Angels on Oil Drums – one of my favourite short stories

In my Ideas Store column in the current issue of Writers’ Forum, I am telling the story behind the first short story I ever sold and how it was inspired by my childhood.

I will post the full story behind the story here (and separate the fact from the fiction) after the magazine has been out for a while, but in the meantime, as promised in my column, here is the short story. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it! It still makes me laugh and brings back such vivid memories.

ANGELS ON OIL DRUMS

The day King George VI died was a strange one. At school, Mrs Perry put a vase of snowdrops on a purple velvet cloth in front of the picture of His Majesty and told us to pray for Princess Elizabeth. But I thought this was a bit unkind to Princess Margaret so I prayed for her as well.

And at home, things were even stranger.  Mum wasn’t in the kitchen like she usually was when we got in from school.  Instead, she was in the garden. Crying  By the washing line.

She didn’t seem to notice that only half of the best green tablecloth was on the line.  The other half had knocked over two of  Dad’s brussel sprout plants and was trailing in the dirt. She stood, one hand on the line, the other in the blue gingham peg bag I’d made her in Home Crafts last term. It was as if she’d got half way through pegging out when she’d frozen, like we do in the playground when we’re playing Statues.  Only this was no game.

Her face was lifted towards the sky and  I thought at first she was watching the rooks squabbling in the tops of the beech trees behind our cottage – until I saw her puffy eyes, her red nose and the tears glistening on her cheeks.

‘Mum?’  I dragged the wet tablecloth off the brussel sprouts, knocking over another one as I did so, ‘Mrs Perry told us and I’m sad too.’

‘For goodness’ sake, Jenny, what do you want to go creeping up behind people like that for?’ She dropped the other end of the tablecloth as she turned her back on me and rummaged in her apron pocket for her hankie. ‘And what are you on about?  What did Mrs Perry tell you?’

‘About the King, of course.’ The tablecloth, which smelt of soap powder and brussel sprouts, was cold and slippery as I tried to brush off the worst of the dirt.  The brussel sprouts, I was glad to see (because I hate them) were beyond my help.  ‘Isn’t that why you’re crying?’

‘I’m not crying. I don’t know where you get your daft ideas from, really I don’t. Run along indoors and see what your brothers are up to before they wreck the place.  I’d no idea it was that time already. Don’t stand gawping at me, child.  I’ve got a cold, that’s all.’

She was bent over the big stone sink in the scullery, her sleeves pushed up to her elbows, rubbing away at the tablecloth when our dad came home. I was glad to see him.  I didn’t know what was wrong with Mum, but I knew she didn’t have a cold and, to be truthful, I didn’t think she was that upset about the King, either.

‘Are you all right now? Or -?’ But he got no further because as he started to speak, she turned the tap on so hard, water hit the tablecloth and sprayed out like a fountain. I was watching from behind the pantry door and knew she’d go mad, because she hated mess and the scullery floor was like the swimming baths.

Instead, she spoke in a fierce whisper. ‘It’s all very well for you to say “we’ll manage” and “what’s another mouth to feed?” but I can’t go through all that again, Fred. Not now, with the twins about to start school.’

‘It’ll be different this time.’ Dad said, ‘Our Jenny’s of an age now where she can help out –’

‘Indeed she will not.’  I forgot to breath.  What did Dad think he was doing?  I could tell, even without seeing her, she had her lips pressed together so hard there’d be little white lines in the corner of her mouth.  Didn’t he know when she was like that it was best not to argue?

‘She’s a sensible girl-‘ he began.

‘Jenny will have homework to do when she goes up to the Grammar School come September.  She’s a bright girl and Mrs Perry says she should do well.  There’s going to be more in her life than getting married and having babies.  I’ll make sure of that.’

And then, on this strange day, the strangest thing of all happened.  Our Dad, who never, ever raised his voice, especially not to Mum, shouted, ‘I’m sorry your life turned out so badly.’ Then he wrenched open the back door and stomped out.

The windows rattled as he slammed the door behind him and Cassie, our dog, who’d been asleep in front of the Rayburn woke with a start and hissed.  Poor Cassie hasn’t barked since the day she was tossed into a blackthorn hedge by a bad-tempered Friesian heifer.  The shock and shame of it had put an end to her career as a cow dog – and to her bark.

The best she could manage was a hissing croak, like someone trying to shout and whisper at the same time. Usually, we had to try hard not to laugh at her because Mum said dogs had feelings too and how would we like it if everybody laughed at us?  But that day, nobody laughed at Cassie

………………………………..

Although I hated to hear Mum and Dad row, I was thrilled to hear Mum call me a bright girl.  I’d no idea I was in her good books and decided that when she’d calmed down a bit, I’d ask if Rosemary Dinsdale could come to tea. More than anything in the world – except, of course, passing for the Grammar School –  I wanted to be Rosemary’s  best friend. Yesterday she’d fallen out with Sheila Grant, so this was my best chance ever. 

Rosemary was small, neat, and pretty and Mrs Perry must need new glasses. Why else would she have chosen Sheila for the part of the Sugar Plum Fairy in the School Concert?  As I told Rosemary, anyone could see she looked far more like a Sugar Plum Fairy than Sheila ever could.  And what did it matter if she got muddled and tripped over her own feet sometimes? Even Sugar Plum fairies did that now and then, I supposed.

Rosemary was everything I longed to be.  She was an only child, with silky blonde plaits that reached halfway down her back. She lived next to the church in a big house with lots of windows, a swing in the garden and a proper lawn.  Even the flowers grew in well-behaved rows and there wasn’t a brussel sprout or raspberry cane in sight.

I, however, had straight, mousey hair, cut in what Mum called a “sensible” style, with a fringe like a bookend. Our farm cottage had tiny windows, thick walls and no room to move, with me, Mum, Dad, my three brothers (that’s Peter and twins Antony and David) and, of course, Cassie, as tightly packed as Mum’s bottled gooseberries.

As for our garden, there was a square of grass the boys had turned into a football pitch, Dad’s vegetable patch, a hen house, some apple trees with a washing line strung between and a forest of out of control raspberry canes where the hens would hide when it was time for them to be shut in for the night.

But what I admired most about Rosemary was how every day, at break, she’d have two chocolate digestive biscuits wrapped in a snowy paper napkin. What, I wondered, must it be like to live somewhere where they had chocolate biscuits all the year round and not just at Christmas when Gran turned up with her tin of Peak Frean Family Assorted?

And as I was thinking of Christmas, that was when I got one of my Really Great Ideas.  I often had them, as my brothers knew to their cost. 

But this was The Best Yet.

…………………………………….

‘A St George’s Day Pageant.’  I told Peter as we walked home from school next day. ‘That’ll cheer Mum up. Remember how she enjoyed the Christmas one at school?’

‘Sounds daft to me.’ Peter swung open the farm gate that led to our cottage. ‘Who’s going to be in it?’

‘Well, me.. and you..’

Peter snorted.  But I ignored it.

‘- And the twins..’

Peter snorted again.  ‘They won’t –’

‘… And Rosemary Dinsdale.’  That was the best bit. Nobody else from school, and especially not Sheila Grant, would be asked.  I’d have Rosemary all to myself and when the Pageant was the huge success I knew it would be, Rosemary and I ‘d be best friends.  For ever.

‘Rosemary Dinsdale?’ Peter’s snort turned into a yelp of laughter, then a cry of pain as I thumped the top of his arm. With my knuckles. Hard.   ‘That hurt.’  He rubbed it and glared at me.  ‘I’m not going to be in your stupid Pageant. Nor will the twins.  It’ll be just you and that stuck up Rosemary Dinsdale.’

But of course it wasn’t.  Peter had forgotten how “persuasive” I could be.  He was no match for me, any more than Anthony and David were.  One of the few advantages of being the eldest in a family of four.

Rosemary, however, was gratifyingly enthusiastic.  Especially when I assured her it would be the easiest thing in the world to include a Sugar Plum Fairy in a Pageant about St George.  Everybody knows dragons and fairies go together.  

………………………………………

The Pageant was planned for the Saturday nearest St George’s Day. The final rehearsal had gone well and even the weather was kind.  It was a perfect Spring day, when the sun shone from an achingly blue sky and the air fizzed with the scent of May blossom and the sound of birdsong.

The transformation from back garden to theatre was amazing. We didn’t have enough kitchen chairs so Dad had laid out bales of hay which we’d covered with blankets.  Mr and Mrs Dinsdale were both working and couldn’t come but we still had a good audience. There was Mum, Dad, Gran –who’d only brought Rich Tea biscuits seeing as it wasn’t Christmas so I was praying Rosemary would forget I’d promised her the pink wafers- the Vicar, Mr and Mrs Robinson who own the farm and a thin, anxious man with a shiny suit who’d been hoping to sell Mum some yellow dusters and a floor mop.

For the stage, Mum had let us bring out the hall rug to cover the grass and we’d draped a pair of grey blankets across the washing line for the backdrop and I’d placed four of Mum’s big enamel jugs stuffed with crab apple and cherry blossoms along the front. But best of all -so good, the Vicar said they were “astonishing”- were the two angels with long golden hair and outstretched wings who smiled down on the audience.

The music began.  I’d based the pageant around  a stirring hymn about Saints resting from their labours (Allelulia!).  I made a fetching St George and Peter did his best as the dragon.  His cries when St George’s sword thwacked across his back were very realistic.  It was fast, colourful, action packed and going very well, until…

Until the angel on the left fell off his oil drum.  And the one on the right started to cry and said he wanted to get down, too.

I nearly cried too. I’d worked so hard to get those angels looking right.  I’d got Dad to bring across a couple of empty oil drums from the farm and stand them, on end, either side of the stage.  Then I’d scrounged a pair of old sheets and draped them over the twins and their drums.  I’d even unravelled lengths of the yellow twine that was used to bind hay bales and fashioned them into beautiful golden wigs.  

And I’d bribed them with my Toby Twirl Annual and the remaining half of my Easter Egg, both, fool that I was, given in advance. They’d eaten the chocolate and I couldn’t bear to think what they’d done to Toby Twirl.  Now they were about to ruin the entire Pageant by walking out.

I stopped the music. Rather, I stopped singing – Rosemary and Peter had given up several bars earlier – and brandished my sword at the remaining angel.

‘Antony, you stay right where you are. Mum, please make David come back.  He’ll do it if you tell him he’s got to.’ Then I turned to the rest of the audience and with a flourish St George himself would have been proud of announced: ‘Ladies and gentlemen.  The show goes on.’

But as I launched in to the next part of the hymn, about the dawning of yet more glorious days when Saints triumphant rise in bright arrays  (Alleluia!),  Antony’s cries to get down soared above everything.  David decided to make a run for it, shook off his sheet and binder twine wig and dashed across the stage as the Sugar Plum Fairy made her sensational entrance.  

She launched into her famous pirouette, when mid-turn, her foot got caught  in discarded angel trappings.  My warning cry came too late as she flailed about and grabbed the nearest thing to break her fall. Sadly, that was the backdrop.  There was a crack like a shotgun going off and Mum’s washing line lay on the floor, with Rosemary buried beneath a tangle of white sheeting, binder twine and grey blanket. 

Cassie suddenly remembered she was a cow dog and starting rounding everybody up, her croaks getting louder and louder until, she made a weird throat clearing honk and out came a full throated bark.  A miracle. Cassie had recovered her bark.  It rang out above Rosemary’s muffled screams and Antony’s sobs.

Everyone else, including me, was frozen in shocked silence.  Then Peter went across and helped Anthony down and I shut my eyes.  Mum was going to be furious.   

But when I opened them, she was laughing.  In fact, everyone was. And she didn’t seem to mind about her washing line.  Or that I’d left Antony screaming his head off on top of an oil drum. Or that David was hiding in the raspberry canes.  Or that Cassie, having remembered how to bark had now forgotten how to stop. Everyone was laughing – even Anthony now he was safely back on earth.

Everyone that is except for me.  And, of course, Rosemary Dinsdale.

Again, it was Peter who helped her up. I couldn’t move. Her wand was bent and the binder twine wig had caught on one of the spikes of her crown, so that it covered half her face and wound itself like bindweed around her silken plaits.

 ‘I hate you.’ she screamed at me.  ‘You and your stupid pageant.  Can’t you see they’re all laughing at you?’ Her small grey eyes narrowed with spite.  ‘At you – and your stupid dog, of course. Can’t you make it stop that awful noise? Wait until Sheila  hears about this – this rubbish. Everyone at school will laugh at you.  I’ll make sure of that.’

‘And I’ll tell them how you tripped over your own feet and brought everything crashing down.’  Peter said.  ‘How it was you they were laughing at, not Jenny.  Some fairy you turned out to be.  Fairy elephant, more like it.  Our Jenny’s worth a dozen of you, Rosemary Dinsdale.’

She turned on him, her crown jammed so far down on her head it pushed her ears out, her eyebrows down and made her look like a demented elf.  ‘How dare you talk to me like that,’ she hissed and reached out to grab him, ‘You little –’

‘Leave my brother alone,’ I waved my sword at her.  ‘And you can say whatever you like at school.  I don’t want to be friends with you anymore, anyway.’

I was surprised to find that I meant it and was going to add that Mrs Perry had been right and that she couldn’t dance for toffee, but I didn’t.  Because it was true. She couldn’t dance for toffee.  Or sing either.  In fact, she wasn’t much good at anything. Except looking pretty.  And, of course, the chocolate digestives, which she never shared anyway. 

I looked at Mum.  She was still smiling. Dad had his arm around her and they were looking at each other the way they used to.  Maybe, just maybe, things were going to be all right.

So the Pageant had worked after all.  It had cheered Mum up and Dad too by the look of it. Cassie had recovered her bark.  And of course, by Christmas, the new baby would have arrived.  

And that was when I had another Really Great Idea.  

A Christmas pageant, in the barn this time, so the twins could stand on the raised bits instead of wobbly oil drums.  And then, of course, there’d be a real live baby for the starring role. Maybe Sheila Grant, who everybody knows is a much better dancer than Rosemary Dinsdale, would like to be Mary. 

Oh yes, it was all going to be so beautiful.    

the end

The Day The Music Died – a short story and a painful memory

On this weekend just before Valentine’s Day, it’s quite appropriate that I should be writing about what Shakespeare described as ‘The Food of Love”.  I’m talking about music, of course.

Music has always played a very important part in my life.  I think I was born singing – although I fancy my mother probably had another word for the noise I made!

My father was always singing and to this day, I swear he made some of the songs up!  I can remember him and his sister around the piano in my grandparents’ house singing Silver Threads Among the Gold and “A Rose in a Garden of Weeds”. Then there was “I’m a lonely little petunia in an onion patch. That would always make me cry.  (Unintentional pun there – sorry!) But I have never been able to track down the words to Where’s my other flippin’ sock? That one’s down to you, Dad.

One of my earliest musical memories was one Saturday morning. I was about five and was doing my chores, part of which involved sweeping the broad concrete paths that divided our house from the one next door.

I was beyond thrilled when our next door neighbour called out to me from her kitchen window and gave me sixpence for ‘singing so nicely that it cheered her up.’  Dad, however, suggested she’d probably paid me the money to make me go away.  And he may well have been right.  I went back on several consecutive Saturdays, sang my heart out but never received another sixpence.

I longed to learn to play the piano.  We’d inherited the one that belonged to my grandmother and it took pride of place in our sitting room but was only used to display family photographs.  I would sit at it for ages, peering at the sheet music, learning the words but failing to make any sense of the notes.  But with six children to feed on a farm worker’s wages, there was never any money left over for luxuries like music lessons.

So when I started grammar school, I was thrilled to see Music on the timetable.  Was this, then, my big chance?  Alas, no. Looking back on it, I think the elderly music teacher looked back longingly to the days when she taught at a private school.  She certainly didn’t teach the majority of us anything about music, preferring to address herself only to those girls who had private music lessons, so most of what she talked about went way over my head.

However, there was one thing she did that I loved  She ran the school choir and I couldn’t wait to join. I tried and failed several auditions but eventually she must have grown tired of saying no to me and allowed me to join.

I can still remember some of the songs we used to sing, like The Ash Grove, Barbara Allen, many of these lovely old songs which are now in danger of sinking into obscurity.  I can still remember them now (don’t ask me where I put my car keys yesterday though!) One of these was an arrangement of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. I still know all the words to that – and often sang it to my boys when they were little. What was I thinking?  They must have hated it because it does have rather a disturbing ending!

When my children were young, we were lucky enough to move to a village near Wells and I joined the cathedral’s Oratorio Society.  And rediscovered my love of singing.  

But this time, I had better luck.  The conductor – and my fellow altos – were very patient and I learned so much, including how to read music.  The first piece I sang (or, I confess, mimed to for a lot of the time) was Bach’s St Matthews Passion and as soon as I heard it, it was like coming home.  Like I’d just found something I’d been looking for all my life.

I learned more about music that first season that at any other time in my life and I was totally hooked on choral music.  The thrill of being in a large group of singers, with an orchestra, in that lovely building never left me.  I stayed with the society for many years and enjoyed some memorable moments, one of which stands out and still gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.  

We were doing Britten’s War Requiem and it had involved some long and difficult rehearsals.  We always had a final afternoon rehearsal before the evening performance.  These would be with the (professional) soloists and orchestra and could be quite hard, intense work.

This particular afternoon, the tenor stood up to sing ‘Move Him Gently Into The Sun” but instead of singing it towards the nave of the cathedral, he turned and sang it to us, the chorus!  It was so moving and we were so touched by his gesture that there was hardly a dry eye among us and when it was our turn to sing, we were all choked up. At least it got all that emotion out of the way in time for the evening performance and maybe that was why he did it.  But it was a wonderful gift and a memory I treasure.

I enjoyed my time with the society so much that even when they introduced auditions I kept going and managed to scrape in.  Just like I had at school.

Then life intervened and things happened and I stopped going.  By the time I rejoined several years later, much had changed.  Gone was the kindly, gentle conductor who carried out the auditions in a small private room well away from the eyes and ears of other people.

Instead, I was warned that the auditions would be held after rehearsal, but we were never told which one.  So, one evening, at the end of rehearsal, he suddenly announced that those who were hoping to join should stay behind for the auditions.

It was a nightmare.  While everyone else was chatting, milling around and putting chairs away (this all took place in the main body of the cathedral) we lined up.  Those who were better prepared than me had brought their own music and we waited in turn.  This took me.right back to those school music lessons when everyone else seemed to know what they were doing and I hadn’t a clue.

By the time it was my turn, I was rigid with fear. I explained that I didn’t have any music (maybe I should have taken my chances with ‘Where’s my other flippin’ sock?!) so I’d sing what we’d been rehearsing that evening and I got about three bars into it and just gave up.  I walked away. And cried all the way home.

Many years later a choir was started in our village.  No auditions necessary.  So I joined and it was great fun.  But then I developed asthma which involved (and still does) a lot of coughing and so I gave up.

Until lockdown.  When the lovely lady who runs the choir started a virtual choir on zoom.  This was the sort of choir for me, I thought.  I can sing and no one can hear me.  So I joined and rediscovered my love of singing.  My sort of choir.  Although I had no intention of joining the real one when things got back to normal.

Then a few months ago, the village choir was allowed to meet for real – and, because I have some very ‘bossy’ friends, (in the nicest possible way) I went along.  We meet in the village hall, with all the door and windows open and everyone bundled into multiple layers of clothing so that we look like a choir of Michelin men.

And we’re singing songs by Katie Perry, the Beach Boys and lots of other people I’ve never heard of (I hadn’t heard of Katie Perry either but I’ve just googled her).  And it’s the best fun. 

So it might not be Bach.  It might not the splendid surroundings of Wells Cathedral.  But the thrill I felt that first time when we sang together, in harmony, was as great as ever.

And no auditions.

And, if, as I believe, that no experience, however painful, is wasted on a writer, below is a short story I wrote a few years ago which drew very heavily on that nightmare of an audition.  It still makes me hot with embarrassment just thinking about it!

The Day The Music Died

Maggie stood tall, straight-backed, her throat almost closed,  her eyes over-bright. Her only thought was to get away without having to speak to anyone. Without having to see the pity and embarrassment in their eyes.

Too late to wish she’d never come.  Too late to wish she’d never let Lindsay talk her into it.

“It’ll be good for you, Mum,” Lindsay had said. “You used to love choral singing – and look, it says here the Cathedral Choral Society is looking for new singers, especially tenors.”

“But they’re male voices,” Maggie said with a smile, knowing Lindsay didn’t share her love of classical music. “I’m an alto.  Or, rather, I was.  Who knows what I am now?  I haven’t sung for years.”

“Then why not give it a try?”

Maggie felt quite guilty about the way her dear, well meaning daughter, who had more than enough to do looking after a young baby, worried about her. Even now, more than a year after John’s sudden, shocking death from a massive heart attack, Lindsay kept finding things for Maggie to do, as if a succession of non-stop activities could somehow fill the un-fillable hole in Maggie’s life.

But this time, maybe Lindsay had got it right. Maggie used to belong to the Cathedral Choral Society years ago but had to give it up when the demands of her job and family had made it difficult to attend the weekly rehearsals. When she saw they were doing Bach’s Mass in B Minor this coming season her heart did something it hadn’t done for a long time.  It gave a little lift of joy.  Bach was one of her favourite composers and she knew she’d enjoy singing those wonderful soaring choruses again.

John used to shake his head at her, puzzled and laughing, as she tried to explain how she got almost as much pleasure from looking at Bach’s music, with its undulating lines of musical notation rippling across the pages, as she did from hearing or singing it.

Going into the cathedral for the first rehearsal of the new season was like meeting up again with an old, dear friend.  She’d forgotten what a thrill it was to walk through that magnificent building, darkened except for the lights in the rehearsal area.  She’d always loved the feeling of belonging, of having the place to herself (at least, her and the other hundred or so members of the Choral Society) now the tourists had gone home.

She loved, too,  the deep shadowy corners, the sonorous echoes, but above all the feeling of reaching back across the centuries as the music she was helping to make soared heavenward into the cathedral’s highest places, the different voice parts weaving in and around each other like ribbons around a maypole.  

It felt good, too, to take her place among the altos again Not that she knew any of them now.  And she certainly didn’t know Simon, the conductor, a young and ambitious man who was, according to the woman on her left, destined for ‘great things.’

As the rehearsal got under way, she realised he was a much more exacting task master than his predecessor.  James had been a soft spoken, gentle man who coaxed the music from his chorus.  Simon, on the other hand, demanded the highest standard right from the very first rehearsal.  But, to her surprise, Maggie found that as her confidence returned, she actually relished the challenge.

“You do realise there’s an audition, don’t you?” the society secretary had explained.  “Simon likes to do it after rehearsal.  Probably in a week or two.  Is that ok?”

“That’s fine.”  Maggie remembered all too clearly when auditions had been introduced, back in James’s time.  Everyone had got very agitated and worried about it, but in the end, it was all done very calmly and kindly.  A bit of sight reading and a  few easy scales to show you weren’t tone deaf which Maggie had managed with ease.

Simon, however, did things differently.  

On the third week, during the break for notices he announced he would be holding auditions after that evening’s rehearsals and would those this applied to please stay behind.

Her first instinct was to put on her coat, hurry out and not come back.  Particularly when she realised the auditions were not going to be like last time, when one by one they were called into a private room, with kindly James urging them to relax and telling them it was nothing to worry about.

Instead, they clustered around the piano in the middle of the rehearsal area, which was still bustling with people chatting in small groups, or busily putting the chairs away.  She stood in line with the other hopefuls, all of whom appeared much better prepared than she was. 

 She felt her first moment of panic when the first singer opened her mouth.  She had a beautiful soprano voice and gave a near perfect solo performance, her clear pure voice rising above the hubbub of one hundred plus people making their way home.

As, one by one, the line grew shorter, each voice was the same stunning standard as the first.  Maggie grew more and more uneasy, a sick feeling in her stomach, her hands clutching her music as if it were a life raft and she had just leapt off the Titanic.

She’d decided she was going to sing the Dona Nobis Pacem  chorus they’d been rehearsing that evening.  It was something she knew well and figured that at least she wouldn’t make a complete fool of herself by losing her place. 

There was no encouraging smile from Simon, seated at the piano.  Just a one bar introduction, during which Maggie forgot all she ever knew about breathing, still less about pitch.  What came out of her mouth was the kind of sound her dog made when someone stepped on his tail.

“I- I’m sorry,” she stammered.  “I – I’m a bit nervous.  I forgot to breathe.  Do you mind if we start again?”

He didn’t exactly sigh and look at his watch.  But she could tell from his body language it was a close run thing.

This time, Maggie forced herself to relax and focus on the music.  The beautiful, beautiful music that had made her cry the first time she heard it. The beautiful, beautiful music that deserved the very best of voices.

She was half way through the seventh bar when her throat, which had been getting tighter and tighter, finally closed over completely and she gave up.  Simon played on for a few more bars then, when it became apparent she wasn’t going to join him, stopped and looked at her.

“That’ll be a no, then?” Maggie said, trying to make it sound casual, like it was no big deal.  He nodded and she walked away, back through the still lingering groups of people.  She walked briskly, shoulders back, her head held high, not looking at anyone. Not wanting to see their pained expressions – or worse still, their pity.

…..

And that was the day the music died for Maggie.  She’d sung all her life, from as far back as she could remember.  She sang when she was happy and sometimes when she was sad.  She sang when she was driving and when she was out walking the dog. She sang when she was working and when she was playing.

Until the night of the audition when something inside her, that little kernel of joy that was everything music meant to her, shrivelled and died.  Like a frost stricken rose.

After that, she never sang again.  Not even Happy Birthday to Harry, her little one year old grandson who was born three months after his Grandad John died. Instead, she just mouthed the words as her daughter and son-in-law sang.

…..

“So I was wondering, Mum, if you’d mind looking after Harry tonight?” Lindsay asked a couple of weeks after the audition.  “Unless it’s your rehearsal night?”

“No.  I decided not to go after all,” Maggie said.  “I didn’t really enjoy it that much, you know.  My voice isn’t what it was.  And it’s – it’s not so good coming home to an empty house.  I’m still not used to that.”

“I understand,” Lindsay said quietly. “But what a shame.  I thought you loved it –”

“What time do you want me tonight?” Maggie cut in.  She wasn’t exactly thrilled about being asked to look after Harry.  Not that she wasn’t very fond of him.  He was a dear little chap, with a smile to melt your bones.

But, the truth was, she wasn’t very good with babies.  Never had been, when she came to think about it.  John was always the one who could calm Lindsay and her brother down when they were little.  He was one those people who was completely at ease with small children.  Not awkward and over anxious like she was.

He’d have made such a lovely granddad.  They’d have made lovely grandparents together.  But on her own, she wasn’t much good.  And young Harry was teething, which meant he was far from being his usual sunny self.

Add to that the fact that she’d never actually looked after him on her own before.  Rob’s mother, Jenny, was a much more hands on grandma than her and Maggie was quite happy to stand back and let her get on with it.  But Jenny was away visiting her other son that week.  So it looked as if, as far as Lindsay was concerned, it was Maggie or nothing.

Lindsay and Rob hadn’t been gone ten minutes when, to Maggie’s dismay, she heard the first fretful wailings coming through the baby monitor.  She left it for a few moments, hoping he’d go back to sleep.  No chance.

By the time she got to his room, his cries had all the volume and passion of the Hallelujah Chorus in full throttle.  His little face was scarlet, his cheeks glistened with tears.

She picked him up, jiggled him around a bit the way she’d seen Lindsay do, offered him a bottle, changed his nappy, even tried to interest him in his toys.  But it was no good.  Nothing she said or did had any effect.  The screaming got louder and shriller, and he was pushing at her with his little fists.

“Oh John, where are you when I need you?” she thought desperately.  “If you were here, you’d know what to do. But then, if you were, he wouldn’t be in this state in the first place.”

She felt like crying along with Harry – and it would have been a toss up whose wails would have been the loudest.

Then, a long forgotten memory tip-toed into her head.  She cradled the unhappy baby in her arms, took a deep calming breath and, very softly, very gently, began to sing.

And amazingly, Harry stopped crying, looked up at her and smiled.

So she took another deep breath and sang some more.  And she didn’t stop singing until Harry gave a little sigh and finally went back to sleep.

Puff the Magic Dragon wasn’t exactly Bach.  But it was a start.