‘Music? That’s just a hobby, isn’t it?’
Natasha had heard those words often throughout her life. Her parents, whilst loving their child, could never understand why she wanted to spend all her time singing. It almost didn’t help that she was an intelligent young woman, she could have done anything, been anything, at least as much as the world she lived in allowed. But Natasha knew in her heart all she really wanted to do, all that would really make her happy was to sing. She was blessed with a beautiful clear voice, which always seemed to sparkle across the air, before enveloping the listener in a warm veil of awe and wonder. It was early 1914, and singing was a challenging career for anyone, especially for a woman from a wealthy family, to whom musicians were almost of another race. The truth was that Natasha’s parents didn’t know what to do with a musician. They appreciated their skill but didn’t want to converse with them socially and would be horrified if anyone knew there was one in the family. To be fair to them, it wasn’t their fault, very few of their generation overly cared for or respected musicians. But Natasha would not be dissuaded. She loved her music, it gave her life, and was fortunate enough to know that family money could support her for many years to come. Even so, she yearned for freedom, and the feeling of performing? Well, nothing in the world could ever replace that.
As Natasha thumbed through the morning’s post she sighed, and a sudden smile flickered across her face. Carelessly dropping most of the letters down on the table, she picked up a piece of toast and started chewing thoughtfully, tearing open a handwritten envelope. She began to read, muttering the words under her breath,
“Darling Nat, I wonder if you’re free first Saturday of next month? Mama is holding some sort of fancy dinner and wants to follow it with a concert of sorts. I recommended you and, remembering how beautifully you sang at the Maltby’s Christmas concert last year, she thought it was a splendid idea! Do say you can come, for if not the evening’s bound to be frightfully dull. Also, Mama is inviting some European cousins and I thought this might be the perfect opportunity to get you some singing job abroad. After all, you’ve got quite a reputation in England now, haven’t you? Write back quickly and let me know, hopefully see you next month! Your dear friend, Frankie”
Lady Frances Sumpton, who hated her name and insisted everyone call her Frankie, whatever her mother said, was one of Nat’s oldest friends. They had grown up scarcely 10 miles apart and when Frankie married and moved away, their friendship had continued through a stream of letters. Nat had never been able to say no to Frankie, and this wasn’t going to be the first time. Writing a quick note and putting it on the tray in the hall to be posted, Nat hurried into the music room and started planning out a programme in her head.
Six months passed and Nat grew happier and happier. Frankie had been right about her cousins, they invited Nat to sing at a concert in France and from there, her reputation grew. She had even been able to get a smile out of her mother when she produced a newspaper clip raving about Nat’s voice. Then, everything changed. War broke out across Europe and the world seemed to lose any sense of light or laughter. Nat’s brothers were called to fight, her father took up a General position and even her mother was busy organising charitable works. Nat sat in the garden one morning, as the winter sun was rising and the air was crisp and cold. Hearing a voice calling her name she looked up and saw Frankie, practically running across the lawn to meet her. Standing and smiling she met her old friend and the two talked and shared their news. Frankie was full of news of her small son and seemed happy, spending her days making clothes for soldiers and refugees. She was even thinking of training to be a nurse.
“I say,” Frankie paused and looked curiously at her friend, “what’s wrong? You don’t seem quite yourself. I’m frightfully sorry for prattling on. There, I’ll be quiet, tell me everything that’s happening with you.” Nat opened her mouth and shook her head.
“That’s the thing. Nothing’s happening with me. I can’t nurse, or drive, or knit or sew. I was never good at anything but singing, and that’s hardly of any help now!”
“Lord, what a fool I am!” Frankie exclaimed, struggling to stay quiet for more than a moment, “I’ve been going on about my news and completely forgot to tell you! You know how my husband has been working at the war office?” Nat nodded, puzzled, “well, they’ve been worried about morale you know, what with the war having been going on for a few months and it doesn’t look like it will be over by Christmas, which everyone rather wanted. Anyway, I told him that if I were a soldier, the one thing I would like is to hear some music, you know, to lift the spirits and remind myself why I was fighting in the first place. He thought it was a marvellous idea and apparently everyone at the office did too, but the problem was, they couldn’t think of any way of bringing it about. All the chaps are off fighting and I think they want to bring a touch of glamour and excitement to the boys over in Germany, rather than seeing another soldier. So? How about it?”
“What? Me? Go to Germany? To the war and sing? Frankie, have you quite lost your mind? My mother would never allow it for one, and two, I can’t go to the war, I can’t handle arguments at home, let alone men killing each other!” Nat was surprised Frankie had even considered it, but Frankie seemed unperturbed.
“Don’t worry about any of that. Your mother can hardly object to you supporting the war effort! I may have already asked your father and he says if you want to go then he’ll support you. Of course, no one would be able to ensure your safety but…well…I thought…I thought perhaps you’d want to…” Frankie’s voice petered out and she looked apologetic. Natasha smiled at her friend,
“It’s okay, you’re right, I would like to, it’s just, well, seems rather scary. But I do want to do something to help, and after all, not like I’m getting any work now that the war’s changed everything. Tell your husband if he can arrange it, I’ll go. It’d be nice to feel I was doing something for the war.”
Within a week, it was all arranged, and Nat was writing her name very neatly on her suitcase. Frankie was there at the train station to see her friend off, carrying her son in her arms and smiling, with tears streaming down her face.
“You don’t get to cry, Frankie! This was your idea! Don’t worry, I’m going to be fine. I can’t go through the war without doing my part and this is my way to do it. Write to me? You can send it to the war office, they’ll know where to find me.” Frankie tried to speak but choked and simply nodded ferociously.
Frankie did write, often, though she rarely received an answer. Natasha it appeared was busy, moving from camp to camp, making the war more bearable for the lucky soldiers who heard her, one song at a time. Many declared their gratitude in whatever form they could, as Nat explained in one of her letters back to England,
“The men often come up and thank me, saying it brought a smile to their faces or made them think of home. I always tell them to never thank me, they’re the ones who are fighting, who are putting their lives at risk. Honestly Frankie, everywhere I go, the shock always comes, the amazement at when these men do day after day after day. But the joy I feel when I sing to them, and the looks on their faces? It’s the best feeling in the world, it gives me a freedom I’ve never had before. Thank you so much for pushing me to do this, you really are the best friend for which I could ever wish! All my love, Natasha.”
It was now 1917 and as Frankie thought back over the past few years, she realised how much her friend had grown and changed. She was so very proud, so proud in fact that she had named her first daughter after her oldest friend and ‘Little ‘Tasha’, was growing more beautiful every day.
A few days later Frankie got another letter. Opening it quickly, she blinked tears out of her eyes as she tried to read, a few phrases standing out,
“deepest regret…unforeseen attack…brought joy to all the men with her voice…all our sympathies”. Frankie called her children to her, lifting up her eldest daughter close to her as she wept.
“Goodbye, my darling Natasha. At least you found your voice, I shall miss you most terribly. Now you really are free, I suppose. I know one thing, you’ll always be singing.”