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.

Friday, 20 May 2016

The need


Short story (1647 words plus*)
*Editing note: Apart from hubris my most serious fault when writing fiction is over-compression. Blame my former trade. This story was no exception and excessive cutting led to some incoherence. The latter paras have been expanded in the hope of greater clarity.

GIVEN the presbytery’s gaunt interior, the view down to the crowded marina was definitely a distraction, a possible text for one of Fr. Rivière’s more insidious homilies about the trivia of wealth. But might music also be thought trivial, mere decoration for the saving of souls? Wycombe, on tenterhooks, must wait and see.

“Ah, Monsieur Wi – comb.”

Wycombe was long used to the French version of his surname and its evocation of the cemetery. What always surprised him was that Fr. Rivière was still in his thirties. His seriousnesss, gloom even, was that of someone far older with all the years necessary to be disappointed by the world.

The priest pointed towards an unyielding wooden chair, sculpted for discomfort and too large for its surroundings like the majority of French furniture. “You are here to talk about your wife. The nature of eternal peace, no doubt. Should we spend a moment’s contemplation of Marie who died a good Catholic.”

Already sitting, Wycombe bowed his head instead of stumbling to his feet. Clasped his hands together. The priest whispered inaudibly, possibly in Latin though that seemed unlikely. The church’s attitude towards languages frequently confused Wycombe.

Fr Rivière’s moment lasted exactly sixty seconds. When he looked up his rosy face was betrayed by its lack of expectation. He murmured, “As I said, a good Catholic. Generous too.”

Marie’s will had included a sum to pay for an improved watering system for the beds of flowers surrounding the church. The sheer pragmatism of that jibbed with the subject Wycombe must now raise. He began, crablike.

“Marie thought a good deal about your church, Father.”

The priest’s face remained impassive as if Wycombe had not spoken. Perhaps the words weren’t sufficiently stirring.

“A source of great spiritual comfort to her.”

Fr. Rivière shrugged at this as truism.

Wycombe spoke more quickly. “She had a great love of the choir, you know. Felt it enhanced the Word of God.” Unable to recall an exact translation of “enhanced” he substituted “added to”, possibly risking a charge of casual heresy. Wycombe could say things in French that would have been impossible in English. Grandiose concepts, emotional matters.

Fr. Rivière’s eyebrows rose. “You wish to discuss the choir, then?”

“You have an excellent choir.”

“Indeed.”

Wycombe spoke almost confidentially, upheld by a week’s research. “And if I’m not mistaken, your church supports an older, more rigorous view of how a choir should be employed during Mass.”

Fr. Rivière leant forward slightly.

Wycombe said, “It was Pope Pius X who recommended...”

“The Holy Father believed music was God’s gift and should be used accordingly.”

“Which the present-day secular world might not understand.”

“There is biblical precedent. Ideally choirs should consist only of men. Today’s fashions about gender are meaningless.”

“Men, as in Solesmes, the monastery...”

Fr. Rivière’s eyes gleamed. “The celibate example.”

“Pius X also believed that the congregation should – in a perfect world – rehearse the Gregorian Chant with the choir.”

But now Wycombe had gone too far, causing the priest to slump back. “The Holy Father may have been too visionary for that period, so soon after the war. We have not succeeded with the laity.” He cleared his throat to despatch failure. “But monsieur you have some comment...”

Wycombe straightened up. “Father, I sing. Immodestly I may say I sing well.” That at least was true; now came the lie. “It was Marie’s wish I should offer my services to the choir. That I should help your choir glorify God.”

Doubt invaded the rosy cheeks. “Your wife was French. But you are...”

“I have recorded choral music in England, worked with sound studios in London. Small expert groups of singers - works by Byrd and Tallis.”

Conscious, of course, that these distant foreign names were not Fauré, Duruflé, Messiaen. Time to mention money even if that too was a lie; money which did not actually exist. “Recording is expensive, of course. But the church’s name can benefit; the recordings can reach out to a wider congregation. And my wife, my blessed wife, made allocations for...”

“Ah, yes.” Fr. Rivière’s voice took on a yearning note. “But your faith, monsieur. You are not I suppose...”

“My wife hoped  I would take instruction.” The biggest lie of all.

“Ah!”

The silence lasted minutes and was excruciating. Wycombe discovered his hands were still clasped and slowly unhooked them. Fr. Rivière stared blankly toward the window through which he could have seen the marina harbouring the playthings of the rich. Wycombe had never been rich but in the parlance of south-east England had been comfortably off. Silently he cursed the circumstances of Marie’s birth, his willingness to move to a more splendid residence but in a country not his own, and the restricted life he now lived.

“Father, I must sing,” he said clearly, unequivocally.

After the lies it was a relief to tell the truth, even though he was now discarding subversion and depending on the priest’s mercy. “I believe that my need is Heaven-sent; that with goodwill it can be converted into a hymn of God’s love.”

The priest bestirred himself. “The instruction, Monsieur... It might be delicate. It might be seen as cause and effect. I must also speak to our choralist, he may wish to advise me.”

THE KITCHEN had the most responsive acoustics. He sang Schubert’s Fruhlingsglaube, started on the picture aria from Magic Flute but did not finish it. Recalling the lies he had told he turned superstitiously to Bach and challenged himself with tricky recitative from Ein fest’ Burg. Knowing, of course, these three works were all in German and German was a luxury he might have to renounce if Saint-Nicolas de l’Estuaire opened its doors to him. The sounds bounced back from the tiled walls, hard and true but lacking heart. Marie was no longer there to suggest a stronger ellision within “Er hilft uns frei...”

As a further act of superstition he phoned the agency in Brest where the house was listed. He was told yet again the market was plutot calme. The last enquiry had been weeks ago and had confirmed the price he was asking would always be the sticking point. But reducing the price here in Brittany would condemn him to nothing better than a semi in somewhere horrible like Staines. Very close to London Airport.

It hadn’t always been like this. Earlier there’d been money for trips back to Teddington for recording sessions. Even to pay for a high-level voice coach in Rennes.

What’s more he’d sung here in Brittany. Marie, born in Paris, had had a talent for rural friendship. There’d been gentle parties where he’d entertained with a hired accompanist and well-chosen programmes. He’d known enough to choose indigenous works - student fragments by Bizet and Ravel, modern words for Charpentier with a bit of Piaf thrown in here and there. A happy old age beckoned.

Then the melanoma had intervened, savagely and swiftly. The health facilities had been superb but powerless. And money had gone on transport, a desperate holiday in the Alpes Maritime, luxuries intended to deflect Marie’s mind from what lay ahead. Finally a funeral with black plumes and a horse-drawn carriage. Wine, of the sort Wycombe preferred, was down to two bottles a month.

The overgrown garden would have saddened Marie and he hurried back indoors. Drank the last of the cognac from a decanter that would forever remain empty. Sang a dozen chromatic scales in the kitchen to drive out reflection.

WEEKS passed before the choralist got in touch and the audition was held in the church hall where girls practised basketball at the far end. At great expense Wycombe had familiarised himself with Gregorian Chant material; now, bemused, he was asked to render demisemiquaver vocalise that ran through all the intervals, sounds that the Solesmes monks might never have heard.

As a final sop he was asked to sight-read a folk-song arrangement written by Poulenc, surely while still in his teens. M. Saulnier, the choralist, stared up from the keyboard, tending to increase the tempo throughout, the overhead lights flashing from his unnerving rimless glasses.

It was quickly over. M. Saulnier smiled thinly. “You have a fine voice, monsieur. But you are of course an Anglo-Saxon tenor.”

"By which I take it you mean I'm not French. That I don't do the... I'm sorry, the French word escapes me."

"Tell me in your own language, then," said M. Saulnier, speaking English for the first time.

"Warble."

Again the thin smile. "A charming word, monsieur. Usually your fellow citizens prefer something more pejorative."

He'd walked to the church hall in mild weather, now the wind had a sharp sting to it. Going home held no attraction, the house was empty, perhaps hollow. Down below lay the marina with its flash, white-walled capitainerie. Ironic that Fr. Rivière hadn't had to confront Wycombe's religiosity, that a small stitch-up had sufficed. He felt the need to do something un-French and took the cliff steps downwards.

Huge windows dominated the building's new extension. Wycombe could just see the bows of the tiny single-berth cruiser he and Marie had bought almost a decade ago. A pouting receptionist had just reminded him that mooring fees were overdue and he had countered by asking for a weather forecast. “Heavy rain at midday, winds 50 kph from the west, strengthening in the afternoon.” A lively prospect.

A drink at the bar first? Cognac to compensate for the empty decanter? Wycombe stood in the foyer, indeterminate. The woman receptionist – quite attractive now she had lost her pout – turned to examine Wycombe more closely. “Monsieur is not thinking of going out?”

He was still wearing the suit he had chosen for the audition. With its sombre tie. If he craned his head to the right he'd have been granted a distant view of the presbytery.  He imagined Fr. Rivière looking down grimly, sensing Wycombe's indecision, expecting another of the pastoral disappointments mankind had furnished throughout his short life..

Mind afloat he glanced at the receptionist’s name brooch. “Tell me Janine, have you ever heard of Kindertotenlieder?”

“But of course, monsieur. The "dead baby songs" - such a grim title. Mahler.”

“You know them!”

 “There is more to France than Jacques Brel, monsieur. I have two recordings but I ration their use. They are sad, unbearably sad.”

A young woman working in this heartless structure who knew about sadness. On impulse and softly, so that no one but Janine could hear, he sang the opening line,“Nun will die Sonn' so hell aufgeh'n...”

Unbelievably she hummed the next line.

Tears flowed wetly and he refused to wipe them away. Laughed shakily, “Thank you, Janine. In answer to your question: no I am not going out. These are not the right clothes, are they?”

14 comments:

Kay Cooke said...

A fine story - I love it.

MikeM said...

I first read this last night, when I was very tired, and struggled some with digesting so much detail. Second read today revealed (perhaps more than) the usual gorgeous nuance. Another Biographantasy grenade from a (the?) master of the genre.

Roderick Robinson said...

Kay: Since taking up blogging in 2008 I've written and posted some forty short stories. This one and one other appear to have done the job; the rest could be regarded as a kind of apprenticeship. Your opinion matters and I'm glad you liked it.

MikeM: Not the first thing of mine you've read (and puzzled over) while tired. I hardly deserve your sense of application. The subject - as you have guessed - was important to me and I was keen to avoid obscurity. But obscurity can arrive from many directions and the desire to be allusive, to pare down the story to its bare bones and to pack it with musical density may have left it a hard row to hoe. I'm glad you persisted.

Autobiographical detail is scattered throughout, not surprising given the location. But the only autobiographical theme is that contained in the title: music as a need rather than an indulgence or a hobby. From what you have told me this may be something we share.

It's not a subject I'm done with. Can "need" be woven into a story about music I'm ignorant of - notably pop, rock or whatever?

MikeM said...

Not so much persistence needed. i had thought, but forgot to type in (too much time spent reveling in my invention of "Biographantasy") how much like a piece of "listening" music your shorts seem to be. As is so often the case with first listen to an unfamiliar piece by a favorite artist, a few aspects grab right away: The conversation with the priest, the run through of aspects of the relationship, the audition, and the denouement with the receptionist (trust me, none of your regular readers were surprised when her face relaxed and became more attractive). Each of these story portions, especially the priest/ audition ones, I recognized instantly on first read as the sort of little puzzles I needed to solve in order to allow the story to fully bloom. I do not regard this solving as work, but delight in it. As we've discussed before, much of the puzzle involves English vs US language differences and your interjection of French (and now more German musical references). I seldom look them up anymore... they are such rabbit holes for someone as curious as me. Still, I usually pause on first read to try to pronounce them and this can make for a rather halting experience. But enough. Rest assured I fall asleep with your themes in my head and look forward to reinserting the disc come morn.

Roderick Robinson said...

As I say it wasn't my intention to be obscure. The question arises about how much purely explanatory material can one - or should one - add for the sake of the reader. Does everyone know what a marina is or should it be "yacht marina". As to translating the partial line of German I'd say no since its meaning is non-essential, it's there purely as an identifier. On the other hand I may have missed a trick by not translating the name of the song cycle: Kindertotenlieder means Dead Children Songs and there might well have been dialogue potential there for the now-not-pouting receptionist.

This is a recurrent issue. The author is concerned with style (AKA: tone of voice) while most readers are primarily following the story. Explanatory material, especially if it turns out to be unnecessary, can make the author look something of a simpleton. I like your idea of reading out aloud the foreign stuff but then you are - I say this hand on heart - close to being the perfect reader.

Asterisks? Footnotes?

marly youmans said...

It is interesting to see the likes and dislikes of Roderick Robinson infusing a story. Surely everybody knows "marina"? I would think your receptionist should be the one to gloss the name--that would be more natural. Perhaps in some surprise that would lead somewhere...

Roderick Robinson said...

Marly: Gloss which name? Wasn't the story leading anywhere? Aw gee, I'm heart-slufted.

mikeM said...

Should I know whether or not he passed the audition? I think I'd rather not...

Roderick Robinson said...

MikeM: Hey, this is important. Technically he passed the audition but his achievement was meaningless. His tenor voice lacked the "warble" typical of many French tenors (which the choralist could have guessed at before a note was sung) and he was rejected for being Anglo-Saxon (an adjective frequently used by the French when they want to be insulting). The wittiest and most agonising element of all of Wycombe's suffering and the reason why he's then to be found down at the marina possibly (this is deliberately left uncertain) contemplating going out into the Channel in foul weather.

As I say this is vital. I'll rewrite (ie, add explanation) if it passed you by. Not only that but I'll include a mini-foreword explaining I have re-written. Please let me know.

mikeM said...

I did smell a bit of self-destructiveness in his trip to the marina...at first. But he seemed to ask about the forecast as a diversion from questions about his overdue fees. I suppose I could have analyzed "countered" better. As I said, the marina visit seemed tinged...you succeeded that far...but sailing in dress clothing? I wasn't quite ready to believe he was that desperate, though that is what you'd hoped to achieve. As for the "pass/fail" of the audition, the only indicating line(to me) is the one containing Anglo-Saxon, and within that, only the word "but". In retrospect I guess this should have been enough, though my immediate take on "Anglo-Saxon" was not that it was derogatory or "spat out". I would be interested to know other readers take on this deficiency, which might possibly be all mine. Tune it if you wish - I'm making a copy in case I need to compare.

Roderick Robinson said...

All: Mamma mia! A dreadful error of geography in my last comment. I talk about "going out into the Channel" (the capital C implies the English Channel, that narrow gap of sea to the north that the French prefer to call La Manche - The Sleeve.) Whether it's clear to readers is not entirely important but this story is set on the southern coast of Brittany; thus Wycombe would be entering the Bay Of Biscay.

mikeM said...

The revision doesn't really clarify anyting for me, just makes the banter between examiner and auditioner seem overly long. And you've changed my favorite line - "He imagined Fr. Rivière looking down grimly, expecting further disappointment." But in examining that line again, I'm puzzled over who is expecting more disappointment. I know this is a simple sentence structure issue, but I'm not too savvy in that dept. Taken as the priest expecting further disappointment it is very funny. But if Wycombe is expecting further disappointment...well....then he's been disappointed (failed to make the choir) just recently.....thus the sentence is highly explanatory.

Roderick Robinson said...

MikeM: One adjective added.

mikeM said...

And we don't know the reason for the pout the receptionist has lost.I'd gathered it was from having to press Wycombe for docking fees. I liked the original. This may be a bit more clear. The line about "stitch up" is a good addition I think, as reference had been made to Wyc "becoming" Catholic. "A drink first" indicates he WAS contemplating sailing.....I think that is a good revision. Still love the origin "He imagined Fr. Rivière looking down grimly, expecting further disappointment."