Friday, August 30

‘Hopefully This Will Be Your Favourite Version’

THE CATHOLIC CLUB often threw events in the village hall. They were well attended by the elderly members who talked excitedly down the pavements, watching their step, and discussing each subject until it became exhausted and they forgot what they were talking about in the first place. The elderly members of the Catholic Club walked into the village hall and gazed at the set-up—the stage and the lights and the mixing desk and the patient instruments that stood there waiting to be fingers or struck or plucked. The lights in the village hall were not made for creating any kind of atmosphere nor to lend any ambience; they blazed down as though they were bitter at all of the people below being able to walk around freely.
Rodarte was in the third row from the front, part of a group that was talking, at exhaustive length, about one lady’s trip into town and the rain that had fallen that day—‘I’ve never seen rain like it!’ she said, and all of her friends nodded, except Rodarte who was staring at the stage.
The instruments looked very holy to him. He had not been raised a Catholic but had joined the club because he thought it would get him out of the house after death of his wife, whom he had loved more than a river loves to run. During the first few Catholic Club events he attended he felt guilty because he did not believe in God, but the complimentary tea, wine and biscuits were too good to pass up, so he continued.
His pale blue eyes stared from underneath overlapping eyelids.
There was an upright piano, a drum kit, a double bass—rested carefully against a chair—, a trumpet and a microphone stand with a microphone in its hand, a small red light ready to be tickled. As a child he had learned to play the trumpet; Mr. Williams’ office; photocopied manuscripts tearing at the folds and falling apart; improvising while he saw but did not see the children, his classmates, running & playing outside of the window; a packed lunch consumed afterwards as Mr. Williams played his favourite records. The trumpet sparkled like a manger and reminded him of all this; his bones lit up a heat and he shuddered.
‘Weren’t it bad, Rodarte?’
Stirred—‘Huh?’
‘The rain … weren’t it bad?’
‘O, yeah, it was … I sat by the window and watched a stream of it pass down the road.’
Mr. Cleverly, who had organised the evening, was stood, Rodarte noticed, at the back of the hall and seemed to be taking an ever-so subtle glee in the proceedings. Rodarte smiled at him and went back to anticipating the arrival of the band.
The trumpet groaned and said—‘Come on! How much longer we gotta wait!?’
Rodarte agreed. He steadied his shaking hands. He took a sip of his wine. The complimentary biscuits were tasty; he scooped their crumbs up between his hard fingers and dropped them into his mouth.
‘Rodarte! please! show some decorum!’
Rodarte looked at Valerie and apologised. Then he thought about how he might like to run her over with his very old car that had bad suspension.
‘People are so boring,’ thought Rodarte, sipping his wine and putting down his paper plate (which still had some sizeable crumbs upon it). ‘They are so boring that I want to die. If I listen to people when they don’t know that I am listening, they are boring beyond any acceptable level. Sit a person down, give them two minutes of silence and they will repay with you with an hour of drivel, their mouth moving up and down, discussing the most mundane nonsense you ever heard in your life. They exist only to keep the big shoe companies in business. If no-one had invented sex, everyone would have killed themselves the moment they sat down at the dinner table with a member of the opposite sex.’ He rubbed the biscuit crumbs off his hands and the lights dimmed. He was whisked up inside by this dimming. ‘That was the thing with Her: She was not boring. She drove me insane, but not once was I bored by Her. The first night we made love She almost burned the house down setting fire to the taxi receipts I kept on my bureau. I patted them out while She just giggled back into bed.’
He turned fully away from the group he was with. The stage lights after-glowed on his cheeks. His face floated in the middle of a black sea where other faces were floating, too, all aged and adorned with wrinkles. Rodarte sighed.
The musicians—a pianist, a trumpeter, a drummer, the bassist—all took their places before the singer came out. A round of applause greeted the singer.
(In nineteen-seventy-eight two lovers didn’t take precautions and were subsequently bound, nine months later, by a pale skinned girl. The girl grew into sadness as if it were a raincoat. Lonely nights were soundtracked by a collection of records she had inherited off of her father before he moved to Vienna. She took to singing. When she sung the world was still out there, it just didn’t have her home address. She joined a small jazz group she saw advertised in a local newspaper. All of the musicians in the jazz group fell in love with the pale skinned girl and they fell in love with her voice. The trumpeter had commented at the time that her voice was better than mint choc chip ice cream; the double-bassist agreed. The pale skinned girl’s name was Helena.)
‘Thank-you,’ she said. Her voice was very soft. Rodarte straightened in his chair. ‘I’m not a Christian but I hope you like these songs anyway.’ Some people groaned. One woman walked out.
The band started their first number.
At once the audience, so settled and covered in the silt of their dull conversations, were enthralled. No-one made a peep. The opening song was upbeat.
Down every row many knees began tapping along.
Rodarte watched the girl. He could not spare his attention anywhere else.
Her voice was not made in her throat. It gathered together deep inside of her; it swum from her toes, her knees, from her hips and from her sex, it rushed into her bloodstream from her breast and her shoulders, it rocketed up from her fingers, it burst out from her eyes; they melded in her lungs and came out like no other sound that Rodarte had ever heard before.
She was dressed in a long black dress that she seemed to wear not because it was evening but because it was all she ever wore.
Next they performed a version of Cohen’s It Seems So Long Ago, Nancy and all of the organs in Rodarte’s body were facing the direction of the stage. She sung with all her might, all of her in her little body, all her emotions, and everything she had learned since she was a child. He was captivated—the whole crowd was, but Rodarte more than any other. From her small frame came such a magnificent sound! He begun to cry, his pale blue eyes mustering up moisture and dribbling it out to cool his hot cheeks.
Their version of Bye Bye Blackbird was the best he had ever heard. After each song he threw his hands together and wiped his jaw where the tears had started to tickle.
‘I’m sorry for the mood of the songs tonight,’ she said. Her voice was so fragile after the ghosts she had let escape from between her lips. It was obvious to Rodarte that every song was taking something out of her, something that she hoped would be replaced yet feared it would not be.
Every song was a gift to Rodarte. Time flew, up and away from him so that he did not know how long he had been sitting there. They played; she sung; he wept. Between songs he clapped and choked on his tears with a teary laughter and he wiped them away. ‘If they see me crying it will be all they talk about tomorrow,’ he thought.
The girl bent down and took a sip of water from a bottle. Perspiration was collecting on her brow and she wiped it away—‘This is our final number, ladies and gentlemen.’ The audience made some noise of disapproval—‘Yes, I am sorry but I cannot be out late tonight as it’s a full moon and we all know what that means.’ People looked at each other because they didn’t know what it meant. Rodarte simply smiled. ‘This last one is … well, it’s been sung by many people … most of whom are dead, and tonight it is being sung by me and I am not dead.’ Someone at the back who’d drunk too much wine laughed and then started coughing. ‘When I’ve decided on my favourite version of it, I’ll let you know. Hopefully this will be your favourite version.’
They played When Your Lover Has Gone. The people who had been tapping their feet throughout kept on, just as Rodarte kept weeping; however, now he wept harder and he wept so much that he was becoming thirsty. Her voice grew like mountains in the morning—‘When you’re alone, who cares for starlit skies?’ Rodarte was drunk off of her.
After it was all over, a lot of the audience filed out. The group he was with, they lingered. He could already hear them talking about him crying, so he left them and—his courage mustered—approached the band as they were packing away under the intense lights of the village hall.
The drummer smiled and hid his pack of cigarettes.
Rodarte—‘You’re okay, mate.’
The drummer said—‘You can never be too sure with Catholics.’
Rodarte fumbled with his words—‘Is the singer there?’
‘Helena!’
So that was her name: Helena. He put it about his mind for a moment, before she emerged from a door and, with some effort, smiled to greet the gentleman before her.
‘I apologise, I didn’t mean to disturb you.’
‘It’s okay. There are a number of lightbulbs blows out the back and I was trying to replace them … are you okay?’
‘Yes, yes, I’m fine.’ Rodarte waved his hand and realised that his eyes might be bloodshot. ‘I just wanted to say that I have never heard a singer like you before—’
‘Thank-you.’
‘I mean it. Please don’t think I am just saying this as if it were the polite thing to do. I am too old to care for politeness and manners and such.’
‘I never thought such a thing.’
It was strange to be so close to her, to be inches from her face, talking, holding a conversation. He felt uplifted. His eyes did not move from hers and she held strong to his. He thought that face-to-face, she was a monument of woman and talent. He was shaking all over.
‘Pardon me for saying so—after all, it is just what I think—but you sing like you’re dying or something.’
The rest of the band was clearing up though Rodarte knew they were listening to the conversation. Mint choc chip ice cream. He did not care.
She grinned a little, shook her head and said—‘No, but similar: I am in love with someone who doesn’t love me.’
Both of them looked at the floor of the village hall; it was marked in many places by many things since it had been renovated the same year Helena was born.
A fit of nervousness, discomfort and illness flooded Rodarte. He immediately wished her the best of luck and hurried away. The contents of his belly wobbled and were trying to climb up his throat. He went past his group of friends and out into the village’s nightly air, which banged against his chest and he felt better. The breeze cooled down his hot cheeks.
The rest of the group walked out of the village hall into the puddle of light that swelled around the entrance.

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