Thursday, 1 October 2015

Scotch Eggs in Sixteenths


  

  Bookers ought to let a performer know the full gig itinerary from the off.  None of this ringing me when I’m already on the train to ask – for the first time – have I remembered to bring a tent; or telling me I must make my own way in the early hours of Sunday to and from Gatwick Airport; or insisting that ‘shared accommodation’ was never going to mean a room in a house with others – of course it meant me on the bottom bunk, the magician overhead, in the main entrance lobby of the ski chalet. 
  But it was totally my own fault the time dramatic coloratura  Therese Belfa asked me to be a guest at a meeting of her singers’ support group.  I should have said that I was booked up right to the tube map at the end of the my diary as soon as she told me what she had named the group.
  
  Therese was waiting for me at the top of the DLR escalator.  She air-kissed me from a yard away yet still her perfume rabbit-punched my sinuses.
   I was staring.
  ‘My latest Lester Prayle ensemble,’ she said, uncertainly.  ‘I thought the meeting warranted it.’
  She and Lester, a Royal Opera House usher and St. Martin’s fashion degree student, had been sniffy-bottomy with one another from the off.  On first seeing Therese, Lester had quipped that her shoes put him in mind of two bits that might have fallen off an Arabic leper; that her hair made her look like the oldest and ugliest of the Brontë sisters; and that not since Madame Defarge had two-ply been associated with such horror as that cardigan.  She was to meet him - yes she was, frankly - at Liverpool Street Station for a late Sunday morning jaunt to Brick Lane. 
  She came back kitted out with a Soviet Army coat dyed canary yellow, green DM’s, and silver bowler hat tied on with a Victorian travelling veil.
  ‘And where did Lester take you shopping this time, Therese?’ I asked.
  He had dressed Therese’s hair in ringlets, made-up her face in autumn tints and put her in a white envelope dress topped off with a green diaphanous cloak. She looked like a tableau vivant of the iceberg shafting the Titanic.   
  ‘I’ll give you a twirl; not that you asked,’ Therese said.
  There was something adrift aft. 
  ‘You may need to adjust the way that cloak hangs over the…what it is underneath back there, Therese?’
  ‘A bow.  Like Dame Joan Sutherland had at a Met Gala I once saw.  I’ll leave it as it is, thank you.  Suitably operatic.’
  We walked through the subway, and then in the shadow of the Tate and Lyle factory.   ‘Now, about this Trills and Spills meeting this afternoon,’ she said, ‘I’ve put out into the ether that you making this guest visit to us will help us as a group to focus on the dynamism that we need to put into our singing.’ 
  In the garden we were passing just then chicken wire had been laid out in precise squares over the lawn.  ‘How odd, look - ΄
  ‘Not that I intend,’ Therese cut me off, ‘to change the format of the meeting and turn the floor over to you or anything, but I do expect you to maybe step in and take a lead in whatever discussions we might have – a semi-expert witness, sort of thing.’  She put her hands behind her back and skipped a short way.  ‘Your career yielding such fruit at the moment.  And you, of course, for yourself need to be focused on a positive outcome for the evening ahead.  The message in the deeper development book I was reading this morning was that a positive outlook in the midst of pure intentions alone can lead you on to your goals.’
  ‘Jude the Obscure?’ 
  She sighed. 
  ‘Tell me about Sîan and Dave again,’ I asked, quickly.
  She went over Dave’s CV.  Basically, a number one with his band Whipped Frenzy in the early nineties and a sure touch with an investment portfolio ever since.  
  ‘He gives Sîan the lifestyle we all crave: Egytian Cotton throws, distressed walls and holidays in proper destinations – Venice, Marrakesh and the Seychelles.  Not like us mere mortals with the occasional Ryan Air mini-break to Dubrovnik, Krakov or whereverhaveyou destinations masquerading as proper places.’
   We walked up Sîan and Dave’s front garden, Therese tip-toeing between the cracks in the faux-marble crazy paving.  She said, 
  ‘Now, Iestyn, I’ll say this to you: as it is for the others: it’s up to you to make sure you walk out of here after the meeting tonight having got out of it what you put out into the universe before hand. There is something that you and you alone can offer us...’
  She pressed the entry phone and I cringed at the dong-a-long of Madame Butterfly’s "One Fine Day", which clanged on after the door had been opened.  A woman in her mid-twenties, wearing a pink linen Chairman Mao suit stood on the threshold.
  ‘Here’s our girl, Sîan, now!’ Therese sang on a top C sharp.  Sîan stepped back to take in Therese with a slow glance, nave to chops. 
  I was thinking about quoting Mary Poppins:  “Close your mouth, please, Michael.  We are not a codfish”, when Sîan finally dragged her gaze from Therese and turned to me.   
  ‘You must be Iestyn, our fêted guest.’
  ‘Fetid?’ I asked. 
  She snuffled at me and laughed on a top E flat.  
  ‘Look!’ She pointed to her head.  ‘Bought these gorgeousnesses on the internet.’  
  The gorgeousnesses were matching treble and bass clef kirby grips.   
  “One Fine Day” finally stopped.   
  ‘Come in, come in,’ Sîan screamed.  ‘There are people here; well one apart from me, but there’s no safety in numbers.’ 
  She took two bottles of water off a hostess trolley in the hall.  
  ‘Therese, for you.  Not too chilled.  And Iestyn. For the sake of your cords, particularly in this heat.  Vocal- not –uroy.’  She looked at my legs.  ‘And you’re wearing cut-off Chinos anyway.’
  She laughed on high again.  
  ‘Let’s go through to the room of art.’
  I smelt D.I.Y., garlic and rosemary as Sîan led the way past distressed plaster hung with pop memorabilia. She stepped aside to let Therese go first into a large music room.       
  ‘That’s a Yamaha baby grand from Dave’s performing days.  And he re-sashed all the windows.  Talk of the devil.’  She lowered her voice to a whisper.  ‘Check out the boots.  The boots.’
  A man in his early forties had slouched in cradling a beer against his stomach.  The boots were snakeskin.
  ‘I’m Dave,’ he said, sucking in his belly and shaking hands with me. ‘Glad to see you here.’ He waved flat-handed at Therese.  ‘These meetings always thrill me with the wads of integrity people bring to them.’  He cuddled Sîan sideways on.  ‘I’m totally supportive of my baby in everything she does.’ 
  ‘Saved by the bell,’ said Sîan as "One Fine Day" donged down the hall. She and Dave left the room. Therese went and put a drawstring bag on the piano stool.
 ‘Sîan, baby, just…er…just…’ Dave said, then turned right to mount some stairs.  Sîan stared after him until there came an encore of “One Fine Day” and she went to the front door.
  Whooping preceded two new arrivals: a scampering, boyish blonde girl in navy blue linen and a shambling woman swaddled in black-wool substitute. Following in their wake, Sîan had her hand in the air. 
  ‘Erica all the way from Stockholm in the blue,’ she said, pointing. ‘And Rachel all the way from Crouch End very dramatic in black.  Look now girls: the lovely new person that Therese has bought us.’
  Rachel asked, ‘What’s up behind with your dress, Therese?’
  ‘With my ensemble,’ Therese corrected.  ‘And it’s a bow, I think we’ll find.  Like Sutherland had at a Met Gala I once saw.’
  ‘The fabric’s snarling up over the bow.  Maybe wear the cloak as a shawl?’
  Therese adjusted the cloak as though she were  toweling her back. 
  ‘Draped over the wrists, how’s that?’ she asked Rachel. 
  ‘Better.’
  Therese had taken a couple of steps back, and was standing with her head drooping left.  She played a tattoo on her lips with her forefingers.  
  ‘Peeps, I’ve got something unofficial to share with you before we begin.  A major life-changing plan that I’ve carried through.’ 
  ‘Oh, look now, when she smiles like that,’ Erica whispered to me, ‘even more dimples she has.  Wouldn’t seem possible.’
  ‘I’ve changed my surname through Deed Poll,’ Therese announced. ‘From Maloney to Belfa. Therese Belfa will be my both my professional and personal name from now on.  It’s official.’
  ‘Belfa?’ Erica repeated. 
  ‘From Dickens?’ I asked.
  ‘Belfast.  As Melba was to Melbourne, Belfa is to Belfast.’ 
  ‘Can you use the Belfast Tourism logo on your publicity?’ I asked.
  ‘I’m still at the honouring stage of my name-change process, actually Iestyn.  Haven’t as yet progressed to the sadly mercenary.’  She sighed, shaking her head at me.  ‘I would love for you to be able to see a singing career less as a commodity and more as something God given, sacred, Iestyn.’
  ‘I always refrain from singing Handel’s Messiah in the shower, Therese,’ I argued.  ‘Not wanting to pollute it with my beer gut and bits out.’
  Erica said, ‘My diva name would be Stocka.’  She tapped my arm.  ‘What would yours be?’ 
  ‘Fulham-off,’ I answered.
  ‘High Barna,’ Rachel said.
  ‘Dollis Hilla.’
  Therese looked like she wanted to stab us. 
  Sîan clapped her hands. ‘Mingle lovelies.  We have nibbles. And liquid.’ 
  Over rosehip tea and an organic home-made Vegan Garibaldi I kept quiet while the Trills and Spills membership rhubarbed about recent performances; a game of trumps with Rachel winning all the tricks.
  ‘So, Rachel,’ Erica was summing up, ‘just to clarify.  You’re saying that if the Scotch eggs on an interval finger food buffet get cut into sixteenths rather than halves or, possibly, quarters, this automatically makes your performance into a gala evening?’
  I looked round for somewhere to dispose of the Garibaldi I had started on; it tasted of malted sand, sherbet and fire-lighters.  Therese stood in the bow of the piano and chirruped.  I put the once-bitten remains of my Garibaldi in my tea cup and slid the tea cup beneath a chair.
 ‘Welcome everyone to another wonderful meeting of Trills and Spills,' Therese began. 'I say ‘wonderful’ immediately to set the tone for how we’re going to gather our energies and create something uniquely mysterious out of the evening’s meeting.’
  Dave, upstairs, shouted, ‘Man on…man on….pass, you twat!’
  Taking a piece of folded paper out of her pocket Therese announced apologies for absence. 
  ‘Admin will give us the grounding that our subsequent flights into the ether of success require.’
  She unfolded the paper and read aloud. 
  ‘Clair is much better, but still not able to be with Trills and Spills this evening.  She loves us all and would need us to help her out of her trough when she does come back.’ 
  She fanned the air with the paper.  ‘Nothing specific.’
  ‘I know some more,’ said Erica. ‘She’s had an operation for that thing that was spurting stuff from the top of her lung. She now has a scar. I went to see her at her home. She’s really worried about how the scar looks. I felt I must tell a white lie and say that I could hardly see it. Really she looks like Doctor Frankenstein has either been adding bits to her or taking them away.’
  Therese folded the paper.  
  ‘Oh, and Simeon Shaughnessy’s otherwise engaged just at the moment.’
  ‘Oh, no,’ said Rachel.  ‘His piano-playing was of such an excellent standard.’
  ‘He’s touring with the Brick Lane Gay Man’s Chorus,’ Therese explained.  ‘They’re performing an outreach anti-homophobia programme, funded by the Arts Council minorities scheme.’
  ‘What fun!’ said Erica.  ‘Mardi Gras, cocktail bars with rainbow cable lights, on lorries dressed as nuns singing the song about the girl who always says yes - only to Jesus, of course.  Where have they gone to outreach gay?’
 I suggested,  ‘Iran, Uganda and Cirencester?’
  Rachel asked, 'But Therese, who will accompany at Trills and Spills meetings in the meantime?'
  ‘No-one has beamed themselves down from the ether as yet,’ Therese answered.  ‘But I’ve Projecting the Wish so enthusiastically I have constant migraine.'
  'Oh, poor you,' said Sîan.
  'In these situations, I never think of myself.’ 
  ‘Well aren’t you good,’ said Erica.  ‘Last time you wish-projected us all that lovely ticket for Traviata at Covent Garden.  And such a good time you had when you went.’
  Sîan dug her in the ribs and nodded at Therese, who was gazing in wonder at something in space just beyond the far left-hand curtain ruche. 
  ‘People,’ Therese said rapturously, ‘can I ask you to join me in a Conjoined Putting it out There?  Clasp something.’
  En masse we clasped, and Therese, with a magician’s slow reveal, pulled a roll of paper from the drawstring bag she had put on the piano stool earlier. 
  ‘I have an exciting idea,’ she intoned.  ‘To form a chamber choir out of our Trills and Spills group.  Not just an exciting idea, actually, I’ve gone ahead with it.’
  ‘Whee!’ said Erica.
  ‘I’ve gone provincial because that’s where all the church-going tends to be.  And I’ve started on my own adoptive doorstep.  Aldeburgh.'  She put her hands to her face and shut her eyes.  ‘You’ll remember positively for me how I was quite the hit on the Britten/Pears advanced vocal studies courses?’  She opened her eyes.  ‘There are now copies of this A4 poster in the porches of churches and village halls within a twenty mile radius of Aldeburgh offering the services of a Trills and Spills Chamber Choir offshoot.  Look, peeps!'

  STUMPED FOR SOARING SONG TO SEND THE BRIDE OFF, WET THE BABY’S HEAD       OR ASH TO ASH YOUR SPECIFIC SHINING BEING?  LOOK NO FURTHER - TRILLS      AND SPILLS WILL SERVE AND SOLVE!

 ‘That’s the first branch of the choir,’ Therese said, ‘the sacred one, if you will.  But I also want us to look into doing secular concerts, targeting music clubs and livery companies.’
  ‘Maybe the honourables in photos at the back of Tatler,’ said Sîan.
  ‘I could ask my mother to ask her employer about this,’ Erica said.
  ‘Is he a society photographer?’ Therese asked.
  ‘No, he’s the Crown Prince of Denmark.’
  ‘And Therese,’ I said, ‘I could run it past the PR guy at Cafe de Paris, Liam Norval. See what he has to say about marketing.’
  Erica turned to me.  ‘PR at Cafe de Paris sounds so exciting! Hanging out in VIP areas, drinking Cristal and discussing running shoes, Premium Bonds and bras.'  
  Therese arranged her Titanic tableaux cloak across her chest like a harpy folding its wings.  ‘As for our actual first outing,’ she said. ‘I thought we could do a try out performance on the OAP ward I’m working at the moment.
  Sîan screamed, 'Oh, bookings in the diary already, Therese!’
  Therese sighed at her, and said that as yet, no, there weren’t any bookings in the diary.   ‘In the rigidly diary sense of written bookings, Sîan.  But you can smell the excitement around the nurses’ station.  We’re certainly all wish-projecting as we sling those kidney trays in the Hobart washer-upper!’
  Rachel asked, ‘Are you still using Projection of Wish to try and attract men at work, Therese?’
  ‘Doctors,’ Sîan said. ‘Always a catch.’
  ‘I aim at misters,’ said Therese.
  ‘But get cleaners,’ Rachel said.
  ‘Ablutionary facilitators,’ Therese corrected.  ‘But if we might keep our minds on higher things?  I come to Trills and Spills strictly in my etherical opera diva incarnation.’ 
  Not in her earthly Agency Nurse one. Though praise where it’s due, she did have a high patient recovery rate.  Who wouldn’t that was six feet two in their nurses’ uniform shoes, with a black and cherry shaggy perm, face like a rutting hare?  If I woke to that at bay with a bedpan, my recovery would be like an establishing sequence from Holby City played on fast rewind.  Out of the bed, down the Dettol scented corridors, through the doors of A. and E., bum half out of my backless gown.
  ‘And talking of diva incarnations: I think it’s time to sing now. I put out into the universe that we would all be in magisterial voice this afternoon.’
  ‘Good,’ said Rachel.  ‘Because at the last meeting I thought you sounded a little tired, Therese, and Sîan overblown, and Erica top-heavy.  Just let me finish my biscuit...'
  ‘Fourth biscuit, Rachel,’ said Erica.
  Owl-like Rachel turned her head, while her body remained still; she stared at Erica.
  Therese, bordering on hysteria, jumped in with, ‘The singing, then.’  She gestured from me to the piano and back again. ‘Iestyn.’
  ‘Yes?’
  ‘If you’d…’  She nodded briskly.
  ‘What?’ I asked, knowing full pigging well. 
  Palms together Therese mimed a fish swimming between me and the piano stool.
  ‘Oh, am I having to accompany?’ I asked.
  She nodded again.
  ‘Really?’
  Trills and Spills to a member wore lambs at the teat expressions. 
  ‘Oh, all right.’ 
  My second-study piano was, clearly, the unique thing I had to offer to Trills and Spills.  Therese couldn't catch my eye as I moved to the piano stool.  

  I played Verdi for Erica; Puccini for Sîan; Donizetti for Therese; then Tchaikovsky, Schumann and Weill for Rachel - all on the black notes while she clicked her fingers and demanded details of dynamics and phrasing. 
  ‘I’m sight-reading, Rachel!’ I snapped.
  ‘Oh, yes, so you are.’  Rachel simpered.  ‘The last time I sang the Weil was sharing a bill with Ute Lemper – imagine!  A Gala.  This was the scotch eggs in sixteenths evening.  The Schumann was with Roger Vignoles at the piano.  A Gala.  That night the audience were given glass rather than plastic to take their drinks outside.  And the Tchaikowsky was with the Opera North Orchestra.’
  ‘A gala, right?’
  ‘I had the full and exclusive use of the janitor’s off…of the walk-in green room.’  She patted my head.  ‘So - Gala!’
  I suspect that when Rachel moans while frigging herself off in the bath it's a Gala. 

  The Trills and Spills Chamber choir, incidentally, has had one gig to date, during Harvest Festival, at a wedding in Chipping Norton.  The vicar hadn’t given way to the family’s pleas, just for the service, to move some of the grimmer good gifts from around us.  Here Came the Bride flanked by tinned ham and egg roll, Cookeen, and reduced fat liver sausage.  She turned to unveil and dislodged a can of Baked Beans with mini pork chipolatas.  It rolled down the altar steps clang clang clang; and she went after it and kept going down the aisle screaming: ‘It’s an omen, I can’t through go through with this, sorry, mummy!’

  So Trills and Spills didn’t actually get to sing that afternoon.  

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