    MikeM: You touch on the story's weakish point. I have added an extra sentence to try and disguise this a bit. There you go - now you'll have to flatter me even more, and re-read it again.

  6. Yes...there are selfish notes throughout as well...I was thinking that last night even before I read your updated version. The closing door does bring that home. Emphatically.

  7. I still can't quite understand the need to count the words. The density of the narrative is a virtue of course. At least some of the time. Your stories get better perhaps helped by the length limitation. But I still wonder how they would be if you relaxed what seems a needless discipline.

    Joe: Rightly or wrongly I have concluded that short stories differ from other forms of prose (especially novels) by virtue of their texture. Or, as you put it, density. There are other important differences, notably implied or actual aub-plots which have implied or actual conclusions within the length of the story. I don't expect to sell these theories to anyone else although, as you know, I did try.

    Based on these and other empirical conclusions I outlined in that long prescriptive essay about the nature of the short story, I have been trying to teach myself how to write short stories here in Tone Deaf. So far I have written about 17, almost all of them exercises towards this end. If there's been any improvement from first to last the relationship between these exercises and my theories may not be just coincidence,

    Most of have been under 1000 words. This most recent story is a few words over following comments I have received and amendments I have made. I could have revised the whole story to bring it under this prescribed limit but, for once, I couldn't be bothered.

    Why the sub-1000 word limit?

    Before I answer that here's a parenthetical observation. Explaining this theory cannot be done concisely although I am trying to do just that in this comment. There is always the risk that the theory may be lost in a welter of words, given that the very thought of such a theory seems to be regarded as mere crankiness. Can't help that, On y va.

    Received wisdom says that a short story may be any length. I disagree because I believe that the longer a story gets the more likely its very nature (other than just its mere length) will be affected. More crankiness. I suspect there is probably an optimum length though I haven't the energy or the inclination to pursue this. Certainly it would be longer than 1000 words but don't forget, what I'm writing are exercises. It helps me to bring my various sub-theories together by limiting the length. Helps to test the theories under conditions that are fairly easy to control.

  9. PART TWO (imposed by Blogger restrictions)
    With some trepidation let me offer you an analogy. Like all analogies this one eventually breaks down but it may help you understand what I'm trying to do. Imagine I've decided to write poetry. I look at the worldwide oeuvre and am discouraged by the sheer variety. I decide (as in fact I did) to learn poetic technique by confining myself to sonnets. There is no need for me to write 14 lines, iambic pentameter, ABAB, etc, over each of my "poetic exercises" since the word "sonnet" does it for me. And yes I'm well aware there are different kinds of sonnet but these are irrelevant if the basic aim is to learn poetic technique. I'm also aware that writing a sonnet may not usefully help the fledgling poet to write, for instance, vers libre, but one has to start somewhere.

    I think where we part company is that you believe there is no such thing as a "short story technique" whereas I, looking for some guidelines I can usefully cling to, have found it necessary to come by some self-devised definitions which I'll use until someone can prove they are a nonsense.

    A story limited to less than a 1000 words brings with it disciplines that allow me incorporate most of my theories. By trying hard I can roll everything I believe in, and have laboriously worked out, into a ball and call the result a short story. A 1000-word story also has another, unplanned, quality. It has a rhythm which I am gradually getting used to. Whether this will prove a restriction when, and if, I move on to longer stories remains to be seen. But, as I said, one has to start somewhere.

    You make an important point in your comment "density of narrative is a virtue... at least some of the time." I agree. I consciously aim for density of narrative and I am aware that over-dense narrative is one of the ways I've failed in the past. The advantage is, I know why I've failed.

    Now, if you've stayed with me this long, let me make a point which appears to cast doubt on all this talk of short story theory. So far, in all the stories I've written, only one qualifies as something other than an exercise. Ironically it is over 2000 words long. Aha, you say... So all the rest are merely a process of tearing the wings off butterflies to find out how they fly? And thus doomed to failure. You may be right. But reflect: this is my judgment (about this one story) and I feel I have some of the necessary technical wherewithal to make it. That particuar story was written before I - in desperation - started compiling my theory and may be regarded as an "accidental" success arrived at by the process you seem to favour. But some of my "exercises" have shown some worth too, attested to by others not me, and they are the result of applying the theory. "Accidental" success is not a terribly helpful guideline in the search for other success.

    It's a wearisome explanation and may be misguided. But as I've said before, it seems to work from time to time. The other alternative just doesn't appeal.

  10. Can we call them vignettes? They have brought disciples as well as discipline.