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Wednesday, 4 December 2013

The treacherous muse

An earlier version of this story tried to do too much and ended doing nothing. It even contrived to proselytise nonsensically on behalf of atheism. The story, now rewritten, reverts to my original idea – music and religion.

Matins from the front
Short story (934 words)

“Black suits you.”

“Your father’s suit hung loose. Only the polo-neck fitted. You’re sure I’m not a bit James Bond?”

Anna laughed, winced, shifted in the wheelchair. “There’s a tradition for black in church. You could be a curate in waiting.”

They were escorted to the front row so that Anna’s splinted leg could project unhindered. Peter leant forward, “I’m likely to be caught out here – getting up and sitting down at the wrong places. I’ve nobody to watch”

Anna said. “Watch my left hand. How long’s it been?”

“Fourteen years. The day my voice broke.”

Yet when the service started it was as if he’d never been away. To the carolled supplication:

Oh Lord open thou our lips

his response was automatic:

And our mouths shall show forth Thy praise.

Peter stood behind and to the left of the wheelchair. Had a good view of her brown hair, hastily combed an hour ago. Could he take her to Matins? she’d asked suddenly at breakfast, he needn’t stay. Heck, he could do that. He’d sung Matins dozens of times. So he said yes and was disappointed she wasn’t more pleased. But then she’d needed to organise clothes to replace the anorak, salopettes and apr├Ęs-ski boots he’d arrived in.

O God, make speed to save us

And Peter sang out:

O Lord, make haste to help us.

He realised why he was staring at her brown hair. The piste had narrowed down to a gallery blocked by an instructor and his helmeted infants. Anna had switched to the outer, open side, to be wiped out by an Italian teenager travelling at speed. Her Peruvian cap had flown off and her hair had shone in the sun. Then she’d disappeared.

The organist was sounding the Venite. The chant was new to him and he needed a bar before joining in:

In his hands are all the corners of the earth:
And the strength of the hills is his also.

The sea is his, and he made it:
and his hands prepared the dry land.

The new chant had a four-note ripple: tricky but effective. Anna’s head turned slightly, responding to his voice.

No problems about the hymn, Awake my soul. Both tune and verses were completely embedded in his memory and he sang them ostentatiously, without reference to the hymn-book. The congregation resumed its collective seat and Anna whispered: “You still sing well.”

But the prelude to the curate’s sermon grated: “On a personal note we are delighted by the presence of our faithful sister, Anna, here this Sunday morning. Despite her travail on the slopes. God speed your recovery, Anna.”

Travail? As Anna, hatless, had fallen over the edge Peter had been outraged. Her goodness deserved better. Ignoring the instructors’ shouts he too had left the piste, unthinking, still angry, applying prodigious ski control down into a waste of rocks where she lay. Heard her mutter, “Oh Peter, don’t take such risks.” through gritted teeth. A tricky place and he was able to contribute, accompanying the retrieval team and the ambulance. With her drugged to the eyeballs he had liaised with the hospital and had eventually flown back on the charter plane. It was he who decided she’d be better off with her parents near Cirencester rather than at the London flat.

Wealthy but elderly, Anna’s mother and father had ceded him authority in their house and they had all met only at mealtimes. He appreciated their dilemma; it was a devout household with regular observances. They were grateful for his efforts and were doing their best to accommodate the secular boyfriend. When Anna had spoken about Matins it was they who had looked anxiously at Peter. Their relief was obvious when Anna explained things in terms of Peter’s youthful membership of a parish church choir. At least he knew the drill.

Life had been awkward but not unbearably so. Matins was, in fact, providing some musical relief and the sounds of the Te Deum quickly absorbed him:

All the earth doth worship thee, the Father everlasting.

That four-note descending figure which accompanied “everlasting”. Not all psalmody worked, that did.

To thee all angels cry aloud.

He remembered the vital elision of "thee" and “all”, spotting it ahead of time. Causing him to glance at Anna, head up, singing confidently. She’d got it too. Anna, the surprising English rose, devout yet passionate, devout yet practical. Anna who had brought scented lubricant to their Marriott assignation, who had used the whole of her body to kiss him. Who had laughed at his surprise, told him sex was God-worship as well as Peter-worship. And, yes, lapsed Peter could be an object of worship.

He adjusted his voice, heard it gain in purity. Sang louder and caused Anna to turn yet again.

Lord God of Sabaoth.

Sabaoth - three syllables instead of two. A more obscure version of the word but it matched the chant better. Unaccountably he was reminded of her stoicism when they lifted her from the rocks to the stretcher.

The noble army of martyrs…

Bearing pain. Martyrdom. Was that the link?

The Father of an infinite majesty.

The oddest line of all. A marching-band rhythm to cover the dancing polka of those last two words. Psalms? Adaptable?

The curate was there to shake hands. Saying to Anna: “Evensong is the more contemplative service. I hear your accident was horrific. Contemplation may be what you need.”

Anna smiled – at the curate and at Peter.

“Why not,” said Peter. “I've always liked Nunc dimittis.” He grinned. "The psalm if not the sentiment."

NOTE: The Te Deum is out of sequence. Deliberately. 


  1. Listened to a few versions and still do not understand ""The unwritten yet necessary elision of “all” and “angels”"....I liked the use of her hair to transition the flashback, and it's a good story with a clever ending. Perhaps he enjoyed singing Nunc dimittis as a younger man, aware only that it brought the finish line clearly into sight. In this vignette it has clearly expanded to mean dismissal into the Paradise of evening with Anna. Much more to ponder here but off to work now. (oh...interesting use of "lent"....I'm not familiar with that one)

  2. MikeM: You probably think I'm cheating, taking advantage of you. You make a suggestion, go off to work, come back, and lo the goalposts have changed. But the fact is it often takes me ages to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion, and I'm not above taking assistance from wherever it comes.

    As it stood, there was just a little too much ambiguity in Peter's final line. Given that I've just re-written the whole story because of an excess of ambiguity, your comment provided an opportunity to bring the story closer to my original aim. Which was to explore the attitude of those who enjoy sacred (mainly Christian) music yet who do not accept Christianity.

    "Lent" was misspelled. It should have been "leant".

    Elision. Analysing the music of psalms is difficult since notes are often sustained to accommodate as many syllables of text as are necessary. I had a particular chant in mind, learned when I too was a choir boy, and I re-sang it several times in my head. The trouble arises out of separating words carrying a given note and multiples of words which share that same note. In the end I became fuddled. At one point I managed to convince myself that three rather than two words were musically elided (thee-all-angels). In the end I decided that thee-all was possible more accurate than all-angels. But I can't pretend I'm sure.

    I enjoyed your Talmudic approach. I only hope my altered final line hasn't exasperated you.

  3. I'd go with "tune" over "psalm" in that final line, even at the expense of consonance. To me a psalm includes the sentiment. "Song" perhaps? I'm surprised to find Peter grinning and irreverent in the revision, though....perhaps he WOULD say "psalm over the sentiment." Perhaps his name was carefully chosen.

  4. Turning "infinite majesty" into a dancing polka. That's beautiful. Genius.

  5. MikeM: The general sentiment of the Nunc Dimittis is departure, made clear by the title. Thus Peter is saying he isn't yet ready to depart. This can be interpreted in two ways: he is prepared to take Anna to Evensong, and - more indirectly - he isn't inclined to leave Anna. The reader is left to decide whether "leave Anna" refers only to Peter going back to his own home or leave her for good. If the latter it becomes - because it's not going to happen! - a subtle expression of affection. My apologies for this clumsy explanation. A good excuse for employing verse not prose.

    Peter! That Peter! Perish the thought! You're really into Christian symbolism aren't you? My next short story, presently being mulled over, will I fear leave you with slim pickings.

    Difficulty in the WV panel comes and goes, in my experience.

  6. You can't beat a good nunc diminitus despite the fact that is usually, in its entirety, completely lacking in beat.

    What does "Talmudic" mean?

  7. MikeM: WV = Word verification (to prove you're not a robot).

    B2: The choir has usually rehearsed. The congregation not. The congregation stumbles, loses touch, stumbles, rushes to catch up, overshoots, defiantly decides to go its own way. Music as a unified procedure loses out.

    Talmudic. The Talmud is the Jews' holy book. Certain Jewish scholars study it for their lifetime. Thus an attention to detail that can, to an outsider, appear niggling. At the sub-atomic level when molecular would do.

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