Monday, 19 March 2012

The Messiah at St Martin's in-the-Fields

This extract is from my Work In Progress ~ American Daughters: Advent

They returned without incident in the dark to Knightsbridge. John smiled to himself as they drove easily into the metropolis, observing the endless line of commuters and holidaymakers crawling along on the motorway in the opposite direction. It was late afternoon. Livia was waiting for them with a hot cup of tea and some freshly baked scones.
‘I hope John hasn’t tired you out completely.’ she said, ‘We’ve plenty of time before the concert?’
‘What concert?’ John looked up quizzically.
‘You’ve forgotten already? I told you I was arranging tickets for the Messiah at St Martin’s-in-the-Fields. It’s tonight.’
‘We’re OK, Livia,’ Hilary assured her. ‘Not too much jet lag. What do we wear?’
‘Not sackcloth and ashes. John’ll be doing that. I’ll come with you to your room and see what you’ve brought. Andrew’s joining us. He’s looking forward to spending some time with you.’
Later, Livia caught up with John in their bedroom.
‘I’m going to enjoy taking your daughters shopping tomorrow.’
‘Why’s that?’
‘Because I can dress them from top to bottom. They haven’t brought much with them.’
‘They won’t enjoy it. They don’t like being told what to do.’
‘I’m not going to go at it bull-headed. You’ll see. For tonight I’ve given them a couple of my coats.’
They all had a light supper, the girls in frocks their mother had bought for them, simple mid-calf length floral designs, with low-heeled sensible shoes. They looked like librarians on a day out. Andrew came in as they were finishing up.
‘Late as usual,’ John quipped.
Andrew looked appealingly at Livia as he was introduced to the girls.
‘There’s some leftovers. Hilary and Robin haven’t eaten very much. Help yourself, darling. And do change out of those cargo pants.’
When the time came for them to go, Andrew had noticeably spruced up and was even wearing a jacket and tie. John raised his eyebrows and gave his stepson a minatory glance.
‘Don’t worry, John, I won’t be kidnapping your daughters. I’ll be leaving you all after the concert.’
‘Off to some den of iniquity.’
‘However did you guess?’
‘I thought we might all walk back along The Mall together,’ Livia suggested hopefully.
‘Not a chance, Ma. I’ve got other plans.’
‘Alright, then. But you might just go down and see if you can hail us a cab. I forgot to phone for one.’
‘I’m on my way.’ With that Andrew scooted out of the flat.
‘That’s not like you, Livia,’ John observed.
‘No, it’s not. For once I can’t think of everything. You might take some of the responsibility.’
‘Yes, John,’ Hilary added. ‘Why do you leave everything to your wife?’
‘I don’t.’
‘That’s how it seems to us.’ Robin added her own nail into his coffin.
‘Let’s go down to the lobby.’ Livia cut short the criticism. ‘I’m sure Andrew will get a cab. He’s very good like that.’
The girls put on the coats that Livia had provided for them, a navy blue woollen coat for Hilary and a black woollen full-length coat with large belt for Robin. They both put on their Mulberry beanies and wrapped long woollen scarves around their necks. Livia wore a dark suit and blue coat of military cut, with wide collar, epaulettes and touches of braiding. John always thought she looked like a Napoleonic army officer in it. The look was completed by her knee-length black leather boots. John smiled as he followed them out to the lift, his black overcoat on his arm.
By the time they were assembled in the lobby, Andrew came bouncing up the steps. He’d flagged down a cab on Pont Street. He and John sat on the jump seats facing the rear as Hilary and Robin sat either side of Livia. John could not help smiling. They were en famille at last. John called for the cab to stop in front of the National Gallery and they walked up to the old church. As Livia had hoped they were early enough to get the seats she wanted, upstairs in a corner to the rear, near the exit. She enjoyed being able to see the whole of the interior in front of her. The church was candlelit and quickly filled with the dark coats of the London faithful attending the concert. The wooden benches were hard but the overture soon made them forget it. Only Andrew squirmed uncomfortably. John looked across the corner seating at Hilary and Robin, sitting on the far side of Livia. They were transported by the scene in front of them. They wrapped themselves into the music and when the tenor began to sing their faces lit up.
Comfort ye had always brought tears to John’s eyes. It seemed a very pure form of music to him. The Messaiah had always meant a lot to John from his very first visit as a boy with his father to hear it at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. His father’s friend, Wally, who had been a regular tenor in the chorus at the Phil had managed to get them front row tickets for the recital.
     Ev'ry valley. Ev'ry valley shall be exalted, and ev'ry mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight, and the rough places plain. He had often shocked his fellow archeologists and more particularly their local helpers by bursting into song when he was busy about a dig. And it was mostly The Messiah that he sang, switching from tenor to baritone as appropriate. It was particularly effective in the jungle as the birds would rise in chattering flocks and the monkeys yammer in a perplexed pique at the intrusion.
     There was always some beauty in the Chorus that called to be watched. That night John wondered if women felt the same looking at the longer line of tenors and basses. To him the male choristers looked an indistinguished ugly mass. Not so the women. There was a sexy blonde with a clear high brow and lustrous locks down her shoulders among the sopranos, and a Latin looking contralto with a sultry intense look. During his first encounter with The Messiah he had found himself looking up at a bosomy contralto singing Behold, a virgin shall conceive. At one point she dropped her gaze towards him and smiled. He seemed like a speck in the limpid blue of her eyes.
By the interval they were all ready to have a drink. John and Andrew had left early to go down to the crypt where the cafeteria offered a small menu of food and drink. John took mulled wine for all of them and by the time the three women had met up with them Andrew had found them some seating on one of the long benches. He had remained standing and chatted conspiratorially with Robin as they sipped from their steaming paper cups. Hilary was moved by the music and chatted with Livia. During the Pastoral Symphony they had both noticed one of the female violinists break a string and an adjacent colleague pass her a string from his pocket. They had held their breath while she had quickly re-strung her instrument and managed to start playing again before the end of the piece.
Hilary and Robin seemed very comfortable in this setting amid the motley crew attending the concert and John would have been relaxed if he had not seen Andrew reaching for his mobile and then speaking into it all the while looking at Hilary and Robin. In the second half of the concert, after they had all stood for the Hallelujah Chorus, during the air I know that my Redeemer liveth he could see Livia’s eyes fill with tears. She reached into a pocket for her handkerchief. Then Hilary reached over and held her free hand. John was touched to the quick by the magic of it all. The moment was broken by Andrew climbing up out of the seating and going through the doors to stand on the landing.
An irritated John joined him.
‘What’s going on?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I’m not dense. I saw you plotting with Robin during the interval.’
‘I was just asking her if she’d like to come with her sister for a sherry afterwards.’
‘A sherry?’
‘Something like that.’
‘You know your mother wants us all to walk back home together.’
‘There’s no way I’m doing that. Always had something planned for tonight. Anyway, there’s more planned now than any of you know about.’
‘Such as?’
‘That’s for me to know,’ Andrew laughed tapping his nose with an impertinent finger before returning into the church.
John followed him, irritated by the secrecy and his stepson’s knowing manner. An old lady in a rather bedraggled coat had moved from the row above to take John’s seat.
‘I’m sorry, I thought you had left. I can’t see clearly from my seat because of the pillar.’
‘It’s alright,’ John replied. ‘I’ll listen from up here.’ John liked looking down at Livia and his daughters.
After the Amen Chorus the entire audience rose to give the conductor, soloists, chorus and orchestra a deserved standing ovation. John stayed rooted to the spot as if wanting the applause to continue. So much so that he stood there transfixed while all about him the audience bustled to leave. Finally an exasperated woman next to him all but pushed him out of the way.
‘Excuse me, if you don’t mind. It’s not enough that you spoiled the concert for us all by getting up and following your son to the exit in the middle of  the concert but now you’re preventing me getting along to catch my bus.’
‘He’s not my son,’ John responded automatically, abruptly brought out of his revelry, looking down at the fat little woman clutching her umbrella. ‘And as for your bus, I hope it’s stuck in traffic miles away. A very merry Christmas to you.’
She spluttered past him and made her way to the exit.
When John caught up with the family on the landing he was questioned by Hilary. Apparently the woman had made some comment to her about her father.
‘It wasn’t very nice of you.’
‘Nice? She was a monster. Anyway, didn’t you see what I did for that other lady?’
‘No. It’s no use trying to balance the books.’
‘I know that already.’
‘Seems to me you’re still learning.’
Livia ushered them down the stairs, Andrew grinning with his mobile to his ear. When they stepped outside the church on to the forecourt, they were met by a klaxon greeting them. Archie had pulled over to the inconvenience of the rest of the traffic coming down Charing Cross Road to wait for them in a old, cream Mark II Jaguar.
‘What are you doing here?’ John asked as Archie rolled down the window.
‘It’s a surprise that Andrew thought up. Taking your daughters to see the lights.’
‘What? Now?’
‘What a good idea,’ Livia enthused, opening the door so Robin and Hilary could climb in the back with Andrew.
‘But . . . but I thought we were walking back up The Mall.’
‘After your recent display, I think it’s only you, darling.’
‘Yes,’ laughed Hilary, ‘the revenge of the bus passenger.’
‘Are you coming, sister mine?’ Archie asked, as the hooting of horns behind him intensified.
‘Yes, darling, wouldn’t miss it for the world’ Livia replied gaily hopping in to the front seat. ‘Sorry, John, there’s no room for you. Be a love and get back to the flat and put the kettle on for us, will you.’
‘I suppose I’ve got Andrew to thank for this. I’ll settle with him,’ he roared as Archie pulled away form the kerb into the traffic. 
 He was tempted to take a taxi, but determinedly crossed the Square and made his way, a solitary forlorn figure, past the ICA building in Carlton House Terrace, up The Mall, and on towards Buckingham Palace. The Messiah was running in his head. And with his stripes seemed particularly appropriate.
Upon his return to Cadogan Square he decided to play The Messiah on the sound system and then dutifully went to the kitched to fill the kettle. In the meantime he helped himself to a stiff vodka and tonic. But he was left in an even worse frame of mind when Livia returned without his daughters. She had enjoyed herself, letting Archie do the tour of Oxford Street and Regent Street, only insisting that they visit her favourite place for the effect of the lights, Pimlico Green, on their return west. The plain icicle lights in the small perfectly shaped trees on the triangle of paving stones pleased her own design sense.
‘Where’s Hilary and Robin?’
‘They’ve gone out with Andrew and Archie.’
‘Archie? What’s your brother doing with my daughters? He’s twenty-five years older than them.’
‘I wouldn’t fret, darling. His last girlfriend was at Cambridge. He’s well used to the younger set.’
‘My God! What are you letting happen?’
‘John, do calm down, he’s only dropping the three of them off in South Ken. I expect they’ve gone to Janet’s Bar.’
‘Great! I think we should follow them. I don’t trust Archie. Or Andrew. Or Janet for that matter.’
He expressed a fear that had recently surfaced in his wife. At first Livia had been happy that Andrew frequented Janet’s Bar, as she and John had known her for some years. But it appeared she became almost a surrogate mother for the clubbing incarnation of her son. Janet was a hostess extraordinaire and a party animal herself, a matronly American who wore glasses and a range of Alice bands from black to gold-spangled and a way with the boys. Initially Livia was happy to have Andrew experiment with drinks there. It was almost a supervised session but increasingly she worried about his dependence on another older woman. She felt somewhere very deep down that Janet did not like her. John thought her concern amusing.
‘I’m not tracking down my son. You go if you want.’
‘That boy is up to something. Let me tell you.’ He hesitated, not sure if he should spill the beans about the amorous arsonist. No, he decided. If he was going to do so, he needed to see Andrew’s face.
‘Tell me what?’
‘I’m worried about Andrew,’ he recommenced carefully. ‘He’s out clubbing and drinking an awful lot. I’m not sure he’s in with a good crowd.’
‘He’s perfectly fine. They’re all boys he went to school with.’
‘And girls?’
‘I’m sure he’s playing the field.’
‘Ploughing the field more like. And that’s what worries me about him with Hilary and Robin.’
‘Now you are being silly. He’s got his own friends.’
‘I know.’ Only too well, John thought, wondering what Livia would think of Phyllis.
‘Besides, Hilary and Robin come across too unsophisticated for his taste?’
‘How do you know that?’
‘He told me, of course.’
‘But he was happy enough to take them out with him.’
‘He just wanted to show them a bit of the London scene.’
‘I’m suspicious of his motives. And his condescension. And I’m amused that he thinks they’re unsophisticated. He doesn’t know them.’
‘No, but he’s got a first impression. And they do have that certain ingĂ©nue quality.’
‘But you’re going to fix that, aren’t you?’
‘Whatever do you mean?’
‘You’re taking them out shopping tomorrow.’
‘Not just shopping. They’ll be transformed. We’ve got appointments at Harrods in the morning and lunch at my spa in Covent Garden.’ She laughed. ‘So you won’t be able to join us there, I’m afraid.’
‘They won’t like it.’
‘You don’t know them very well at all. They’ve told me they’re really looking forward to it. Besides I’m using your credit cards for the day. You won’t mind treating us, will you, darling. We’re making a day of it.’

1 comment:

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