Contest #26 shortlist ⭐️


Historical Fiction

An urban vocalist. That’s what I’m “supposed” to call myself. Not that I’m the only one. Begging is illegal (officially) and street singer makes it sound as if we’re poverty stricken here (which we are).  It saves the state having to pay benefits (which it rarely does) or making the hard-pressed and supposedly neutral charities even more over-stretched, when those of us with some talent – that glorious, clumsy, old-fashioned word ACCOMPLISHMENT springs to mind – can eke out our own incomes and our families’ a bit. So it’s tolerated. Some call themselves buskers, but to me that implies having a degree of prowess on an instrument, which I don’t, not really, though I could strum a few chords on a guitar if I had one. I once saw a grainy old video of a one-man band. It was fascinating, but how many one man bands ever really existed in real life? We had a piano in the flat (not the one we live in now) when I was growing up. I can remember it, but I never learnt to play it. What would have been the point? Even before the Civil War broke out, my parents knew that soon it would either have to be sold or broken up for firewood. I’m still not sure what its ultimate fate was, and perhaps it’s as well.

     It would be nice, sometimes, to have some musical accompaniment, but I don’t need it. I’m blessed with perfect pitch. Being able to sing can be a surprisingly useful skill these days. Street singers are back in fashion! But of course I’m supposed to call myself an urban vocalist, even if it does sound a bit foreign. There are no beggars or street singers in Brexitania. I’m not neutral, of course, but I’ll take money off anyone. It helps pay for the food and the rent and is preferable to – well, the alternative, when there’s a dearth of jobs. And an even greater dearth of money.

     I’ve seen those old newsreels, the kind the government side heartily approve of, (though perhaps not as much as they used to) whenre cheery women work in munitions factories. But this isn’t that kind of war. It’s fought on potholed streets by people with foul mouths and unlicensed firearms. Deregulating everything and abolishing the nanny state was seen as such a good thing. Well, by some of the population! It’s the kind of war where people are beaten up and disappear and where you can get shot – either by the combatants or what passes for the police – just so someone can get their hands on a bunch of grime encrusted gnarled carrots or a rusty tin of beans, or some cheese that has some non-mouldy bits, or a can of flat beer. 

     “Nobody expected it to kick off quite so quickly,” Mum said, today, not for the first time. “But when people realised they’d been lied to, and other people got more entrenched in their views, and we had withdrawn from all the international organisations, not just the one, or they’d chucked us out, well, it happened.  Nobody stopped it. It was like – when you trip on a paving stone and there’s that second that seems like forever when you think you’re not going to fall before you’re sprawled on the ground and hoping you got away with cuts and bruises.”

     That happened to me only last week, though I did get away with cuts and bruises, and I knew exactly what she meant. My brother Martin asked me, “Are you SURE you fell, Rhoda?” I have the feeling that in another world, one that seems a million miles away and a million years ago, and yet is so close, so hauntingly close in both space and time, that would have been a typical irritating younger brother remark.  I can’t really call him my little brother any more, as he’s taller than I am, by at least four centimetres. And so far as some folk are concerned (and some of them live next door to us) referring to centimetres is sedition and snowflakery. I’ll admit I’ve not heard of anyone being arrested just for that, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened or wouldn’t happen. Anyway, Martin has turned into quite a conspiracy theorist, and what he meant was, did someone attack me and trip me up, either to claim the tin with my evening’s takings in it (which came home safely!) or – or, well, something far worse.

     “Yes, I am sure,” I said, “I saw the crooked paving stone I tripped over too late. Sometimes I think the areas with no paving stones left at all are less dangerous!” But though I spoke the truth, I didn’t mock him or dispel his fears in a n Elder Sister Knows Best way. 

     Ideas like that aren’t the province of deluded conspiracy theorists anymore. Or certainly not exclusively. 

     “Your voice has been a blessing to us, love,” Dad said. He seems to look older and sadder every day. “But I hate the thought of you prost – of you squandering it this way” I knew exactly what he had been about to say, but didn’t comment on it. “You should be – training as an opera singer …..”

     “I’m far from sure if I’d ever be good enough to make my living with it properly, even with that training, Dad,” I admitted, “Rather than just supplementing.”

     “More than that, and you know it,” Mum said.

     “And I expect if things had been different then you’d have been telling me that going on the stage wasn’t a secure profession and I should get something steady behind me as well!” I pointed out.

     “You could be right,” Mum admitted. “Sometimes it’s as if there’s a planet called different that’s in a different galaxy. Universe, even.”

     “Mum, you’re coming over all profound in your old age!” Martin said, but only with admiration and affection, and I felt the same way.

     “But – those “planets” exist and they’re called other countries that used to be only a couple of hours drive or flight or train trip away” Mum sighed. “At least I had some chance to visit them before. Something that’s been taken away from you and Rhoda! ” “Before” is one of those prosaic words that have become loaded and potent. “You are careful, aren’t you, Rhoda?” She asks me this quite often, and I fancy it’s only fear of being irritating that stops her asking even more often. And I know that she’s not just talking about watching out for treacherous paving stones or even who might be lurking behind me. 

     The only honest reply I can give, without worrying her more than her constant worry, is to say, “Reasonably.” Or some variant of it.

     I’m not stupidly reckless. I’d never sing or so much as half inaudibly hum Ode to Joy. But I probably push my luck more than Mum realises. Or just how much does she realise? Let’s put it this way, my repertoire isn’t taken entirely from The Patriotic Songbook that all children are given when they go to secondary school, and in a fine, leather-bound edition that seems a bit ironic as they have plenty to say about the evils of non-existent money trees. Oh, some of it is, because, and no point to cutting off your nose to spite your face and all that, some of the songs in it have good tunes and can tug the heartstrings. I WILL sing I Vow to Thee, my Country because I love it and them hijacking it purely for their  purposes was always cynical, and I WILL sing Danny Boy because it’s so beautiful and because Dad’s name is Daniel. But some of it isn’t. And never will be.

     I was in a rebellious mood today. Except it didn’t feel like one. I decided on a bit of Mozart. Voi che Sapete from the Marriage of Figaro. I even did a bit of it in Italian, though I began and ended with the clunky and yet, just about, successful Ye, who of Loving translation. Oh, it’s subversive. Of course it is. It’s about someone who doesn’t relish the prospect of going to war and it’s transgender, too. A boy sung by a girl, and not just like the page in Good King Wenceslas

     Of course, they can’t quite make their mind up on that. The government side. They have plenty to say (and have said it over and over) about the follies of political correctness and identity politics and all that. But banning drag queens and pantomime dames would have been defying the great god tradition. Civil partnerships are still allowed and though a lot of LGBT people don’t feel at ease here anymore, and are in agreement that things have gone backwards, I suppose it’s one of the fewareas where things aren’t as bad as they might have been. Yet. There’s rumoured to be some kind of an internecine war going on between some of the government side high-ups on this very subject. 

     All the same, something about singing that was edgy. And I didn’t want it to be. That’s not to say I don’t want to sing things that are edgy. But I don’t want a beautiful, sweet, aria by Mozart to be one of them. I know it sits well with my voice. It’s neither too easy nor too hard, and it seems very grown up and yet aching with a longing for childhood at the same time. I love Mozart. I love him with a platonic and uncomplicated love, and yet one that sometimes answers the questions I wasn’t aware I’d posed – before gently nudging me to new ones. I sing other bits and pieces of opera, too, even though I’ve not been properly trained to it. I know my limitations. Sticking with Mozart, though it thrills me to the marrow on Mum’s old vinyl recording of it, I know that all the training in the world would never make me able to sing the Queen of the Night’s aria from The Magic Flute without squeaking and croaking and going flat and sharp and running out of puff. I can make an effort at some Puccini, but I’ll always be more of a Musetta than a Mimi, and have even dabbled my toes (so to speak!) in Wagner, though I know I’m at least partly deluding myself that even my valiant efforts at Senta’s Ballade from the Flying Dutchman are anything to write home about. I sing classical songs, Lieder as it’s not forbidden to call them (yet) and a bit of oratorio here and there, interspersed with folk songs and “evergreens” and concessions to the Patriotic Songbook. I don’t only risk a bit of foreign languages in my classical moods – the other day I sung all of La Vie en Rose in French, though I doubt my accent was up to much. 

     I’ve read a biography of Edith Piaf, too, an ancient dog-eared paperback with some pages missing, claimed to have been written by her sister, though some doubt it. She was a street singer, too. But it was quite common, there and then, far more, I reckon, than it ever will be here and now. 

     Still, maybe she knew something I know too, and something that all those of us who love music know, whether we’re listening to others make it, or making it ourselves. There’s something about music, whether it’s opera, or pop songs, no matter what language it’s in, no matter how light or how profound it is.

     It doesn’t blot out the sound of gunfire and the reasons for the gunfire. Or what folk see as the reasons for it. It doesn’t turn enemies into friends, at least not most of the time, and it doesn’t, and never will, turn now into then and before into after. Sometimes, fair enough, it CAN help put food on the table, and can get us through another week. And I know better than to despise that or belittle that. It can’t, in itself, turn bitterness into reconciliation, and can’t turn war into peace.

     But I still firmly believe, and dread the day I will ever stop believing, that it can make things, at least for a while, seem better rather than worse.

     And I’ll settle for that, and gladly. In this world and life of five years afterwards that could still be five years before.

January 27, 2020 09:53

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