PROLOGUE - MAY 1974
“The guest in Musical Memories tonight is the distinguished tenor, Derek Bailey, who celebrates his seventieth birthday today. Join Michael Broadstairs in conversation with Derek Bailey at 8.30 this evening.”
The television set was the focal point of the tiny sitting room of the modest terrace house in South Lambeth. It stood at an angle in the corner of the room with the armchairs and couch of the old-fashioned maroon lounge suite facing towards it. The only other item in the room was a large veneer cocktail cabinet, which had been George Pratt’s proudest and most utilised possession when he was alive. He had died five years earlier, and the two remaining occupants of the little house had little use for it except as a handy receptacle for the odds and ends they brought into the room to keep themselves comfortable and well fed while they watched television.
Although it was springtime, the atmosphere was redolent with the mingled odours of fish and vinegar, more in keeping with a cold winter’s night than a pleasant spring evening. The elderly occupants were settled deep in their armchairs eating from TV trays.
Mrs Pratt, George’s widow, uttered an exclamation at the announcement. She turned eagerly to her younger sister, expecting her to react to the words in some way, but judging by the remote expression on Elspeth McPhail’s face, she doubted whether Elspeth had even heard the announcement. Her sister was eating her fish and chips slowly, staring at the television screen without registering any visible emotion.
“Did you hear that, El?” asked Mrs Pratt. “I thought he had died years ago. To think we’ll be seeing your old flame after all these years.”
Mary Pratt was surprised that Elspeth McPhail only smiled faintly in response. Mary thought it would be interesting to see Elspeth’s old boss again after nearly forty years, yet she doubted whether she would have the patience to listen to him blathering away about the technicalities of singing for the full half-hour. But it might cheer Elspeth up to see him and they could always switch over to the variety show if Derek Bailey’s interview proved too dull for them.
“You were a bonny girl and could have had any man you pleased, but after Derek Bailey married that singer Helen Dean, the sparkle seemed to go out of you.”
“I don’t want to talk about Derek Bailey,” Miss McPhail retorted irritably. “Let’s just enjoy the telly while we eat our tea.”
Somewhat disappointed at Elspeth’s calm demeanour in the light of the significant announcement on the TV, Mary Pratt fell silent and settled down again to watch her favourite soapie. After a bleak day doing her share of cleaning and cooking in the small house, she was only too pleased to immerse herself in Coronation Street where everybody led such eventful lives compared to their own dull lives, and even the most casual conversations proved to be of the deepest significance to the development of the plot. Periodically she glanced at Elspeth, but still her sister gave no outward hint of her feelings as she continued to stare impassively at the flickering television screen.
Mary could not help remembering that she herself had been responsible for curtailing Elspeth’s relationship with Derek Bailey. She had never told her sister that several years after his shot-gun marriage to Helen Dean, Derek Bailey had arrived at this very house in a distraught state, begging Mary to tell him how he could find Elspeth. She had sent him away, claiming that her sister was on the point of marrying someone else and refused to give Derek Bailey her address. At the time she thought she was acting in Elspeth’s best interests and that she would eventually marry Archie Taggart and forget all about Derek, but here she was, after a life time spent in domestic service, still unmarried with only distant memories of the halcyon days she had spent with Derek Bailey to sustain her.
Elspeth resented retirement. After forty years as housekeeper to a variety of employers, she found enforced inactivity dull. Her interests, once so varied, had been whittled down to occasional trips to the local library and mindless nights of fish and chips eaten on a tray in front of the telly. It was only when she was alone in her small bedroom that she was free to remember the exciting days when she had been ecstatically happy with Derek and had lived her life to the full.
Tonight, despite her outward calm in front of Mary, her long-term lethargy had indeed been dispelled. At the mention of her old employer’s name, her fingertips had tingled as long-forgotten emotions and memories, too deep-seated and intimate ever to share with her garrulous sister, resurfaced.
Derek Bailey had been Elspeth’s first employer shortly after she arrived from Scotland as a raw and ignorant young girl. He was making his name as a singer when she became his housekeeper, and after she left his employ, his glowing reference had ensured that she became housekeeper to a succession of other famous and sometimes titled people. But although the conditions of her employment and salary improved with every move she made, none of her subsequent employers ever made the profound impression on her life as Derek Bailey himself had done.
She had never stopped thinking of Derek for the rest of her life, nor had she found another man to match him, although she had received a few offers of marriage in her time. In the years of Derek Bailey’s success, she had listened to his broadcasts, collected his records and kept scrapbooks of cuttings about his performances and his colourful personal life. When she managed to save some extra money she had even attended some of his concerts and had felt proud that his performances were received with such enthusiasm. But over the last ten years, there had been fewer broadcasts, concerts, or newspaper cuttings to give her staid life the occasional frisson of excitement.
She had heard so little about him lately that she often wondered whether he was still alive and in good health. Her sister asked her why she took the Daily Telegraph. It seemed like a highfalutin newspaper for plain people like them. Elspeth justified buying the paper, citing that it was well-written with excellent political and arts coverage. She even whiled away her spare time trying her hand at the daily crossword. But she refused to admit to her sister that the real reason she took the paper was because of its extensive obituary page. If anything happened to Derek, she trusted the Daily Telegraph to let her know at once and to write a fitting tribute to him.
She would watch Musical Memories tonight. If she chose to do so, she could share with the world a number of non-musical memories concerning Derek Bailey, but so far she had never confided them to anyone, not even to her own sister. Nobody was ever likely to hear of the bond which had once existed between Elspeth McPhail, now a sixty-two year old working-class spinster, and Derek Bailey, celebrated tenor.
The intrigues of the folk in Coronation Street were lost to her that night as she thought of the intrigue of forty years before which had coloured her life for all time.
Linda Bailey regarded herself in her dressing-table mirror with well-founded satisfaction. She had been to her hairdresser that afternoon for a rinse and set. The light auburn colour of her hair suited her pale complexion and complemented her deep green eyes. She was wearing her low-cut, figure-hugging aquamarine evening dress and the ruby necklace and earrings Derek had given her as a present for a distant wedding anniversary. She anticipated the comments of the women at the party to be held in Derek’s honour after the interview.
“The old girl must be sixty if she’s a day, but doesn’t she still look marvellous? She could easily pass for thirty-five – in the right light!”
Linda looked forward to being the centre of attraction again, fêted by eminent theatrical and musical people because she was Derek’s wife. Derek had retired from the Kings Opera company some years earlier to become a celebrated teacher of singing at one of the music colleges, but his dry academic colleagues bored her in comparison to the flamboyant theatrical and musical colleagues she had known while he was still performing. It horrified her to realise that almost two generations knew Derek only from an occasional lecture-recital, the old seventy-eights and the few long-playing records he had made towards the end of his singing career.
On rare occasions when the BBC risked its recording equipment to play one of his records, there was usually a cautionary preface, “Now for one of our historical recordings by veteran tenor, Derek Bailey. Please excuse the scratchy surface...”
Linda tried to console herself with the fact that the veteran had worn very well and was still handsome and charming enough to turn a number of greying heads and, more worryingly for Linda, a few blonde, brunette and auburn heads also. She always made a determined effort to laugh off his flirtations with the legion of young women who were invariably flattered by the light-hearted attentions of a famous man.
She told friends airily that he had a predilection for young girls, aged eighteen to twenty-five, as though it was all a great joke, but it had amazed her that recently he had the gumption to expand one of these flirtations into a serious and long-lasting affair. It seemed she had managed to persuade Derek to end that ludicrous fiasco. He was going to see the little bitch for the last time tomorrow to let her know their affair was at an end, once and for all. At least, that is what Derek told her he would do but she was not sure whether she could believe him. But then, he had little reason to be entirely confident of her lasting fidelity and honesty either.
She turned to him. He was sitting in a fat armchair, sipping a small whisky. These days he preferred to spend the evenings at home reading an entertaining novel, rather than face the drive through busy London streets, but the invitation to appear on Musical Memories had been too intriguing to turn down.
He rose reluctantly with only the merest suggestion of creakiness, and glanced briefly at himself in his wife’s mirror. His evening suit was nearly twenty-five years old, but skilful alterations allowed it to hang as stylishly on him as it had ever done.
“Nobody will believe you’re a day over sixty, darling,” smiled Linda, reading his thoughts. “Not a bad looking pair for our ages, are we? We’ve been through some torrid times lately, but we are going to be happy now, aren’t we? Our marriage hasn’t been a complete disaster?”
Derek Bailey met his wife’s scrutinising gaze and made an effort to keep the doubt from reflecting in his sad dark eyes.
“You’re beginning to sound like a publicity handout, darling,” he said lightly. “Now then, are you ready? We’d better be off sharp otherwise there’ll be no memories, musical or otherwise tonight.”
As he put the ignition key into the Jaguar, he suddenly remembered that he had promised he would try to phone Jane before the broadcast. He had no trouble visualising her, seated on that little stool beside the telephone of the flat in Earls Court Square, eating her heart out because he had not rung her as he had promised. If he lived to be a hundred, he would never understand why Jane cared about him as she did. No matter how famous he had once been, he was only a tired old man who was finding it increasingly draining on his emotions to maintain their clandestine relationship. He was dreading tomorrow when he had promised Linda he would see Jane for the last time. Jane had asked little of him over the five years of their intense affair, but he knew she still cared for him deeply. Yet, since his return from Australia, he had sensed a subtle change in her, almost as if she were expecting their relationship to flounder but didn’t know how to rescue it.
He tried to shut thoughts of her out of his mind as he glanced at Linda. He had swept his entire life aside in his determination to marry her, caring nothing about the bad publicity he had received when he and Helen divorced shortly before the war, at a time when divorce was more difficult to obtain and caused more scandal than it would do today.
He could not even claim that Linda had been the love of his life. After Elspeth, no other woman had managed to stir the same depth of feeling in him. Certainly Linda had been a beautiful and charming young girl, but even before the divorce from Helen was final, his initial enchantment with her had already faded. He would have preferred to have held on to his hard won freedom and devote himself to his work without being tied down in another marriage, but he had felt obliged to marry Linda because of the scandal she and her family had endured during the divorce proceedings. But now the passage of time had dimmed the public’s memory of their shocking liaison, and their long marriage was generally considered to be a happy, fairy-tale confection.
Jane had never expected him to go through another publicity-laden divorce for her sake. He had made it clear from the beginning of their affair that he could never divorce Linda. He owed it to her to stay with her in their old age.
They had arrived at TV Centre. Derek braced himself for their entrance, and with a genial expression on his face he and Linda entered the foyer, arm in arm, the epitome of public happiness and graciousness. Michael Broadstairs was waiting for them. Usually he sent his assistant down to collect his guests, but Derek was one of his oldest friends from their early days in London.
“Marvellous to see you both,” he was saying, “You look younger every day, Linda, my dear.”
Linda basked in the warmth of Michael’s compliment and drew her soft wrap closer to her, flashing her charming smile at Michael, enveloping him in the glow of her outwardly warm personality. At that moment she felt confident in the lasting devotion of her husband. She had recovered from the shock of Derek’s five-year affair with a plain unassuming girl forty years his junior whom she would not have noticed at a dinner party, far less in a crowd.
Jane Walters was not really listening to what her mother was saying on the telephone. She kept glancing at her watch anxiously, wondering how she could stem the constant flow of Mrs Walters’ inconsequential chatter.
“.So Dad’s off to Kettering tomorrow to see whether Brownings will put the new clothing agency in his hands.”
Jane listened distractedly.
“It will mean the world to us if he gets this, Jane. You have no idea what a struggle it is trying to keep up appearances on Dad’s present commission. I sometimes wonder how we’ll manage to live when he retires. He hasn’t put enough away for us to be really comfortable in our old age.”
“Mum,” cried Jane desperately. “I have to go now. I’m expecting such an important call. I’ll phone you tomorrow, I promise.”
“Why is this call so important to you, Jane?” her mother asked idly, making Jane feel even more frantic as her mother launched into another trivial homily. “Has your agent another engagement for you? It amazes me how people can even afford to attend concerts at today’s prices. Dad and I can only manage to one if you are kind enough to give us complimentary tickets and, to be really honest, some of that modern music bores us stiff and Dad is inclined to nod off and snore – so embarrassing – but beggars like us can’t …”
“Yes, Mum, I know. Look after yourself and give Dad my love. Goodbye.”
Even as she replaced the telephone, she could hear her mother’s voice rambling on unabated. She would be hurt and accuse Jane of cutting her off. She knew she should have granted her mother her customary half-hour of chatter about inflation, the parlous state of the country and the St Albans social scene, but she was desperate to have the phone free in case Derek should have a spare moment by himself to phone before the television interview.
Dejectedly she slumped into her favourite easy chair in front of the television. She had turned the sound down in the vain hope that Derek might yet telephone, although she was beginning to doubt whether he would now, only half an hour before the live TV show was due to commence. Perhaps he’d been trying to call her while her mother hogged the line or perhaps Linda was all over him and he couldn’t find a moment to himself.
She could hear his voice offering the usual excuse for breaking this or that promise.
“It’s so difficult at times, darling. Linda is always with me when I’m at home.”
Jane often asked herself what on earth he and Linda found to do all the time they were together if he had really not slept with her for the last five years. She remembered an occasion when she and Derek were together in the flat after one of his prolonged holidays with Linda, nearly three years ago. She had been weeping foolishly because she saw so little of him, knowing even as she wept, that he hated tears and if she wept too often she might eventually drive him away. It was his wife’s prerogative to weep and nag. Jane, the mistress, was supposed to be cheerful, loving and light-hearted, unperturbed by broken promises, always understanding him when his wife failed to do so.
“You don’t think I actually sleep with her?” he had asked, outraged. “I haven’t been to bed with her for years. She’d wonder what the hell I was doing if I tried anything on like that! We don’t even share a bedroom.”
“But you say she loves you, that you can’t leave her...” Jane had trailed off hopelessly.
He had not answered. He didn’t want to get involved in a discussion about whether or not he could leave Linda. Instead, he drew Jane into his arms and made love to her for the second time that day with all the energy of a younger man and the deference and gentleness of an older one, willing her to forget her desolation at his departures and the futile existence she led without him as she lived in anticipation for the few stolen moments they could spend together.
While everyone insisted nowadays that marriage was not important, that girls could do as they pleased, Jane was beginning to feel she was missing out on one of life’s major experiences. All her friends were married with young children now, and although they thought she remained single because of her successful musical career as an accompanist, they persisted in arranging meetings with ghastly men who had nothing to recommend them except their bachelor status. Derek, on the other hand, was perfect in every way, but attached and therefore ultimately unattainable. Derek had driven the need for secrecy at her from all sides.
“Don’t trust anyone but yourself, darling,” he would say. “You only have to tell one person and before you know where you are everyone will hear about it, and if word gets back to Linda she would kill us both.”
She wished she could be honest with her friends, even if they thought it peculiar, even disgusting, for her to be involved with a married man older than her own father. She had not dared to tell Derek that she had confided in her closest friend, Louisa. Jane looked forward to visiting Louisa, knowing she could trust her not to gossip about the affair, or condemn her as a two-timing slag. Jane knew that it was Derek who had everything on his side: a pretty, discreet young woman, who adored him, was available at the shortest notice, and made no demands on him to leave his wife. She had entered the relationship knowing that he would never break up his marriage. In the heady days of their blossoming love, it had been enough just to be with him when he had the time to spare. She worshipped the ground he walked on, but as she grew older she wanted something more lasting than an affair, which, in the end, would have no meaning in the grand scheme of things. With a start she saw Derek appear on the television screen and jumped up from her chair to turn the volume up once again. She could not bear to miss a moment of the programme.
“I have pleasure in introducing the celebrated tenor, Derek Bailey in our series Musical Memories, Michael Broadstairs was saying.
“Hello, Michael,” Derek replied, “How very kind of you to invite me on to your programme tonight. It has been such ages since last we met…”
She heard his first few words in that beautifully modulated voice she knew so intimately. She reflected on the five years she had spent with him, and marvelled, with just a tinge of bitterness, at how much futile joy she had crammed into her life in that time.
The three women of the past and present who had shared various parts of Derek Bailey’s life and moulded in different ways, felt quickening heartbeats at the sound of his voice which had altered little with the passing years. His recording of Questa e Quella from Rigoletto in English was playing in the background:
“Though with one girl I was happy this morning,
Yet tomorrow, yet tomorrow, another I’ll find.”
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I CAN'T FORGET YOU by JEAN COLLEN
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Although this collection of fifteen short stories is fictional, it reflects my wide experience of life, as I have always been told to “write about what you know”. Thus there are stories about singers and accompanists, teachers and pupils, and older people trying to adjust to inevitable changes in their lives. Settings are South African or British, and stories take place onboard ship, in schools, homes, studios or theatres. Several stories are loosely based on particular incidents in my life, but are still fiction rather than fact, such as Dux Scholar, Wise Words in the Chippy, Michelle, By Appointment, and The Song is Ended.
Extract from The Song is Ended:
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Extract from The Song is Ended:
Heather put the salad in the fridge ready for their outdoor lunch. Despite the hurt she had endured over the years her heart skipped a beat as she heard Ian’s car driving into the garage. She wondered how many other women still felt like that about their husbands after thirty years of marriage.
The dogs were running eagerly ahead of Ian, elated after their excursion to the lake.
“We went round the lake twice. I’m quite exhausted. We’re just in time for lunch. I’ll put up the umbrella under the tree.”
Heather took the salad and cold meat out of the fridge and asked Eunice Sithole, their domestic helper, to set the table in the garden.
“You can bring tea out after we’ve had lunch, Eunice. I’ll take the little bell with me and ring it when we’re ready.”
“Yes, madam,” Eunice replied quietly, opening the canteen of silver cutlery to gather everything necessary for the meal.
Ian and Heather ate their lunch together in companionable silence. It was peaceful in their secluded garden, with only the song of birds in the trees and shrubs, and the buzz of distant traffic in busy Jan Smuts Avenue. They were grateful that, despite the increase in businesses and traffic in the northern suburbs, their street remained quiet with no signs of houses being surreptitiously transformed into business premises.
The sound of the telephone broke the silence. After a few moments, Eunice came outdoors, the cordless telephone in her hand.
“I said you were busy having lunch, but she says it’s very important. She must speak to you now, Mr Ian.”
‘Who is it?’ he asked, irritated that the pleasant lunch should be interrupted by a telephone call.
“It’s Mrs Tabraham, Miss Janet’s mother,” she said.
Ian looked somewhat taken aback at this. He gathered himself together for a moment before speaking.
“Hello, Margaret. How are you?” he said in the bluff voice he reserved for people he didn’t know very well.
Heather was watching him closely as he listened to Mrs Tabraham’s heated voice on the telephone. She could hear the determined tone, but not the actual words. The healthy colour drained from Ian’s face. He was suddenly ashen. He had to grip the table to steady himself. She heard the noise as the phone was hung up abruptly at the other end of the line, before he had a chance to say anything more. He sat in stunned silence.
“What was all that about for heaven’s sake?” she asked. “Is Janet all right? She hasn’t had an accident, has she?”
He looked at Heather, still in an uneasy daze, not knowing what to reply.
“No, nothing like that,” he said feebly.
“Are you all right? You look as though you’re going to faint.”
She saw that his fingers were trembling and the tic around his left eye was working uncontrollably. Still he said nothing, as though he was gathering his wits together to provide a plausible explanation for the call. She poured him a cup of the tea and offered him some ginger snaps. Slowly it was dawning on her what that call might have been about, but she still prayed she was wrong.
Janet had played on and off for him for just over a year. They saw more of her than any other student for she was often in the studio practising when they arrived. Although she was young, she seemed mature and sensible for her age, and Marina had treated her almost like a daughter. She had confided personal things to her she would never have mentioned to any other student. Janet appeared to admire them both, and Marina would never have thought she would be Derek’s next ‘little bit of fluff’. She was quite unlike most of the other bits, now profuse enough to make into a big ball of wool!
“I suppose Mrs Tabraham found out about your affair with Janet, did she?”
Ian looked haggard and worn. Despite the tea, his throat was dry. He could hardly speak.
“Was she warning you off? Don’t insult me with lies, Ian. I’m sick of your recklessness. You don’t care who it is you hurt. Janet is an innocent, almost young enough to be your granddaughter.”
“I haven’t had an affair with Janet, Heather. I’ve seen a lot of her in the studio and she listens to every word I say as though I’m an oracle, but there’s been nothing like that between us.”
He caught Heather’s disbelieving glance and went on more desperately, “She’s still a virgin, for God’s sake. I might be a swine, but even I wouldn’t be the one to take that away from her.”
“How the hell do you know she’s a virgin if you haven’t discussed the matter with her at length? Even if you haven’t been to bed with her, I imagine you’ve had fun doing everything else but!”
The colour was slowly returning to Derek’s cheeks and he looked a little stronger.
“Forget the whole thing, Heather. We don’t want to hurt the girl when she thinks the world of us both. Don’t say anything to her about that call, I beg of you. She’ll be devastated if she knows her mother phoned here.”
He put his hand over her’s, looking at her with the same pleading dark eyes, which had made her heart beat in her mouth, when first they met. For a moment she hesitated, all too eager to give him the benefit of the doubt. Then she hardened her heart again. He never learnt lessons from his past follies. She could not forgive him. She took her hand away.
“I don’t know if I can bear this anymore, Derek. Just when I thought things were going better between us.”
Why had Ian made love to her so passionately last night if he was involved with this young girl? Usually his lovemaking ceased when he was caught up in an affair, but perhaps this virginity thing was true. His approach to her must have been motivated by sexual frustration, rather than an upsurge of love she had treasured so deeply.
She was near to tears, but determined not to give way, so he would pity her. Anyway, he hated weeping, although he had driven so many women to tears in his time.
“Phone Janet now and tell her to wait for us this afternoon,” Heather said coldly and firmly. “If you won’t tell me the truth, I shall find it out from her. I blame her for being deceitful, but I blame you a damned sight more. You just can’t keep your hands to yourself, can you?”
Ian was silent, but he dialled the studio number obediently and heard Janet’s bright young voice.
“Munroe studios, good morning,” as though she were a switchboard operator.
“Janet. It’s Ian.”
Despite the uncompromising tone of his voice, Janet was, at first, oblivious of his discomfiture.
“Ian, I thought you were at home this morning. Is Heather out at the moment? I’ve missed you so much. Thank you for phoning just as I was thinking about you. You must have read my mind.”
Alarmed at this talk, with Heather standing over him, he cut her short.
“Heather and I would like you to wait for us this afternoon,” he said formally. “We have something important to discuss with you.”
“Something’s wrong?” Janet sensed the severity of his mood now.
“We’ll be in about three. Goodbye.”
He hung up. He and Heather went dejectedly indoors as a Highveld storm erupted without warning. The sky was dark and silent, apart from sporadic flashes of lightning and muted rumblings of thunder. The dogs, so lively on their walk that morning now huddled under the kitchen table, trembling at the storm.
Heather and Ian dreaded the meeting with Janet, and, worse still, the tedious afternoon, when they would have to be polite and encouraging to their students, no matter how much the confrontation upset them. By the time they left home, hail was battering the roof of the car. They felt its rhythmic pounding as Ian drove to the studio. They sat next to each other but, after thirty years, could think of nothing to say.
Janet phoned her mother after Ian’s call. Although Janet was nearly twenty, her mother kept a close guard on her only daughter, insisting on knowing exactly where she would be at all times.
“I’ll be late home, Mum. The Munroes want to see me about something before I go.”
“Did they say what?’ Margaret Tabraham asked with some trepidation.
“No, but Ian sounded grim and was quite abrupt with me when he phoned. I hope I haven’t done anything wrong.”
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THE SONG IS ENDED & OTHER STORIES by JEAN COLLEN