Critical Praise For Lucy’s Launderette By
“Burke’s debut is frothy fun and definitely worth a spin.”
“Pick up a copy of Lucy’s Launderette and give yourself time to enjoy it…you can’t help but fall in love with Lucy.”
“Burke’s story charms with a shower of witty and wry introspection. A tour de-light!”
was born in London, England, and grew up on the west coast of Canada. She has a Bachelor of Music from the University of Victoria. Among the many jobs on her résumé, she includes opera singer, dishwasher, guitar teacher, nurses’ assistant, charwoman, mural painter, salesclerk, puppeteer, English teacher and most recently, freelance translator. She currently lives in Italy. Her interests include art, music, books, rejection-slip origami, turning the planet into a garden rather than a toxic waste dump and trying to convince her four-year-old daughter that chocolate is not a breakfast food. She is also the author of a murder mystery set in Florence.
Performance Anxiety Betsy Burke
For Sara and Salva and music-makers everywhere.
Thanks to Yule Heibel, Jean Grundy Fanelli, Katie, David and Susan Burke, my extended Canadian family, Helen Holubov and a very special thanks to Elizabeth Jennings and Kathryn Lye.
The collision was all my fault.
It had happened on the day I was making my big move. I’d walked into the travel agency that gray Monday in early October and booked my ticket. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. Vancouver to London—Heathrow.
The woman at the agency is a big opera buff. She always asks me about my career progress and gives me special treatment. That day, she let me leave a deposit for one percent of the fare. There was no need to tell her that I still had to earn enough to pay for the rest of the ticket, because I knew I’d find the money somehow. How else could I justify all those menial jobs and forty-eight-hour workdays?
It felt so great when she printed out that little piece of paper, handed it to me and said, “Here’s your flight itinerary, Miranda. I sure do envy you. I love London at Christmas.”
I took a big breath and said to her, “This’ll be my first time there.”
Although it wouldn’t feel like it. I had Londontown.com on my browser. I could tell you what was going on in every concert hall and theater in the city. I could already imagine myself strolling through Covent Garden, or grabbing a bite to eat at Bad Bob’s or Café de Paris before the opera, maybe a Carmen, a Tosca, or a Nixon in China. I can even tell you what the weather is in London on any given day. That Monday, London had drizzle with the prospect of heavy rain.
“I’m going over for an important audition,” I said.
“Oh, wow. Really? Who’s it for?”
“The English National Opera. I got the letter a couple of days ago. I’ve got my time slot. It’s January the tenth at 3:30 p.m. In the theater itself. The brand-new beautiful renovated Coliseum.”
Peter Drake, the two-hundred-ton tenor who was singing Pinkerton in our current production of Madama Butterfly, was good buddies with everyone at the ENO, so I took advantage of his buddydom and asked him to get me an audition. And he did. Although Peter acts like a diva, he’s really a very nice man. His generosity is as vast as his costumes, which could probably double as pup tents in an emergency.
“How exciting,” said the travel agent, “and a little bit scary too, I’ll bet. What are you going to be singing?”
“Some Handel and some Mozart. And if they want to hear more, Rossini.”
“Oooo. Sounds good, Miranda.”
I pulled my pink cashmere scarf tighter around my throat. “Yeah. I’ll have my fingers crossed the whole way. Recycled airplane air can be hell on your high notes. And my pieces have a lot of high notes and runs. But I know it’s going to be fine. I have a great teacher and I’ve been doing a lot of performing lately to work up to it, and I even have a technique for handling the stage fright.”
“You do? What’s that?”
“Well, I learned it in my Centering Group. You see, you have to give the fear a shape. So mine’s a nag. An old, swayback, dirty black plug of a horse with a voice like Mr. Ed’s. And whenever it says, ‘Miranda Lyme, you untalented half-wit, what makes you think you can sing this piece? Who do you think you are anyway?’ I just try to push the old nag as far back in the theater as I can get it. Try to get it out through the exit doors. Although, sometimes, it’s right there on the stage with you, but as long as it still has its shape, and isn’t stepping on your toes or anything, the anxiety isn’t too bad.”
“That’s a new one on me.”
“It was on me, too. Four years ago.”
“Well, then…I really wish you luck, Miranda.”
I yelped, “No, you can’t say that. It’s bad luck to wish me luck.”
“In opera we say toi, toi. Or mille fois merde.”
“Toi, toi then. And mille fois merde.”
“Thanks. I’m so excited about being able to do the audition right there in that theater. There’s nothing like standing up on a real stage where the great stars have sung and letting it rip into that huge space. It’s the most incredible feeling. It’s electric. It’s better than sex.”
She opened her eyes wide. “Really? Maybe I should give it a try.”
We both laughed, then I said, “I’ll be back in a few weeks to get my ticket.”
I was tempted to stay and tell her about the other things that were taking me to London. Like my father, the baritone Sebastian Lyme. And Kurt Hancock, the conductor/composer who was suddenly cutting into my practice time.
Kurt hadn’t been part of my strategy, but when he’d strolled into the rehearsal hall two weeks earlier to conduct the Madama Butterfly, all the chorus women were immediately in heat.
To be honest, he wasn’t really my type. I prefer darker, heftier men. Kurt is slim, blond and blue-eyed. But there were women in that chorus ready to poison their families and run away with him, and I guess, in trying to figure out what it was about him that was making them all unhinge, I let myself be carried away by the Kurt Hancock psychosis, too.
After that Butterfly rehearsal, everybody went out to Mimi’s, a Gastown restaurant where opera singers often showcase their talent. The place is decorated in Chocolate Box Gothic with rich dark heavy drapes and tablecloths edged with a fatal amount of flounce. It’s a home away from home for the opera bunch. Sometimes the singing is really fantastic, the performances glow, and sometimes the singers leave you feeling that it might be more fun to be slapped in the face over and over with a fresh cod than to have to listen to their talent. But I guess it’s a question of how everybody’s feeling.
That night was a fresh-cod night at Mimi’s, my fellow chorus singers all trying too hard to impress Kurt.
My defective tights had been slipping down all evening and eventually were clinging to my knees. I wanted to yank them up again without doing a striptease in front of the entire opera company, so I went looking for a private place to sort out the matter. The tiny bathroom was occupied but I opened the door next to it, which was a big broom closet, and stumbled onto Kurt.
He froze like a startled deer caught in headlights. I’m not sure what he was doing in there all by himself before I came onto the scene, but I’d heard a series of rhythmic thuds just beforehand, and now I thought he might have been punching or hitting something or someone. So I said (I was a little drunk), “Don’t mind me, Mr. Hancock. This won’t take long. You can go back to whatever it was you were doing in a second. I just have to take care of something.” And then I hitched up my dress and tugged everything into place.
He stared at me the entire time and I stared back. Then I noticed that the wall near his foot was covered with little black crescent-shaped marks. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen this sort of thing. Music training had taught me early on that pianists never use their hands when they have to punch something.
But then Kurt started to smile. And appreciatively, too. He looked quite sweet, even a little forlorn, and I began to get a glimpse of his charm.
I smiled back. He smiled even more broadly, then sat down on a bucket and started asking me all about myself. I told him the basics, that my name was Miranda, that I was a lyric mezzo-soprano from the illustrious cow town of Cold Shanks, B.C., and that I’d done my voice degree in Vancouver but was going to London in December to do an ENO audition. And then I added that my father also lived in London, and was a well-known baritone.
“Oh, really?” asked Kurt. “What’s his name?”
Kurt stood up. “Sebastian Lyme? I have a Don Giovanni recording with your father singing the Don. A fine voice. A very fine voice indeed. I’ve seen him perform. He had great charisma on stage.”
“Really?” My heart began to race.
“Yes. He did a stunning Figaro in the Barber. Apart from his technical ability, the man had wonderful presence. Quite exceptional acting. He had the audience in stitches. Not an easy feat.”
I was nodding vehemently. More. I wanted him to tell me more. I wanted to kidnap Kurt Hancock and make him tell me everything he knew about Sebastian Lyme.
Kurt went on, “And he did an impressive Rigoletto for the Royal Opera, but that must have been a good ten years ago. It’s a pity we haven’t crossed paths… Oh, Good Lord! You’re not about to cry, are you?”
I laughed, shook my head and wiped my damp eyes. “It’s just that hearing about my father like that…out of the blue…”
“Heavens. It usually takes me at least a week to make a woman cry.”
We both laughed and then he said softly, “So you’ve followed in his footsteps. Marvelous. May I ask you a question?”
“May I kiss Sebastian Lyme’s daughter?”
I didn’t expect it but I let him because he’d really earned it. And it was a nice kiss—not too sloppy or dry, nor too deep or shallow. Maybe Kurt would never have taken notice of me if my father hadn’t exalted me like that. I was no longer a nameless chorus singer but Sebastian Lyme’s daughter. And I began to fall a little in love with Kurt that night because he’d said such nice things about my father. Something my mother rarely did.
We stayed in that broom closet for a very long time. He turned out to be an amazing kisser, and I started to imagine the possibilities, to think that maybe he could be my type after all. I guess he thought so too because every day for the next week there was such a huge delivery of flowers from “Admiring K to Beautiful M” that my roommate, Caroline, said our apartment was starting to remind her of a funeral parlor.
But I didn’t tell any of that to the travel agent. There wasn’t time. And Kurt didn’t want me to broadcast our relationship. If you could call it that. After two weeks, we still hadn’t made it past the intense talks and eager groping in the darker corners of the theater.
After the travel agent’s, I had to get to the supermarket to buy the fruit for the dinner party I was throwing on Tuesday night, and then to work. The unpaid ninety-nine percent of the plane ticket was now hanging over me.
I admit I was very hyper and distracted that Monday after buying my ticket. My mind had also been zooming around all the other executive decisions I still had to make. Such as: should I buy the out-of-season strawberries and out-of-country mangoes and risk having Caroline rant about the exploitation of Mexican field workers? Because there was no way I could avoid inviting Caroline to the party. She was my roommate. She was three years older than me, which made her twenty-nine and on the edge of Thirties Purgatory. Apart from her political zeal, she was an okay roommate, but she did tend to hold those three extra years over my head sometimes, to polemicize everything, especially when my opera friends were around.
Caroline has a degree in poli sci. She works as a Jacqueline of all trades at the Student Union Building, but sometimes, to hear the way she talks, you’d think she were an indispensable cog in the wheels of international relations.
And she loves parties. She can sniff them out the way a pig sniffs out truffles.
Was it better to leave the pretty and exorbitant fruits and have pale, sensible and boring local varieties? The party was going to be the next evening and it was really important, a celebration of sorts, if you took the Kurt factor into account. So the dessert had to be perfect. Well, it was a cake really, but a cake that didn’t look like a cake once you dressed it up with all that fruit.
The whole idea was that it had to drip with every possible tangy, sweet, sensuous decadence, the fruit literally tumbling over the whipped-creamy edges. The dessert had to look baroque and scream sex from its rum-and-cream-filled center. Because Kurt had told me he was definitely coming to the party. Definitely coming. And I’d decided it was worthwhile to impress him a little.
So I had to have those crazy-ass foreign fruits on that cake.
On the other hand, there’d been that dinner party six months back when Caroline had ruined everything because I’d bought a few freshly imported lychees and she didn’t approve; she’d gone on and on about the oppression of Chinese growers by the new wave of pseudocapitalists, which was nothing more than a devious form of superslavery to Western consumption. There in the supermarket I started to get so anxious just thinking of that evening. It was the same kind of feeling you get while watching circus acrobats performing without a net. It made my palms sweat to recall the way my guests had slunk away, whispering their lousy excuses while Caroline pontificated drunkenly in the center of the living room.
Caroline will probably become Canada’s next female prime minister. She has the hide of a rhinoceros and infinite staying power.
So as I hurried out of the travel agency and along Denman through the sidewalk mulch of falling leaves, that anxious feeling had started to grow. I passed the low green awnings of the West End Community Centre and the mute yellow deco squareness of Blenz Coffee, where the last hearty stragglers were sitting at outdoor tables trying to pretend it was still summer. They looked chilly.
Denman was getting trendier by the minute and it almost made me sorry to be leaving the city. All kinds of stores and restaurants offering empty but delicious calories were cropping up. I hurried past my favorites, Death by Chocolate, the faux-Brit Dover Arms Pub, and the rotund glass-and-brick facade of Miriam’s Ice Cream and Pies on the corner of Denman and Davey.
My West End neighborhood was a jumble of architectural styles. On tree-lined streets, vertigo-inducing glass-and-concrete high-rises stood next to stout, comfortable, early twentieth-century brick and stone three-story apartments and stores. Punctuating them like a calm breath were the remnants of the earlier residential neighborhoods of old wooden houses, some painted and fixed up for the here and now, others drab and surrendering to damp rot and termites. Bordering it all was Stanley Park, and beyond that, the ocean, which was steely gray and matched the sky.
As I hurried along Davey toward the Super Value, not only were the ticket, trip, seeing my father again, the dessert and Kurt’s coming to the party all whizzing through my mind, but so was my Davey Street Song. The storefront names always made me smile. I had an urge to set them to music.
Quiznos, Panago, T Bone Clothing,
Gigi’s Pizza and Steam (breathe)
Launderdog, Love’s Touch,
Falafel and Shawarma,
Towa Young Sushi,
Thai Away Home.
Thai Away Home. It was like a lullaby.
As I went through the Super Value doors, I was just as nervous and excited as if Kurt had asked me to marry him. He hadn’t. But he’d said only the day before—a mere two weeks into our relationship—that maybe, someday, later, when things had settled down in our lives a bit, we might get married. I hoped he didn’t mean when my breasts had settled down to my navel. Still, I thought this was very promising, considering the stature of the person it was coming from.
And such a combo wasn’t unheard of. My singing teacher, the renowned mezzo-soprano Elisa Klein, had, in the last century, enjoyed a brilliant artistic fusion with her husband, Oskar Klein. Madame Klein had been barely more than a teenager when she met Oskar in a DP village at the end of WWII. He’d been much older than her, and their time together as man and wife had been more of a student and teacher relationship. But eventually, she made her debut as a mezzo-soprano, was applauded all over Europe and took her place beside him as an equal. After he died, she never remarried. Oskar had been her ideal. She had known and sung with the greats. She’d had a significant career. The idea of a musical marriage was enticing. Or at least, my waking mind thought so.
The night before, I’d dreamed that Kurt and I were both standing in a big white hall, a cross between a church and a city hall registry, and we were getting married. I’d filled out my part of the forms properly and I was watching his long-fingered hands and the way they were holding the pen. I was getting all shivery and a little crazy thinking about the way those hands were going to slide along my skin later.
The spoken questions that you usually hear in the ceremony were actually written down. Do you take this woman, and all that jazz. I looked down again at his hand hovering above the thick black ink and saw that he’d written lines and lines of gibberish. He had this half smile that he has when he’s being clever. He’d written strings of nonsense words and was smirking as if he’d pulled one off.
Do you take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife?
Instead of “I do,” he’d scribbled, “Spruckahaw broogie figgle foo ickle pickle beeky boo” in the provided space.
I’d woken up fast that morning, in a cold sweat, my heart thumping like a happy Labrador’s tail. The dream worried me a little. There were a lot of things about Kurt’s character that I still had to get acquainted with.
I was remembering all this as I grabbed a shopping cart and hurried along the aisles of Super Value. As my cart was picking up speed I was passing people casting me worried looks. I paid no attention as I wheeled around the end of an aisle and slammed into the side of another shopping cart.
Hence the collision.
The driver staggered toward the fresh-meat section and managed to catch his balance and avoid tumbling into the open freezer and flattening the chicken breasts.
He yowled with pain as his arm was mashed against the side of the meat display then he straightened up, rubbed his wrist and said, “Oh Jeeeeez.” He was staring at me, first bleakly, then his face lit up. It was like the sun coming out.
I moved in quickly to touch his arm but stopped myself. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “It’s all my fault.”
“Yeah, it is,” said the man, grinning, which I thought was odd under the circumstances.
“I’ve hurt you,” I said, although I meant it as a question.
“Just a few little fractures. Nothing major surgery can’t fix.”
I opened my mouth to say something witty but could only come up with, “I’m sorry,” again.
He was smiling crazily.
A long embarrassed silence hung between us.
Now I’d gone and done it. I’d probably slammed into my future downfall. The guy was smiling because he was going to try to sue me. But what about when he found out that I didn’t have any significant money? He’d get his revenge by creeping around in my shadow waiting for me outside my door.
Although, as potential stalkers go, he wasn’t bad looking.
He stopped grinning and said in a disappointed tone, “You don’t remember me, do you, Miranda?”
There was a little flutter in my stomach. I stared at him, his bulky height, the length of his crow-black hair tied in a ponytail, his scruffy jeans with the rips in the knees (boho fashion or pure poverty?), his perfect oval face, amused smile and slightly mocking eyes.
In the file cabinet of my mind, I started ransacking the faces drawer. Nothing appeared except the blank chaos of my lousy memory for faces.
There it was. The performer’s curse. All those people who remember you because you had a little solo role, and they were there in the back row, but you couldn’t possibly have a hope of remembering them because you were too busy concentrating on your performance. This guy had probably been in some production with me, carrying a spear, singing bass, wearing a periwig. Who could know?
He said, almost shyly, “Winston Churchill Senior High. Cold Shanks.”
“You’re joking,” I said. He’d caught me completely off guard. I started to giggle. Cold Shanks to Cold Shanksians was one of those places that got instant tittering recognition from its citizens. Like Moose Jaw (euphemistically known as Moose Groin) or Biggar, Saskatchewan (with its sign that read, New York Is Big But This Is Biggar). We Cold Shanksians were a race apart.
“You really don’t remember me,” he said again. His disappointment was almost tangible.
“I’m sorry, I’m so bad with faces…”
“A few years have passed. I’m Patrick Tibeau.”
The sound of his name went through me like a childhood taboo, like a decade of old schoolyard chants. There was always that weird kid at school who everyone treated as a pariah because he didn’t have the same ideas as the rest of the herd, was content to eat lunch by himself in a far corner of the playing field, and stand up in class and expound endlessly on theories that only the teacher could appreciate. That was Patrick Tibeau. I really should have been more discreet but I blurted out, “Oh my God. I can’t believe it. You’re Patrick Tibeau? You’ve changed so much.”
“You used to sing at assemblies. I thought you had a really fine voice. You still singing, Miranda?”
“Just a minute. Just let me get a handle on this. The Patrick Tibeau? You’re a legend.”
He was laughing now.
“The same Patrick Tibeau that set Winnie Churchill High on fire?”
He nodded. He was still laughing.
“And got sent to reform school?” I said too enthusiastically.
He stopped laughing and sighed. “It wasn’t a reform school. Reform schools don’t exist anymore.” He seemed so instantly disillusioned with me. Sometimes, I just have the biggest, stupidest mouth in the world and can’t stop myself.
He no longer resembled the geeky, spidery, scruffy-haired, beetle-browed adolescent who I remembered. This was a full-grown, credible-looking man standing in front of me.
Then I had to ask. It was irresistible. I was going to be late for work but I did it anyway. “Can I buy you a coffee?” The chance to chin-wag about Cold Shanks with the Patrick Tibeau and get his side of the story was too good to be true. Tina, my best friend, also from Cold Shanks, would be emerald with envy.
“I’m in a bit of a hurry,” explained Patrick.
I was frantic. He was like a prize trout about to slip off the hook. I couldn’t let it happen. “Listen, Patrick.” I dug my hand into my purse and pulled out a pen and an old phone-bill envelope. “I’m having a dinner party tomorrow night. It would be really great if you could come…and bring your wife…or girlfriend…or boyfriend…or whatever.” I handed him the scrap of paper with my address scribbled on it.
He took it and smiled again. I noticed he had very white teeth. “We’d like that. What time?”
He was a We.
I said, “Seven. There’s going to be lots of food, but bring something if you feel like it. Extra never hurts. And some wine.”
“Wine. Right. See you then, Miranda. Tomorrow, Tuesday. Seven.”
As I finished pushing my cart around the supermarket, I had a flash of memory. Me and Patrick Tibeau, circa age fifteen, meeting up by accident outside the tin-roof movie theater after a showing of Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bête, walking home in the snow under a royal-blue sky full of stars and a bright disk of moon, and talking, talking, talking. Though, about what, I couldn’t even remember.
Still, I was elated to hook up with someone from Cold Shanks. I hated to admit that sometimes I got bouts of hometown nostalgia, but it was true, and Patrick had cheered me up. So I thought, to hell with Caroline, and bought every fruit I felt like buying.
After the supermarket, I rushed back to my Bute Street apartment. Getting it had been a coup. In a street that was quickly giving way to modern monoliths, my classic building was an oasis in the futuristic desert. The place was a stately old redbrick three-story set among ornamental plums and evergreens. Ceramic tile, yellow with a black line of trim was featured in my kitchen, but in the bathroom stood the prize—the enormous, dangerously comfortable claw-foot bathtub.
I raced up the front steps and the other two flights, went in quietly so as not to wake Caroline, and put away my bags of fruit. Then I went into my bedroom to change my clothes, tossing off my old lounging-around jeans and pulling on my skinny black Levi’s bell-bottoms and a Calvin Klein men’s T-shirt I’d accidentally dyed coral but thought was nice. Miracle of miracles, the dye job had come out evenly. I shoved my feet back into my Adidas, and put my old Doc Martens into my black leather knapsack along with my rumpled work apron.
I ran out of the apartment and down the front steps. Patchy dubious sunlight had started to light up the dull morning. I hurried north to Robson. The neighborhood’s resident street people, who had shifted in their crannies as I jogged past earlier, had now gone, scared off by the working masses. I ran the whole length of Robson, past the restaurants and boutiques, right into Vancouver’s tall bright glassy business core, thinking I’d wait before telling everyone that I was leaving. Announce it when I’d paid off the whole ticket.
Mornings, I worked at Michelangelo’s. It was a spartan-chic coffee shop on Pender. Michelangelo or Mike—a big burly third-generation Italian—was always immaculate with a clean white shirt, polished shoes and a neat haircut.
That morning I could see him through the plate-glass window. He was checking the plain wooden tables, straightening the wrought-iron chairs, attacking imaginary dirt and grease spots wherever he thought he saw them. Then he turned his attention to polishing the big brass beast of an espresso machine, which was his pride and joy. I’m sure it was for the ninetieth time that morning. When I came through the door he waggled his hand at me.
“Thanks for letting me come in late, Mike,” I gasped.
“When have I ever not let you come late? Hey, Miranda. Got a story for you.”
“Shoot,” I said.
“See, this old guy, Italian guy, is lying on his deathbed, and while he’s lying there worrying about whether he’ll be allowed into heaven, he smells this great aroma of almond cookies. His favorite. So he hauls himself out of bed and with the last bit of strength left in his body, he crawls downstairs to the kitchen, and there on the tables are dozens of these almond cookies, still hot. My wife loves me, he thinks, she’s done this last wonderful thing for me. And he starts to get himself over to the table. He reaches out for a cookie with a trembling clawlike hand, and the hand gets smacked with a spatula by his wife. ‘Back off,’ she says. ‘They’re for the funeral.’”
“That’s my family all over. You want a capooch? A fast one? We’re gonna be slammed again in about two minutes.”
We were always slammed at Mike’s. The customers moved in like an evil storm cloud. A clot of professional suits were always first, then law books from the university, and finally, old bundles of rags looking for handouts and a warm corner. My shift normally started at seven. I liked to get there early to fix myself a latte on the house and drink it slowly before total panic set in. Mike knew how to create an environment that fostered returning customers: he was sanguine and shrewd, bellowing love and peace at everybody who came in as though they were his oldest and best friends in the world.
I always went into the back room before doing anything else. At a large steel table near the refrigerators sat Grace, the sandwich lady, buttering her way into heaven. She came into work an hour before the rest of us. Soft-spoken, devout and well past middle age, with rhinestone cat’s-eye glasses on a pearl-look chain and a complexion like wartime margarine, she arrived at dawn to slab together her creations and by the time the sun came out she had disappeared, making you wonder if she really existed.
She was constantly cold. Working in that dank room beside the kitchen with all that refrigeration humming away next to her meant she always wore an old pom-pom-covered rainbow sweater. It had once belonged to her mother. The pom-poms jiggled and bounced as she buttered.
Mike had unwittingly gotten a saint when he hired Grace.
Grace was still there when I entered. She’d waited for me. She slipped me a food gift in a brown paper bag and said, “Here, Miranda, honey, this is for later when you get hungry. Mike’s a nice guy but he’s sooo cheap. I know he pays you girls squirrel droppings.”
I took the gift and said, “Where did Mike find you, Grace?”
“It was the Lord’s doing, dear.” In Grace’s world, there was just the one, omniscient, celestial boss. “And Miranda…the opera was just lovely. I cried through the whole last act.”
“I’m glad you enjoyed it.”
“And I picked you out, too. You had a yellow kimono, didn’t you, dear?”
“Well, you looked just lovely. I’ve always said, and I’ll go on saying until they listen, you have a special quality.”
Grace was my biggest fan. Even if I was buried in the back of a hundred-voice chorus, she was there to witness my special quality. She got all my complimentary tickets. If I was singing anywhere, she was there in the audience beaming goodwill at me.
I stashed the paper bag in my knapsack, tied on my apron with its big print of Renaissance cherubs kissing, then went to take on the crush of customers.
My first cover was a group of men from the Vancouver Stock Exchange. Now, I should tell you, these are the kind of guys who are regularly held hostage by mirrors. They can’t pass one without getting frozen in front of it, momentarily sucked in by the vortex of their own fabulous reflections.
These men swaggered in like a bunch of action-movie stars and took up way more space than was necessary. You could see it all over them, like a kind of radioactive glow. Money. Money flowing like Niagara. They loved it. It was all-powerful, the perfect aphrodisiac.
I stood at their table impatiently tapping my pencil against my pad, waiting for them to make up their minds. The Donald Trump wannabe of the group grasped my wrist and said, “I was admiring your balcony and wondered if I could lean on it sometime?” He didn’t even bother with eye contact. He talked straight to my breasts as though they were two nice people who were about to make a big donation to his favorite charity. It was frustrating.
I was starting to develop a real love-hate relationship with my breasts. Lately, they’d been attracting a lot of attention. Kurt’s attention was just fine. It was the rest of it that got on my nerves. The Curse of the Mammary Glands. My breasts had been total dickhead magnets since I was fourteen.
My first impulse was to grab the poor guy by the shoulders and shake him till his eyeballs rattled around like dried peas in a tin cup, but while I was on duty at Mike’s, I ignored first impulses. If I played it right, those tips would get my plane as far as Alberta.
“Waitressing is my life,” I said, and flashed him a little smile. “I wouldn’t think of ruining my dream career by mixing business with pleasure. Sorry. Maybe in another incarnation.”
He looked a bit confused and let go of my hand. It was clear that slinging hash was not his idea of a dream career. But I believed that if I was going to get any enjoyment out of life at all, then I had to be Buddhist about it, and try to caress the difficult and boring bits of my day, give them a little respect, too.
I thought of that plane, taxiing down the runway, the roar just before takeoff, and I soared through the rest of the shift.
By eleven o’clock, the sun shone between billowing white clouds. I exchanged my Doc Martens for Adidas again and jogged off toward the Gastown studio where La Chanteuse and Matilde awaited me.
Lance Forrester, technician, artistic director and owner of the voice-over company Vox, was outside sitting on the doorstep. His forehead was furrowed and his eyes squeezed tightly shut. He was concentrating intensely on something.
This is a really profound mental process going on here, I thought.
Before I was near the step, he stated, “Miranda Lyme,” then opened his eyes.
“Wow. Lance. How did you do that? How did you know it was me?” I asked.
“Your smell. You have a great smell. Like a bunch of freesias that have been first rained on then lightly sprayed with fresh sweat.”
I was standing in front of him now. He shocked me by pulling me down onto his lap and shoving his dark curly beard into my neck, imitating a snuffling animal. “Great, great odor.”
“Lance. These are female pheromones you’re talking about.”
“I’m not particular.”
But I wasn’t sure that he wasn’t particular, and if he was, it was a shame. Lance was a very compelling man.
“What are you doing out here anyway? Why aren’t you inside working? You know, I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen you in the light of day?” I said.
“I’m pale. I’ve become a mushroom. Summer has come and gone and I’m a nice shade of silvery white,” he said.
He’d been concentrating on trying to get his marble-white skin to sop up some sun. That’s what all the profundity had been about.
I ruffled his messy silver and black curls with my fingers. “You spend all your time indoors, you silly workaholic. You need some fresh air and vitamin D.”
He said broadly, “Yes, it’s true. I’m doomed.” His voice was thick with pleasure, as though doom were something delicious, like a plate of chocolate éclairs or homemade ravioli. “How’s Matilde today?”
“Hot to trot,” I replied. “How else would she be?”
“Yes. I suppose she couldn’t be any other way. She’s the eighth wonder of the world, that Matilde,” said Lance, and he led the way inside.
We went into the first studio. I pulled the script for La Chanteuse out of my knapsack.
“It’s just the two of us this morning,” explained Lance. “I think we can get the biggest scene wrapped up if we really concentrate.”
La Chanteuse was an “art film” set in Paris. I’d done a little work for Lance in the past whenever there was a voice to be dubbed that had to sing, as well, but this was the first time I’d ever seen so much pork in one of our films. Or so much porking, for that matter.
The protagonist, Matilde, was an opera star who couldn’t perform unless she had sex first. A lot of sex. Megasex. Unfortunately, the man she was in love with was a married pig farmer and she was forever chasing him and his salami all over Paris and outskirts. They had sex everywhere; they rolled in the pigpen mud (when his homely wife wasn’t there), between the prosciutti and ham hocks, they had sex with a side of bacon watching them. Sometimes the pig farmer left his homely wife at home, dressed up and came into town to see Matilde. Then they had sex in the park, on and under the Eiffel Tower, in the corridors of the Louvre, under restaurant tables at the Plaza, on the bathroom floor and in the elevator of Matilde’s apartment. It was awesome. Every time Matilde came, her screaming orgasm would swell and rise and turn into warm-ups, scales and arpeggios. Then when all the heavy breathing had finally subsided, she was away to the Paris Opera for the evening, where she washed off the smell of swineherd and gave the performances of her life.
La Chanteuse goes along pretty much like that right up to the end, until the homely wife murders them both, makes them into sausages and sells them at the local market. A bit too moralistic for my tastes but I guess there had to be human bloodshed in order for there to be a decent denouement.
And I have to confess that although it was a truly silly film, there were moments when I could really relate to Matilde’s impossible obsession. I was no stranger to obsessions myself.
For a couple of hours, Lance and I stood across from each other going over and over the scenes, getting them right, wailing, adoring, whispering, grunting, panting and moaning on cue into the microphones. My arpeggios and vocal ornaments had been well rehearsed beforehand. Lance was a professional. In his dubs you never heard false notes. You never saw the mouths wagging on hours after the sound of speech had stopped. Ours was quality work. But it was a little unnerving that the actress playing Matilde looked a bit like me, with long blond hair and annoyingly large breasts, and the actor playing the pig farmer looked like Lance, a prematurely graying Greek god with iron-poor blood.
By one o’clock, I was getting hungry. My stomach was starting to rumble so loudly that the microphone picked it up. Lance looked up from the script and then at his watch.
“Nice work, Miranda. We’ll have to stop now. I have the kung fu kids in about twenty minutes. You’re doing a great job. Low-budget orgasms. They’re such a riot. We still have four and a half of them to go before we get hacked up and made into bratwurst.”
He shut off some of the equipment and came over to me, moving with the slow prowl of big jungle felines. “Just let me smell you again before you go.” He pulled me into him and pressed his face into my hair. “Mmmmm.”
“Lance, Lance.” I felt as though I was rousing a person from sleep.
“What?” He looked up and into my eyes. A CAT scan was less probing than Lance’s gaze.
“I’m a hoping-to-be-involved woman.”
“Hoping-to-be-involved? Just exactly what is that supposed to mean?”
“It hasn’t actually been…ah…consummated yet.”
His eyes drilled me. “You poor faux-virgin. May I ask who the lucky swine is?”
“No,” I said, still irritated that I wasn’t allowed to name Kurt Hancock as my possible significant-other-to-be.
“No? Ah, come on,” provoked Lance.
“He wants it to be our little secret. He’s a high-profile guy. He doesn’t want the gossip or the press.”
Lance smiled and kissed my hand. “I’m sure that whoever he is, Miranda, he’s a complete and utter bastard and not nearly good enough for you. I know men.”
“Let’s kill Matilde off once and for all, okay? Can you make it tomorrow?”
“Oh, and remind me to pay you tomorrow.”
“Pay me tomorrow, Lance. Please, pay me.” I could see that KLM jet edging eastward.
This time tomorrow I would be a different woman. Yes, Matilde would have her pig farmer, but I would have been had and had again by Kurt. Finally.
Off with the Doc Martens and back into the Adidas. I thought I was so smart, running everywhere and talking all my employers into working around my schedule. I was like a jigsaw puzzle. Some of the pieces were connected but the outlines still visible, and other pieces were still missing. I was not a complete picture.
I ate one of Grace’s shrimp, rocket and lemon-pepper mayonnaise croissants as I power walked back in the direction of Davey Street. It was so delicious, and I was so hungry that for a moment I considered marrying Grace and forgetting all about Kurt Hancock.
I hurried through the door of Little Ladies Unlimited—a cleaning company housed in a big bleak one-story concrete block. Inside, there was just the barnlike unadorned storeroom where all the equipment was kept, and the tiny office, from which Cora, the owner, took all the client calls and kept everything running smoothly. At the end of the ranks of industrial vacuum cleaners, the other two women on my cleaning team were standing at the coffee machine. They were having a hot debate about whether drip or plunge was better.
“No contest. Plunge,” I joined in. “Now, whose husband are we talking about?”
“Coffeemakers not husbands,” said Fern, smoothing down her brassy scouring-pad hair with a tiny hand. She was smiling. “And on that subject, Miranda, when are you going to get yourself a husband?”
“I’m only twenty-six,” I said, “I’m not ready to be buried alive yet.”
“Hell, I was married at nineteen,” said Fern, “and I’ve had twenty-one great years.”
“You are so full of crap sometimes, Fern McGrew,” said Betty.
Betty was big and muscular, and always wore lumberjack shirts. There was something in her attitude that reminded me slightly of my roommate Caroline. Caroline was smaller, a size sixteen, so she could buy her clothes off most racks. Betty only bought hers off the racks at Mr. Big ’n Tall, but when it came to tough-assdom, they could have been mother and daughter. Betty had been a sled-dog trainer in the Yukon before she got sick of the snow and moved down to Vancouver.
Betty barged on, “‘Great years,’ says Fern. Miranda, get her to tell ya about the great time she had when her great husband goes and gets himself that stupid little slut on the side, and the great fights they has about it and the time he puts her in the hospital because he’s broke her cheekbone with his great big fat fist.”
“Every couple has its little ups and downs,” said Fern, but she was looking at the floor.
Betty leaned in to confide. “I gets the word about Fern here bein’ in hospital, gotta have surgery ’cause them little pieces of cheekbone is gonna get into her bloodstream otherwise and finish her off good-style once and fer all. So what does I do? I goes over to their place, and there’s old Cliff sittin’ on the couch swillin’ a beer and watchin’ football like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. I hauls him up onto his feet and drags him out into the street. He’s wearing just his socks, no shoes, huh, and lookin’ pathetic. Then I lets the whole street know what he’s done, as if they doesn’t know already, and then I whacks him one across his cheekbone an’ I sends him flyin’ into somebody’s recyclin’ bin. The neighbors wasn’t too happy about that but they wasn’t gonna take me on neither. He never done it again, I can tell ya. Am I right, Fern?”
Fern nodded and said, “He’s been a pussycat ever since.”
Wow. Betty and her two meaty fists. Kurt would have to stay in line.
Cora came out of her office. She was a petite woman with a mass of platinum, back-combed hair in a white hair band. That day she wore tight white pedal pushers and a white angora sweater. She was in her forties but so youthful you wouldn’t know it. She looked as if she’d stepped out of a Sandra Dee film. All she needed was a surfboard under her arm and she was complete.
She grinned and said in a singsong voice, “Better get going, girls. This one’s a Special.”
We all groaned.
Betty grabbed her loyal Hoover while Fern and I loaded up our multipocketed aprons with our sprays and cloths. Fern was on dusting, I was on bathrooms and kitchens, and Betty was vacuuming. We were like soldiers going into battle.
We hurried out to the company car, loaded the equipment into the back and climbed in. With Betty behind the wheel, we whizzed down to The Bachelor’s place on Burrard. He lived on the twenty-eighth floor of a twenty-nine-story steel-and-glass high-rise overlooking English Bay.
We cleaned his place every week but today was a Special. Specials were more than just the regular Little Ladies cleaning job. They were expensive and meant we had to do anything that needed to be done. Within reason. As soon as we stepped inside his apartment, we knew The Bachelor hadn’t been operating within the confines of “reason.” He’d been partying.
“So what would you say’s going on here?” I asked as we surveyed the scene.
“Lazy drunken slob,” announced Fern.
“Barnyard animal,” confirmed Betty.
To start with, The Bachelor had a round bed and not-too-clean moss-green sheets twisted this way and that. At the chest of drawers, I imagined him emptying the contents of his pockets every night, since it was covered with pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters, sticky half-sucked peppermints, condoms still in their foil wrap but well past their expiry date, and numerous crumpled bits of paper with girls’ names and telephone numbers. Similar goodies sprinkled the brown-stained wall-to-wall carpet as well. The mirror tiles above the bed had some interesting spots on them, as though they’d been spritzed by quite a few bottles of fizzy stuff.
Meanwhile, the fridge held about fifty bottles of beer and a block of mold. No doubt he ordered in whenever he didn’t eat out. Interesting encrustations covered most of the kitchen, detailing The Bachelor’s gastronomic history for the week.
Back in the living room, there were suspicious-looking marks on his black couch. And his one weeping fig was half-dead. His shoes and socks were all over the place: on top of radiators, on the dining-room table, under the couch. One sock was stuffed into the weeping fig’s pot.
In the bathroom, I figured he had a nightly struggle getting his willy to cooperate and aim into the toilet rather than all over the wall. It was probably the beer. I could be sympathetic and understanding though. Men and women have their own unique sets of problems. If I had the Curse of the Mammary Glands, why couldn’t The Bachelor have the Curse of the Maverick Member?
Fern, Betty and I put our backs into the cleaning for two and a half hours, wondering the whole time how The Bachelor’s ancestors had ever made it out of the cave and into civilization.
As we cleaned, the silence was broken every so often with Betty’s mutters of “Slob.”
Fern said, “The poor man just needs a woman in his life. Someone to clean him up and organize him. You should have seen the way Cliff was living before we got married. He makes The Bachelor look like Mr. Neat. Now, Miranda, how about if you just add your phone number to that little pile on his dresser?”
Betty barked, “Would ya quit with the lonely-hearts crap, Fern? Miranda’s doin’ fine. She’s gonna be an opera star and no man’s gonna get in her way.”
I hoped Betty was a prophet and that her words would come true. I said, “Thanks for caring, Fern. If things don’t shape up by the time I’m thirty-nine, I’ll get you to do a little matchmaking, okay?”
“Oh, you don’t want to wait that long, Miranda. Everybody needs a soul mate.”
Betty said, “A soul mate, Fern, not a middle-aged preschooler who leaves his crap all over the joint. This guy’s mother has a lot to answer for.”
Fern countered with, “Listen to you, Betty. You wouldn’t be talking like that if you’d just get a man by your side, yourself.”
“Don’t need a man. Got ma dogs. And they’re as good as any man ya could know.”
It was dangerous territory. We knew better than to touch on the subject of Betty’s dogs, or the rest of the canine kingdom, for that matter.
As I brought The Bachelor’s stainless-steel fixtures back up to their original gleaming state, my imagination wandered to the life I would lead once I got to London.
My father would probably put me up. I had an open invitation, after all. I pictured his house in South Kensington, solid and white, a small garden in the back, a nice garret room with a gas fire for me on the third floor. He’d coach me on my audition pieces, give me the kind of tips that only the big singers can give you. I’d be doing quite a bit of cleaning and redecorating at his house, too, because he’d been living like The Bachelor himself all these years. He’d told me so.
He’d need me. He’d need a woman’s touch around the place. When we’d spoken on the phone a few years back, he’d told me I was welcome anytime.
It had taken a lot of courage for me to make the call but he’d sounded so happy, really overjoyed to hear from me. And after speaking with him, I could have flown around the room, I felt so high. When I told my mother about his invitation, she said, “He was probably pissed. He’ll have forgotten all about it by tomorrow.”
And Lyle, my mother’s second husband, had chimed in, “If ya gotta go ’n see him, Miranda, ya gotta go. But hang on to your wallet. And just remember, we’re here for you, eh? If ya wanna talk about it afterward.”
I’d wanted to fly off to England as soon as the call had ended, but I was nineteen at the time and already at university. I had no extra money and no extra time. But I knew that the day would come when the reunion with my father would become a reality.
We finished the Special and hauled the equipment down to the company car. There, I took off my Adidas and put my Doc Martens on. I badly wished I could have had a shower first and rinsed off all The Bachelor’s dust. But I was on a tight schedule. Betty was nice enough to give me a lift down to the theater. She wasn’t supposed to take the company car anywhere except to cleaning jobs, but she didn’t care. Nobody, not even Cora, ever argued with Betty.
I ate the last of Grace’s sandwiches in the car. It was Brie, speck and pickled artichokes on seven-grain bread. I looked forward to the day when I became rich and famous and would either pay for Grace to come and cook for me, or I could adopt her.
Can you do that? Adopt special spinster angels? Grace’s sandwiches homed in on oral pleasure centers I never knew I had.
Betty dropped me off right at the stage door.
I checked off my name and descended into the beige bowels of the theater. Fatigue stopped me in the doorway to the women’s chorus dressing room.
And then I had one of those moments. One of those insightful moments that make you so happy your skin tingles. You’ve arrived in your world. The one they nearly didn’t let you into, the one where it’s a privilege to sweat under hot lights in a costume that already reeks of another soprano, have your toes stepped on by hefty mezzos and your eardrums split by tenors who refuse to stop singing directly into the side of your head.
At the mirror next to mine, Tina, who was a mezzo like me, was applying her geisha face. I sat down.
Tina said, “Miranda. Finally. I thought you were going to be late. That stage manager would make a good prison warden. She doesn’t bend an inch on check-ins.”
Three red circles around your name for being late and you risked being kicked out of the chorus.
“I had four minutes to go,” I said.
“That’s cutting it pretty fine,” said Tina.
“You going to stand in the wings tonight?” When a singer was fabulous, like our lead soprano, Ellie Watson, that’s what we did. Stood in the wings and studied her, hoping some of her magic would get into our bloodstreams.
Tina nodded. “Our Madame Butterball’s pretty amazing, eh? That Ellie’s got another one of your paint-peeling voices. Too bad she doesn’t have the look. How much do you think she weighs?”
“More than bathroom scales register,” I replied.
“Yeah, she doesn’t need a dresser, she needs an upholsterer. But I’m not just standing back there to listen to her. I’m going to gape at Kurt. I’m shoving myself under the maestro’s nose so he’ll notice me. I wouldn’t mind studying under him any day. Under him. Over him. Any position he wants. That man is quality grade-A prime cut. He can beat my time with his baton whenever he likes.”
Against all of Kurt’s warning, I whispered into Tina’s ear, “You’re too late. He’s mine.”
She whipped around to look straight at me. Her voice dropped about a thousand decibels. “Kurt Hancock? What do you mean, he’s yours?”
“I mean we’re good friends. More than friends.”
We were huddled over our makeup tables while having this whispered conversation. The dressing room was too quiet and letting the other gossip-starved dames in on the latest developments in my life would be like throwing fat juicy sailors into shark-infested waters—instant death.
“Get your face on, Miranda, and hurry up about it,” Tina ordered. “I gotta have a word with you.” She was as tall as me but she had an angular face and piercing, intimidating, black eyes. When she gave me orders, I obeyed.
I smeared on the white for my geisha face, then drew in the tiny pinched lips and the eyebrows. We always left our wigs until last. They were heavy and itchy. It had been a bit of a catfight when it came to the director giving out these geisha roles. There was a whale-size middle-aged singer who thought that she should get first pick of everything because of seniority. What did she think this was? An office job? This was showbiz. And showbiz, as everyone knows, is the biggest dictatorship in the world. In the end, the geisha parts went to the youngest, thinnest girls in the chorus. Tina and me and six others.
When I finally had my costume and makeup on, Tina dragged me down the hallway and upstairs into a quiet corner of the vast area backstage.
“Okay. So what’s this ‘friends’ stuff?”
“Like I said, Kurt and I are very good friends.”
“In the biblical sense, right? You mean you’re screwing him?”
“Sort of,” I mumbled.
“What do you mean, sort of?”
“We haven’t actually gotten down to exchanging bodily fluids.”
“You’re kidding. What does it take to get down to it?”
“The mood’s got to be right but maybe tonight. He’s coming over after. I’d really like it to happen before the party because if he comes to the party with other people, he probably won’t stay after. You know, appearances and all that.”
“Why?” asked Tina.
“He doesn’t want anybody to know about us because he’s not officially divorced yet.”
“First of all, I have to say, Miranda Lyme, are you out of your gourd? You’re fucking the conductor…and he’s married.”
She said to the air, “Kurt Hancock, I don’t know what you’re up to with my friend Miranda, but you’ve disillusioned me. I am so disappointed. I thought you were better than that. Yet another married man screwing around.”
“Well, not really, not exactly, not yet anyway…”
“Okay, and another thing. You’re nearly fucking the conductor and you don’t tell me? Some friend you are, Miranda Lyme.”
“It’s complicated. It’s not what it sounds like. And I would have told you as soon as it became a fait accompli. But it hasn’t yet.”
“You better get moving. Only two more performances left and then closing night and he’s outa here. Back to…where is it he lives? Paris?”
“London. But he’s got engagements in the States first.”
“So tell me about this not-what-it-sounds-like stuff. But I’m warning you. I’ve almost definitely heard it all before and reserve the right not to believe any of it.”
“His wife’s away in Tuscany. She wants a divorce…”
“Heard it,” blurted Tina.
“Just wait. If you could only see how upset Kurt is, you’d know it was for real. I mean, he must really care. It’s her that wants to leave him. He’s been pretty open about his feelings. They’re legally separated, and now it’s just a matter of finalizing.”
“Uh-huh?” Tina’s tone was skeptical. “So why’s she divorcing him? He tell you?”
“Yeah. He said it was because he’s always away. She wants someone who’s there. He’s almost single. Really,” I protested.
Tina was silent for a long time.
“Listen, Tina. I’m going to England anyway. I bought my ticket today.”
“Miranda. No. Really? You’re not bullshitting me, are you?”
“I’ve got that audition with the ENO.”
“Fantastic. Sort of… I wish you weren’t going though. Where am I going to find somebody else who lets me boss them around the way you do?”
“Jeez. It’s not forever. The audition’s in January. So I figure, if Kurt happens to be part of the bargain, all the better. Lots of people have these tricky back-and-forth relationships. You’re going to have to deal with it, too, you know, Tina. One of these days. Once you decide to take yourself seriously. Once your career gets going, you’re going to be traveling a lot.”
Tina snorted, “My career? Ha.”
“Trust me. You have to have a couple of plans of action. I can’t predict how things are going to go with Kurt. I don’t want to get inside his head, I just want to enjoy the feeling while it lasts, and then we’ll see. It’s been ages since anyone paid so much attention to me. So right now, it’s London, and the ENO, and getting to know my father again, and then I have to be back here in Vancouver for March. Kurt wants me to sing a song cycle of his.”
Tina gave me a dark look and I can’t say it wasn’t envy. “Nice side benefit to screwing the conductor, eh?”
I shrugged. “I had to work for it.”
She glared at me. “Sure you did.”
“I did.” Tina had a nerve. My first big date with Kurt had been an audition.
The evening after the broom-closet incident, he’d sent an unsigned note to me in the women’s chorus dressing room asking me to wait for him in the lobby of his hotel, and then to follow him up to his room at a distance. I was a bit put out by the cloak-and-dagger stuff but I did what I was told. I watched him get his key at the front desk of the Pan Pacific, then went up a few paces behind him. He left the door of his hotel room ajar, so I went in without knocking. When I came into the room, he was already seated at the piano.
Kurt had an entire suite. His rooms had fruit baskets, fresh-cut flowers, iced champagne, little chocolates on the pillow, pristine perfumed bed linen, Chinese screens, a giant claw-foot tub, a recently tuned Steinway baby grand piano and a spectacular view of Vancouver harbor.
I had to stand for a minute and take in the hotel suite. The best hotel in my hometown of Cold Shanks has lasagna carpeting to hide the spills and a series of black-velvet masterpieces and sad clown faces decorating the flocked bordello wallpaper.
Before he touched or kissed me again, Kurt asked me to sing for him. I was ready for it. In fact, I’d prayed for it to happen. I took some music out of my bag and put it on the piano. First I sang some French songs by Ravel and then some Rossini.
Without a word, Kurt then thrust a part of his song cycle at me and made me sight-sing it cold. I had to concentrate so hard I practically sweated treble clefs. Later, he made me sing it again. I must have impressed him because he was happy enough with my interpretation to promise me that I would be the one to premiere it with the Vancouver Symphony the following March.
But first, I’d have to deal with Madame Klein. She disapproved of young singers doing anything that was slightly beyond them, and Kurt’s music was difficult, even more difficult than Oskar Klein’s music. Oskar had been a composer in the line of Richard Strauss. The avant-garde composers of his time accused Oskar of holding back the progress of music, because his music was harmonic and harked back to romanticism. But it was singable, accessible, moving and beautiful.
As for Kurt’s music, that was something else.
Kurt’s music was all the fault of the composer Arnold Schoenberg and his twelve-tone row.
One day at the beginning of the twentieth century, old Arnie must have woken up, taken a sip of his good strong Viennese coffee, clutched his stomach and yelled, “Mein Gott im Himmel,” as an undiagnosed ulcer started acting up. Maybe if he’d been feeling good about himself and the world, he would have sat down and written some gorgeous postromantic tonal symphony.
Instead, old Arnie had a bone to pick with the world.
You have to picture a short, balding man, whose big bulging eyes were filled with a fanatical gleam as he thought, “Ja. I’ll make all of them suffer, too. I shall invent the twelve-tone row and then they’ll be really sorry.”
So he uses the twelve notes that you find in an octave of black and white piano keys, lines them up in some kind of arbitrary order and calls it a tone row. Then he takes that little sucker of a tone row and sticks it everywhere in his composition, and God help you if you don’t know it’s there because that’s the whole point of the exercise. The new big test for the musical-chic crowd—spot Arnie’s tone row.
It’s also been called serial music, and I can guarantee that at times it’s been serial murder to listen to.
And as if that weren’t bad enough, Arnie had to go and start teaching his new approach and acquiring his disciples, Webern and Berg.
Collectively, they make up the group that I like to call the Bing Bang Bong Boys.
Imagine a cat with a really sophisticated sense of rhythm walking around on the piano. Black keys. White keys. It doesn’t matter. Then imagine scoring that sound for a big orchestra. That’s more or less how atonal music sounds.
I’m not saying this music doesn’t have its uses. Hollywood has gotten great mileage out of it for scoring movies about stalkers, slash murderers, killer vegetables, sharks and a whole galaxy of alien predators.
Schoenberg’s tone row is to music what Finnegan’s Wake is to literature. Do you curl up with Finnegan’s Wake when you want to have a nice relaxing read? Tell the truth now.
Okay. I know. Tonality had to go out the window. For the sake of artistic progress. It was a dirty job and somebody had to do it. And Arnie, Arnie was a guy with a real sense of mission, just the man for the job.
However, when I want a piece of serious music to curl up with, I choose something sweet and harmonic. Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Prokofiev’s First Symphony, Strauss’s Four Last Songs, Mozart’s clarinet concerto. Curling up to Schoenberg and the Bing Bang Bong Boys is like trying to cling to a slippery piece of driftwood in the middle of a desolate stormy ocean.
As for Kurt Hancock’s music, it wasn’t that his pieces didn’t have lush tonal, even pretty, moments. They did. But as soon as you thought those moments were going to blossom into a big phantasmagoric sequence of absolutely gorgeous harmonies, the composition moved into barbed and nerve-jangling Bing Bang Bong.
After I’d sight-sung Kurt’s song cycle for the first time that day at the Pan Pacific, I’d wanted to shake him and yell, “Why can’t you write melodic singable songs, goddammit?” But Kurt was regarded as an important composer, very much in demand, and the Vancouver Symphony had actually commissioned this song cycle to its great expense.
And when I made sneaky references to my feelings on atonal composition, Kurt had said, “What makes you think that listening to music should be an enjoyable experience, Miranda? It can be a significant, historical experience without necessarily being enjoyable.”
Well…gosh…slap me silly.
Maybe, in the future, I could influence Kurt’s music in some way, put a flea in his ear about accessibility.
I’d hoped our relationship would take a little quality leap that day but it didn’t happen. By the time I’d finished singing, we were both late for other commitments. Though I was tentatively delirious to be premiering a Kurt Hancock composition, now that the March date was looming before me, I only had six months to make it perfect. And as I mentioned, I still had to tell Madame Klein and she wouldn’t necessarily be happy about it, at all.
“Miranda…hey, Miranda. Earth to Miranda.”
Tina then pinched my arm. She persisted, “I said I never thought of you as the type to audition flat on her back.” But she was smiling as she said it.
“Jeez, Tina. You could have as many gigs as you want if you only spent a little more time on yours.”
“Yeah, maybe.” She grinned.
I went on, “If Kurt’s still with his wife when I’m over there, fine. I’ll be staying with my father anyway and we’ll have a lot of catching up to do. If Kurt’s not with his wife, we’ll spend some time together. But he says they’re on the rocks and that they’re definitely breaking up. I told him I was hoping to get the audition and he said if I did, we should see each other in London, because he’d be home over Christmas. He has no engagements. They’re not even spending Christmas together. That says it all.”
“Ooookaay. Normally, if it were me, that is, I’d ask the guy to show me the documentation. This isn’t exactly a new one, but shit, it’s Kurt Hancock, so I guess I have to believe his story. I mean, would a guy with a million Deutsche Grammophon recordings to his name string you that kind of crap? I guess these things happen in life, but jeez, Miranda, why couldn’t you find a man who gets right to the point?”
“I know, I know. Listen, he’s going to be at the dinner party tomorrow night. He promised he’d come. But this all has to stay between you and me. If he finds out I’ve told you about us, he’ll be mad. Typical temperamental-artist type, right?”
Tina smirked. “I’ll be checking you two out at the party tomorrow. For an afterglow.”
“Or a really pissed-off expression.”
“I’m dying to hear what happens. I bet he’s hot. You can tell by the way he conducts. You lucky bitch. I’m so jealous.”
I’d been keeping the whole Kurt thing to myself for too long. Now that I’d let it leak to Tina, I felt a little less anxious. “I’ll tell you tomorrow at the party. But don’t get too excited. You never know what could happen.”
Tina Browning and I both come from the same cow town in the interior of B.C. Cold Shanks. I’m not kidding, that’s its name. There used to be a big slaughterhouse there before the war. After all the cattle were butchered, a lot of the meat was put in the big icehouse before being shipped out, but the best cuts always went out first and the shanks were left over. Tons and tons of them. Hence, Cold Shanks. The icehouse, full of shanks, is gone now but the cowboys and heifers are still there.
Tina Browning came from the main trailer park, the one down by the river, and I came from a suburb that thought it was a lot better than the trailer park. Tina’s last name helped her overcome the pall that hung over a lot of the trailer-park people. The teachers got it into their heads that she was a distant relation to Robert Browning, as in Elizabeth Barrett, and Tina did nothing to dissuade them.
Tina and I hated each other’s guts when we were at school. By the time we had reached the age of thirteen, it was total warfare. We were always pitted against each other in the solo-voice category at every music festival. It was a take-no-hostages situation, the two of us glaring thunderbolts at each other across our parents and the audience in the Kiwanis Hall just before we each took our turn trilling out “When I Am Laid” by Mr. Henry Purcell or the “Habanera” from Bizet’s Carmen. I always thought my clothes would give me the edge, but despite Tina’s trailer-trash dresses and my mother’s hand-sewn masterpieces, Tina often took first prize. Sometimes we tied though, which left us both furious.
We were a couple of unlikely prodigies, coming as we did from families where a musical background meant being able to sing along to our parents’ antique record collections; the Rolling Stones or the complete opus of Dolly Parton. Tina had been named after Tina Turner if that gives you any idea where her mother was coming from. Not that Dolly, or the Stones or Tina were such bad examples. Not at all. The real trouble was, Cold Shanks just didn’t have enough room for two Charlotte Church-style divas.
But then, when we both ended up by accident in the only big city we could afford to move to, Vancouver, and in the same university music department, we realized that we were very small insignificant fish in a great big pond. Everybody was so much better than us and more sophisticated and so completely at home, that we were pushed into each other’s company out of pure shame.
First, it was the all-night bus ride home that got Tina and I talking to each other. Nobody ever slept on those trips. It was too uncomfortable. Going home for Christmases, Easters and half-term breaks we were often on the same 11:00 p.m. Greyhound headed into the interior. It was impossible for us to avoid each other, two mezzo-sopranos both being tortured by the same bunch of singing teachers and coaches, both being put through the wringer by the same theory and composition professors.
Tina got me on her side definitively one day in the singing master class at the U when roles were being assigned. They’d given Tina a juicy gutbuster of a role, Azucena in Il Trovatore, and all through the auditorium, I could see the other mezzos visibly radiating hatred and envy in her direction. Tina stood up there on that stage in front of the entire singing department and the conductor of the orchestra, as if she didn’t give a damn, and said, “I just want to know one thing. Does this Azucena chick get to screw the tenor before the final curtain?”
Second, Tina and I shared one big fundamental problem. Music theory. They had it. We didn’t. When the guilty party, the only floating elementary-school music teacher in the town of Cold Shanks, discovered early in our lives that we had voices, she’d done her best to bang the notes into us any old way she could, so we’d done all our learning by ear. Written music had no more meaning than mouse prints on train tracks for us. We had a lot of lost time to make up for when we arrived at university. But we had something huge in our favor:
We loved music.
I loved music so much that when I was a little kid, I used to grab other little kids on the playground, kids I knew who were getting more music lessons than me, and tell them, “Sing or I’ll hit you.” I never stopped until I’d bullied their whole repertoire out of them.
Tina and I missed Cold Shanks badly those first years. We would swap stories over beer and junk food and wax nostalgic about cowboys, big hair and big steaks. Together we worked on self-improvement. We practiced talking like high-brow musical prodigies and peed ourselves laughing. The other singers in the department were so smart-ass and vegetarian. And they were always going on about their biorhythms. I thought a biorhythm was a new kind of beat from the Bayou.
Later, I was sorry that I hadn’t known Tina earlier. That we hadn’t sat around on the porch on dusty afternoons snapping the ends off my mother’s garden green beans, singing duets. Mine had been a lonely childhood.
My mom, after leaving my father and dragging me back to Canada from England, had dated a series of losers before she met and married Lyle. Lyle had his own auto-body shop, and although he wasn’t quite a loser…more of a flatliner…the first time I had a part in an opera, his comment was, “Jeez, Miranda, I’ll come and see ya if I have to, but just don’t expect me to stay awake while a bunch of fags in tights scream their lungs out up on a stage.”
When I was sixteen, Mom and Lyle’s twins were born and I was ignored. They were both boys, both blond and adorable, and both a total eclipse of my personal sun.
Onstage in the first part of act 1, we twirled our parasols and shuffled along with that knock-kneed walk that was required of geishas. I watched the conductor as much as I could without falling over my feet. I love to watch Kurt at work. At one point, he winked at me. I’m sure he did. I know every other chorus woman was convinced he was winking at her. But there was nothing to be done about it. Kurt has charm and everyone wants to be touched by it.
Now, if you don’t know already, here’s what happens in Madama Butterfly.
In the opening, the geisha dancer, Madama Butterfly, better known as Cio-Cio-San, marries Pinkerton, an American navy officer. She’s only fifteen and she’s soooo stupid, because if she had stuck her ear to the shogi, the wall screen, before putting on her matrimonial kimono, she would have heard Pinkerton blabbing on about a real American wife that he intended to marry sometime in the future.
No wonder he’s so casual about his own wedding.
But Cio-Cio-San has cotton in her ears, and cotton between her ears, if you ask me. When she marries him, she renounces her own religion to embrace Pinkerton’s Christian religion. When her family and friends find out, they all turn their backs on her.
Take a lesson, girls.
Pinkerton then boinks his bride and leaves.
And stays away for three years.
Okay, so there were no airline seat sales in those days.
Cio-Cio-San asks Sharpless, the American consul, how often the robins nest in the United States. Pinkerton promised to return when the robins next nested, so they apparently don’t nest as often in the States as they do in Japan.
Nice reasoning, Cio-Cio-San.
So three years pass.
At this point, they all know what she doesn’t know or doesn’t want to know. Everybody’s trying to talk Cio-Cio-San into divorcing Pinkerton and marrying the wealthy Prince Yamadori.
Take the Prince! Take the Prince!
But this must be looooovvvvveeeee. Because she says that although the law in Japan might permit it, the law in her new country, America, wouldn’t.
Sharpless reads her a letter from Pinkerton that announces his marriage to an American woman. But Cio-Cio-San has difficulty comprehending (all that cotton between her ears) and then slowly she starts to figure it out.
Only three years too late.
She brings out her big surprise bomb, her and Pinkerton’s little boy. She’s named him Trouble.
Got the name right anyway, Cio-Cio-San.
Then Pinkerton and his American wife arrive in Japan, and come to see Cio-Cio-San. Pinkerton stays outside to talk to Sharpless. Cio-Cio-San, who has been hiding, wonders who this other woman is. Cio-Cio-San comes out of hiding and is polite as she and the American wife introduce themselves.
The American wife leaves and Cio-Cio-San learns from Sharpless that the Pinkertons are willing to adopt the child.
Naturally, she freaks.
Cio-Cio-San sends word to Pinkerton that he should come back by himself in half an hour and get the child.
Things go downhill from there. Cio-Cio-San gets even more freaked out and starts waving her father’s dagger around. She ties a blindfold around her little boy’s eyes, sticks an American flag in his hand, and when Pinkerton comes back, Cio-Cio-San makes herself into a human shish kebab and drops dead. All this before she’s even reached the age of twenty.
Who says opera is boring?
Out of the geisha clogs and into the Adidas. There was no women’s chorus in the last part of the opera, so Tina and I were dressed and out of the theater well before Pinkerton had moaned out his last grief-stricken “Butterfly.” Tina was on her way to the Media Club for a beer with some of the techies and musicians, but I had to go straight home.
I had loads to do before Kurt arrived that night. I’d given him a set of keys to my place. Caroline could get a little bolshie with me if she found out he had keys, but I didn’t care. She was paying less rent for the smaller bedroom, so I considered myself the major shareholder.
I raced up the front steps of my Bute Street building and on into the apartment. Caroline was out I quickly discovered. I gave the place a superficial cleaning. Then I took over the bathroom and set about scrubbing away all the day’s grunge before Kurt arrived. I had a long hot shower, then oiled my body with white-musk scent, put on my pale blue bathrobe and went into the bedroom to wait for him. I fell promptly asleep, damp bathrobe and all.
I was woken by the sensation of warm skin next to mine. Kurt had managed to slip into my room, undress, undo my bathrobe and press up next to me without my waking up. I pulled back and said, “Kurt.” His put his fingers up to his mouth to signal no more words.
I was perfectly prepared to let our bodies do the talking. In the dim lamplight, I studied all of him. He was very tall, with slender but muscular arms and legs, longish blond hair, piercing blue eyes and intelligent mouth. He had an erection, but when I tried to do something about it, he grabbed my wrist, hard, pushed me back down on the bed and began to move all over me with his tongue, exploring hill and dale. Well, more dale than hill. And then finally, when the orgasm swept through me, I realized he’d made me come with his hands. Abruptly and frenetically, he started jerking against me and came himself in a little pool on my stomach.
This wasn’t going at all the way I’d planned.
“Kurt,” I said, “if you’re worried about birth control and such things, I’m prepared for this, you know.” I rummaged in the drawer of my bedside table, pulled out some fresh new high-quality condoms, and held them up triumphantly for him to see.
“Miranda, darling,” began Kurt. “There’s something I have to explain to you. And you must try to understand it. There can and will be all kinds of wonderful sex and marvelous orgasms between the two of us. But I’m a monogamous man. I will never, technically, betray my wife.”
I sat up straighter and stared at him, bewildered.
Kurt took my hands in his. The tiniest hint of tears was welling up in his eyes and in his elegant British accent he said softly, “It won’t be forever. You know that. We just have to be patient. Until Olivia and I have officially divorced, there will be no actual fucking.”
My mind exploded, bursting into the whirling newspaper headlines that used to precede old black-and-white movies.
“SANS PÉNÉTRATION POUR MIRANDA LYME” read Le Figaro.
“MIRANDA LYME NON SCOPA PROPRIO” said Il Corriere della Sera.
“NO ACTUAL FUCKING FOR MIRANDA LYME” roared the New York Times.
Kurt stayed the night. I forced him to. This technical glitch in my sex life was already depressing me. There was no saying what I might have done if he had left me alone. I might have tried death by mascarpone, or the lemon vodka home-embalming kit.
I was restless all night, slipping in and out of half sleep then jolting awake to stare at Kurt’s motionless form and try to take in this new development. When I finally fell into real sleep, I dreamed that my bed had slid out the window and into the center of a snowy field. I was alone in it. Over the crest of a snowbank, I could hear the frantic sawing of violins, violas and cellos in a galloping rhythm, harmonies that were almost baroque but modern too. A figure appeared on the crest. It was a man. The first thing I noticed about him was his startling long black curly period wig, and as the rest of him appeared over the crest I could see he was dressed in full regalia, with a sumptuous, glittering, gold-and-black-brocade knee-length coat, huge lace cuffs, silk britches and shoes with a dainty heel. At first his face was blank but as he came closer it morphed between Kurt’s face and my father’s. The music seemed to be emanating from his fabulous coat.
The sounds then became visible, forming around the man into gold droplets that hung suspended on the air then floated downward like sparkling rain. I crawled off the bed and through the snow toward him and began to gather up the droplets. But I had no pockets, nowhere to put the droplets. I was wearing a nightgown, a simple white muslin nightgown of the type opera heroines wear during the mad scenes, for dementia arias. The man started to laugh. He roared and guffawed and slapped his thigh and I realized it was me he was laughing at. He wouldn’t stop and I began to whimper.
“Miranda. Miranda. Wake up. You’re dreaming.” Kurt shook me furiously.
I opened my eyes and rubbed them. I had a moment of disorientation then said, “God, Kurt, I think I just dreamed Lully.”
“You mean Lully the composer?”
I nodded. “Jean-Baptiste Lully. The Sun King’s court composer.”
“How very peculiar.”
“He was dressed in Louis XIV period costume, but it was more than a costume, they were his clothes. Beautiful strange music was coming out of his coat.”
“Too much cheese and crackers before bed, Miranda.”
I ignored him. “I think I wanted to yank the coat off him, too. I wanted to wear it myself. It was gorgeous. I’ve got to try to remember the music…” I faced Kurt. “He looked like you, you know. And my father. Alternately.”
“Good Lord. I certainly hope I’m not going to meet the same end as Lully.”
“Well, my love, the foolish chap punctured his foot while banging time with a conducting staff, during a performance of a piece celebrating Louis’ recovery from an illness. Lully wouldn’t have the injured toe cut off and so died of gangrene poisoning. Silly sod.”
“I think we better not analyze this one too deeply,” I said.
“No, let’s analyze something pleasant. Like your body.” Kurt wrapped himself around me and started all over again, hands and tongue working me over until I was reduced to an orgasmic mush. After he’d finished with me and I lay there unable to move, he said, “It’s all going to be just fine. Wait and see. And remember, it’s not going to be forever. Find a nice little gay friend to entertain you when we’re not together. That’s what Olivia always did.”
But from one last untouched cell of me, a shady all-knowing brain cell, a bubble of anger floated up. “I don’t know, Kurt. It’s all wrong,” I admitted.
“It will be fine. You really must learn to be patient, my love,” he soothed, and began to touch me again.
This time it was a competition to see who could make the other experience the most sensations. I did my very best but I think Kurt won. Again, I was paralyzed.
“Okay, okay, I surrender,” I whispered.
My entire body felt like sluggish liquid as I poured myself out of bed and fumbled with my dressing gown. In my head, the words it won’t be forever repeated themselves over and over. I looked back at Kurt. He was propped up on one elbow, admiring me, his face filled with happiness. How could I not believe somebody as gorgeous and talented and famous as that, somebody who adored me with all but one appendage?
At 9:05 the next morning, I was dressed and staring at myself in my full-length bedroom mirror. Pointy blue reptile cowgirl boots, La Perla tights with blue roses printed on a gray background, short jeans skirt and jacket, hair in a ponytail. Behind me, the bed, the IKEA bed I’d rushed out and bought because I couldn’t entertain Kurt on my old student-style foam-rubber floor mattress, was empty. The only trace of Kurt was the snowy battlefield of rumpled sheets.
It was important not to obsess about this new tic of his. Concentrate, I told myself, concentrate on Matilde.
I switched on the electric keyboard and sang a few soft scales, then moved on to some louder ones. When my voice was warmed up, I let loose with the kind of high notes that remind the neighbors in the surrounding square mile that there’s an opera singer in the zone. Just so they didn’t forget.
Sounds of ransacking from the kitchen made me stop singing. I hurried from the bedroom, increased speed down the hallway, skidding to a halt just in time to see it. Caroline had her head in the fridge. Her friend, Dan the Sasquatch, was sitting at the kitchen table. He was the hairiest individual I’d ever seen. He also had the habit of mooching around without a shirt. It was enough to put you off your food.
At my 1950s aluminum-sided raspberry Formica kitchen table, Dan the Sasquatch was smoking his strange little rollies. Caroline knew this was a nonsmoking apartment. I’d been adamant. But for some reason I couldn’t fathom, the Sasquatch was The One, right down to his dreadlocks. He was the man she’d break all the rules for.
He forever rolled those little cigarettes too loose. Tiny curls of tobacco sparked and leaped out of the lit end and landed on his furry chest. I had this fear that one morning, when Caroline wasn’t there, he’d catch fire and I’d have to put him out, throw water on him, stamp on him, or roll him in my favorite rug, ruining my one threadbare but lovely kilim. Or worse, that he’d burn my place down.
Not that it would have been a huge loss. Despite my craving for more luxurious conditions, all my furnishings were misfits given to me by friends on the move, or other singers off to other gigs on the other side of the country. I dreamed of a gorgeous home put together bit by bit with a sense of style and real money. But it was futile. If one of those big-city jobs came through—if I got the call from Toronto, or San Francisco or New York or London, or, the dream of all singers, La Scala in Milan—I could hardly say, “Sorry, I can’t come and do your season. I have antiques now.”
So most of my furnishings were classic. Classic inflatable plastic armchair. Classic stacked cardboard-box bookshelves brightened up with MACtac and ready to be closed and moved across the country at a moment’s notice.
From deep in the fridge came Caroline’s voice, intellectual and teasing. “Strawberries…mangoes…peppered chèvre…Brie…Camembert…stuffed artichokes…smoked salmon…caviar…well, aren’t we quite the little aristocrat.”
“I don’t think that my food choices are quite enough to qualify me for a noble title,” I laughed.
“Miranda. You’re not going to eat all that yourself? Or are you on a campaign to become one of those really fat sopranos? Don’t they say it improves the voice?”
“Nice if it were that easy,” I said. “I could eat my way to success.”
She continued, “Better hurry up and eat it or it’ll go bad.” She and the Sasquatch exchanged amused hungry glances.
“It’s for a party. I’m having some people over for dinner tonight.”
She turned to face me, crossed her arms and frowned. “Well. Thanks a lot for inviting me, Miranda. For telling me even. Very diplomatic.”
“Don’t be a grouch, Caroline. It was a last-minute thing. If you’re around, please join us. I just thought you’d be bored. You don’t really like my opera friends.”
“No, but I love the food they’re always stuffing their faces with.”
“You come, too, Dan,” I said reluctantly. Then I blurted out, “Just do me one small favor.”
“Don’t touch anything until dinnertime. At least, let me get it all onto a plate, let my guests see it presented, cooked maybe even.”
Caroline made a face. “What do you think I am? Some kind of barbarian?”
“Yeah. A bolshie, punkophile, grunge-bucket, tree-hugging barbarian.”
Caroline grinned at me and then at the Sasquatch. “I think she’s got me pegged quite nicely, don’t you, Dan?”
The Sasquatch said nothing. He took a drag of his cigarette and blew out a huge plume of smoke. Our disapproval was mutual. He’d never really warmed to me, either.
But I knew they were pleased. They’d scored some free trough time and a party. Caroline and her friends were artists of the low-budget lifestyle. When they weren’t waving no-global placards outside an international summit, they were being “resourceful.” I’d watched her and the Sasquatch work their way through the lineup at the university cafeteria, swallowing food as they moved forward so that by the time they got to the cash register, they had one measly item each to pay for. She’d justified this method by stating that half of that food went into the garbage anyway, that it was all about manipulating market values. If something could be obtained for free or with a minor criminal infraction, she knew all about it.
Caroline wasn’t stupid, and although she gave the impression of ugliness, she wasn’t ugly either. But the way she dressed (lumberjack shirts, frayed jeans and army-surplus boots) was a big part of her personal statement, and the statement said, “Grotty underbelly rules,” which did not exactly enhance her feminine potential.
I still ribbed her about the day she answered my ad, the day she tricked me into thinking she’d be a nice dull dor-mouse of a roommate. It must have been the ugly tortoise-shell thick-lensed glasses (that she’s never worn since), her brown hair in a neat ponytail (now her hair is always wild or full of messy cornrows), the long boring black skirt, flat sensible shoes and heap of political science books. That’s what did it. I’d thought she was going to be a quiet, mature, proper little nerd, a career spinster, someone who had no life and spent all her time in the library preparing to win scholarships, so I’d never see her. I couldn’t have been more mistaken.
Caroline said, “See you later then.”
I grabbed my knapsack. “Later,” I said, and left the apartment.
It was a beautiful sunny day, and as I walked I couldn’t help but take in the gold-leafed trees and deep shimmering October sky.
And then I had a moment of panic. If Kurt and Olivia actually divorced according to plan, maybe next year at this time my autumn would be a London autumn. A Kurt autumn. He was getting under my skin in all ways but one. Except for the first big heart-crusher of my life, I’d always had a high immunity to absent boyfriends, not giving them more than a few seconds of wistful reflection once they were out the door. It was a safety mechanism I’d worked hard at developing and now Kurt had shot it all to hell.
I sank into a daydream, the one where I ask myself, “What would woman X do in my situation? For example, if her man offered her the deluxe hot dog—mustard, ketchup, chili, bacon bits, sauerkraut, mayonnaise, cheese—with everything but the dog itself, would woman X accept those terms?”
Well, that’s what happens when you come from an illustrious cow town. You look around for mentors.
Such as Ellie Watson, the soprano from our production of Madama Butterfly, what would she do in my situation? It was a toughie. Since it was unlikely that Kurt would fall for someone like Ellie Watson, who had a gorgeous voice, and a pretty face really, but needed three airplane seats to be comfortable, but suppose, just suppose he had a thing for really big women and it had been somebody like Ellie and not me he had encountered in that broom closet two weeks ago.
Now, Ellie Watson didn’t take flack from anyone. She knew exactly what she wanted from life and she grabbed it. She was from Liverpool. She’d always had the great voice, the voice with the money notes, the good high Cs. All through her childhood, she’d honed her skills by singing for money in pubs and passing the hat. Then she’d moved on to local talent nights and kept on going until she was accepted into a famous English music school where she ate, drank and breathed opera.
Ellie was greedy, in the best sense of the word. When she took the stage, she really took it, making everybody else seem invisible. Well, almost everybody else. Peter Drake, the tenor who sang Pinkerton, was Ellie’s only obstacle. She didn’t like having to share the stage with another diva.
If Kurt had proposed to Ellie what he’d proposed to me, i.e. neutered sex, she would have said something like, “No actual shaggin’? ME BOLLOCKS!” and booted him out of her bed.
In the studio, Lance was going back over the takes we’d already done. He was wearing earphones and mouthing the words along with the characters on the screen. I tapped him on the shoulder. He turned around and smiled. “It’s good, Miranda. Here, listen to yourself.” He placed the headset on my ears.
I listened for a few beats then said, “It’s not bad, is it?”
“C’mon, sweetheart, let’s bury Matilde. You warmed up?”
“Give me a minute,” I said, and began to pace, first humming then breaking into scales.
Lance leaned against the wall. He was studying me. I stopped and said, “What?”
“No…it’s nothing.” But he was still studying me.
Then I remembered Kurt’s advice from that morning. A nice little gay friend, somebody who could keep me company when he wasn’t there.
“Before I forget, Lance. I’m having some people over to my place tonight. Sort of a dinner party except I don’t have a big enough table, so it’s perch wherever you can. I know you’re probably too busy or I would have asked you earlier, but it would be really great if you could come. You have my address and my number. Come later if you like. For dessert.”
I’d always wanted to invite Lance to my parties but didn’t know whether they’d be his speed. I had no idea what his speed was. I’d never partied with him. I’d developed this weird intimacy with him in the darkness of the studio but I’d never seen him away from work. I wondered if he had a life away from work.
He nodded thoughtfully, then said, “C’mon, we’re running behind schedule.”
Matilde and her swineherd hurtled toward their demise, moaning, gasping, singing and generally porking their way around the rest of Paris until they were caught by the homely wife, hacked up and turned into quite a few kilos of nice link sausages and sold for a good price at the market.
When we’d finished, Lance reached out and rested his hand on my shoulder. His tone was serious. “I know, Miranda. It’s peculiar work. It’s not glorious and you want more limelight than this, and someday very soon you’re going to dump me cold so that you can become famous.”
Quicker than you know, I thought.
“But we’ve done a good job,” he said. “We’re close to finishing. I’ll let you know if we have to do some retakes.”
I tried never to telegraph my impatience, but Lance must have sensed it anyway, even in the darkness. In my early years in the city, the university years, I’d been so happy, so grateful to have those jobs that were somehow related to singing and got me a little closer to where I thought I should be going.
But that morning, I felt boxed in. I had the sensation of being in a cage, of suffering the same indignities as a captured parrot. Someone forced to learn words in another creature’s language, on the verge of forgetting the dreams and dialects that expressed life in the lush, raw, blazing freedom of the Amazonian jungle, now far away.
The Amazonian was the other Miranda in me. The wild, restless, unsatisfied one, age thirteen and obedient to no one, who heard Bach and Mozart and Brahms and Verdi and wondered how to unlock the secrets of that music, how to devour all the sounds in the universe, wrestle with them, make them hers, and then pour them back out to the world.
I took a quick run over to Mike’s for a double caffe latte refresher and to check my work schedule. I’d asked for Sunday, Monday and Tuesday off. Mike had said he’d try to talk another girl into working my shifts but he wasn’t sure he could manage it. The other girl was Belinda, his latest girlfriend. They’d been seeing each other for two months and the bloom of the romance was starting to fade. Belinda was sulking.
Mike had gone to the bank. And other than a customer, she was alone. She slapped the customer’s cappuccino down so hard that the liquid gave a little bounce and slopped out onto the saucer. The guy started to protest but she froze him with a look and walked away.
I was overdue for a short visit to Cold Shanks. Even though it was just a long bus ride away, my life had been so busy that I hadn’t been back since last Christmas.
I needed Belinda badly. I approached her cautiously. “Hi, Belinda,” I said. “How’s it going?”
“Prick, prick, prick!”
“Excuse me. Did I miss something?”
I followed Belinda into the kitchen. She began unloading the dishwasher, crashing everything down as hard as possible. She was a redhead, ethereal and nervous, with short, lank, baby-fine hair. Normally, her skin was pale and transparent, but that day, it was bright pink with anger. “I just can’t believe him.”
“What’s he done?” I asked.
“Mr. Smooth, eh? It’s so nuts. Sooo nuts, I can’t believe I’m in the middle of all this.”
“So what’s he done?”
“Well. In the beginning it’s all wining, dining, flowers, jewelry…right?” She caught the gold chain that glittered across her collarbone and fingered it nervously.
“And you think, shit, maybe he’s the one, right?”
“And then he says, ‘Can you do me a little favor?’”
“Yeah?” I repeated.
“He asks me if I can give him a hand with his granny.” Belinda spat out “granny” as if it were an obscenity.
“Okay,” I said.
“His granny’s an invalid. Prick.”
“I’m not sure I see the problem, Belinda.”
“She lives in the big family home, the one Mike and his brothers and sisters grew up in, right?”
“With his mom and dad and one of his sisters who’s married. The sister lives there, too, with her husband and two kids, okay?”
“What he means by giving his granny a hand is that I have to spend the night there. On a roll-up cot in the same room. She can’t do most things for herself. He’s asking me to do night duty for an invalid. Help her to the bathroom, wash her, dress her, that kind of thing. I’ve done one week of it and I’m exhausted. As if I didn’t have enough to do. I thought I’d be sleeping with him, not his grandmother. That’s the whole night wasted.”
“Um, you might find this hard to believe, but it’s a test, Belinda. If you do that for his granny, he’s yours.”
Mike had scared off quite a few girlfriends this way.
“I’ll end up doing it for everyone else in his family, too. I just know it. You should hear them criticizing me, bossing me around. Isn’t it enough that I give a hand? But then they all tell me I’m doing it the wrong way. I can’t take it anymore. But that’s not even the worst part,” Belinda went on. A teardrop baubled up and rolled down her cheek. “The old bag doesn’t speak a word of English. She’s been here most of her adult life and she doesn’t speak English. The place is a total zoo.” She dabbed at her eyes with her sleeves.
“It just seems like it now, but you’ll get used to the way Mike’s family does things.”
“No…no. It’s not worth it. I love him but not enough for all that.”
“You’re too alone in all of this. You have no infrastructure. You need infrastructure.”
“Well…like extra granny-sitters who have no emotional investment. Somebody who gets paid to do it. You need to wear Mike down, threaten him a little, make him realize that he hasn’t got much choice if he wants to keep you. He’s a typical Italian. His philosophy is to get the woman into the cave and then leave her there…to do all the dirty work. But it doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you.”
Belinda was paying attention. “Yeah?”
“You’re washing dishes in Mike’s place. Don’t think it’ll change if you don’t stand up to him. Do the words family business mean anything to you? It means make all the families and their in-laws work like lackies for the greater good of the family, none of whom are having any fun because they’re all working too hard. Make sure you’ve got loads of reserves to step in and help you. And make Mike pay. He’s got the money. He’s been hoarding it since he was two years old.”
Belinda smiled then made pathetic orphan eyes and stared at me imploringly.
I backed up a step and held up my hands. “Oh, hey, wait a minute, Belinda. Don’t look at me like that. I can’t help you. I’m already working overtime.”
“It’s nights. You’re asleep most of the time. Granny takes a sleeping pill.”
I shook my head.
“Ah, c’mon, Miranda. I’m sure you could use the extra money. You’re not doing anything special with your nights, are you? You don’t have a boyfriend…”
“Hold on a second.”
“What? Now you have one?”
I backtracked quickly. “No.”
“I’ll talk to Mike, Miranda. He knows you. He’d never accept a stranger, but he’d accept you.”
She was right.
“It’ll be easy,” she gushed now. “I work your mornings here so you can go to Cold Shanks for a few days, then you do this for me when you get back.”
It was extortion, sort of, but I liked Belinda. And I was already picturing my plane zooming toward Ontario.
I knew a little something about Italian grannies.
During the summer between my second and third years of university, I went on a two-month work-study abroad program to Tuscany. I managed it all on the cheap, had the whole thing planned right down to the last nickel. I’d wanted to visit my father, but the pound was too expensive. Just setting foot in an English airport would have used up all my resources. And I had gigs to hurry back for.
I was primed for the romance of Florence from the minute I arrived. What I’d seen from the taxi window looked promising; medieval stone buildings, huge elegantly carved wooden doorways, outdoor cafés and restaurants with bright Cinzano umbrellas, quaint marketplaces, impossibly chic and gorgeous men. The foreign girls, tourists like me, were easy to spot. They all drifted gauzily around in loose pale cottons, looking arty, as if they’d just stepped off the set of A Room With a View. I quickly learned that Italian women wore tighter, darker clothes not just to look fashionable, but because the streets were narrow, and it was easy to clean the sides of sooty buildings with loose flowing skirts.
That first day, my taxi stopped in front of a large rundown palazzo just off Via de’ Bardi. I was ushered in by a Philippine servant and introduced to the Melandroni family, including all the in-laws and outlaws. Each time I thought I had a handle on how many of them lived under the same roof, a new one would pop up. My job for the next three months was to “accompany” the eldest family member, Baby Melandroni.
Baby was eighty-nine years old and a Bette Davis look-alike, with crimson lipstick oozing into the creases around her mouth. “Accompanying” meant following her every demented move, repairing her wardrobe, peeling her grapes, cleaning up her accidents and making sure she didn’t fall down any stairs. She insisted that I call her Contessa.
It didn’t take me long to realize that I was participating in a real-life version of The Twilight of the Gods. The Melandronis hated, tormented and plotted against each other at every available opportunity, but were scandalized when I naively suggested they might be happier if they didn’t all live in the same house.
I barely got near those gorgeous chic men that summer. I spent most of my time in the palazzo, at one window or another, sneaking peeks at the outside world. Although two of the Melandroni men lost their way during electrical storms and ended up in my bedroom, it was no consolation. They both looked like beagles and were unctuous and overeager, a product of too much noble inbreeding. Both times I had to defend myself by beaning them with the six-pound Italian-English dictionary I was trying so hard to absorb.
I was certain that all over Europe, inexperienced North American girls like me were submitting themselves to similar tortures. I had proof. Tina, for example, had chosen to do her work-study in Germany. I received a long, hysterical letter from her. It was written on toilet paper. She’d been locked into a supply closet while labor inspectors toured the hotel where she was illegally employed as a chambermaid.
It was not so much a work-study program as a ball-chain program.
The summer ended on a high note. I’d struggled the whole time to interpret Baby’s ravings and finally understood that she wanted nothing more than to escape. She was being held prisoner, she told me, by her very own family, and they had taken all her jewels from her and put them in the safe in the bank, and were taking all the rest of her money, stripping her of her wealth, not to mention the last shreds of her dignity. She wanted to dress up like the contessa she was and get back into society again.
So one Sunday after lunch, when all the other Melandronis were napping after having stuffed themselves at the big meal, I got her all dolled up. I packed my bags quickly and we snuck out of the palazzo. We took a taxi to Piazza della Signoria. I deposited Baby at a central table in Caffe Rivoire, ordered her a big dish of ice cream drowned in kirsch, and left. Just before catching my train for Pisa airport (a day ahead of schedule), I called the palazzo and told the servant where to pick up Baby. I spent nearly the last of my funds that night on a pensione in Pisa. What a luxury. It had been a completely frustrating experience, but at least it had been frustrating in a new language.
I stood at the bus stop, buzzing with the caffeine from Mike’s, mentally preparing for my lesson. Over and over I sang the audition pieces in my head. I’d chosen them carefully. Opera management around the world was growing less and less tolerant of singers who didn’t look the part. The days of the three-hundred-pound consumptive heroine were over, except in the case of the truly prodigious voices, like Ellie’s and Peter’s, for whom exceptions were made.
Young singers just starting out were another story. You had to fit the role, and if you were willing to do cartwheels and lose your clothes along the way, all the better.
I’d opted for something safe, with no potential for nudity. I was going to sing Cherubino’s aria “Non So Più” from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and “Iris, Hence Away” from Handel’s Semele.
In Le Nozze di Figaro, Cherubino is a trouser role, a boy or man played by a mezzo-soprano. Cherubino is a youthful and buoyant, all over the place, lovesick puppy. I was pushing it, given my C-cup, but I’d bind myself up for the sake of art and a singing job.
My other aria was from Handel’s Semele. Semele is hardly ever staged. It’s a baroque opera based on the infighting of the gods Juno and Jupiter. The aria is Juno’s fuming in a moment of vengeful plotting against Jupiter. “Iris, Hence Away” shows off a different style, my sung English and vocal flexibility in the middle range, as well as a character portrayal opposite to Cherubino. I tried to make my Juno dominant and alarming, a sort of Katharine Hepburn of the operatic stage.
When I’d told Madame Klein a month before that I was trying to get an audition with the ENO, she’d said dismissively. “Dis vill be a gut exercise for you, ja? Strange city, strange theater, people you don’t know, ja, dat is part of de zinging experience. Und you can alvays zing in de chorus.” But she wouldn’t commit on whether I had a minimal chance of winning a solo role with the company.
I wouldn’t be alone, though. Once I got to England, I would have my father to coach me through my pieces, prepare me, give me the inside story, let me know what my panel of auditioners really liked, on the deep dirty inside track.
But then Madame Klein had gone on to divulge one of her secrets to me, a little performer’s trick, and it had been like receiving the most generous gift.
“Vhile you are zinging de phrase, in your mind’s eye und ear, you gotta be also zeeing und hearing de phrase dat follows. You gotta hear two musicks at vonce.”
I rode for an hour and a half, thinking about the pieces, changing buses twice, until finally I reached the homogenous streets of the city’s farthest East End where Madame Klein lived. Her house was a brown stucco box in a neat row of brown stucco boxes that extended as far as the eye could see. The gardens were drab, and stumpy trees pruned to within an inch of their lives adorned the boulevard. During the winter, those trees made me think of mutilated hands grasping at the sky.
Madame Klein brought all her intensity and ambition with her wherever she lived, so that the neighborhood always seemed more impressive than before, vital and full of promise because of her.
Madame did all her own accompanying. Her arthritic hands were still able to coax subtle beauty from the keyboard. She did not want to know what was going on in her students’ personal lives. She did not want to know about our biorhythms. She did not care whether our hearts were whole or broken, whether we’d just been mugged or our dog had been hit by a car the day of the lesson. There was no excuse for not singing well. Life outside the score on the music stand was a series of minor obstacles that a real singer was expected to leap over without a second thought. The voice ruled supreme.
She only wanted to know that we had studied our pieces properly and would execute them precisely as we’d been instructed. She was exacting, tyrannical, and at times, brilliant. Nothing was ever good enough for her. And she didn’t need the money.
Now, there are singing teachers who make a good living buttering up egos, giving hope to hopeless cases and there are teachers who concede a compliment every so often. That was not Madame Klein. She was happy to lose students and I was desperate to keep her. It had taken me a long time to find a singing teacher who understood my voice.
Singing can be taught using various techniques. There’s the Squeeze Your Buns School, in which your breathing has to be so deep that your diaphragm expands so far that it reaches beyond your buttocks—buttocks that become cramped and muscular with the effort of controlling the singing breath. Then there’s the Up Your Nose School, where the soft palette has to be lifted and the sound has to buzz in the sinuses and ring in the nasal and head cavities—the joke being that a lot of singers have more resonating cavities than brains. There’s the Forget Technique and Think about the Music School of singing.
A good teacher believes in a delicate combination of all these things. That was Madame Klein.
In the waiting area, I sat on a Victorian sofa whose horse-hair stuffing prickled through the upholstery fabric, and thought about the ENO audition, myself and Kurt, Madame and her defunct husband, Oskar, and prepared to break the news about Kurt’s song cycle.
From my place on the itchy sofa, I could hear Madame’s voice in the studio but couldn’t make out the words. There was a staccato blast from her and then Martin, the singer whose lesson was before mine, erupted through the door. Martin was a tall, robust bass-baritone who also sang in the opera chorus. He thought himself very important. Today, he was sweating and on the verge of tears. Madame Klein had just made him less important. He barged past me and out the front door.
I approached her living room. Along with the lavish and finnicky antiques and mustard-colored walls, there was a lot of diva decor. Her walls were lined with photos of her with her spouse, with other great artists, conductors and accompanists, in the renowned theaters and concert halls of the world. Her recordings, awards and mementos filled the bookshelves next to her scores.
Her coiffed silver head seemed to be drowning as it bobbed behind the shiny black Steinway grand. She narrowed her eyes at me. She was checking my appearance like a cattle buyer at an auction, concerned with how I was presenting myself to the world. If she’d had her way, we’d all be wearing dirndl skirts and little white blouses with Peter Pan collars. When her perusal of me was finished, she shook her head tragically at all my denim and leg, acknowledging fashion defeat.
“Fräulein Lyme. Zing,” she commanded, playing the exercise.
“Nein, nein, nein. You bleat like a goat. I vill take your name off ze marquee. You vill never be a great zinger if you bleat like zis.”
“I’m a little tired today, Madame.”
“Tired schmired. You conzentrate. You breaze. You picture ze music. Und you zing.”
So I did the opposite. I thought of Kurt, roving all over my body. I thought of Matilde, porking all over Paris. And I sang. I sang all the exercises and then she let me move on to some Italian art songs. After that, as a special treat, I was allowed to sing a long Mozart concert aria.
Madame Klein stopped playing and said, “Gut, gut. Not great but vee vill make a zinger of you yet.”
“Madame Klein. I got that audition I was telling you about. The one with the ENO.”
“Ja? It vill be a good experience. You get used to auditioning by doing lots of auditions.”
“So I’m going to London at Christmas.”
“Okay. Vhen you’re dere, you go see lots of de really big zingers. You can learn someting.”
“Oh and before I forget, Madame Klein, I have some more good news.” I prepared to unleash the bomb, with terror in my heart.
“Vhat is zis news?”
“I’ll be premiering a new song cycle by Kurt Hancock. With the Vancouver symphony.”
“You vill do vhat?”
I babbled fast. “I consider it my real debut, my first important gig really. I mean, with the symphony. It’s a pretty big deal. I don’t count the stuff we did at university or the opera chorus or those church solos.”
“You vill do no zuch ting. Zere vill be no debut.”
My silence was eloquent.
“You are too young. Your voice is not ready yet.”
“My…uh…voice…uh…” I was about follow in the footsteps of the baritone and let myself be reduced to tears.
“Ze music of Herr Hancock is demanding. Modern, difficult music. You do not vant to fall SCHPLATT on your pretty face.” She illustrated my messy musical dive-bombing with one hand crashing onto the piano keys. “You are not ripe for ze music.”
It was not the first time we’d had this conversation. If Madame Klein had had her way, none of us would have sung anywhere until we were so ripe we were rotten.
It was a vicious circle. You get a job in an opera chorus in order to have some money to pay for the singing lessons. At the singing lessons, the teacher tells you that the opera chorus will ruin your voice, ruin you for a solo career. So you’re supposed to pretend you’re singing by mouthing the words. But can you imagine what it sounds like when a whole chorus of would-be soloists does that?
She expected things to be the way they’d been in Vienna a million years ago. But times had changed. She didn’t want to accept the fact that we were living in the world of the one-night wunderkind, that we were expected to be wunderkinder, too; that even in opera, we were part of a showbiz machine that was only too happy to suck our young juices then spit out the empty husk.
From wunderkinder to kinder tinder in one quick move.
Not that I was cynical. I believed I was ready for the opera-biz machine. It was a fact of life in the twenty-first century.
“Vhen you forget about your idea of zinging Kurt Hancock’s music, ve vill talk. But now I have nutting more to say to you today, Fräulein Lyme. Shut ze door vhen you leave,” she commanded, then waved her hand to dismiss me.
Still caught up in my problem, I changed buses on automatic pilot. I had to get off in the center near Granville. As I was crossing the street, a sound floated across to me. If I had been a cat, I would have arched my back. All the hairs on my spine would have stood on end. But not for fear. For beauty. For a new enemy in the camp.
At first, it was unearthly, like a moaning ghost, and then when I got closer, I heard it for what it was, a mournful, limpid, pure soprano voice. The singer sang the hymn, “Jerusalem,” William Blake’s words, very slowly, with perfect control. I’d sung it myself twenty times or more in my church gigs, Sunday mornings, bleary-eyed and hungover, hanging out with any religion that would pay me to sing their top ten. I froze there on the street and listened. The singer was invisible, around another corner, and I was afraid that if I made a move, she would disappear and I would never see who she was. So I listened.
Now, with the prospect of London looming before me, the words seemed particularly poignant, especially the last part about bows of burning gold, arrows of desire, and building Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.
Yes, those were my sentiments exactly…I will not cease from mental fight…till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.
Maybe ours wouldn’t be a Jerusalem exactly. Kurt and I would have something less sacred and a little more hedonistic and spicy, something a little to the left of Jerusalem. Our own private Babylon, complete with hanging gardens and palm-waving slaves. That’s where you’d find me when I wasn’t singing concerts with my father.
Now that Kurt was in my life, I was starting to consider luxury, the trappings that came with the opera world, with being the desired object of a famous conductor. Gilt and plush red-velvet theaters, limousines, orchids and roses and champagne raining down on me. It was a nice thought.
When the hymn ended, the soprano began another piece. It was “Lift Thine Eyes” from Mendelssohn’s Elijah. I hurried in the direction of the voice, along Granville Street, past the bars, bingo palaces, strip joints, pool halls, cinemas and pawnshops. I turned a corner and under a sign that said GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS, XXX, was a beautiful dark waif seated cross-legged on a blanket with a cardboard box in front of her for offerings. She could have been fourteen or twenty-four. It was impossible to guess her age. Her face was dark and elfish, an exotic child’s face.
A small group had gathered near her. Approaching that part of town, it was kind of like coming upon a single Easter lily in a field of thistles. I rummaged in my knapsack for some change. While I was unsuccessfully hunting, an oily-haired lowlife in a buckskin jacket approached her. She shook her head violently, picked up all her stuff and hurried away.
I was tempted to run after her, but I didn’t. It would only be a matter of days, maybe even hours, before some other creep would get his hooks into her and have her selling her body to pay for his vice of choice. That part of town was crawling with junkies and panhandlers, some inarticulate and wasted, others fit, pompous and smart-ass, shoving themselves into people’s faces with lines like, “Could you spare five dollars to assist an indigent person in purchasing an alcoholic beverage?” My knee-jerk instinct was always to cross to the other side of the street to avoid them or rush away as quickly as possible. They weren’t getting my hard-earned dimes. But the girl upset me. The girl was all wrong out there.
I caught the last bus home. I still had to prepare everything for the party. I was a nervous cook. It’s a fine art getting all your dishes to arrive at the finish line in the same moment, hot and crisped to perfection. So I counted on lots of cold things, hor d’oeuvres, and dishes I’d cooked the week before, stashed in the freezer and then shoved into the oven at the last minute.
I know what you’re saying. What a little housewife, eh? Well, what if it all worked out with Kurt? What if I ended up moving in? What if Kurt wanted to entertain all his world-famous friends at home? What was going to happen, for example, if he conducted a big New Year’s Eve bash at someplace like the Albert Hall, and then he invited the Three Tenors over to his house after?
Even if we’re just talking about a little snack, that’s a wicked quantity of pasta and paella there. I’ve never met a singer who didn’t care about food. When there isn’t something coming out of a singer’s mouth, there’s usually something going in.
I was hoping Kurt and I would do a lot of eating out, experiencing all of London’s best restaurants and bistros. And maybe I could get help in the house for some of the other big events like parties and receptions, because, on a large scale, I really was a nervous cook. He was bound to have a housekeeper, wasn’t he? Somebody as important and famous as him? And separated, too? There was sure to be extra help. Maybe an au pair or two?
Although, I’d have to be careful about au pairs, screen them, make sure they were always older, fatter and uglier than me. You hear so many stories about men dumping their wives for the eighteen-year-old foreign student. Not that Kurt was going to do that to me. Wasn’t his full sexual treatment, minus one point, proof of his overall fidelity in such matters?
I was alone in the apartment in a state of pre-party alert. Caroline and the Sasquatch were out. I’d invited Kurt to come early, but now the afternoon was too far along to still be called early.
I reshuffled the pile of CDs. Nelly Furtado, Joss Stone, Ben Harper, Oasis, Cyndi Lauper, Simple Minds, Missy Elliott, Anggun, Lenny Kravitz, Aerosmith, The Calling, Fiona Apple, Stones, Shaggy, The Cure, Barry White’s Greatest Hits, and a bunch of rock and roll that was so old, you could almost smell the mould growing on it. Because I like those parties where the music reminds people of another time and they start acting out their old superegos, the ones they abandoned years ago.
I happened to know that Kurt had been a flat-out fan of Spandau Ballet, Pet Shop Boys, The Cure…those kinds of groups. Back in his dubious reckless days of clubbing and eyeliner. He was a good nine years older than me, after all.
I put some Oscar Peterson on the player and checked the food again. I just hoped it all tasted as good as it looked. Nerves had made my tongue go numb, so now everything tasted like soggy Kleenex to me.
As I was pouring myself an iced orange vodka, my favorite bottled shock absorber, the buzzer went.
I ran to answer. The voice in the speakerphone was Tina’s.
“C’mon up,” I said.
Tina was with her new conquest, Collin.
Collin was dressed from head to toe in black leather and carried two motorcycle helmets. He was a lighting technician at the theater and a man of few words. “Life’s a bitch and then you die” pretty much summed it up for him. Tina wasn’t interested in a lot of words from a man. The man of her dreams was a cowboy, a drinker and a wanderer. Collin came as close as possible to a physical copy of Tina’s father, except that his horse was a motorbike. You could say that Tina had a little obsession.
One day, when we were still in our third year at university, Tina stopped me in the hallway. I was on my way to the obligatory History of Musical Instruments, which, despite its potential, had turned into History of the Big Yawn for me.
“What other classes do you have today?” she asked.
“Library Skills 101,” I replied.
“Skip it,” she said.
“I’ve put if off for three years. They won’t let me graduate if I don’t pass it.”
“Borrow the notes. You’ve got to come with me.”
“Are you crazy? It’s at least a ferry ride. It’s money. And why Victoria?”
“I’ve hitched us a ride one way. I’ll pay your part. We’ll hitch another to get back. We gotta hurry though. Wayne, this guy in my Women’s Studies class has got a truck. He’s going back to Victoria for the weekend.”
“Guys usually avoid those courses. What’s he doing in Women’s Studies,” I asked.
“Studying the women.” Tina smirked. “He’s not as stupid as he looks.”
Tina didn’t waste a lot of time, so there had to be a good reason for her wanting to go to Victoria. She looked terrible that day so I figured it was serious. Her long dark hair was stringy and her face looked drawn and ash-colored.
So I agreed to go with her and we crammed into the front seat of the appointed truck at the appointed hour.
Wayne, Tina’s friend from Women’s Studies, appeared to be majoring in Babes and Foxes at university. He was definitely eye candy, with an Olympic athlete’s body, a profile that belonged on a Roman coin and a shock of sun-bleached curls you wanted to reach out and twirl with your fingers. I imagined a lot of women were also majoring in Wayne.
He asked, “So how’s life in the music department, by which I mean, any action? You girls getting G-spots attended to?”
I flashed Tina an irritated quizzical look and said, “Ouch. Forget about the prelims. Let’s get straight to business.” But she elbowed me to be quiet.
He went on, “I mean, are you getting it often in that department, see, ’cause I was thinking, if they were short on dudes there, of changing my major. I’m running out of inspiration in Twentieth-Century Canadian Literature.”
Tina said to the windshield in a loud amused voice, “He’s worked his way through the whole faculty. Students and lecturers.”
“Hey. Only the babes, eh? Dudes aren’t my territory,” added Wayne quickly.
Tina turned to him and said, “You wouldn’t know what to do with the women in music, Wayne.”
“No?” He had an expression of disbelief.
“Music’s bigger than any man, Wayne. And they wouldn’t let you in anyway. Kazoo does not exactly qualify as an instrument.”
“Harmonica?” he said hopefully.
“Don’t think so,” said Tina.
Wayne pried and prodded a little longer, trying to get the biological profile on all the flora and fauna of the music department.
“Flautists,” he spouted enthusiastically. “All that embrasure could come in very handy.”
But Tina and I acted like a couple of brick walls and he eventually gave up.
Once we’d boarded the ferry, Wayne went off to check out the babes and foxes on deck while Tina and I sat at a table inside and sipped cappuccinos. First we griped for a while about our singing teachers and then, for the longest time, we just sat in silence.
I tried to break into Tina’s mood. “Wayne’s really, really amazing looking,” I said, “but he’s…”
“He’s gorgeous and he’s a total hoser,” said Tina, bored.
I watched the wild April ocean fracture into sapphire shards with each new gust of wind, and said, “Maybe a pod of whales will swim by and flick their tails for us.”
“Hmm,” said Tina. She was descending into a funk. If gigantic sea mammals impressed her, she wasn’t going to let me know about it that day. In fact, she was barely there.
Tina had left the planet, something she did from time to time. She was out there drifting weightlessly in the galaxy of her personal baggage. Not that she was a space cadet. Tina had no trouble being present for singing gigs. Singing gigs were easy for her because, unlike real life, you always know what’s going to happen in the end of an opera or a cantata or a song cycle. But she had other moments that were less solid.
That day I said, “Tina, you’re drifting into outer space. Don’t do this to me. Come back to Earth. Stay here.”
“I was just thinking.”
“That was not a ‘just thinking’ expression. It was a ‘Lizzie Borden works it out’ expression. You’ve made this trip to Victoria before, haven’t you? Recently, I mean.”
“What makes you think so?”
“Because you know exactly where everything is right down to what kind of coffee they make and where the stir sticks are. You know where the bathrooms are and the best seats. How come you didn’t want to tell me before now? Is this about a man?”
“A sort of man. Who?”
She crossed her arms and glowered at me.
“Okay, surprise me then.”
We were interrupted by the call for passengers to go belowdecks. Tina gave me another grim look. I followed her down to the car deck.
Wayne showed up at the last minute, looking smug. He’d obviously scored some babe-and-fox action for later. In silence, we rode past soft hills and forest, past a long strip of car dealerships, fast-food joints and cheap motels, into the mock-English center of town. Wayne dropped us off in front of a big castlelike hotel and screeched away in his truck, laying a pungent black strip of rubber.
“Show-off,” muttered Tina, then started to hurry toward her mysterious destination with such huge strides that I was nearly running to keep up.
“At least let me take in some scenery,” I panted. “It’s so pretty here, all the flowers, the hanging baskets.” But Tina didn’t answer or slow her pace. I hated her when she was like that. She made me feel so useless, closing me and everybody else out.
“Why did you bring me along if you’re going to act like I’m not here, Tina?”
“Witnesses,” she barked. “I need a witness.”
I knew it. She was planning on killing somebody.
We’d been walking for almost an hour, uphill all the way, into a neighborhood where the trees were ancient, enormous yews and gnarled oaks, and the houses like great wooden sailing vessels, galleons for crews of fifty. Peeking through high hedges into vast gardens, I asked, “Who lives in houses like these anyway? They’re enormous.”
“A lot of them are divided into apartments,” said Tina.
“Yeah. This used to be the residential center of Victoria. About a hundred years ago. When people had servants and lawn-tennis courts. There was a token Russian princess living up here. Up on that hill there, see that castle? That’s Craigdarroch Castle. It used to be the family home of the Dunsmuirs. One of the family used to invite Tallulah Bankhead up here. Old Dunsmuir made a pile with the railroad but he died a year before the place was finished. Then it was a college and then a music school at one time.”
“No kidding. How come you know so much about this neighborhood?”
“You’ll see in a minute.”
We’d arrived at a high stone wall. We followed it until we came to stone gateposts topped with brass griffins now green and pockmarked with age. Where the gate should have been was a chain with a No Trespassing sign swinging from it. Tina stepped over the chain and started walking up the wide, weed-infested driveway. It must have once been an impressive entrance, but now it was like the cracked surface of an old riverbed. In the distance was a cluster of tall trees, a small wilderness masking the house. I followed Tina through the undergrowth and the chaos of litter. Although it had obviously been years since anyone had taken care of the property, and kids had been in there to pillage and vandalize, it was easy to see the kind of estate it had once been.
The house was massive, with foundations in the same stone as the wall. The upper part of the house was rotting wood, trimmed with the kind of Victorian gingerbread and curlicues that always made me think of haunted houses. On one side was a crumbling terrace and eight smashed French doors leading into what had once been a mirrored ballroom. The mirrors had been smashed, too, and the effect was like looking at a person who had been maimed and blinded.
“It’s incredible,” I said. “It’s like The Fall of the House of Usher.”
“The House of Browning,” said Tina. There was a furious expression on her face.
“What do you mean Browning?”
“This was my grandparents’ house.”
“My grandparents’ house.”
“You said you didn’t have any grandparents.”
“Think about it, Miranda. Everybody has to have grandparents somewhere. It’s just whether they’re alive or dead and your father lets you know about it.”
“Your grandparents,” I said, trying out the idea.
“This place belonged to my paternal grandparents. My father’s parents. This is the estate my father pissed away without a word to Mom and me. If he wasn’t so crocked already I’d like to kill him. They were rich, Miranda. Do you understand? My grandparents were stinking filthy rich and I never even knew they existed and they never knew that I existed. And to top it all off, my father drank it all away. The place is going to be demolished in two weeks. They’re building luxury condos.”
“How did you find out?”
“You know those genealogy things people do on the Net?”
“Like that. It was all there. Every detail.”
“You said it,” agreed Tina.
We wandered through the stripped carcass of the house, silently taking stock and trying to imagine how each room must have been in the house’s happier days.
Back in the ballroom, the black expression lifted from Tina’s face. I could see she’d been harboring the secret of this house for months, hugging it to herself and trying to understand it, as if it were an affliction, a tumor. She lifted her arms and twirled three times, like an unhappy Gypsy wife giving herself a homemade divorce. She said cheerfully, “I would have held a recital in this room if I’d known it existed. I’ll bet it has perfect acoustics.”
She started to sing. I joined in, harmonizing. We improvised, following each other, singing whatever came into our heads, and I have to say, it sounded pretty good. We threw our notes out to the walls, walking slowly through the main floor like figures in an eerie dream. We paced and twirled and let loose in the huge abandoned house to exorcise her father’s oversight.
Tina began to make changes that day. She stopped being so hard on herself, stopped calling herself trailer trash and started to become the singer she’d always imagined for herself.
On the ferry ride home, Tina was in a much better mood. “I got one more favor to ask you.”
“Theory homework.” She unfolded a scrunched-up scrap of paper and shoved it into my line of vision. German words were scrawled on it. “I wrote the poem but it’s gotta be a song, Lied in the style of Schubert. It’ll be easy.”
“Easy for old Franz but not for me,” I sighed.
“Ah, go on. You know you enjoy it. I’ll never get it done on time. C’mon. You know you can’t turn down the challenge.”
I was one year ahead of Tina in theory, and because she said herself that she was too lazy to figure it out, and I had done all the exercises the year before, I did her theory and composition homework for her. Pieces “in the style of” Bach fugues, Beethoven concerti, Byrd motets, Ravel arabesques. And it was true that I enjoyed the challenge.
It was unbalanced. In exchange for doing her music theory homework, I got to be her friend, witness her bad moods and endure her cruel and unusual punishments. But then, what else are friends for?
I poured out some iced orange vodka for Tina and Collin. The three of us made a quick toast to our health and knocked it back. I was a little disappointed with Tina. I was expecting her to liven things up but she sank into my couch with Collin and the two of them stayed there, exchanging gooey looks, wordlessly communicating their weird dark passion.
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