Chapter 1: Mud and Tempers
Christine was stuck in the mud.
It was dark, and cold, and she was standing, shivering, outside her car on the side of some godforsaken, anonymous, winding forest road. She pursed her lips and blew a flyaway curl away from her forehead, took a deep breath to steady herself, and then quickly shone her torch down at her rickety little red Mirage for what must have been the tenth time in as many minutes. Each time Christine surveyed the car’s predicament, it was an unpleasant shock, but of course not a surprise. Similar to when one knew there was nothing but expired milk and a half-frozen head of iceberg lettuce in the fridge, but continued to check it anyway, in the vague hope that something delicious might spontaneously appear. Sadly, a solution to this problem had yet to spontaneously appear. The car, which had been on its last legs even before Christine unwittingly drove it to its doom, was firmly planted in at least a foot of thick, oozing mud, twigs, and leaf matter.
Christine shuddered as a freezing wind effortlessly swept through her fraying green coat, and cast her eyes up to the tall trees above her, which were swaying eerily in the gloom. She couldn’t help a flutter of panic rising in her, was anyone else likely to be coming by here at this hour? She wasn’t overly familiar with the area. It was approaching 10 pm, and Christine quietly cursed herself. She should never have left it this late to leave; her destination, a tiny coastal town called Wemberly was barely a two hour drive from the little flat she and her father had been renting in a poorer area of Greater London, but amongst urgent last-minute changes to packing decisions, final phone calls and drop-ins from some teary University friends, (and let’s face it, a mini-breakdown from the general stress of the whole messy situation) Christine had left significantly later than planned.
And now she was here. Stuck in the dark and the cold and the mud.
As if to taunt her, the mud under the front right wheel of the Mirage gurgled suddenly and the damned car lurched several inches deeper into the mire.
“No…no, no no! Why are you making this worse!?” Christine cried out, grasping awkwardly at the side of the car, attempting to halt its decent, succeeding only in losing her balance and slipping suddenly, arms flailing in a futile attempt for balance. Her landing was soft, thankfully, but the cold, wet, squelching mud quickly started to seep through her worn out jeans and tatted shoes.
I guess things could be worse, Christine thought dully.
She tried several times in vain to get up, but the mud was slippery and sucked at her limbs as she tried to free them, and she couldn’t seem get enough grip on anything to heave herself up. Her muddy fingers slipped helplessly on the back door of the car. Cursing, Christine felt hot tears of frustration start to slide down her cheeks and gave up for a moment, simply sitting and fuming.
A screeching car suddenly rounded the bend and hurtled towards Christine.
“THINGS ARE WORSE”, She shrieked out loud to no one in particular, but thankfully the car shuddered to a halt several metres in front of her.
Christine exhaled, heart hammering. Shakily, she wiped the now cold tears from her eyes, past caring that her hands were covered with the black gooey sludge which on her face now resembled some sort of tribal markings. The car door slammed and the crunching of heavy boots on the gravel road filled the silence, as the silhouette of a man appeared in front of the light from his maddeningly bright headlights. Christine put up a hand to shield herself from the light.
They observed each other in silence for a moment.
Tall. Extremely tall. Or was it just because she was on the ground looking up at him? Skinny too, almost skeletal, and wearing a long trench coat that fell to his knees. Dark hair, dark, furrowed brows, and- was that a mask? Christine squinted, and concluded that it was. A white mask, with long, angular features, made even more severe by the harsh shadows cast by the car lights behind him.
Christine realised she was gawking.
The man didn’t move or speak and she guessed he was gawking too.
She did look pretty bloody ridiculous, she realised, suddenly conscious of the itchy streaks of mud down each cheek from where she had wiped her tears. And of her car behind her, clearly bogged, not exactly advertising her abilities behind the wheel. And of her person, of course, sitting cross-legged in a muddy ditch.
Sadly, Christine reminisced, she had in fact been caught looking more ridiculous. (Christmas 2014, two false beards, an adventurous breast and a carton of eggnog.)
The stranger appeared to be too astonished by the situation in front of him to speak, so Christine figured she would get the conversational ball rolling.
“Well, um, hi-”.
“Why on earth are you sitting in the mud?” The tall masked man said, at the same time.
Christine gawped at the absurdity of such a question, noting on some lesser level of awareness that his voice was, well…rather startlingly attractive, almost sensually low and resonant.
On a much more conspicuous level, however, she was all too aware that he sounded like a bit of a twat.
“Funnily enough, I’m not actually here by choice.”
He stared at her for another few moments as if she was insane.
“In the past-” he lifted up his arm to glance at his wrist watch, “Twenty-four seconds, you’ve made no effort to remove yourself from the ground. Despite being, from what I can observe, nearly saturated with mud.”
Bloody hell. She hadn’t expected a warm cup of cocoa and a blanket, but some basic bloody manners and maybe an, “Are you alright?”, would have been appreciated.
What an arsehole.
“Now I think of it,” Christine said, gritting her teeth and finally finding the strength to clamber up out of the mud- though she did slip again and he reached out automatically as if to steady her, but she was pissed and cold and muddy and he wasn’t helping and so she swatted his hand away angrily, “ That may in fact be because some… madman just recently decided to hurtle down this road and nearly plough into me, and I think a bit of paralysing shock is a fairly normal reaction to a near-death experience, actually!”
He retracted his hand quickly, and scowled at her.
“I’d hate to make any rash judgements,” he began with a sort of mock politeness, “But the state of your vehicle at the present time is not exactly providing a glowing review of your own driving abilities.”
She jutted out her chin, not really having a comeback, having thought the same thing not moments ago.
“You… were definitely exceeding the speed limit!” She eventually said lamely.
He ignored this, and did not break eye contact with her.
“What are you doing in the ditch?”
“I saw a deer. I swerved. Only problem was, there was a muddy trench waiting for me.”
“Because you were going too fast to simply decelerate?” He cocked his visible eyebrow.
She glared at him.
There was a moment of tense silence and then they both spoke at once.
“Now you listen here buddy, it’s been a long day-”
“I have a rope in the car.”
Fury turned to fear in an instant.
“What?” She said shrilly. Did this strange masked man intend to strangle her and bury her body in the woods?
“A rope… which I will use to tow you out of the mud.” He said slowly, as if conversing with the very young, or mentally challenged. “Or were you planning on staying there all night?”
“No, I- yes, uh, thanks, I guess.” She said, irritated by his tone, but definitely requiring his help.
He walked back to his car, opened the trunk and rummaged for a moment before extracting a long, sturdy looking rope. After watching him fasten each end of the rope to her back bumper and his front- carefully and with a kind of annoying precision- they each stepped into their respective cars, Christine wincing as she drenched her poor car seat in mud.
As it turns out, extracting a car from the mud can be extremely tricky business, and consequently, cause tempers to run high.
“You are reversing too impatiently!” He yelled out of the front window of his car. Christine could barely hear him over the awful sounds of the two engines straining, and mud splattering against her windscreen. “You have to do it slowly- there is no friction at the moment, you are just kicking up more mud! No, that’s exactly what I said not to do, that’s not slowly! Christ!”
“I’m not an idiot!” She snarled. “I am reversing ‘slowly’- you need to pull harder!”
“Oh, you aren’t?” He snapped back. “You had me fooled. Can you smell that? Those are my very expensive tires burning from the strain of trying to get you out. I can’t pull harder. No, not that slowly- there is a medium, you need to find it.”
“Oh, your ‘very expensive tires.’” She mocked him, a stray curly tendril of hair falling onto her now clammy brow. She brushed it away angrily. “I’m so sorry my accident is inconveniencing your-”
“Accident?’ He echoed incredulously, “You’re completely unhurt! And also, quite remarkably ungrateful for the person I’m wasting my time and money bailing out of a mess she walked into head first herself!”
At that moment the strains on each of the engines lessened slightly, and slowly, achingly, the red Mirage began to emerge from its boggy prison, and back onto the road.
“Well, thanks.” Christine said stiffly from inside the car, as the masked man climbed out of his seat, engine still running, to untie the rope joining their vehicles.
“Just start driving so we can both be done here as soon as bloody possible.” He said, angrily.
“Oh, come on.” Christine snapped. “You could at least say ‘you’re welcome’ and make this slightly less unpleasant than it already is for us both.”
“Well, you’re not welcome, actually. This encounter with you has been astonishingly unpleasant.” He said bluntly, winding up the rope into a neat bundle.
“ ‘Astoundingly unpleasant?’” She cried in disbelief. “Well screw you, I think your entire personality can be summed up as ‘astoundingly unpleasant’?”
“In that case,” He snarled, the neat, tight bundle of rope becoming slightly less neat and tight as he shook it in his fist, “ Next time, I’ll just take the longer route home and leave you to sort out your own driving incompetency issues on your own, fair?”
“Driving incompetency?” She shrieked, nearly catapulting herself out of the car window to yell at him. “You arsehole, you could have killed me! I can’t believe my luck right now! That of everyone in the world who might have been on the road to help me tonight… and I had to get you! ”
“You should consider yourself bloody lucky to have seen me; no one drives around these parts at this time of night. You’d have frozen in the cold if I hadn’t found you.” He growled.
“Potentially a more desirable fate.” She spat. “And, the words “lucky” and “to see you” should never be used in the same sentence.”
He was really pissed off now; he whirled around and stalked back to his car, throwing the rope into the back seat, before slamming the door behind himself as he slipped behind the wheel.
And they both drove off, fuming.
Which would have been infinitely less awkward if they had not just so happened to be going in the exact same direction for almost the entire remaining thirty-minute journey.
Mrs Anna Valerius, an old friend of Christine’s father and aspiring nonagenarian, answered her door remarkably quickly for a woman of her age. The chime of the doorbell had not even completely finished its melody- Greensleeves- before the old woman had flung the door open, and thrust herself into Christine’s arms.
“Ooft!” Christine was pushed back slightly with the force of the woman who did not even make it up to her belly button in height. Her hair was in curlers and her glasses were slightly askew as she pulled back to survey Christine with her enormous bulging eyes. The view could not be too fantastic from down there, Christine thought, slightly self-consciously, as she was creating several additional chins just to look at the tiny woman.
“Christine, darling! Why on earth are you covered in mud? And why are you so late? It’s nearly eleven!”
Christine laughed awkwardly. “Car trouble, Mrs Valerius, I’m so sorry I’m late.”
“It’s not a problem, dear. I’m just glad you are ok. Well, we must get you into the bath first thing!”
“I will…I don’t want to get any mud on your carpets. It’s lovely to see you.”
“And you, dearie, and I’m glad it’s under slightly happier circumstances than the funeral.”
Christine became suddenly tense and attempted to change the subject. “Thanks so much for agreeing to have me, Mrs Valerius!”
“Darling, of course! Gustave was a wonderful man, but finances were never his forte and I know how difficult it must have been for a young student to support herself in London. Utterly unliveable, that city, you will be much happier in the countryside.”
Anna Valerius’ voice became softer and she gave Christine a gentle side-hug. “Everything is going to work out for you dear, I promise. I know it might not feel like it right now, but things always work out in the end. And you know, it will be nice for this lonely old woman to have some company in the house, as well!”
These words of comfort and gentle mothering brought a lump to Christine’s throat, which she tried to swallow down. Now was not the time for tears. That could come later when she was tucked away in bed. Now was the time to be led through the old familiar house she had spent many holidays in as a child, to the bath. The house was small and cramped, more so than she remembered, but in a charming way. The walls were a soft pink colour, decorated with watercolour artwork of woods and rivers, and numerous black and white photographs. There was even one of Christine herself, she remembered, in the living room, though she was only a baby. It was one of the few photos of Christine with her father and mother.
After her bath, and after Mrs Valerius had insisted on taking and washing her muddy clothes, despite Christine’s protests that she could do it herself in the morning, she gave Christine a tour of the renovations she had done to the house since Christine had been there last. The main change was one room…
“This is my pride and joy- the TV room!” Completely out of place in the rest of the old-fashioned little house, was an enormous plasma television. An exercise mat lay on the floor, along with several exercise balls, weights, towels and what looked like hundreds of fitness DVDs, a hefty percentage of which appeared to be martial arts. Playing on the screen at that moment was what Christine thought looked like a Zumba class led by a man with heavy facial hair and wearing extremely tight pants.
“I do love keeping fit and healthy!” The tiny, grey-haired lady beamed up at Christine.
“I can see that!” Christine said, impressed. Well, apparently the secret to a long, healthy life was tight-tights and tai kwon do.
“You’re going to love living in Wemberly, dearie.” Mrs Valerius said, leading Christine up the rickety stairs and into the second floor of the house. “I’m certain, such pretty woods and the sea is freezing of course this time of year but in the summer, it’s very swimmable, very swimmable, such a beautiful, tiny town, a lovely community, there’s a little church choir I thought you might like to join, it’s run by a dear friend of mine, Madeline Chevalier, absolutely delightful woman and I’ve already spoken to her and she says she would simply love to have you- and that you would be a welcome relief from all the fusty old bores who make up the choir- oh she’s a cheeky one Madeline, don’t tell her I told you she said that!”
“Oh.” Christine blinked. “Yes, sure, I guess, I’d love to.”
A community choir, Christine thought, intrigued. It hadn’t even occurred to Christine that she might still pursue music in Wemberly, in any capacity other than singing opera sadly to herself in the bath. She had been more or less resigned to living out her days working at the depressing part-time job she had manage to snag working at the town’s childcare centre, filling her days by collecting cats and drinking tea. Christine wondered if joining the choir would help to ease the blow of having to drop out of her place at the Royal College of Music, or make it worse by tantalizing her with the dreams she had had that would now never be realised. A significant step down from the College (Christine was disgusted with herself for the snooty thought). And yet…surely any practise of music could only bring her happiness?
Mrs Valerius stopped at one of the many rooms of the house, bringing Christine out of her reverie and into the present.
“And this is your bedroom, we had it renovated too, actually, only months before poor Thomas passed away, rest his soul, he was the love of my life you know, but one soldiers on…”
Christine had only hazy memories of Mrs Valerius’ husband, a tall, quiet man with a friendly smile. She vaguely recalled that he used to go fishing at the seaside with her father on the Daaé holiday trips. Sometimes Christine would go with them and play in the ocean.
She appreciated Thomas’ renovations, anyway. The bedroom was charming and cosy, the walls were painted a soft blue colour, and a large queen bed sat in the centre of the room with an enormous patchwork quilt draped over it. Each square of the quilt had been embroidered with variously coloured kittens. And sitting on the bed were two giant ginger tom cats.
“Oh yes, this is Gerald and Joel.”
Christine gave the cats a little pat.
“Well, it’s getting late dearie, and I know you start the new job tomorrow…you had better get your beauty sleep for the kiddies.”
“Thank you so much, Mrs Valerius.” Christine said, dragging her trunk into the corner of the room and starting to unpack. “Goodnight.”
One of the cats got up to stroke his chin against her hand. Christine sneezed about five times in quick succession. So, allergies were to become a part of her life now.
But, they didn’t bother her for long. After the long, stressful day, Christine fell into a peaceful sleep almost as soon as her heard hit her pillow.
Chapter 2: Childcare and Shrubbery
The day was lovely when Christine stepped outside the following morning, wintry, but with blue skies. She was pleasantly full from a large breakfast of pancakes Mrs Valerius had lovingly crafted for her, and Christine’s mood soared compared to the previous night, after the incredibly unpleasant encounter with the mud and the masked man. In the daylight, as she walked the short distance to the childcare centre where she was to work for the immediate future, she could finally really see Wemberly. Like Mrs Valerius’ home, it was vaguely familiar, more or less unchanged since her childhood holiday visits, but those had been so long ago and she had been so young then, in a way it was like visiting a place one had only seen before in pictures.
There were less than a hundred residents in the village, Mrs Valerius had said. And mostly in little cottages or other row houses that were dotted around on the lanes surrounding the village square; a grassy park with a duck pond, several ancient oak trees, and in summer, a rose garden. Surrounding the square were the few shops that called the village home- a post office, a convenience store, a butcher and of course the pub –the Monkey and Rose. The door was shut and the lights were off as Christine passed. But it looked like it would be rather welcoming and homely when open, with a stone exterior, a sizeable, old-fashioned wooden door and a large hanging sign above it of a cheeky looking monkey bowing and presenting a rose of deep red tied with a black ribbon.
The village was situated in a valley, there were steep, rolling hills rising up both of its sides, which were decorated with wheat crops, cattle fields and little areas of woodland. On one side was a stream twisting and turning past the village, sloping gently downwards towards the sea. Mrs Valerius had also mentioned two manor houses at opposite ends of the village, one the original aristocratic landlord’s house from a bygone era that Christine remembered from her childhood visits to the town, and the other a new house, a “modern eyesore”, in Mrs Valerius’ view, but Christine hadn’t yet been able to form an opinion on the house due to its secluded location behind Candlestick hill, a craggy structure which rose above the woodland and overlooked the sea.
Christine arrived at the childcare centre with so awful a name that it actually made Christine cringe: “Mrs Maxine’s Munchkins.” Walking up to reception, she introduced herself to a kindly faced, very overweight woman with a short brown bob. The woman extended a hand for Christine to shake.
“Christine, I’m Martha Maxine- nice to meet- oh, hello Agatha.” Maxine said as a haggard looking woman dropped off two young boys.
“Meg,” Martha called into the room behind her, and a petite woman with bleached blonde hair, a floral tattoo sleeve on her left arm and multiple piercings on her ears sauntered into the room, glancing back over her shoulder and stopping to shout, “If you put that in your mouth one more time Margery, I’ll be informing your mother,” before walking over to the desk.
“Hi. What’s up, Mrs M?”
“Meg, this is Christine; the new girl I told you about.”
Meg held out a hand, and her numerous bracelets clanged together as the two girls shook hands.
“Hi! Welcome to Wemberly. It’s nice to see a new face.” Meg said warmly.
“Thanks!” Christine said brightly. It was really nice to see that there were some other people her age in this town. And Meg turned out to be lovely- outgoing, bubbly and chatty, telling Christine her various escapades of the morning as she cheerfully showed Christine the ropes of the childcare centre throughout the day. There were a few administrative things to go through- how to amend the attendance sheet if a parent called in with a sick child, the emergency medical hotlines and various policies, but mostly, as far as Christine could see, her job would consist of playing with the children. Christine’s feelings towards children had always been luke-warm, and the idea did not exactly fill her with enthusiasm.
For the first hour or so of Christine’s shift they did some arts and crafts, then it was time for the children to entertain themselves outside on the play equipment in coats and beanies in the feeble sunshine, and apart from one small incident in which a small boy came up to Christine, gently tugged on the bottom of her skirt and quietly informed her that he had done a poo in the sandpit, things went smoothly.
“I-um. Oh. Okay. Thanks for letting me know.” She replied stiffly. She didn’t really know what else to say.
Meg shrugged at Christine in an ‘it happens’ sort of way and assured the little boy, whose name was Kevin, that it would be taken care of, but could he please use the toilet in future?
After lunch it was reading time, and Christine and Meg read Dr Seuss, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, some book about a wombat that seemed to be popular with the kids, and even a bit of Roald Dahl which Christine was pretty sure went over most of the children’s heads, but Meg shrugged and said. “No harm in extending them a little. Besides, I like it.” Christine was getting quite into it by the end, playing the voice of Matilda while Meg had fun with the more villainous characters. Christine had a sneaking suspicion that Meg had chosen the book purely to entertain herself with the acting.
They looked up from the book to see that most of the kids had dropped off and were now quietly drooling on each other.
“Excellent.” Meg said. “Just what we want to see at nap time.”
They relocated the children to their sleeping mats.
“Watch that one.” Meg warned as Christine bent to pick up a red-headed three-year-old. “He’s got lice. And he bites.”
The child took a sleepy snap at Christine’s arm as she picked him up, but luckily, she escaped the incident unscathed.
Nap time gave them a chance to chat- Christine discovered that Meg was pursuing an online degree in community service, and did ballet in her free time, and was half-considering opening up a dance studio for the Wemberly kids. In regards to her own story, Christine kept things vague –it was slightly awkward, explaining to people that you are an orphan who dropped out of University because you are broke- and just said she was coming to stay with her relative Mrs Valerius for a while.
After that there were a few games, mostly led by Meg while Christine watched and learned. Then more feeding, more reading, more putting the children to sleep, quite a lot of cleaning up vomit and other bodily fluids, until it was the end of Christine and Meg’s shift, and they could head off home leaving Martha to the task of reuniting grubby children with their weary parents as the working day ended.
As the days went by Christine found herself settling quite nicely into Wembley, and Christine’s vague fears about running into the masked man proved to be unfounded; if he even was a resident of the town, she had yet to see him in it. The childcare job was easy, messy and kept Christine’s mind in the present and off more unpleasant wandering thoughts of her father, unpaid funeral bills, and the life she left behind, and where Christine was reserved talking about herself and her past, Meg more than filled in the gaps, talking at length and cracking Christine up endlessly with long stories of her various trysts with men she met on Tinder.
When Christine did finally disclose her sad story, and told Meg that she had been a vocal student for the last few years, Meg squealed and said that she simply had to join the community choir Anna Valerius had mentioned, that while it was mostly fusty old white people there were a few others their age who went. With two recommendations for the choir, Christine figured she may as well give it a go. What did she have to lose?
And so, a day later, Christine made her way down the gravel footpath towards Wemberly House, the village’s old aristocratic mansion where Mrs Valerius had informed her the choir director Madeline lived. The house was beautiful, with gorgeous green lawns, carefully styled shrubbery, beige sandstone tiles and enormous windows. Christine rang the doorbell, and soft, gentle bell-like sounds chimed through the house.
“Hi I’m Chris-“Christine began as the door opened, but catching sight of the woman behind it, she gawked and stumbled over her sentence, “um, -tine.”
Standing behind the door was the most beautiful woman Christine thought she had ever seen in her life, made even more remarkable by the fact that the woman was clearly in her 50s. She was slender with long, dark hair and a face that would not have been out of place in a classic Hollywood film. She was wearing a white blouse and a green skirt decorated with an intricate, utterly lovely gardenia print, and her lipstick was a bolder red than Christine knew she herself could ever successfully pull off. The woman flashed a devastatingly gorgeous smile.
“Hello ‘Chris-um-tine’. I’m Madeline.” The woman said, with a sparkle in her eyes that made the joke gentle and charming rather than antagonistic. She held out a delicate, ivory white hand with perfectly manicured red nails and shook Christine’s own nail-bitten hand that looked positively primitive in comparison. In fact, all of Christine felt utterly second rate in comparison to Madeline.
Jesus. I should start wearing more makeup.
“It’s absolutely delightful to meet you. Anna has told me all about your beautiful voice.”
“Thanks!” Christine said, feeling strangely nervous. It was strange to hear Mrs Valerius referred to by her Christian name, but in a way, it cemented Christine’s impression of Madeline’s as someone with whom everyone was familiar and comfortable, and everyone was yet somehow…beneath.
“Please, come through to the music room.”
The interior of Madeline’s house was also breathtaking- a long white tiled corridor with a huge golden mirror and exotic looking plants lined the walkway. The music room was enormous, with a huge sliding door and window that looked out into the rose garden outside; wintry and bare now but probably stunning in summer. Inside, everything was white and gold, the white shelves filled with scores and books on musical theory, the wooden white music stand next to the piano, various trophies with little statues of crotchets and quavers and treble clefs displayed in a gold trimmed glass cabinet, and even the enormous white grand piano itself.
“So darling, Anna has told me you were at the Royal College – I am alumni as well as it happens. I know their training is world class, and I have no doubt of your abilities, but I would love to listen to a few bars of something small to know where to place you in the choir.”
Her voice was the aural equivalent of a delicious waft of flowers on the breeze and Christine had to avoid audibly sighing happily, both at the voice and the simple act of receiving approval from this goddess of a woman. Goodness. Madeline was about 30 years Christine’s senior, not Christine’s gender of preference, and still having this effect on her. This woman would have been a force of nature in her prime.
“Of course.” Christine said, a little breathlessly, and began to sing Musetta’s Walz from La Boehme, a cheerful classic. All Christine’s earlier awkwardness began to fade away as she sang. Her voice was slightly neglected, but Christine was a talented singer, she knew that. It was the one thing she did have. Christine’s eyes opened as she finished the piece, and met Madeline’s sparkling ones.
“Christine, a talent like that should be nurtured, not wasted. I’d be more than delighted to welcome you to our choir, but I highly suggest considering my offer for private lessons on top of that.”
Christine blushed crimson and an awkward conversation followed in which Christine disclosed that she didn’t have the funds available to pay for her own father’s funeral expenses, let alone something as indulgent as private voice lessons. To Madeline’s increasing credit she handled the situation with more grace than Christine expected to possess in her entire life time.
“Christine darling, I don’t mean to be crude when I say, financially, life has been kind to me. I have no need for money. Your voice would be an asset to my choir which is something very dear to my heart. It would be an honour to teach you.”
Successfully having acquired free voice lessons from a nationally acclaimed musician without really understanding how or why, Christine left the manor with a strange, jubilant feeling. Madeline had turned out to be some sort of guardian angel, and Christine wasn’t going to jinx that by thinking about it too long or too hard.
The following Wednesday night, it was time for Christine’s first rehearsal with the choir, and so with some trepidation, Christine made her way to Wemberly Church, another beautiful sandstone building with a grassy, sprawling graveyard with headstones in various states of disrepair. Either side of the gravel path winding out to the road there was a charmingly untamed mixture of shrubbery and short trees. A dark stone wall surrounded the perimeter of the church, broken by a high archway that joined the cobblestone to the concrete pathway along the street outside.
Four older women began to walk slowly up the steps from the road into the church gardens, and Christine felt a nervous flutter in her stomach at the thought of all the new people she would have to meet on mass tonight. She hoped Madeline wouldn’t make her stand up and introduce herself. What would she say?
Hi I’m Christine, my mum died shortly after I was born and my dad died about six months ago so I had to give up my dream of a career in singing and pull out of my place at the Royal Academy of Music because I couldn’t pay my rent in London, let alone expensive musical tuition fees. Also, there’s an expensive funeral bill I’ve been dodging for a while, so if you get a knock on the door- I was never in this town. Hahaha. Enjoy rehearsal.
And even if she didn’t do that, people would want to talk to her. Get to know her. Ask about herself. Her career goals. Her family. Suddenly she was interesting, simply by virtue of her newness to the area. Christine felt a sickening feeling in her stomach. I can deal with this mess so long as no one makes me talk about it. Dear God, what if I start crying.
Spiralling into a panic, as the group of older people drew closer, Christine didn’t hide per se.
She just made the likelihood of anyone from the choir noticing her existence significantly smaller by creatively utilising a well-placed hedge.
And lessened her height significantly by crouching, army style, close to the ground.
Squatted behind a small hole in the hedge, Christine watched the old passers-by do what can only be described as hobble along. As expected, the median age of the choir was definitely over 60 year. Middle-aged to rather old couples emerged, prim and proper looking in expensive looking scarves and hats, neatly folding up sheet music to place in designer handbags.
This was with a few exceptions, Christine noted with relief, as Meg had promised, there did seem to be some younger people in the choir including a rather attractive, floppy-haired blonde man with a cheerful face and a cute grin who walked past talking happily to a loud-mouthed young brunette woman with dwarfism. And of course, Meg. Meg!
Christine shrunk further into her crouched position. What if Meg and the others saw her hiding here like a cowardly little…squirrel? Her reputation in this small town would be ruined before she even had the opportunity to try and make friends. She started chewing on her lip slightly manically.
“Admiring the shrubbery?”
The voice startled Christine and she yelped and jumped, grasping desperately for something to hold on to as her startled movement pushed her backwards. She started to sort of slowly fall sideways into the bush, but managed to grasp onto a bunch of leaves with each hand and halt her fall, just before her head hit the earth.
Supporting her weight perilously with the leaves, and awkwardly twisted in a mess on the ground, she looked up at the man who had spoken. Very tall, skeletally thin- wait a minute.
Her eyes narrowed.
She had seen this man before.
She had seen this man from this angle before.
In that instant, he seemed to recognise her too, and his brow furrowed as his expression changed from one of mild amusement to irritation.
“Oh, so it is you. I thought it was quite a coincidence that this was the second frizzy-haired woman I’d seen flailing about on the ground in two days, but no. Is it due to chance that you are down there so much of late, or is the mud simply a place you enjoy spending a lot of your time?”
He kept talking in that dry, drawling, insulting tone but to be quite honest, Christine had stopped listening after “frizzy haired.”
Frizzy haired. The audacity.
She ground her teeth and then opened her mouth to speak, or more probably, berate, but then-
“Hey, Erik, what are you doing over there?”
Christine quickly found another hole in the hedge to peer through, one even further to the ground, and could see a friendly looking, older man and a woman obscured from view, likely stopped on their way to the church due to the face that the man’s- Erik’s - head and shoulders no doubt were visible over the hedge as he was so freakishly tall.
Dear God, what if that was Madeline standing next to the man? What on earth would she think of her?
Oh why oh why did I decide to hide in the bloody hedge? I’m such an impulsive moron.
She completely forgot whatever rude comment she was about to make to the man- to “Erik”- and looked up at him with wide eyes.
“Cover for me, Erik! Please. Please!” She hissed desperately.
Erik had opened his mouth to speak but closed it now, his eyes on her. Then he glanced back at the couple.
“Why hello there Richard.” He said agreeably. “I was simply taking a pleasant stroll through the church’s gardens. Lovely night for it.”
Richard exchanged a glance with his wife.
“Alright, Erik.” He said slightly warily. “I think we’ll be starting soon.”
“I’ll be there.” Erik replied with a strained cheerfulness.
When they had gone, he glanced back down at her.
“You owe me.” He scowled. “That made me look completely foolish.”
Christine relaxed with relief and said, genuinely. “Thank you.”
After a brief pause, he extended his hand, warily. As she took it, she noticed that his hand was extremely long and bony, and with its white pallor in the fading light Christine had sudden flashbacks to high school biology, and the creepy plastic skeleton that always seemed to be staring at her from the corner of the room. He was strong though, surprising considering his extremely thin frame, and he effortlessly pulled her to her feet.
There was an uncomfortable beat of silence once she was upright in which they were still connected at the hand, and Christine awkwardly turned the contact into a handshake.
“I’m Christine, by the way.”
“Erik. As you are obviously aware.”
“Thanks Erik. Truly, thanks.” She said genuinely, brushing dirt off her arms and legs. “I really didn’t want that to be my first impression.”
“That is…” He faltered and regarded her curiously as if unused to sincerity. “…You are, ah, welcome.”
He cleared his throat awkwardly, and the cool, almost sardonic tone returned.
“So, should I be alerting the authorities? Why are you spying on a church through a hedge?”
She sighed. “I’m joining the choir. Madeline auditioned me last week. ”
His face flashed in surprise then soured noticeably. “Oh, that is interesting to hear. Well,” he drawled, “You will find that the rehearsals generally take place inside the church, at this time of year at least. Less frostbite.”
Her eyes searched his face, incredulously. No, she wasn’t imagining it. His lip was definitely curled in disgust at the thought of her joining the choir. What the hell? Christine had thought they were finally starting to get along, and now Erik was actually repulsed by the idea of her joining a stupid little choir. Hot indignation rose in her chest.
“Are you actually serious? You don’t want me to join?”
Erik’s visible eyebrow furrowed.
“I said no such thing.”
“Your face gave you away. Look buddy, I know we got off to a bad start, but seriously, this little choir is open to all. I can join if I want to.”
“It’s less open to all than you might believe.” Erik said darkly.
“Are you serious? You elitist twat. I have a music degree.” Half-finished, but he didn’t need to know that.
“I have absolutely no interest in your affairs.” Erik spat. “And next time I find you in a compromising position on the ground, which judging by your currently trajectory will likely be very shortly, I’ll leave you to your own goddamn business.” He practically snarled this at her, and angrily pushing aside several branches, he stalked off through the shrubbery into the church.
Christine took a deep, shaky breath, trying not to cry. Her blood was absolutely boiling, what an absolute piece of work. And just when she thought that they were starting to get on.
Christine was generally regarded as a friendly, likeable, kind person. No one had ever taken, from her knowledge, such an instant, furious dislike to her. She checked her phone with shaking hands. Still several minutes before rehearsal was to start, which Christine figured was best spent practising some deep breathing and calming herself down from the safety of the shrubbery, as more and more people started to arrive.
At five to the hour, Christine took a big breath and snuck back out of the shrubbery onto the path. Think confident. Walk confident. Christine stretched to her tallest and took long strides. This would be fine. Everyone would like her (except Erik who didn’t matter anyway), and they would all be one big happy family of singing…singers.
Just as Christine approached the door however, a very tall, very bony, furious man thwacked into her as he was hurriedly exiting.
Christine staggered back. She thought she might have broken her nose.
“Watch where you’re going!” Erik spat at her.
It was a snarl. Vicious. Far more vicious, Christine thought, glaring, than was warranted from someone who had at least half the blame for the collision on his metaphorical shoulders.
And Christine’s literal, throbbing nose.
“What the hell is your problem, Erik?”
He gave her absolutely no notice at all, whether because he hadn’t heard or because he was a rude arsehole, she wasn’t sure, and before she could even register another thought he had brushed past her, turned left angrily at the bottom of the path; both of his pale, bony hands clenched into fists, and disappeared behind the stone wall. A few seconds later, there was the sound of a car engine roaring to life, and the horrible screeching of tyres as well as the smell of burning wafting over from the scene of his inelegant departure, as he zoomed away.
Well, it seems to me that he can do enough damage to his ‘very expensive tires’ without me there to help, Christine thought, turning up her (bruised, potentially bleeding) nose at him and watching him disappear.
Before Christine could contemplate any further at her extreme misfortune on bumping- quite literally- into that particular arsehole yet again, she looked inside at the people in the church, all frozen and gaping straight at her.
Chapter 3: First Rehearsal
To Christine’s huge relief, and increasing interest, it became quickly apparent that she, newcomer status and bleeding nose considered, was not the most exciting thing to happen to the Wemberly Community Choir that evening. Judging by the stunned sea of faces Christine had walked in on, and the hushed, whispering voices now filling the church hall, something had happened in the time that Erik had stalked off into the building and Christine had knocked into him at the door. (Her nose was still throbbing almost indignantly as a reminder of the incident).
Christine was thrilled to avoid interest from strangers on mass, but also grateful that at least Meg seemed glad to see her. Meg had called out her name and quickly ushered her inside the building, exclaiming how excited she was that they were in choir together, but more urgently, had Christine seen the tall skeletal man in the black suit furiously exiting the church?
“More than seen- Erik bumped right into me and didn’t even apologise!”
“Wait- you know Erik?
“ He actually helped me out of a tricky mud situation when I was driving here from London, and we had a… chat outside just now.”
“Erik …chatted to you?” Meg said, her eyebrows shooting up into her fluffy blonde fringe.
“I mean…if you can call it that. He more just insulted me a couple times in quick succession.” Christine said, and both girls exchanged a glance and cracked up into laughter at that.
“That sounds more like Erik.” Meg scoffed, and Christine felt a strange little twinge of guilt. He had also put himself in an awkward position for her in front of Richard, and helped her off the ground, and helped her with her car…though, all the while he had been belittling her, been sarcastic and rude, and bowled right into her outside and refused to apologise.
The guilt evaporated instantly.
“So, wait, what just happened?” Christine whispered to Meg. Had Erik just stormed out of the choir because he was so angry that Christine was joining? Was it possible for someone to dislike you so intensely without really knowing you? Could this really be about her? She internally scoffed at herself for the ridiculous thought, and yet it was hard to imagine what else it could possibly have been that transpired in the five minutes after Erik left her in the shrubbery.
But Meg’s mouth, open in reply, quickly closed as Madeline the beautiful choir director, began attempting to graciously smooth over the situation, calming the room of shocked, mostly elderly, mostly coupled, and entirely white, choir members.
“Attention everyone. Attention, please.”
The excited chatter fell to a hush in the room as Madeline smiled kindly and calmly around at them all.
“Good evening everyone, and please take your seats. Let us not allow that little disturbance to affect our focus and dedication to the music. Music Fest is only weeks away, after all.”
Madeline had mentioned the choral competition during Christine’s audition. The initial heats were in just two weeks, if Christine recalled correctly, so she was going to have to learn and perfect her part quickly. Madeline had said that the Wemberly Community Choir had won the competition last year, and Christine certainly didn’t want to contribute to their not winning this time around. “And now… I would like to introduce you all to our newest member, Christine, who recently moved to Wemberly and who has a beautiful soprano voice. I’m sure you will all make her feel welcome.”
Christine was greeted by smiles and some vague mutterings of “welcome” by the thirty or so people in the room. A few people clapped politely which Christine found excruciatingly awkward.
“I would never usually allow someone entry to the choir so soon before a major performance, but Christine has a stunning voice and was previously a student of the Royal Academy of Music. I have complete faith in her abilities. Now, let us begin with our warmups. Moira, bella signora, if you please.”
The group rose automatically, and Christine hopped up, one step behind them. The pianist, Moira, presumably, began to play. The warmup was easy enough, and Madeline took them thoroughly through the upper registers, down through the middle registers, and down low for the basses. The choir was surprisingly excellent, Christine thought, listening to their communal sound. Very precise timing, good dynamics, and a very developed ability to closely watch the conductor, Madeline, and respond to her commands.
As Madeline worked briefly with the altos, and asked everyone else to be seated, Christine took the opportunity to properly look around the little church. Its interior was far more elaborate than the exterior- each row of pews had intricate, almost Baroquian patterns carved into its dark wood and stained glass windows depicting the story of Christ ran the length of the church. A particularly stunning one of the three wise men, complete with desert palm, camel and twinkling night’s sky, caught her eye. Stone pillars held up a mezzanine that overlooked the pews, and on it was a magnificent gold organ on its far side, overlooking the priest’s pulpit.
After about thirty minutes of warmups, the remaining hour and a half was spent picking to perfection the choir’s piece for the first round of Music Fest, an old classic, Ave Maria by Robert Parsons. Madeline was incredibly attentive to detail.
“Altos, you’re going flat on the E in bar fifty-nine.”
“Sopranos, please, if you can’t hit the suspended high E, don’t hit the high E. I’d rather you missed it completely than sang it like that.” There was a flutter of indignation from a fat old soprano with a perm.
After a solid hour of work, there was a tea break for twenty minutes. As soon as Madeline released them, Meg rushed over from the alto section to find Christine, accompanied by two of what must be the youngest people in the room, and most attractive. One was taller with short hair and the other slightly shorter with floppy blonde hair and blue eyes. They were holding tea in foam cups, the younger one blowing cool air on his tentatively.
“Christine,” Meg said, “These lovely lads here are Raoul and Phillipe De Chagny,” she gestured to each of them in turn. “Lads- this is Christine. She just started work with me at the childcare centre.”
“Hi.” Christine said slightly breathlessly, shaking each of the boy’s hands in turn. What was that Meg had just been talking about? Wowzers the floppy-haired one was beautiful. Christine finally understood what all the fuss was about with the whole blue eyes, blonde hair combination thing. And he had sort of tanned looking skin- God knows how he got that in cloudy, rainy England, but he did. And long, dark eyelashes, like a girl’s. Christine felt a bit cheated actually, that eyelashes like that had been wasted on a boy. And he had white, straight teeth and a friendly, happy smile. A smile that was falling slightly now, oh dear. What has upset the beautiful boy? And why were his eyebrows furrowing like that?
Because he just asked you a question.
And you’ve been staring blankly at him for at least ten seconds.
“Sorry, what was that?” Christine said stupidly, feeling heat creep up her neck into her face.
“Oh- I said, have you been in Wemberly long?” Raoul repeated.
Christine laughed, high and shrill and then internally cringed at the sound.
“No, no. No… no…”
Stop saying no!
“Ah, that explains it.” Raoul said, ignoring her apparent oddness in a testament to his good nature.
“ Phil and I were just saying that we hadn’t seen you around before. And you tend to notice newbies, in a town as small as this.” He smiled at her sheepishly. Adorably.
“Yeah.” Christine nodded eagerly, smiling at him. “You do.” Though she would probably have agreed with anything he had said at that moment. He could have told her that he took salsa dancing lessons from the Queen, and she would have just nodded dreamily.
“Oh, you’ve lived in small towns before?”
“Uh…no.” She said lamely. “Just London.”
A snigger from Meg snapped her out of her reverie. She realised she was twisting a curl around and around her finger and staring at him, embarrassingly.
Stop making a fool of yourself, you…fool!
“But I used to come holidaying here with my family when I was a child. And what about you? Lived here long?” Christine asked, hastily trying to direct the conversation away from her and her stupid answers.
“Born and raised.” Philippe answered.
“Hardly.” Meg scoffed, knocking Philippe’s shoulder with a light fist. “They were born here,” she turned to Christine to explain, “Grew up with me, actually. But as soon as they each hit ten years old their mum sent them off to some fancy schmancy private boarding school in France, leaving me to go to the crappy rural school a few towns over. I only saw them over the summers, really. And now I see them over Christmas break when they’re not at Oxford.”
Raoul rubbed his neck, clearly uncomfortable with his apparent privilege. “Mother was really intent on us going to Saint Paul’s.”
“Oooh, ‘mother’ was, was she?” Meg teased.
“Oh, shut up.” Raoul ruffled her hair lightly, and she growled at him, “Never touch the hair.” She continued swatting away Raoul’s subsequent attempts to muss her bleached bob as Christine politely asked Phillipe about Oxford, and quickly regretted it as he started to passionately talk about commerce.
“Christine.” Meg said, rescuing her, “I need to introduce you to everyone else! Lulu, Lulu!” Meg called across the room.
The blonde woman with dwarfism Christine had seen outside from the shrubbery walked over to them, eating a slice of cake.
“Lulu, meet Christine.”
Christine shook the woman’s hand. “Hi. I just got stuck talking to Edouard. Ugh! Thank god you called me when you did, Meg.”
“That’s Edouard,” Meg filled Christine in, pointing at a gangly, spotty middle-aged old man with red hair and glasses talking to two older looking people, “And his parents- Mr and Mrs Baxley. He’s a bit of a pompous twat, really. It’s not E-D-W-A-R-D, its Edouard.” She mocked.
“He’s just spent the last ten minutes ranting to me about “selfie culture” and how he hates narcissism. He didn’t let me speak once.” Lulu said, putting a finger gun to her head and pretending to pull the trigger.
“Oh my god, look at the fearsome five.” Meg said suddenly, gripping Raoul’s arm. “You mum does not look happy Raoul.”
The group turned to see Madeline and four other women, all elegant, older and well-dressed, talking furiously in a huddle around the fruit platter. Christine assumed the woman with the short blonde bob was Mrs De Chagny.
“Do you think they’re talking about Erik?” Lulu said quietly.
“Obviously.” Meg said. “I was just about to tell Christine about that before rehearsal started.”
“Did you hear anything?” Lulu asked. “People said they’d been arguing, but I didn’t hear any of it. All I saw was Madeline came out of the storeroom looking uncharacteristically angry, you know how she’s always so calm and put-together looking? And Erik came out behind her and sort of seethed at her, “I don’t have to put up with any more of your bullshit, Madeline”, dropped some sheets of music at her feet, and stormed out.”
“And ran into me.” Christine said.
“You ran into Erik outside?” Philippe asked, curious.
“We sort of…collided.”
“Did he say anything?” Lulu asked eagerly.
“Just, ‘watch where you’re going!’ And then he stormed off.”
“Typical.” Raoul scoffed. “The guy’s a jerk. I tried to talk to him once at rehearsal, you know, just to be friendly, and he just completely ignored me. I didn’t try again. He probably just had a temper tantrum about something or other and decided to quit.”
“I’m with you there.” Christine agreed heartily. She didn’t let the group in on her uncomfortable suspicions that she was the reason he left.
“He can be a complete jerk.” Lulu agreed. “Especially to Madeline, during rehearsals and stuff. Always questioning her musical choices and making like, these snide remarks like she isn’t conducting the way he would, as if he’s some musical genius who knows it all. I think Madeline just really wanted him in the choir because his voice is, like, beyond phenomenal. Absolutely earth-shatteringly stunning.”
“Is it really that amazing?” Raoul said, slightly sulkily. “I know he’s good but the way you girls go on about it sometimes…”
Lulu was nodding vigorously. “Like, he has this gorgeous, resonant, almost…sensual tone.” She explained to Christine.
“It’s sexy as hell.” Meg agreed, deadpan.
Phillipe choked on his tea, and Raoul turned slightly pale, presumably with disgust.
“Doesn’t excuse the fact he’s a jerk though.” Lulu said as an afterthought.
“He is a massive jerk alright.” Meg agreed. “And I did overhear him talking to Madeline before, actually. I’m really sorry Christine… but I think he has it out for you.”
Christine’s stomach dropped.
“What did he say?”
“Well…I couldn’t hear all of it but it was something like. ‘So, you think it’s ok to let her in, and so soon before the competition?’ And then he was saying something about Garth.”
“Garth, the grocery store guy?” Philippe said, puzzled.
“Yeah, I didn’t know this but apparently he auditioned a little while ago and didn’t get in. Erik seemed to think he had a really good voice. ‘Better than those croaky old crones you seem to love so much.’” Meg attempted to imitate Erik’s low voice with limited success.
Christine was hurt by Meg’s confirmation of her suspicions, and the others seemed to sense her decline in mood.
“Christine, don’t worry about the opinions of some grumpy weirdo.” Raoul said kindly. “Madeline is the choir director, after all. She went to the Royal Academy...I’m sure she knows what’s best for the choir. And if she says you have a beautiful voice, you do. I can definitely believe it.”
Well, that certainly did cheer her up.
Meg nodded. “Absolutely. And Christine, the guy’s a complete jerk. His opinion is trash. He definitely called Madeline a bitch at one point.”
A sour expression came over Christine’s face. She could add disrespect to women to the list. Erik was even worse than she had thought.
“And he said something like ‘this is just like the mask, isn’t it?’ As if he thought Madeline had some sort of issue with it.”
Lulu shook her head. “Super weird.”
“Why does he wear the mask?” Christine asked suddenly, then reddened. “Oh-wait. That was an awful thing to ask, forget it.”
“Please,” Said Meg, waving Christine’s apology away, “Like everyone’s not dying to know? It’s fine. And the answer is: no one knows. He’s certainly never told anyone, as far as I know. It’s not exactly an easy conversation topic. We always just tried not to look at it or talk about it. Not that I ever talked much to Erik when he was in the choir, he is a pretty solitary dude. Kind of gives out those don’t talk to me, don’t come near me vibes.”
“But surely Madeline would know?” Raoul said. Christine watched closely the way his plump, large pink lips moved when he talked, and the way he ran his hands unconsciously through his floppy blonde hair to smooth it back out of his eyes. And those big blue eyes under dark lashes…oh shit- the conversation had moved on a few steps as Christine was jolted back into it.
“So how does your mum know Madeline so well?” Lulu asked Raoul and Phillipe curiously. Madeline was speaking, fast and low to the four women, who were nodding furiously, across the room. None was nodding harder than Mrs De Chagny. “She only moved here a few months ago, didn’t she? She’s only been vocal director for a few months anyway, and I don’t remember her being in the choir before then.”
“Madeline’s lived here on and off for yonks.” Meg filled in. “She’s always owned Wemberly House. I think it’s been in the family for generations.”
“Yeah,” Raoul added, “She’s been around since I was little. But she has other homes around the country. She only moved back to Wemberly on a permanent basis about a year ago- only about six months before Erik moved back.”
“By the way, Christine.” Said Meg. “Those four women talking to Madeline now? That’s Lucille Jones, Miriam Fletcher and Felicia Black. And the blonde woman is Eva, Raoul’s mum. Though it’s probably safest to call her Mrs De Chagny.”
“Mother wouldn’t mind, honestly Christine. You can call her Eve.” Raoul said, and smiled sheepishly at her.
Christine’s heart did a somersault.
Meg rolled her eyes. “Will you listen to this mama’s boy?”
“Hmm, who else should we introduce to her.” Lulu chimed in. “That couple over there are Mr and Mrs Montgomery- nightmares, don’t even bother. Who’s nice? Oh, Peggy!”
Meg and Lulu dragged Christine over to a friendly looking old woman and her husband. Christine noticed with mortification that they were the couple who had stopped to ask Erik what he was doing in the shrubbery. She tried to fight her rising embarrassment. They have no idea, relax.
“This is Peggy and Richard Smith. They’re lovely.” Lulu said.
“Hello, dear.” Peggy said, kissing Christine’s cheek. “It’s so lovely to have another young, pretty face in the choir.”
“Lovely to meet you Peggy.”
“Oh and that woman there is Agatha Waterstone.” Meg added, pointing a woman out in the huddle of singers. “Her kids are those three bratty boys that come to Maxine’s.” Agatha was a slightly haggard looking woman, sipping tea on her own. Christine recognised her from her first day at work, and felt immediately sorry for her.
After Meg had more or less introduced her in passing to everyone in the room, Madeline called everyone back to their seats to begin the second half of the rehearsal. Father Callaghan, the town’s priest and the man who appeared to be the manager of the choir rattled off some administrative information about Music Fest entry forms, but Raoul was seated in front of Christine and her concentration was sadly compromised as she sat admiring his beautiful…back of head.
Then as the choir began again to sing, Christine’s mind wandered against her will to Erik. Why the heck he hated her so damn much. And, despite herself, the mystery of what was concealed under his mask. Scars from a horrific childhood accident? A deformity? A botched Botox job?
Primarily, she wondered whether the pain that it had caused him warranted the fact that he was such a dick.
Chapter 4: Green Apples
Two days after her eventful first rehearsal with the Wemberly Community Choir, Christine was standing outside of Wemberly House, due for her first private music lesson with Madeline. She felt shabby and out of place in comparison to Madeline’s mansion as she knocked on the gorgeous, ornate wooden door of the house for the second time, suddenly conscious of her worn clothes and unmade face.
Madeline answered the door wearing an elegant bohemian maxi- dress.
“Good morning, Christine.” She said, smiling.
“Morning!” Christine said a little too brightly, a little too breathlessly, like a girl with a crush. Ridiculously, she was almost as nervous and excited to spend time alone with Madeline as she would be with Raoul, or some other man she was interested in.
Pull yourself together woman.
They walked down the long, beautiful hallway, Madeline’s heels click-clacking on the marble. In a sad contrast, Christine’s ratty trainers chose instead to squeak embarrassingly on the smooth surface at random intervals. She winced at the sound and started to place each foot down self-consciously and deliberately, the consequence being that her gait began to resemble that of a cartoon thief creeping along with a large sack of money. If Madeline noticed this oddity, she graciously elected not to comment.
“Shall we begin with scales?” Madeline said as they reached the enormous grand piano Christine had admired on her first visit to the house. She noticed now that the instrument was entirely a vibrant shade of white, except for its jet-black keys.
Madeline settled down into the crème piano stool. “I think we will begin with the minors…starting on A, please darling. On ‘ah’.” She placed expert, manicured fingers on the keys and began to play, Christine quickly following and singing the notes as Madeline pressed them, eager to keep up.
She was a methodical voice teacher. They went through each scale three times, once slurred, once staccato and once a mixture of the two, repeating this for all five of the Italian vowels. Then they did arpeggios, and some tricky exercises that tested Christine’s agility.
“Larger breaths, darling. You need to be able to sustain to the end of the phrase.”
Getting a proper breath had always been Christine’s weakness, but she tried to breathe deeply and to simultaneously take on board all of Madeline’s instructions. She filled her lungs and felt a little light-headed. It was a gruelling hour lesson, which Christine was grateful for. No progress without pain, right?
Christine finished a particularly brutal exercise and let out a long sigh, gripping the music stand for support. This was dishearteningly exhausting, she had clearly lost lots of stamina from the days in which she would do this and far more every day at her college.
“Very well Christine, that’s enough for one day. I can see you are exhausted and we don’t want to strain your poor voice. Please take a seat.”
Christine gratefully plonked herself down on the immaculate white leather couch and took several deep breaths. Madeline returned shortly with two large glasses of cool, but not icy water, and Christine took hers and drank thankfully.
“You have remarkable natural potential Christine.” Madeline said. “An exquisite voice. You could be a great and successful singer. I’m so awfully sorry the Royal College did not go as planned for you. I am certain you are going to be a great asset to my choir, however; I would be delighted to offer you several solos throughout Music Fest.”
Christine warmed to the praise like a flower to the sun. She could barely control the huge grin that spread across her face. To have the approval of a woman whom she admired so greatly was a much-needed self-esteem boost.
“…That is, if Mrs Montgomery doesn’t murder me in my sleep for taking them away from her.” Madeline said, winking at Christine with a sparkle in her eyes.
Christine laughed. “Thank you so much Madeline. You have been so incredibly kind to give me lessons … like this.” For free.
Madeline smiled at her with a knowing look, laying a hand on Christine’s knee.
“I say this with no intention of immodesty- but I really don’t have a requirement for money, dear. I would simply hate for a talent such as yours to be wasted. Now, as you know I too am alumni of the Royal College…”
Christine looked at Madeline curiously.
“And obviously I can make no promises, but I do have- ah, a certain sphere of influence, having lectured there for several years. If you remain a hard-working and dedicated student, I believe you have the talent to be considered for a full scholarship.”
Christine’s heart was in her chest.
“Madeline, I don’t know what to say. I can’t repay you for what you’ve done for me.”
Madeline smiled at her. “Yes, you can- work on these for at least three hours each day. Be a diligent student. Nurture your voice. Work at it, and work hard.”
Madeline handed Christine a folder of vocal exercises, and Christine clutched them to her chest gratefully. Maybe, just maybe, her vocal career, snuffed out before it had even had a chance to live, could be turned around.
“Now darling, how did you enjoy your first rehearsal?”
“Oh! It was…fun! I adore Parsons, and everyone’s really friendly.”
Madeline smiled and held Christine’s gaze in a slightly unnerving way. “You’re being polite- dear girl. I hope Erik’s untimely disturbance didn’t give you a negative first impression.” Madeline said the man’s name like it was something unsavoury. “I heard what happened; he was incredibly rude to you.”
“I can’t deny that.” Christine said, grimacing. “Erik…uh…has not been my favourite person to meet in this village.”
“I’m not surprised.” Madeline said sadly. “It pains me to speak poorly of him, but it is no secret that he is an incredibly unpleasant man. Arrogant, self-centred and…difficult.”
Madeline hesitated for a moment, “I suppose there is no harm in you knowing what transpired that night. Erik returned to Wemberly only recently, after a long hiatus away from his birth town. What he had been doing all those years- I have hardly any idea, but I know he was moderately successful as a film composer.
Madeline looked at Christine solemnly.
“Now Christine, I made the - what I now see as- error of inviting Erik into the choir. I foolishly thought it would help him- he who has always been an outcast, always had difficulty connecting to people- to forge connections or even friendships. To this day I don’t know that he has a single friend. I pitied him. I thought I was doing him a favour. But I now see it was a mistake.”
Madeline took a sip of water from her glass, and Christine sat straight on the edge of the couch, listening with rapt attention.
“ Erik stormed into the rehearsal that night and demanded to speak to me alone in the storage room. I acquiesced. I could tell…and I ask that you keep this to yourself Christine, as it is a sensitive issue, but in the past, I have known Erik to abuse alcohol, and that night, I could tell…that he was inebriated. He demanded to know why I had allowed you to join the choir at such late notice, saying he felt it would jeopardise the chances of the choir in the first round of Music Fest. I told him that we had little to worry about, that you had studied at the Royal College, and that I had complete faith in your abilities. But he was unwilling to hear it, he became angry, he started throwing books around, and due to his altered state of mind…I admit, I feared him that night. Just a little. And with that, I had had enough. I was no longer willing to have him as a member of the choir.”
Madeline shook her head sadly. “I did not mean to be unkind to the man. You must understand that this came on top of Erik being an incredibly difficult choral member, rude to the other singers, and questioning my directorial choices. He was incredibly angry when I told him he was no longer welcome, but that eventuated in him hurting you which I apologise for profusely. I hope my mistake did not completely ruin your first experience of the choir.”
Madeline’s brow was furrowed, and Christine couldn’t bare to see her upset on her account.
“Madeline, not at all!” Christine exclaimed, sitting forward on her seat. “You were only trying to help him, he just blew it. And anyway, Erik seems horrible, it is probably a good riddance.”
Madeline gave her a small, sad smile, “You are probably right.”
Christine left Madeline’s house with her thoughts reeling. How could she have been so blind? How had she not noticed that Erik was drunk? She recalled the memory of their conversation in the church garden in as much detail as she could, trying to remember any slurred words or anything that could point towards him having been inebriated. She couldn’t. Though, she had only met him twice, so was not really able to compare his behaviour to any sort of normal standard. Perhaps his willingness to make a fool of himself in front of Richard and Peggy was evidence of his state? Or perhaps the brief connection and camaraderie she had felt with him, as if they were actually managing to get along, was simply a product of the alcohol. She felt silly and naïve- she wasn’t even sure why. And a little bit guilty that she had not saved Madeline from being in that difficult position. But what could she have done about it anyway?
Christine sighed, realising that these thoughts were not getting her anywhere. It was time to do as Madeline had asked, and practise.
“No, Henrietta. Don’t bite that. That is my arm. Christine’s arm is not something for eating.”
“But is nummy.”
Another day, another shift at Maxime’s Munchkinds day care centre.
“Why thankyou Henrietta, I’m sure your appendages taste delicious also. The fact of the matter remains, however, that I would prefer to keep my arm attached to my body. And for my arm to be attached to my body, it cannot be disintegrating in your digestive system.”
“Never mind. Go play with Thomas, he’s looking lonely.”
“Even smelly children need friends. Wont you be a super nice girl and go play with Thomas?”
“Alright, go play wherever you want then.” Christine sighed, watching the small blonde girl run off to steal a toy off another child. At great surprise to no one at all, childcare was not proving to be Christine’s calling in life. But, the small satisfaction Christine gained from watching her bank account slowly creep from the negatives towards, well… smaller negatives, was reason enough to remain.
At least her shift was nearly finished.
She looked around for Meg, who she eventually found wrestling a nappy on a baby.
“C’mon you little- NO! Do not pull Meg’s hair! It cost her 40 pounds! NO! DO NOT PULL HER TIFFANY BRACELET EITHER! She will murder you if you break that!”
Christine chuckled. “You’ve got to stop wearing expensive jewellery to work.”
“I know.” Meg sighed, looking up at Christine. “But it’s so pretty. I like to think of it as raising the younglings to have excellent taste.”
“Uh, I think your friend there might have taken that comment a little too literally.” Christine warned, gesturing at the baby which was now sucking furiously on said bracelet.
“Bollocking bollocks!” Meg whipped her bracelet out of the baby’s mouth. The baby giggled, gurgling a little on its own drool.
Christine winced. “Should you really be swearing in front of them? Imagine if that baby’s first word is now ‘bollocks!’ What are her parents going to think?”
Meg gave Christine the look of a weary woman who has had a five-hour shift at a day care centre, which is five hours too many.
“Never let me have children, Christine.”
At a later point, when all the children were napping, Christine told Meg of what she had learnt after her lesson with Madeline the previous day.
“Woah, so he got in some angry drunken argument with Madeline?”
“Essentially, that’s what it sounded like.”
“That’s so weird, I would have never known he was an alcoholic. Didn’t seem drunk to me.”
Christine looked up at Meg. “That’s what I thought. Maybe…. when you use it all the time, you like, stop being so affected by it?”
“Maybe?” Meg said. But her expression was doubtful. “I really don’t know, to be honest.”
“I know I shouldn’t care. But it kind of hurts that someone could dislike me so instantly, and with no good reason.”
“Girl, do not waste your time being sad that some random weirdo dude doesn’t like you.” Meg said. “Erik’s a twat. Besides, everyone else loves you. Madeline clearly adores you- free lessons, hello? And Lulu and I are thrilled to have another girl our age to talk to, you have no idea.”
Christine brightened at this. “Lulu is great. So are Phillipe and Raoul.”
“Yeah, I’m very aware that you think Raoul is great.” Meg said, grinning.
Christine swatted Meg on the arm but didn’t see much point in arguing the point.
Several days later, it was one of those rare instances in England when it is actually rainy. True, England seemed to exist in a perpetual state of dampness. But English rain was a sly thing, falling from the sky in droplets so fine that you do not realise it is raining until you are soaked to the skin and wondering why. But today there was proper rain; roof-pattering, puddle-forming, rain. And there were storms forecast for later.
Christine did not have work, so she was feeling slightly lazy. She lounged around for most of the morning and afternoon, did a few hours of singing practise, then decided at about six that she should probably put a load of washing in and walk down to the store to get some groceries for herself and Mrs Valerius. She pulled on a raincoat and wellington boots and stepped outside.
Down the street she bumped into Lucille Jones, the overweight soprano from choir whose vocal prowess was inversely proportional to her confidence, and her husband Errol Jones. The couple were walking their little sausage dog in the rain. The dog had on an adorable yellow raincoat and hat that was in contrast to its apparent mood, evidenced by its intermittent growls.
“Hi there Lucille, Errol!” Christine said brightly. The dog barked at her several times in quick succession and she flinched.
“Oh hello… dearie. How did you enjoy your first choir rehearsal?” Errol asked, peering down at her through thick, cloudy glasses and clearly forgetting her name.
“Oh yes, lovely thanks, I’m really happy with the piece we’re doing. And Madeline’s a great director.”
“Isn’t she just an angel?” Lucille gushed, “And she doesn’t have to do it you know, she could be working for the Philharmonic, but her loyalty to the little town she grew up in means she bestows her many talents on us instead. We are very lucky here. Oh, Derek likes you.” The large woman added. “He’s not usually this friendly.”
Christine looked down doubtfully at the dog who was now emitting a low, rumbling growl and baring its teeth, staring directly at Christine.
They chatted politely until the sky let out a crack of thunder and all three of them jumped, laughed nervously at themselves, and then decided to swiftly move along.
“See you next rehearsal!” She called weakly as the couple pulled their reluctant hound along behind them, and she hurried on to the grocery store.
The door of the store tinkled as she opened it to let herself in. There were a few other people inside as she entered, milling around the isles with shopping baskets in their hands. She noticed with a small smile that not everyone in the village was in the choir. She did not recognise any of the faces here.
Apples. Apples, apples, apples. She scanned the fruit. Bananas, oranges…some slightly squashed looking raspberries…
Come on. Which grocer doesn’t have apples? They are the staple food of the nation.
Apples, apples, apples…Apples, apples, apples…Red apples, green apples…I will literally accept any apple at this point…for the love of all that is holy, where are the apples?
“Is this what you’re after?” Christine jumped up from the fruit isle and whirled around to see the very attractive face of Raoul De Chagny grinning at her, his head cocked to the side, a large green apple held up in his hands. His blonde fringe was flopped over to the right, covering part of his eyebrow.
“How did you know?” Christine smiled at him, impressed.
“Because you were chanting ‘apples… apples… apples’ and looking confused.’”
Christine put her hands to her face in mortification. “Oh, no.” She groaned into her fingers. “I was saying that out loud?”
How did she consistently manage to make a tit of herself in front of this man?
“Hey, hey, it’s ok!” Raoul laughed. “Happens to us all.”
“No it doesn’t.” Christine said, the sound muffled by her hands which were still stuck to her face, and he laughed again.
She felt his fingers gently take her hands away from her face.
“Aw hey, I’m sorry, I was only teasing. I didn’t mean to embarrass you.” He looked so genuinely sorry with his wide blue eyes that she was struck with the sudden urge to give his adorable head a pat.
“I’ll forgive you if you let me have that apple.”
“Oh, man,” He said with mock gravity, “ I’ve grown really attached to this apple, actually…” He pretended to examine it closely. “Such a fine specimen…I don’t think it has any blemishes…”
She crossed her arms and looked at him sternly, but couldn’t stifle a small smile.
“Mr De Chagny, are you saying that that apple is more important to you than my feelings? Do you want me to forgive you or not?”
He feigned a pained expression. “Oh…alright then, deal.” And he shook her hand, very gently… was Christine imagining him lingering? His hands felt strong and muscly and manly and big and oh my Lord, Christine pay attention.
He held out the fruit for her to take, which she quickly did, grateful that her brain cells appeared to have regained function.
He grinned at her.
“There are also some red ones, over here” he said showing her another neat pile of apples, “But- unpopular opinion, I prefer the green.”
“So do I! The red ones have a tendency to be floury, don’t they?” Christine agreed, happily piling some of the green apples, including the one Raoul had handed her, into the bag. Then internally wincing at herself for such an inane comment.
“Exactly. Good only for apple pies, in my eyes.” He said, generously.
“Or apple crumble.”
“How could I forget? Or biscuits with little apple pieces in them.”
“Ah, apple cake. A personal favourite.”
They queued at the checkout together and waited for the ancient old woman in front of them to load her things onto the desk for the cashier to scan.
“You see the cashier?” Raoul whispered to her, leaning down so that he was close to her ear. “That’s Garth- the guy Meg was talking about, the guy who Erik was apparently angry didn’t get into the choir.”
Christine tried not to get too carried away by the proximity of Raoul’s lips, and glanced at the man. He was about forty, tall, dark-skinned and friendly looking.
“I wonder if he knows that he’s responsible for such drama?” He whispered.
Christine opened her mouth to gossip, to tell him what Madeline had told her, that Erik had it out for her, that as Meg had suggested he had in fact exited the church because of her arrival. But she changed her mind at the last minute. Somehow, she didn’t want to gossip with Raoul about silly small town dramas. She wanted to get to know him.
Christine waited for Raoul to pay for the milk he had picked up, and then they exited the shop together, walking across the grassy town square.
“So, are you missing Oxford?” Christine asked Raoul. “I’d have thought that singing in a community church choir full of old people was hardly what a twenty something young boy wanted to spend his holidays doing?”
“Mostly old people.” Raoul corrected with a smile.
“Overwhelming majority of old people.”
Raoul grinned. “Yeah, I miss it a little.” He confessed. “But I’m not on holidays…I’m done for good. I finished my commerce degree last year. Phillipe thinks I should do a Masters like him but I think my heart wouldn’t really be in it, so I’m job hunting now. Well, sort of…trying to find any job that isn’t working for my dad. He wants me to come work for his business…but I don’t think that’s really what I want.”
“Ah.” Christine said sympathetically, “That’s tricky. You don’t want any successes you make to just be put down to ties to your father?”
Raoul looked at her. “That’s- that’s pretty much it. How did you know?”
“I’m familiar with that sort of politics.” Christine said wryly. “The music industry can be really nasty. Even at College, there was a whole lot of it. Backstabbing, jealousy, two-timing, pretend-friends, even sabotaging your fellow student’s performance to get ahead.”
“Well, damn.” Raoul looked taken aback.
“Yeah. I love music, but even before I was forced to quit I wondered whether I was cut out for the politics of it all.”
“Well this got depressing quickly. Can we go back to talking about apples?”
Christine laughed heartily. “We could. But this is where I turn off, and unless you’ve lived on this street this whole time and I haven’t noticed, this is where we part.”
Raoul seemed to notice where they were for the first time.
“Well, I walked in completely the wrong direction.” He said, grinning sheepishly.
Christine bit back an amused smile, while a giddy thought tumbled around in her head. I distracted him, I distracted him!
“That’s the thing about small towns though isn’t it; you’ll probably still be home in a minute or two.”
“Yeah. My mum will wonder why the hell it took me so long to pick up some milk though.” He laughed.
Raoul looked at her for a moment.
“Yes, Raoul?” She said, flirting a little.
He seemed reluctant to speak, but eventually shook his head and went for it. Christine held her breath, wondering if he was about to ask her out. “If I’m wrong about this, I’m going to sound like a crazy person… But you know how you said you used to come to Wemberly as a kid, for holidays and stuff?”
“I have this memory…of being by the sea as a kid. And there was a little girl with big curly hair like you who was wearing this enormous red scarf. And we were playing together, and then a gust of wind swept her scarf into the sea.”
Christine gasped as the scene sprung to life inside her head.
“And the little boy…ran into the sea to fetch my scarf!” She finished for him. “He was completely soaking when he came out!”
Raoul looked thrilled. “So, it was you! I thought so!”
“No way.” Christine beamed. “Small world!”
“Well, small town.” Raoul said, grinning. “I felt like I knew you, when I first saw you in rehearsals but I didn’t want to sound crazy in front of everyone by coming out with that story and you going ‘…huh? That wasn’t me, you weirdo.’”
“It totally was! I’d completely forgotten. My dad kept talking about how chivalrous you were that day!”
Raoul grinned. “I’m glad I impressed papa Daaé.”
After Raoul and Christine had said their slightly reluctant goodbyes, Christine set off up the winding little lane to Mrs Valerius’s house, grinning to herself. Unless she was sorely mistaken, that had been a flirtatious encounter…perhaps her attraction to him wasn’t entirely one-sided? Her stomach did a happy little flip at the thought.
Her stomach did another, far less pleasant flip in about fifteen minutes when she realised she had left her phone at the store. She rushed out of the house and back into town, skidding out the door and nearly bowling over poor Gerald the cat who had been attempting to enter the house as she exited. Gerald yowled loudly in protest. She made it in the nick of time, just as the store was closing.
“Garth! Hi!” She said breathlessly to the man who had served her.
“Ah, you again! To what do I owe the honour?” He asked cheerfully, and to his credit graciously opened up the store again so that she could have a look for her phone when she explained. She found it on the floor, right beside the apples.
When she stepped outside again, the heavens had suddenly opened.
Rain gushed down, trees swaying under its force, the ground quickly turning into a muddy, slippery mess. Thunder boomed in the distance and the occasional flash of lightening lit up the village square.
“Sorry Garth, I didn’t mean to make you late so that you’d get caught in the storm…” Christine yelled over the roar of millions of gallons of water plummeting to the Earth.
“That’s ok.” He shouted, shielding his eyes from the rain with his hands. “I would have got caught in it anyway. Blame my manager for the shift.” He grinned at her then sprinted off home.
As her clothes quickly became drenched, Christine realised she had forgotten her rain coat.
She looked around desperately. There wasn’t really anywhere to shelter in near sight, all the shops had closed for the evening and the Monkey and Rose pub was closed today. Then a bright idea struck her.
Quickly, she sprinted the thirty or so metres to the church, through the hiddly-piddly graveyard and shrubs, and tried her luck with the massive wooden doors. They were locked.
Desperately now, rain soaking through her cardigan and jeans, she ran around the perimeter as the sky performed another enormous crack of thunder. The church flashed as lightning illuminated the background. There had to be another door. Weren’t churches supposed to be always open, or something like that? Sanctuary at all times? Wasn’t that a thing?
She found a side door, and remarkably, it opened. She slipped inside, grateful.
She was in some sort of storage back room; a small upright piano was in the corner of the room, and there were lots of big brown boxes containing books (bibles, she assumed), a shelf with stacks of manuscripts piled on it, and a neat stack of music stands. She opened the door that lead to the main church hall, and wandered about amongst the pews.
Exhausted, drenched and relieved to be out of the storm she plonked down into one of the pews, her mind returning to the floppy haired boy and the apple she had in one of her grocery bags. Then out of nowhere, the most dramatic musical chord that has ever been written for the organ shattered the quiet, fortissimo, and Christine nearly had a heart attack then and there.
She screamed. As most people would in such a scenario. She kicked over one of the shopping bags in fright and several green apples scattered across the church floor and under the pews. There was the pitter-patter of feet rushing forward above her, as the rogue organist no doubt rushed over to see what was wrong.
“You again? Why is it every time I run into someone, it’s you. And why are you always doing something absurd …like breaking and entering a church and throwing around apples?!”
She turned around, heart still pounding and legs shaking from the shock and the fear. And sure enough, there he was; Erik, the skeletal guy in the white mask, roughly gripping the railing upon the mezzanine and looking down at her with the characteristic scowl she had come to consider synonymous with his being.
“You…scared me….half to death.” She managed to wheeze out, clutching the back of a pew for support. “Did you …have to play…so loud?”
“How was I to know you were here? What the hell are you doing here, anyway?” He demanded.
“I was sheltering from the storm!”
“Storm.” He scoffed. “Above average intensity rainfall is hardly a storm.”
“There was thunder and lightning! It was very, very frighting- never mind, that’s Queen.” She blustered. He brain was still fried from the shock. “Anyway, what are you doing here?” She shot back angrily.
He paused, then said, in a slow drawl, “I’ll give you three guesses.” He gestured up at the organ with one long skeletal hand.
She narrowed her eyes at him.
“Fine.” He said wickedly. “I should play fair: For you, four guesses.”
Christine ignored this juvenile affront to her intelligence.
“Whatever, twat. Play on. Don’t mind me. I’m going to wait out the storm right here.”
“Well I can’t very well practise while you’re here, can I?” he scowled.
A short pause.
“Why thank you, Erik.” She said with irony, giving a little curtsey with an imaginary skirt.
“Distracting in the sense that If I leave you alone for five minutes, I’ll be worrying that you’ve managed to set this place alight.”
“Pah.” Christine said, unoffended by the jab. If an alcoholic arsehole didn’t like her, did she really lose anything? She sat down on a pew, and started to collect the apples at her feet. The silence drew on and became awkward.
She looked up at Erik. He was still holding on to the railings of the mezzanine, watching her with a disapproving glare.
“Well, if you don’t want to play…we could…talk?”
His expression did not suggest much enthusiasm for the idea.
“Yes, because both of us seem to enjoy our conversations so immensely.”
She decided to ignore this and take initiative with the conversation. There was a certain liberation that came with not giving a shit about what someone thought of you.
“So, exiting Madeline’s choir in a furious rage.” Christine said, smirking. “You certainly have a flair for the dramatic.”
It was Christine’s turn to exaggeratedly eye the towering bronze organ behind where he stood. Erik looked at her like she was something particularly unpleasant. Like an ingrown hair in a private and painful area.
“Alas, just before we could share a place in the choir together.” He replied dryly, deliberately.
“Yeah, tragic. By the way, you owe me an apology for bumping into me when you stormed off.”
“You bumped into me.”
“That’s not how I remember it. But whatever.” She sighed. “So…why did she kick you out?” Christine asked, partly provoking him for the heck of it, partly with genuine curiously, wondering if he would tell the truth.
Erik sneered. “Oh, I was kicked out, was I? Well, it appears Madeline has given you her version of events already.”
“Maybe. Yes. But I want to hear your side.”
“I see no point. It appears that you have already made up your mind as to what happened.”
“Well, from what I hear, you had a fight because she wanted me to join the choir and you didn’t, which I know is true because you told me as much, outside before I went in!”
He tilted his head slightly. “What a curious strain of arrogance you embody, to misinterpret my words to such an extent as to assume I could spend even a miniscule amount of energy caring how you spend your time.”
“That assumes my presence doesn’t affect you.” Christine shot back. “I know you didn’t want me because you thought I’d jeopardise your chances in the competition.”
Erik laughed hollowly. “There are few things I give less of a damn about than that stupid competition.”
“Liar. Madeline said-”
“Oh, Madeline said, did she? Therefore, it is true. My, my.” Erik sneered, contempt dripping off each word. “Does Madeline know, I wonder, of the admirable devotion of the newest member to her fan club?”
“Madeline is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met.” Christine said, trying to hold her ground and ignore the fact that her cheeks were reddening.
“In that case, I pity you. Madeline is a manipulative, vile, intolerant nightmare of a woman, and you, like so many other fools are utterly unable to see past her outward expression of false regard and pathological lies.”
“Oh, I’m a fool am I?” Christine snarled.
“You are one of the most ridiculous people I have ever had the misfortune to meet. Sinking your car into a bog, hiding in shrubbery from a misplaced social anxiety, and look at you now- drenched from a storm due to a lack of foresight so great as to forget an umbrella in one of the rainiest countries on the planet!”
To Christine’s dismay, she found that this highly personal attack did in fact upset her.
Holding back tears she managed to spit, “Well at least I’m not an arsehole with a drinking problem!” Then her eyes widened. She should not have said that. Madeline had explicitly asked her not to say that.
“Oh, fantastic.” Erik let out a humourless laugh, and threw his hands into the air. “Madeline will have told you that, of course.”
There was tense, horrible silence.
He scoffed. “Get out, you silly girl.” He said quietly. “It has stopped raining.”
“You can’t order me out. It’s a church.” Christine regretted the childish words as soon as they left her lips.
“Suit yourself.” He said simply, and he stalked back to the organ and began to play an angry piece Christine recognised somewhere in her subconscious as Bach. She grudgingly noticed that he was very, very good. She stood there, unmoving for a few minutes in defiance, then started to feel foolish and exited the church.
As soon as she had closed the church door behind her, Christine burst into tears.
Chapter 5: An Eventful Walk
Chapter 5: An Eventful Walk
Erik’s words that night in the church had stung. They resonated in Christine’s head all through the week, during rehearsals, lessons with Madeline, dinners with Mrs Valerius, and during work. Christine did not appreciate being called a fool, or ridiculous. Yes, she was slightly awkward and prone to disaster, but to her knowledge, people had always found this endearing, cute, something unique, individual and fun about Christine. Life was always an adventure with Christine, because she would find herself in some farcical situation and give everyone a good laugh. But with Erik, Christine just felt foolish about that part of herself. Granted, she did not have the best track record in her encounters with Erik, but for him to speak of her with such contempt? It was hurtful. Still, he evidently hated Madeline, so perhaps his hatred of Christine should be taken a compliment, as he was obviously someone with incredibly poor taste in and judgement of people.
On the bright side, she was coming to enjoy rehearsals more and more. Christine of course loved music, so it was nice to have that to look forward to each week. And Madeline was a wonderful director, guiding her choir closer and closer to perfection. But more than that, it was the thought of a certain floppy-haired blonde boy that made her hurry that little bit faster to get to rehearsals. Not that anything had happened- during their breaks Christine mostly made idle small talk with Meg, Lulu, Raoul and Philippe and occasionally some other members of the church. And, Christine always tried to make a special effort each week to at least say hello to Agatha, the haggard looking mother whose nightmare children attended Maxine’s Munchkins.
Tonight, she found her talking to Mr and Mrs Montgomery, the pompous-looking couple whom Meg had advised Christine to avoid. Christine approached the trio cautiously, catching the tail end of the conversation.
“…and that is why instead of charities, we have chosen to donate significant portions of our funds to the Conservative Party for the last fifteen years.” Mr Montgomery said, pausing to take a sip of his tea.
“Hi Agatha. Mr Montgomery, Mrs Montgomery.” Christine said cutting into their conversation.
“Hi Christine.” Agatha smiled back, in thinly veiled relief that Christine had given her an excuse to stop nodding her head thoughtfully at Mr Montgomery’s political tirade.
“Ah. Christine. We haven’t had a chance to properly talk.” Mr Montgomery said, surveying her unsettlingly over his glasses. “Are you enjoying your time in Wemberly so far?”
“Yeah, it’s a lovely village.” Christine said. “Very different to London.”
“Pah, London.” Mrs Montgomery scoffed. “Horrible place. Far too much noise, far too many young people. So much riff-raff.”
“I loved it there.” Christine shrugged, smiling. “I was a short tube ride from the West End-”
“Oh yes, the theatre is one of the few good things about it.”
“Yeah, lots of theatre. Lots of musicals.”
“Musicals.” Mr Montgomery scoffed. “Trite nonsense, in my opinion. Corny, poorly written, vulgar-”
“I think Meg is calling me, so sorry to dash off!” Christine said hurriedly. “Have a good night Mr Montgomery, Mrs Montgomery.” Christine slipped away, pulling the grateful Agatha along with her.
“They’re nightmares, aren’t they?” Christine said, rolling her eyes.
“Yes.” Agatha said wearily. “And every evening they come and ask me, ‘How are the boys? Have you heard from their father? Boys need a strong, male influence in their life, you know. You really should get in contact with their father.’ Nosy old bags. I have half a mind to just tell them the truth- ‘Well actually, their father is in Rome shagging a masseuse he met on a ‘business meeting’ night and day, but by all means, feel free to try and contact him, God knows he’s more likely to respond to you than me.’ ”
Christine winced. “I’m sorry Agatha. What an absolute bastard.”
“It’s ok.” Agatha said, exhaling slowly. “It feels good to just say that to someone, you know?”
“Well just let rip. Anytime you feel like bagging out your lousy ex, I’m right here, ready and willing. It’s a favourite past time of mine, actually.” Christine said. “And the boys are lovely, even if the father wasn’t.”
This was untrue. Christine had found the elder boy trying to suffocate his sibling in the sandpit on Wednesday morning. But it was a white lie.
“Thanks.” Agatha said, looking slightly happier. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
Just then, Madeline called them over to be measured for their costumes for Music Fest by Miriam Fletcher who had taken on the role of costume designer.
“Ok Christine, just raise up your arms for me.”
As Miriam strung a tape measure around Christine’s various body parts, Christine caught sight of one of the sample costumes, a bright, gaudy pink t-shirt laying over the piano with ‘Wemberly Community Chorus’ written in a slightly darker pink in bold cursive. It reminded Christine of an old ‘Pink Ladies’ T-shirt her dad had insisted on buying for her when they had seen the musical Grease. It was not a pretty shirt.
“Is that what we’re all going to be wearing?” Christine asked Miriam as she busied herself with Christine’s measurements.
“Yes, aren’t they a lovely colour?”
“Y-yes.” Christine said unconvincingly. “Very…pink.”
Miriam narrowed her eyes at Christine,
“Well if you don’t like it, perhaps next time you should volunteer to be costume designer.” She snapped.
“No, no! I… do like it! Very Grease.” Christine cursed the fact that she was such a poor liar.
“I wasn’t going for Grease.” She said deliberately, yanking the measuring tape tightly around Christine’s waist.
“30 inches for the waist, Moira.” Miram called out to the shy pianist, who wrote the number down hurriedly. Miriam raked her eyes over Christine and tut-tutted.
“Dear me, Christine, you should really be a size 10 at your height but this measurement puts you at a 12. You might want to think about dieting.” Christine baulked, so shocked that she wondered for a second if she had imagined the comment, but Miriam had moved right on. “Right, next person. Lulu, you’re up.”
Lulu held out her arms complyingly as Christine walked away, speechless. She found Meg stuffing her face with carrot cake on a pew at the back of the church.
“Holy shit, that Miriam is a cow.” Christine hissed to her friend. “She just told me to lose weight. Just because I couldn’t convincingly lie and tell her that the costumes look nice.”
“Ugh! Firstly, you’re beautiful. Secondly…she needs to chill. A size zero Victoria’s Secret model couldn’t make that costume appealing.”
Christine’s weight was obviously none of Miriam’s goddam business, but this comment along with the battering of insults rained upon her by Erik had put Christine in a foul mood as she did her shopping the next day. She knew she should move on past the comments but it was hard to shake, and angry feelings and thoughts tumbled around her mind while she violently stuffed her shopping bag with fruit and vegetables. Christine was so deep in angry thought that it took her several moments to realise that a short, rather plump woman was speaking to her in a thick Italian accent.
“Carrota, carrota? Please, do you know where are the carrota?”
“You want carrots? Oh sure, they’re just over here.” Christine said, gesturing behind the woman.
“Thank you, thank you. Bellissimo. I am still learning the English words, I have come recently from Italy. My husband and I retire here to be closer to our children.”
Christine’s mood was lightened by the woman’s cheerful tone.
“Oh, well your English is better than my Italian, that’s for sure! Il mio italiano è male!” Christine said to her, smiling.
The woman seemed delighted.
“Oh no, molto bene, molto bene!” She laughed. “It has not been so hard for me because I was an opera singer in the past, I had to perform some of the English operas.”
“Oh, wow! You’re a singer! Well if you’re settling in Wemberly, you must join our choir! I’ll give you the director’s number! She would love to have you- an actual real opera singer. Of course, it will be a much lower quality than what you’re used to, but if you’re up for it…here let me just find it.” Christine fumbled with her phone to find Madeline’s mobile, and passed on her details.
Christine left the shop in a much better mood, the woman was extremely friendly and kept calling her “bellissimo” which was flattering, and a much-needed ego boost. Her name was Carlotta, Christine had discovered, and she and her husband Piangi had been somewhat successful in the opera scene in Italy and around Europe. She wondered if she would get brownie points from Madeline for finding two such superb new additions for the choir, and walked back home beaming.
Christine had been stuck inside all day practising not only the choir’s songs for the upcoming music festival but her exercises for Madeline. Rehearsals were going well, with Christine’s voice improving every day, her range expanding and her tone becoming more what it was at her time at the college.
But she had worked hard today, and Christine fancied that what she needed was a walk. It was a relatively pleasant-weathered evening for winter, with dusk an hour or so away, and she decided she would do the short but pretty trail to the top of Candlestick hill, about twenty minutes from the village. Hopefully that way, she wouldn’t run into any tourists or anyone she knew from choir who she would awkwardly have to small talk with. However … Raoul and his family lived in this direction…perhaps… he would be out for an evening stroll also?
“I’m just out for a walk, Anna.” She called to Mrs Valerius as she buttoned up her enormous green trench coat.
Anna answered energetically, carrying weights up the stairs, wearing tights and a sweatband, “Have a nice time dearie! I’ll just be doing my exercises!”
The setting sun was warm and pleasant on Christine’s face as she made her way up the winding cobbled street past the old-fashioned row houses and eventually ended up walking alongside a fenced field of cows which regarded her curiously as she walked by. The fence was covered with a straggly, winding black berry bush and Christine found a couple of berries to pop in her mouth, at the risk of colouring her tongue and lips bright blue.
Then the path began to weave through the forest, tall trees, much like that in which she had become stuck in the mud her first night in Wemberly, but as the trail began to climb, windingly towards the summit of Candlestick hill the vegetation grew sparser, populated by short shrubs and flowers.
Christine stopped to admire a pretty blue flower beside the path, and then suddenly became aware of a tinkling sound behind her…which if she wasn’t mistaken- Christine turned around and yes! It was! A little cat was walking behind Christine happily, its long thin tail poised up in the air, with a distinctive kink at the tip. It was a beautiful, expensive-looking Siamese with a beige body and brown nose, ears, and tail.
Christine squatted down to pat the little cat, delighted.
“Hey kitty kitty! Fancy seeing a little kitty out here! What on earth are you doing so far from home?”
She checked the cat’s collar where the tinkling bell sound had come from, and found two small bells and a gold pendant with the name Ayesha engraved onto it, but no phone number or address.
“Well that’s useless, isn’t it kitty? I mean, Ayesha. You’d better tell your owner they are very foolish, not to write a phone number on your little collar. Oh, you are a beautiful kitty cat aren’t you. Why don’t you walk with me?”
Christine continued to walk along the path, cooing at the cat which followed along behind her, its bells tinkling. Absent-mindedly, Christine began to sing a Swedish lullaby her father had taught her about a cat sleeping by the fireplace, surprising herself as she managed to remember more and more of the verses. It was a beautiful day, her voice was warm from practising not long before she left, and the wide open yet also lonely and thus private space encouraged her to sing as loudly and feelingly as she desired. The melody tugged at her heartstrings, it reminded her of bygone days with her father, and Christine’s heart started to ache. Though she had grieved after his passing, she had certainly been suppressing much of her residual sorrow recently, having other things to focus on. Feeling herself choking up, Christine stopped singing, much to the dismay of the little cat who seemed to have enjoyed being serenaded and promptly stopped following her and instead took off in the opposite direction.
“Oh. Bit rude, but ok. Bye then.” Christine joked as the cat walked away. She heard footsteps crunching on leaves behind her. Somehow, Christine knew those footsteps…
Christine grimaced as she recognised the speaker, and steeled herself mentally, before turning slowly around to face her least favourite person in the world.
He was standing on the forest path behind her, Ayesha winding herself around her apparent master’s legs. How on earth had he crept up behind her like that without her hearing!? The man had just apparated into existence like a ghost. She hadn’t been singing that loudly. Oh, God, he’d heard her singing that ridiculous song. As if he needed more reasons to think she was mentally unstable. Why couldn’t it have been Raoul she ran into? She lamented feebly.
“Erik.” She said unenthusiastically, unable to muster the willpower to provide a politer greeting. She had been having such a nice time on her walk, too.
Erik had a weird glint in his eyes; Christine noticed. If she was being ungenerous, she would say he looked almost manic.
Where Erik was concerned, Christine didn’t feel particularly generous.
“No offence but, since you like to point out how weird I apparently am, who takes their cat for a walk?” Christine sniggered. And then quickly regretted it. Ugh, why had she said that? She couldn’t face another argument right now. She tried to lighten the comment. “She’s pretty cute though.”
The cat wound around Erik’s shoe one last time then trotted off into the undergrowth and out of sight. Erik barely seemed to notice.
“Christine,” He said, his voice was intense, and more serious than she had ever heard him. “Your singing voice is…one of the most incredible things I have ever heard.”
As the biting, sarcastic tone that she would have expected to accompany such a comment was not present, Christine was confused. It was a strange statement. Her voice wasn’t nearly good enough to warrant such high praise, but certainly not awful enough to deserve a sarcastic comment about her singing abilities. As usual with Erik, she was perplexed. And annoyed.
“You have a stunning natural instrument. You cannot train someone to possess a timbre like that. Although, your voice clearly is trained, but you still have problem areas. Your lower range is gravelly, you strain below middle C and your breathing was, frankly abysmal. I would ask for your money back from your teacher, to be quite honest.”
She wasn’t even offended, just even more confused.
“Erik… I wasn’t exactly performing…I was walking along singing to myself.” She said, unsure why she felt like she even needed to justify herself to him.
“Ok… well, I literally have no idea what to say, you’re utterly confusing. I don’t know why you’re saying all of this…”
He took a step closer to her, eagerness straining his words. “With exceptional teaching, Christine, your voice could be something never heard before. You could easily find fame, if that is what you desire. But more importantly, your voice has the potential to be one of the most remarkable instruments of our time.”
She studied his face sceptically. He stared right back with complete levity.
“That seems really unlikely.” She said bluntly.
“I have no doubt that I am right about this. What you desperately need, however, is an excellent voice teacher.”
“Let me get this straight, you’re offering me voice lessons? As in, you want to teach me?” Christine said, unsure if this was all some big set up.
“Yes.” He said simply. He didn’t appear to be joking.
Christine laughed in astonishment, shaking her head.
“Erik, I don’t understand your sudden change of heart about me. You and I have not once had a pleasant interaction… or even one that didn’t involve one or both of us yelling insults at each other. You basically regretted saving my ass that night on the road, you threw a tantrum because you thought I’d screw up Madeline’s choir even though you knew I went to the Royal College, and a couple of nights ago in the church you were yelling at me telling me how stupid I was, and calling me ‘the most ridiculous person’ you had ever met!
“I believe my words were ‘one of’ the most ridiculous-”. Erik muttered defensively, stopping his sentence abruptly as he caught sight of Christine’s dagger eyes. “…But I see your point.” He added hastily. “Also- I was certainly not aware that you went to the Royal College.”
“Yes, you were.” Christine said stubbornly. “Madeline said she told you-.”
“You are young.” Erik interrupted, shooting her a pained expression. “I suppose I should understand, Madeline is a very talented manipulator.”
Christine crossed her arms. “Erik, have you any idea how patronizing that sentence was?”
“I …apologise. It wasn’t my intention to be patronizing. But the truth is that Madeline lied to you, Christine. I don’t know exactly what she told you about what happened that night, but I’d imagine the majority of it is untrue. Or such a carefully worded version of events as to be as good as false.”
“Why on earth would I believe you over her?”
“Because the evidence is in front of you. Was that not a genuine reaction of surprise when you revealed you studied at the college?”
“Perhaps you’re the master manipulator.”
Erik shrugged, conceding the point. “Perhaps I am. In any case, at least I now understand the problem areas with your voice, let me guess, Durand was your vocal coach at the college?”
Christine’s mouth fell open.
“How on earth...?”
“A talented singer, a nice enough fellow, but a poor teacher. Especially for the female voice. He was my colleague when I lectured at the college, evidently a few years before your time. I know how arrogant this will sound Christine, but you will do no better than me, so far as vocal teacher’s go.”
“You lectured there?”
“For several years.”
Christine felt a twinge of defensiveness for her old teacher. Christopher Duran was a kindly old round-faced fellow who used to give her biscuits after their private lessons and was well-liked for his entertaining lectures amongst the student body.
“Durand wasn’t a bad- look.” Christine shook her head, seeing little point in defending the man. “This is utterly ridiculous. Anyway, Madeline’s giving me lessons. So, thanks but no thanks.”
Erik’s face darkened.
“How immensely disappointing.” He turned away, and for a moment faced away from her, staring into the forest, seemingly deep in thought.
Christine didn’t know what to do. The conversation seemed to be over. Did she…leave now? Was that rude? Would Erik even know how to distinguish the polite and rude response to this situation?
“Anyway...” Christine said, uncomfortably trying to make light conversation. “You take your cat for walks? That’s incredibly…unusual.”
“More like she takes me for walks.” Erik muttered. His fingers were thrumming distractedly, frustratedly against the side of his leg. “We wouldn’t leave the house at all if I had my way.”
Christine laughed, more out of surprise that he could make a good-natured joke than anything else. Erik’s surprised eyes flickered to her for a second, his lip curling slightly in a small smile.
Christine’s heart softened for him a little in that moment. Yes, he had been rude to her on more than one occasion. But before her, now, she simply saw a lonely man with no one besides a cat to go on walks with, who was hiding what she assumed was a painful deformity or injury on one of the most unfortunate places- his face. She had been too quick to judge, and not kind or open-hearted enough.
To be honest, she was also pretty buttered up by his flattering comments about her voice.
“Well, shall we continue on up the mountain? There’s a lovely view at the top?” Erik asked after the silence became a little too long.
Christine considered her options. Decline and walk back down, awkward, as he would obviously be aware that she changed her direction simply to not walk with him. Or go with him, potentially even more awkward.
“Uhh. Yeah, ok then.” Her desire for the poor man to have a human walking companion won out.
Thankfully, it was only another few hundred metres to the top of the very small hill, as the walk was mostly silent and, from Christine’s perspective, as predicted, quite awkward. It seemed that apart from insults or, bizarrely, extravagant compliments about Christine’s voice, Erik had little to say to her. But soon Christine became too distracted by the beautiful environment around her to give much thought to that. As they walked out of the forest and to the crest of the hill, the sun was just starting to set leaving a gorgeous orange glow on the ocean below, and short bulrushes rustled every so often when tickled by a passing gust of sea air. The evening clouds were glowing gold around their edges, and there was no sound but the gentle breaking of waves on the beach a hundred metres below. Christine and Erik just stood for a minute, an odd pair, taking in the view of endless ocean.
A soft tinkle broke the serenity, and Christine looked over to the source of the noise- Ayesha had returned and was winding herself around Erik’s legs again. He crouched down to give her a pat and the cat rubbed her face against his outstretched finger. That same half smile formed on the visible side of Erik’s face.
“Hey kitty, you found us. Clever girl.” Christine said in the silly high-pitched voice adults reserve for pets and children, only to find Erik smirking slightly at her.
“Oh, shut up. I just like cats a lot.”
“I haven’t said a thing.” Erik said innocently.
“That’s true. Shall we walk back?”
They turned and began the 15-minute walk back to Wemberly, Ayesha walking in front with her bell tinkling and her tail in the air, distinctive kink proudly on display. It was mostly silent, and Christine was frantically running through potential topics of conversation in her head. There was a strange kind of intimacy that came from arguing heatedly with someone, and the pair’s last few interactions were churning in Christine’s mind uncomfortably as they walked. She could think of little to break the silence. Unfortunately, the choir, which was the one thing they had in common, was far too awkward a topic to bring up.
“Sooo. How old is Ayesha, Erik?”
“I am unsure.” Erik said. “But I would estimate 10 years old. She was a kitten when she found me on the streets of Kashan.”
“Kashan?” Christine asked, surprised. “How on earth did you get her back to England? Wait- you just randomly found a cat on holiday and took it home? I’m not judging,” she backtracked quickly “- that sounds like something I’d love to do but would never have the courage to.”
“To answer both your questions; not entirely legally, and I was not on holiday. I was working as an Architectural contractor there eight years ago for a high-profile government official’s third or fourth mansion.”
“An architect and a composer…” Christine’s eyebrows shot up, she was genuinely surprised and impressed. “Most people are satisfied with expertise in one field. I’m…impressed, I guess.”
“I can also bake a mean Shepard’s pie, if you want to hear something really impressive.”
At the dead- pan delivery of his response, and notably aided by the image of Erik in an apron and chef’s hat, Christine burst out laughing louder than the little joke really warranted, and Erik looked markedly pleased with himself at her response.
Were they…getting along at last, Christine wondered?
“So, what was the last thing you composed?”
“I compose daily. But my last notable work, I suppose, was an orchestral score for a commercial film called Katherine. A romantic tragedy.” Erik made a sour face, like it was something distasteful. “Hollywood has never really been my preference but I’m afraid to say, the money they offered was far too good to refuse.”
Christine’s stopped walking in surprise. The score to Katherine was beautiful, she had studied it at College. She had spent hours dissecting the tragic, sweeping score. It had been a class favourite.
“You’re joking! I studied that at the college!”
“In that case, the faculty ignored my express wishes.” Erik said, scowling.
“You didn’t …want it to be studied? But…why?”
Erik took his time answering. “My privacy is…important to me. For obvious reasons.” Erik gestured to the mask jerkily, uncomfortably. “Recognition is a double-edged sword for anyone, but for me, more strongly geared towards the negative.”
Christine held her breath as soon as Erik mentioned the mask, afraid of saying something out-of-step and offensive. She didn’t really know how to respond to that whole can of worms.
“Yes…I remember being puzzled by the mysterious composer. You signed that score with just the letter ‘E’, I remember. And my professor swore she had no idea who the composer was, that it was a mystery to everyone.”
“Who was your professor?”
“Ah, yes, I supervised her thesis. Well, at least she did not reveal my identity. She was a good student, and a good person - I wouldn’t have expected her to. Even if I don’t appreciate her teaching my work without my permission. And no, my identity is certainly not a mystery to everyone…I wouldn’t get any commissions if that was the case. But I do my best to keep as much anonymity as I can and to stay out of at least the public eye. My agent is very good at ensuring that I do, that’s predominantly what I hired him for.”
Christine mulled this over for a minute. Surely, even if the whole world knew of Erik’s music, if he was famous, the mask wouldn’t be that much of an issue? Artists tended to get away with far greater eccentricities. Well, easy for her to say, as an unremarkable looking person. Perhaps Erik was just so deeply ashamed of whatever lay underneath the mask that any public speculation on the matter was unbearable to him? Mental health was complicated, as the world was becoming increasingly aware. Sometimes perfectly normal looking people could develop body dysmorphia, what if that was coupled with something that many people would consider a legitimate physical defect to worry about?
Christine realised she hadn’t said anything for a while, and didn’t want Erik to realise that she was thinking about the exact thing he seemed to have an issue with people thinking about.
“I wrote an essay on your score, by the by. I got an A.” Christine said, lightly.
Erik chuckled. “Now that, I would love to read.”
Christine laughed. “I can hardly think of anything worse…the composer himself telling me all the ways in which I’d misinterpreted him.”
To steer the conversation towards more neutral territory, the next few minutes were filled with Christine doing what she would have loved to two years ago writing that essay- picking Erik’s brain about his score. She was conscious of the possibility of irritating him, but Erik seemed in a good mood tonight, happily answering her questions, and indeed actually volunteering information, speaking more than was required of him about his process, the score and how it fit together as a whole, whether her interpretation of certain elements was correct. It was fascinating. And this Erik, speaking with such tenderness about music- he seemed like an entirely different person to the angry, scathing, hateful man she had come to know.
“…yes, actually.” Erik said, after she had clumsily explained one of the more complex interpretations she had put forward in her paper. “You understood my work well. It’s my turn to be impressed. You deserved that A. I’m not surprised. Sorelli does not grade easily. ” He smiled at her, and she felt a strange sense of accomplishment, validated as she was by the praise of a man who she had unwittingly admired for years. And then detested. And then admired again. It was all quite confusing.
When the trees gave way to cobbled stones and antique looking street lamps, Christine actually felt disappointment that the conversation was over, something she had never, ever expected to feel about Erik. It was funny, how quickly your opinion of someone could change.
Christine was in the process of opening her mouth to say goodbye when a small, dark-blue car rounded the street corner and pulled up beside Christine and Erik, noisily breaking the magic of the peaceful, strange, eventful walk.
For goodness sake. It really did take a walk into the woods to escape running into someone she knew in this town. And even then, she had run into Erik.
“Christine! Hello! We are living on this street as well it seems!” Came the booming, thickly accented voice of Carlotta as the side door mirror of the car was hastily wound down.
“Oh hi, Carlotta.” Christine said, bending down slightly to wave through the window at Carlotta and the man beside her who was presumably Piangi.
“Carlotta, this is Erik.”
Carlotta waved at Erik energetically, whose visible eyebrow had shot up at the enthusiastic woman. He nodded stiffly in return.
“Christine, I am excited to join the choir! I am just going to go home now and call the conductor- what was her name? Marianne? Melanie?”
“Madeline.” Christine said helpfully.
“Ah yes, thank you, it was nice meeting you again! Ciao, good-night!” And she waved as she drove off down the lane.
When Christine turned back to Erik his eyebrows were furrowed.
Christine laughed awkwardly. “We met at the grocery story.” She explained sheepishly. “Well, she seems like a um…fun person. She was a professional opera singer back in Italy, so I thought Madeline would be thrilled to have her. Sorry. I know the choir is a bit of an awkward topic.”
But Erik wasn’t smiling.
“Christine, I must warn you. I know that Carlotta seems like an obvious addition to the choir but…many people in this village have some… less than favourable views about migrants. Especially ones with less than perfect English. Madeline will probably not be willing to accept her to the choir.”
“What a horrible thing to say!” Christine said, outrage rising. “And her English is near-perfect which is pretty incredible for a second-language. I bet her English is better than your Italian!”
“Mi permetto di dissentire.” Erik muttered under his breath.
“Nothing. And it’s not my view. Again, you chose to hear what you assume me to be saying rather than what I am actually saying. Well, I tried to warn you. Goodnight, Christine. I… enjoyed our walk.”
Erik walked off in the opposite direction, leaving Christine feeling slightly guilty. And annoyed with herself for ruining their budding…non-hatred of each other?
But surely, he was being ridiculous. She could definitely accept that certain members of the all-white, mostly-elderly Wemberly choir held some implicit racist views. Simply an unfortunate fact of the older generation, to be gently challenged, and hopefully to die out with them.
But she also highly doubted that a kind and sensible woman like Madeline would really ban someone from a small community choir for being Italian.
Chapter 6: Bad Decisions, Worse Costumes
When Christine got home that night, head reeling, she went straight up to her room and opened her laptop on her bed, rubbing Gerald the cat, who had been sleeping there until he was rudely disturbed, under the chin absent-mindedly as her ancient computer sputtered reluctantly to life. She went through her old College assignment files, the computer taking agonisingly long to locate each new folder, until she finally found the old copies of the score to Katherine that Sorelli had given the students to study a couple of semesters back. Closing her eyes and laying back on the bed, Christine listened as swelling strings welled up in her earphones and a violin duet ached with emotion. The two melodies wound in and out and around each other with impossible grace, joined by a cello as the music rose to a climax. Lost in the music as she was, when it came to an end, Christine only then realised that her eyes were wet.
Erik had written this, she could barely wrap her head around it. Cranky, mean, mysterious Erik had created this stunning music. It was a masterpiece, beautiful. Christine could see why her old Professor Sorelli couldn’t resist teaching the score despite Erik’s instructions. This was why people fell in love with music, this is why Christine put herself through semesters of gruelling study for a perilous career with little chance of ever actually ‘making’ it- because listening to a score like this reminded her, that to her mind, music really was the most wonderful thing that human beings had come up with.
Wiping her eyes, Christine downloaded the score onto her phone so she could listen to the beautiful score again on her way to work in the morning.
As usual, Christine and Meg used nap time to gossip, and Christine told her now-established best friend all about the adventure with Erik.
“Hmmm.” Said Meg, putting her feet up in the staff room and sipping her tea thoughtfully. “You know, you run into him ridiculously often. The car, the rehearsal, the church- and now on an innocent walk through the forest!”
“I know? It’s bizarre right. How many times have I randomly run into you in the village? Once? If I didn’t know he hated me so much, I’d say he was stalking me.”
“To be fair, I am trash and spend my spare time watching Netflix in my underwear not going on healthy walks.”
“But even still.”
“Yeah, even still, it’s weird. Maybe it’s all a ploy and he’s secretly been in love with you this whole time.” Meg teased.
“Unlikely.” Christine said seriously. “He was downright unpleasant to me that night in the church. He called me a ridiculous fool. Who calls someone they fancy a ridiculous fool?”
“A weirdo with no social skills and a lot of pent up rage?”
“I mean, yes. But no, I don’t buy it. His whole attitude to me changed after hearing me sing. Like I suddenly wasn’t she scum under his shoe, but someone actually worth conversing with. And he was actually pretty interesting and charming once we got talking properly. And oh my God Meg, listen to this composition he wrote.”
She passed Meg over her phone with attached earphones dangling. Meg hadn’t studied music, but had been a Ballet dancer in her youth so Christine was sure the technical brilliance of the music wouldn’t be lost on her. She was also a human with ears.
“Um, wow.” Meg said, earphones in and eyes wide. “This is actually giving me chills.”
“I know right.”
“And so he said that Madeline wouldn’t accept Carlotti-”
“-Carlotta and her husband into the choir, despite them being trained opera singers?”
“That’s what he said.”
“And is that true? Have you spoken to Madeline about that?”
“No. I have a lesson tonight. I’ll ask her then.”
The closing notes to Marzeline’s aria from Fidelo, the piece Christine was currently working on in her lessons, resonated around Madeline’s house, and Madeline expertly played the final chords on the elegant white piano with a flourish.
“Very good, Christine.” Madeline purred. “Very good. We might be able to start you on some of Wagner’s Arias soon. And then you can perform the solos in some of Wagner’s choral works, that will give a real boost to the choir when we compete in the later rounds of Music Fest. ”
“Wager? But I’m a lyric soprano.” Christine said, freezing half way through bringing a glass of water up to her lips. “Isn’t that a bit…heavy for my voice?”
Madeline smiled at her. “Darling, what is this doubt? Have I not made your voice more beautiful than you’ve ever heard it?”
“Y-yes.” Christine stuttered, trying to find the right words. “It’s just- teachers at the Royal College always warned me to stay away from dramatic repertoire. Because it will damage my voice to try it before I’m ready. Which…would take years.” Christine felt foolish questioning someone with so much more authority on the matter than herself.
“Not with my supervision it won’t.” Madeline said firmly. “But I do think your voice is tired enough for tonight.”
Christine started to pack up her bag. “Madeline,” she began tentatively, suddenly nervous, and the beautiful woman smiled her red lipped smile, eyebrows shooting up in anticipation of what Christine was to say as she took a sip of herbal tea.
“I ran into some newcomers to Wemberly the other night, a really lovely Italian woman called Carlotta and her husband Piangi. They were-”
“Oh yes!” Madeline said. “I received a call from Carlotta Giudicelli”, Madeline said in an uncanny imitation of Carlotta’s accent. “Rather bold of you to give her my phone number, Christine.” She said, but her eyes were smiling so Christine knew she was joking. Christine assumed she was joking.
“Oh fabulous! I thought she’d be a really great addition to the choir- after Music Fest of course.”
“Well unfortunately not, Christine. I’m sure she is a nice enough woman- but I simply couldn’t understand her incredibly thick accent and awful English skills. This is an English choir, Christine, she would fall behind, and I’m not prepared to be giving two choir members additional lessons- and it is hardly my responsibility to teach the woman English.”
Christine instantly felt guilty- Carlotta wasn’t being let into the choir because she was receiving extra lessons from Madeline.
“But- she’s a professional! She’s a better singer than half the choir!”
Madeline looked offended. “Are you criticising the singing ability of the members of our choir, Christine?”
“No, no, no.” Christine cried, horrified to have upset Madeline. “I didn’t mean that, I’m sorry Madeline, I shouldn’t have doubted you, you’re the director not me.”
Madeline’s eyes softened and she put a hand on Christine’s shoulder. “You’re a good girl, Christine. I know you were only trying to help.”
But Christine went home with a strange, knotting feeling in her stomach. Erik had been right.
Several nights later, it was the final rehearsal before Music Fest. The rehearsal had gone well, the sopranos were acing the high notes, they were following Madeline’s tempo perfectly and staying together, and there was a general buzz of excitement in the room for the competition that was tomorrow. As rehearsal drew to an end, Madeline smiled and looked around at them all.
“Well, I hope you are all incredibly proud of yourselves. This choir is sounding wonderful and I know you have all put in a lot of work- months of work, actually! I have a good feeling that we are going to perform to the best of our ability tomorrow, however regardless of the outcome, I wish to thank all of you for working so hard. Now- to the Monkey and Rose!” Several of the older men in the choir let out a cheer.
“For one celebratory drink, and then strictly bed! No hangovers tomorrow please- we’ll save that for after the competition.” Madeline said with a twinkle in her eye, as her comment was met with laughter.
This was met with raucous laughter and everyone gathered their things to head to the Monkey and Rose. The choir formed an unusual occurrence for Wemberly- a large group of happy chattering people who made their way down the winding, cobbled-stone streets into the ancient pub. Christine walked at the front of the group, happily chatting to Meg, Lulu and Raoul.
The pub was old fashioned, with a big double wooden door, and its iconic wooden sculpture of a crouched monkey holding a single red rose, hanging above it. The poor bartender seemed slightly flustered about the entire choir’s arrival in the usually sleepy pub, mixing up several orders for drinks. It was a good night, with the old men and ladies of the choir becoming increasingly red faced and giggly. No one appeared to be honouring Madeline’s request that everyone have just one drink, but fortunately she and Father Callaghan, and, Christine was relieved to see, the Montgomery’s, had left shortly after the group reached the pub.
It was when old Lucille started yelling at the bartender to turn up the music (what sounded like 50s swing) so they could dance that Lulu gathered Raoul, Christine and Meg and asked quietly.
“Wanna get out of here and go dancing somewhere properly?”
“Like, clubbing?” Christine asked. “Where are we going to go!? It’s nearly ten!”
Meg rolled her eyes.
“It’s only ten, you mean, you old grandma.”
“I’m in if you’re all in. I haven’t been out out for ages.” Said Raoul agreeably.
They stared at Christine.
“Oh, all right.” Christine said at last. “Yolo and all that.”
“Never say yolo again.” Said Meg seriously.
“That is fair.”
Ten minutes later, Lulu pulled up in front of the pub where Meg, Raoul and Christine were huddled in a tiny blue Corolla, and everyone piled in. Slightly grumpy at Meg for unthinkingly jumping in the back seat with Raoul, Christine got in next to Lulu in the passenger’s seat.
“Oh, what’s that?” Christine asked with interest at a contraption at Lulu’s foot.
“A pedal extender. Cause ya know, I ain’t exactly tall.” Lulu laughed.
“Oh right! Sorry…God I always put my foot in it. Oh shit!” Christine blushed, but the whole car fell into drunken laughter.
“Stop blushing beautiful, and pick us some tunes!”
Meg and Raoul howled their agreement from the back as Lulu drove off, and Christine attempted to find a clubbing/party mix on her Spotify app. Selecting a playlist she thought they would like in their current, slightly drunken state, she pressed play on the first song: Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’. A classic. Can’t go wrong. Meg and Raoul immediately started singing along, and Christine giggled and joined in.
Two hours later, Christine was actually enjoying herself. It was really nice to be back in London, amongst the hustle and bustle of people again. The club was dingy and grimy, and the music was so, so loud. Christine’s head felt like it shook with each vibrating beat, it was actually almost so loud she couldn’t hear the music, and had no idea if it was even good or not. Maybe that was the idea. But she could feel the beats, vibrating through her whole body, at times it felt like they were shaking her whole skeleton, pulsating out of her ribcage, and she swayed and jumped with the rest of the crowd of intoxicated, sweaty twenty-somethings. Lulu and Meg had last been seen with two attractive young men, the latter, just dancing, the former, obnoxiously making out. And several drunk men had attempted to grind against Christine’s behind, which she hadn’t been too thrilled about. When it happened for a fourth time, from a so-drunk-he-was-practically-passed-out guy with greasy hair, Christine had had enough.
“Will you dance with me, so they stop grinding against me?” She shouted at Raoul over the music. Not a bad excuse, if she did say so herself.
“What?” He shouted back.
“Dance with me, so they stop grinding against me?”
“You want to get another drink?”
“No- oh never mind.” Christine laughed, bold in her intoxicated state, pulling him close.
Raoul smiled, and they danced. Slowly, inappropriate for the speed of the music playing. The musician in Christine would have been appalled. But giggly, infatuated Christine in that moment in that grimy London club, was pretty goddamn thrilled.
Raoul’s hands got adventurous, sloping from her back to the small of her waist where they began to caress her back gently. Christine moved closer to him, their faces began to draw closer…
“Do you want to go outside?” He yelled into her ear.
It would have been sexier if he didn’t nearly bust her eardrum, but she quickly agreed.
Raoul smiled and grabber her hand, and they pushed through the hundred or so sweaty bodies, up the winding stair case upon which two couples were already making out, and finally out into the cold London night air.
Christine sucked in a deep breath, her head ringing from the incredibly loud music, and looking around her the world was a spinning mass of pretty colours- street lamps and shop windows. They were close to Piccadilly Circus and she saw the flashing advertisements change, slower than real time.
She grinned up at Raoul, and he took her hand in his then wound his hands behind her back, pinning her to him playfully. Then finally, with the flashing lights surrounding them, standing on the middle steps of the fountain in the centre of the square, Raoul de Chagny finally lowered his lips to Christine’s.
“Well.” Christine said simply after they pulled away from each other.
“Well indeed. I wanted to do that back in the club.” Raoul said in a rush, grinning at her sheepishly with a hand behind his floppy head of hair, “But I… had higher aspirations in terms of romantic setting, for our first kiss.”
“You mean, you’ve been thinking about this for a while…?” Christine teased.
“Oh my god, yes. Since the day I met you.” Raoul said, kissing her again, Christine giggling under his lips. “Do you have any idea how pretty you are Christine? And how you’d come to rehearsal and spend all your time talking to Meg and hardly talking to me…”
“I’m shy! And I did so talk to you!”
“Yeah, that time we met at the shops, and I tried to stupidly flirt with that apple…oh my God I cringe to think about it.”
“Are you kidding! I loved that!” Christine said.
“Well then it looks like your flirting skills are nearly as bad as mine.”
She smacked him playfully on the arm, but he just kissed her.
“It’s a huge relief to do that!” He pulled away and then kissed her again. “Mmmhmm. Definitely much better now.” Christine laughed out loud.
“I nearly kept that apple you know, as a keepsake.” Christine said. “But in the end it just started to get a bit old and brown, so I ate it. Um, I don’t know why I told you that. That sounded less creepy and weird in my head. Ignore me please.”
Raoul burst out laughing.
“I really, really like you Christine. And the random, awkward things you say.”
“Heyyy!” Christine argued, “Actually, nah, that’s totally a fair assessment.”
Christine’s head was spinning, from happiness or from alcohol she couldn’t tell. Maybe a bit of both. It was a beautiful night, and here she was in a beautiful city with a beautiful boy.
“Hey Raoul.” She said happily nuzzling into his coat.
“I really, really like you too.”
“We should like, date.” Raoul joked in a silly voice, pulling her close to him.
“We should totally, like, date.” Christine agreed.
Raoul lowered his lips to Christine’s again. They made quite the pretty picture under the statue of Anteros with his bow, the night lights of London illuminating their silhouettes as they pulled apart to take in each other’s faces once more.
Unfortunately, however, the romantic atmosphere evaporated shortly afterwards, when Christine suddenly whirled around to throw up on the pavement.
The next morning, Meg, Raoul, Lulu and Christine groaned and desperately regretted the night before as they rolled over in bed to silence four simultaneous alarms at 6:30 am sharp. It was the day of Music Fest, and the choir was to meet at the church at 7:00 am for a bus that was to drive them the two-hour trip to Little Hampstead, the town in which the competition would start at 10 am.
Raoul and Christine’s night had ended on a somewhat less romantic note than it began. After helping Christine to a public restroom to clean up, they had returned to the club to track down Meg and Lulu, then Lulu had driven them all the way back to Wemberly, blasting music to stay awake, which unfortunately had kept the car’s three passengers up as well. Lulu had said she had had only had a few drinks and was sober, but the sensible portion of Christine’s brain highly doubted the legality of the night’s activities.
I cannot believe I was that stupid. Christine grumbled internally as she dressed. I could have died. I was just so drunk and I just wanted to hang out with Raoul- but honestly, never again do I get into a drunk woman’s car.
Mrs Valerius was wide awake when Christine came down the stairs, frying sizzling bacon on the stove which she tossed onto a plate and placed for Christine on the table.
“Here, dearie. This should help the headache.” She said, handing Christine two Panadol tablets and a glass of water.
“Oh- I’m ok, just tired.” Christine said awkwardly.
Mrs Valerius gave her a knowing look over the rim of her glasses.
“I was young once too, dearie, and I know a hangover when I see one. Plus, you got home at 4 am. Take them!”
Christine gulped down the tablets with a familiar mixture of thankfulness and embarrassment.
The bus had its engines on when Christine arrived, rumbling not-so-softly in the cold morning air while members of the choir stood around clutching steaming cups of coffee and rubbing their hands together. Meg ran over to give Christine a hug.
“Ok, soooo, maybe going out last night was not the best idea.” Meg said regretfully. “Sorry babe.”
“I hate you now, but honestly last night I had a great time.” Christine shrugged, grinning. “If I could just shake this raging headache…”
“Oh God I know right.” Meg moaned.
Lucille Jones and Felicia black were wearing matching pink earmuffs and loudly complaining of the effect the cold had on their voices.
“Simply terrible for the voice. Simply terrible for my dulcet, pianissimo upper register.”
Christine privately thought dulcet was a bit rich a term for Lucille’s glorified high-pitch screeching.
“Hi-ya.” Agatha said, coming up to Christine and Meg. “I’ve got a spare cappuccino here if you’re wanting one? The one good thing about my ex-husband was that he really knew coffee, and when he scampered off with his new girlfriend, he left in too much of a hurry to remember the coffee machine.”
“Oh my god, yes, thank you!” Christine said, taking the warm, frothy drink thankfully.
“Here’s to dirty, lying, cheating but coffee connoisseur ex-husbands.” Meg said happily, raising her cappuccino in the air.
“Here’s to- that!” Agatha grinned.
Her heart melted a bit to see that Agatha had gone to the task of meticulously sprinkling chocolate on top of each cappuccino.
“So how are the boys Agatha? Is Timothy getting over that cold?”
“He is.” Agatha said cautiously. “But – and I know I should be excited about this but he said his first word the other day…the only thing is, it was a rude word. He might say it again so I feel I should warn you two seeing as you work in the child care centre…it was…bollocks.” She whispered. “I just don’t know how he could have picked it up! I’m so careful with what I let them watch on the telly!”
Meg and Christine worked very, very hard not to look at each other.
Finally, Raoul and Lulu came over the hill. “Thanks again for helping me out last night.” She said in a low voice to Raoul as they embraced, so the nosy older members of the choir wouldn’t be able to hear. “ I’m still incredibly embarrassed.”
He waved her concerns away. “What are you talking about, it could easily have been me. So.” He grinned. “How are we all feeling?”
There was a collective groan from Meg, Christine and Lulu.
“Now that Lulu has graced us with her appearance, we can all be off!” Said Father Callaghan slightly irritably, his rosy face reddening further under his cassock.
Madeline stepped gracefully onto the first step of the bus, rising above the crowd, and smiled at them all.
“Welcome, all. I thank all of you for rousing yourself from your warm, comfortable beds to join us this morning! We have an exciting day ahead. The bus ride should take two hours to get into Hampstead, then we will be handing out costumes, and then we perform! It’s going to be a fabulous day. Now, everybody on!”
When the bus rounded into the parking lot at the Hampstead town hall, the sun was out and the area was swarming with choirs in matching coloured shirts and black pants. Some choirs looked intimidating, such as the all-female group in matching, picture-perfect 1950s ruffled dresses who stood on the grass outside the hall doing high soprano warm up exercises.
After a brief stretch of the legs, it was time to change into their horrible pink shirts, which the girls did in the change room inside the hall.
Christine was just pulling her shirt over her head and wriggling around trying to get the tight-fitting material over her when, Lulu rushed into her change room with Meg.
“Oi! I’m changing here.” Christine joked, “Oh my God, what’s wrong?” She said, her heart dropping at Lulu’s tear- streaked face and Meg’s furrowed brows.
“Look at the shirt Madeline gave me to wear.” Lulu said, holding out her “uniform”.
Christine took the shirt, and turned it over in her hands. It was clearly a poorly patched together Dora the Explorer children’s shirt that had been re-purposed, the choir’s name written on the front in a poor imitation of Christine’s, and everyone else’s shirts. The Dora logo was still clearly visible on the back. It looked tacky and cheap and wasn’t even the right shade of foul pink.
“There’s no bloody way I’m wearing this on stage.” Lulu spat.
Christine felt a rising sickness in her stomach, and humiliation on Lulu’s part.
“Madeline.” She shouted, rushing out of the change room holding the shirt, Lulu and Meg hurrying behind her.
Madeline was standing in the foyer, talking to an old, fat man with rosacea cheeks and a wispy crown of hair, and they both looked irritated at the interruption as they turned to face Christine, although the man looked more disappointed. He was wearing a name badge, and Christine recognised him as one of the adjudicators for the competition this afternoon. Noting Madeline’s sensual red lipstick and figure-hugging black dress, and the man’s quickly reddening cheeks, Christine wondered briefly if she had been flirting with him.
“Christine? Please excuse us, Thomas darling. I’m so sorry.” Madeline said, briefly placing a perfectly manicured hand gently on his shoulder.
The man looked flustered, and scuttled off guiltily as he was told.
“Christine.” Madeline whispered, nearly hissing into Christine’s ear. “That was one of the competition’s adjudicators- interrupting our little conversation was not conducive to the success-”
“Madeline.” Christine implored. “Why is Lulu’s costume a children’s Dora the Explorer shirt? It’s not even the right shade of pink!” She held out the offending garment incredulously.
Madeline was silent for a moment.
“I apologise if you are offended.” Madeline said evenly, addressing both Christine and Lulu, her tone contradicting her words. “But the suppliers who provided our shirts only stock adult sizes, and frankly, it isn’t my problem if someone’s size does not fall within the normal adult range. Miriam and I decided that this was an acceptable solution.”
Madeline turned to leave.
“Bitch!” Lulu spat, tears rolling down her cheeks. Madeline did not even flinch. “I knew you never liked me. How you would never give me the time of day when I tried to talk to you at rehearsals. How you would never, ever let me move to first alto even though I know my voice is better than those stuffy old twats you’re such good bosom buddies with. I know this was deliberate. Now I see that you’ve wanted me out of this choir since you took over. It’s because I’m different, isn’t it. First Garth, then Erik then me. We don’t fit in your picture-perfect choir. Well, you know what, I’m out.”
“You are making a fuss over nothing.” Madeline said softly, but not at all gently. There was a tone of warning in her voice. It was the first time Christine had seen her when she wasn’t smiling, and there was something in her face that Christine hadn’t seen before, almost like it was the face of a different woman. A colder woman.
“Now, begin warming up immediately- or leave my choir. The choice is yours. But I’m incredibly busy right now and I cannot be dealing with trivial problems like this.”
“Come on Christine, Meg. Let’s get out of here.” Lulu said tearfully.
“Christine.” Madeline said in warning. “Remember what I’ve done for you.”
“Madeline, I appreciate the lessons. But first the thing with Carlotta, and now this? None of this is ok.” Christine said seriously.
“If you take one step out of this hall before Wemberly have performed, you can wave goodbye any possibility of that scholarship.” Madeline said in a low voice. Well, that was certainly a blow, but to Christine’s credit, this decision required no deliberation.
“Bye, Madeline.” Christine said flatly, and turned to go.
“I’m out too.” Meg said. “Any director who treats her members like this isn’t someone I want to associate with.”
A very quiet rage seemed to be burning in Madeline now. She was frightening as she cocked her head to stare down Meg in an almost predatory manner, eyes glinting. The hairs on the back of Christine’s neck stood on end. “Mediocre voice, disgusting hair-cut, appalling tattoos. I wouldn’t flatter yourself Meg, about me considering that at all a tragedy.”
“Screw you.” Meg hissed. “Let’s get the hell out of here.” All three women turned to go. Madeline watched them walk away, face expressionless.
Christine, Meg and Lulu rushed into the boys change room without much thought. Propriety could wait.
“Raoul! Raoul!” His costume was already on and he was putting on some new, shiny black shoes.
“Bloody hell. Yes. I’m here. Oh. Christine?”
Christine, Lulu and Meg hastily explained what had happened.
Raoul’s brow furrowed.
“But…she said she couldn’t get the right size from the company? It sounds like an honest mistake to me.”
“Raoul.” Lulu grimaced. “She was trying to rile me up. She was trying to humiliate me because I’m a dwarf and I’m different and I don’t make the choir look good.”
“Lulu!” Raoul looked horrified. “Don’t be crazy! No one cares about how you look!”
“Madeline does!” Meg interjected. “When I pulled out too- she basically said good riddance because of my tattoos!”
“It’s true, Raoul. Madeline’s not a nice person. Erik warned me about her, and I didn’t believe that she could be anything but lovely, but the truth is she’s just really, really manipulative.” Christine said dully. Shame was coursing through her; all she could think about was all the horrible insults she had hurled at Erik when in fact, he’d been in the right.
“Lulu, I think you’re overreacting. Madeline and Miriam were probably just improvising a costume for you and didn’t consider that it might come off a bit…offensive.”
Lulu’s eyes narrowed. “She took my measurements. You know, to alter clothes if they don’t fit? This was intentional. You didn’t see how she treated us in the conversation we had just then.”
Phillipe shared a glance with his brother and then cut in, “Lulu, I think you might be getting offended over nothing.” He said gently.
Meg and Christine protested at this but Lulu’s low voice, a warning now cut through. “You don’t get to tell me when I can be offended, not about someone attacking me over something you will never experience.”
“Raoul,” Christine said emphatically, “Honestly, Lulu isn’t misinterpreting the situation. It was like Madeline premeditated this reaction. She wanted Lulu to get offended and leave.”
Raoul looked lost.
“Whatever, I knew you wouldn’t believe us. Too scared of upsetting dearest mother.” Meg said angrily.
Meg and Lulu left the room. Raoul and Christine’s eyes met. Phillippe busied himself in the corner. It was quite awkward.
“Raoul, please believe us. This was a deliberate attack. I swear.” Christine said softy.
“I’m sorry, Christine.”
“Raoul, I can’t be with someone who doesn’t believe me. Not over something so important.”
“And I can’t leave the choir. Mother would be so disappointed. It’s like, the only thing we do together. We’ve never really related to each other before this. And Madeline is her friend.”
He couldn’t look her in the eyes.
Erik was right, and Raoul was a coward. It was all Christine could think about the entire, very long, unchartered bus ride back to Wemberly. As they hadn’t driven, Meg, Lulu and Christine, hung-over, exhausted and miserable had had to brave the limited public transport system in the area. Meg and Lulu sat looking disheartened on the seat next to her, Lulu’s head on Meg’s shoulder. No one spoke.
When Christine was finally back at Wemberly, in her little room, she played with her mobile distractedly, tossing up the pros and cons in her mind before she finally called the company who had supplied the shirts.
“Hello, you have called Cotton Face, my name is Amanda, how can I help you?”
“Hi, I was just wondering what the smallest shirt size you can supply is?”
“Oh- any size of course. What size do you need?”
“Um- no order. Thanks anyway.” Christine said, and hung up.
Erik was right. She had fallen into Madeline’s charm and manipulation like a fool. She cringed, burying her face in her hands. She had to make this right. For Lulu and Meg. And, she owed Erik an apology.
Suddenly Christine sat up very straight on the bed, heart beating.
She dialled Lulu’s number.
“How fast can you get here? I have an idea. Bring Meg.”
They were over in ten minutes, and Christine hopped into the back of the car.
“So what’s your big idea then?” Lulu asked, turning back to face Christine. Meg and Lulu looked at her curiously. Christine took a deep breath.
“Right. So. Do either of you know where Erik actually lives?”
Chapter 7: Erik and the Babes
Erik was sitting at his piano, tapping his long fingers against the polished black keys. The instrument was custom design, entirely jet black, including the normally ivory coloured keys.
Madeline would have had a fit at his nails striking the perfect surface, but Erik believed instruments were to be used, to be played, and not to be maintained in all their picture-perfect beauty to impress house guests. It was one small difference of opinion in a pool of literally thousands of examples, including Erik’s interests, Erik’s atheism, Erik’s solitude, Madeline’s choice of lovers, Madeline’s desire to run the Wemberly choir this year, politics, philosophy, philanthropy, reconstructive surgery, class and its importance, race, the refugee crisis, android versus apple, and even the correct way to assemble an IKEA table.
Perhaps ironically, that last one had been the final straw, the fight that followed including hours of screaming matches, tears of hatred and rage and frustration, and had finally snapped something within Erik that overcame any sonly love for a mother and caused him to escape from home at the age of 15. Erik’s tapping became more fervent. He pushed the unpleasant memory away and looked back down at the keys, one had a tiny imperfection where his nails had hit once too many times.
Not that he ever had house guests to admire the piano anyway, Erik thought wryly, getting up to pour himself another drink. Except for the rare visit from Nadir, his agent and only friend, when he had time off from his busy life in New York.
The wine was red and dry, his favourite. He was hoping slight inebriation would help with the uncharacteristic lack of inspiration that had plagued him over the last few weeks. He was supposed to be composing music for a tragic film- the horrific murder of a lonely lighthouse keeper in Australia. Usually his forte, so to speak: eerie, suspenseful, mournful music.
But not these last couple of weeks. He had composed no less than three ballads during this time, for Christ’s sake. Romantic, sweeping, joyful ballads. Not to mention the handful of arias for soprano voice. There was something very wrong with him. He knew what it was, but he didn’t want to speak it out loud, not even in his own head. For the sake of his sanity.
He was vaguely wondering if he should move on to violin to get through this creative mental block he was having, as the doorbell rang. He stopped short, his mind going through all the possibilities as to who could be behind that door. Had he ordered something online and forgotten about it? Ridiculous. He didn’t forget anything. A surprise visit from Nadir? Not impossible, but Nadir knew he hated surprises. The only real other option was Madeline. Wanting something. They had not spoken since that night when he left the choir, perhaps she had come to apologise?
Ha, ha. And perhaps he would be awarded eligible bachelor of the year.
The doorbell rang again, three times in quick succession, the melody not even finished before it was rudely interrupted to start over again. Erik was seriously intrigued now. Not only was someone at his door, but that someone was eager to come inside. Presumably, they were eager to see him.
This was unprecedented.
He placed his glass of wine on the piano and made his way through the hall to the door. He opened it cautiously and with a vague feeling of foreboding, dulled partially by the alcohol in his veins.
Three women were at the door.
Erik’s mouth fell open uncharacteristically.
“Hi, Erik. Sorry, I know this is a bit weird, but can we come in?”
Christine Daae. And Lulu and Meg whom he recognised from the choir. Erik had never spoken to them much. Though, Erik had never spoken to anyone much. Lulu and Meg looked nervous and uncomfortable. He didn’t blame them, they probably did not have the best opinion of him in the world.
But capturing the vast majority of his attention at this moment was Christine. Christine. She had a sparkle in her eyes that he hadn’t seen before, a purpose, and that, he found particularly enchanting. Her enormous brown curls were falling in her face and he watched in fascination as she impatiently pushed a ringlet behind her ear. He couldn’t believe he had once called her beautiful mane ‘frizzy’, he was a complete imbecile. And that heavenly voice he knew lived in there. A voice that, quite literally, haunted his dreams.
Erik realised he’d been staring at Christine for quite some time with his mouth open, like a damned fool. Hopefully they would all interpret it as shock at actually having visitors. Not an unreasonable reaction for the village recluse.
“Well. This is a surprise. I assume you wish to come in?” He said at last, opening the door wider to allow the women inside.
Christine, Meg and Lulu were seated on stools along Erik’s bench top dining table, each clutching steaming cups of Twining’s finest Earl Grey tea. Erik had made the tea in somewhat of a daze. That was what you did when you had visitors, correct? When Nadir occasionally visited Erik always gave him tea. And he would watch Erik drinking scotch disapprovingly.
Erik stopped his mind from wandering and focused back in on the long saga that had occurred this morning that Christine was currently explaining to him.
“And so now that makes you, Garth, Carlotta, her husband Piangi and Lulu that she’s basically excluded from the choir. Anyone who’s a bit different, not rich, upper-class and white.” Christine explained to Erik.
“And me!” Meg protested.
“Do you consider yourself upper-class and rich?” Lulu teased.
Christine went on. “She’s totally backwards and in the past about everything from race to tattoos. She’s horrible. So, in short, you were right and I’ve been terrible to you and I’m really, really sorry.” Christine finished her long rambling story.
“We’re sorry too, Erik. We misjudged you as well.” Said Lulu, on behalf of Meg and herself.
“Apology accepted.” Erik said cautiously. “But I don’t imagine you dragged your friends all the way to my reclusive part of the woods to apologise to me?”
“Correct.” Christine took a deep breath. “I think…that we should start our own choir. And I think you should direct us.”
There was a beat of silence.
“You’re a genius.” Lulu breathed. “We can compete against them in Music Fest.”
“And win! Get our revenge on Madeline.” Meg interjected excitedly.
“And more importantly, show that you don’t have to conform to a certain image to form an incredible choir.” Christine said wisely. “We could even get Erik to compose for us! Do original songs!”
“That’s asking a lot of Erik.” Meg said nervously.
Christine looked up at Erik hopefully. “Erik, you haven’t said anything.”
Erik tapped his fingers against his mug of tea for a moment. “I understand your enthusiasm Christine, but the fact of the matter is there are three of you. Two altos and a soprano. That hardly constitutes a choir.”
Christine nodded. “I’ve thought about that, and I think there are some members of Madeline’s choir who we can get on side. Agatha, she’s as scared of Madeline as anyone. Peggy and Richard, they’re lovely and I think we can talk them around to reason.”
Erik nodded. “Three altos, two sopranos and a bass.”
“And we can try to recruit Garth, who judging from his speaking voice is a Baritone. And Carlotta and Piangi! Professional ex-opera singers!” Christine added excitedly.
“Three altos, three sopranos, a bass and two baritones. It’s not the best balance.”
“You’re right.” Christine said biting her lip. “We need more men. We can ask around the village? Find quasi-singers and train them up?”
Erik looked thoughtful. “Potentially.”
“Well, Erik?” Lulu asked. “Are you in?”
“I must admit directing a small village choir has never been exactly on my bucket list.” Erik said thoughtfully. “But beating Madeline in that competition would be its own reward.”
Three sets of eager female eyes were glued to him.
It was a first-time experience for Erik.
The three girls squealed in delight, and Erik startled, nearly dropping his cup at the shrill, unexpected noise.
“Now we just need a name.” Christine said.
“We can be called ‘The Misfits’!” Lulu said excitedly.
“Or ‘The Wemberly Community Choir Tragics’.” Christine said, grinning.
“Or ‘Erik and the Babes’.” Meg joked. Lulu, Meg and Christine practically wheezed themselves to death laughing at that one.
Erik didn’t appreciate the joke quite so much.
The next week passed in a bit of a blur. Christine spent her time practising singing in her room, working shifts at Maxine’s, and working on choir administration (of which, she realised, there was a lot more than one would expect.) This was a good and bad thing. Bad in that it was stressing her out, and making her doubt on countless long, agitated walks if she was doing the right thing, if she could really pull this off. And good in that it distracted her from the miserable failure her relationship with Raoul had been, over before it even really began. She felt sad about it from time to time, and had one awkward incident when buying groceries, she saw him come into the shop and promptly tried to squeeze herself into the toiletries isle shelf where there was a convenient, Christine-sized space. Thankfully, he had been only after milk again and left shortly after, and she had only had to explain herself to one disgruntled employee.
The first rehearsal of Erik and the Babes, as Christine still privately liked to think of the choir, took place the next Thursday night, a day on which they could be sure of no rude interruptions or awkward clashing with the former Wemberly community choir. Madeline, according to Erik, spent Thursday nights in London at an exclusive, expensive bar.
Christine was the first to arrive, and as the organiser and appointed (by Meg and Lulu) president of the New Wemberly Community Choir, she arrived early to start putting sheet music on stands and wring her hands nervously.
What if the choir was a disaster? She would look like a fool in front of all these people. What if Erik was a terrible conductor? Unlikely, she admitted. But what if he was just a jerk to everyone and made them cry so no one wanted to come to choir anymore? She had seen two very different sides of his personality; how could she guarantee that good Erik would be their conductor each week? Or what if their voices didn’t meld and it sounded horrible? And they completely failed at Music Fest, only proving to Madeline she was right to kick them all out?
Christine turned to see Erik, dressed in his usual long black trench coat but today carrying reams of sheet music under one arm.
“Oh yes, yes, just checking everything before everyone arrives.” She didn’t like how nervously her voice came out. “Oh, and I wanted to talk about some things with you, Erik, since we’re kind of leading this thing together, so I’ve registered us for-”
Erik looked slightly taken aback but politely listened to her rattle on about budgets and registration fees and competition rules and song choices and how they would have to work doubly as hard as everyone else, there being only two weeks until the next round, until finally, he said gently, “Christine. There is time to talk about this later. For now, just breathe.”
She let out a long breath, grateful for his support.
“This is going to go well.” He met her gaze, and for the first time that Christine had seen, his eyes were kind. It changed his entire presence, she realised, from offish and unapproachable to someone she was beginning to consider more and more, a friend. “Everything is under control.”
Soon Carlotta and Piangi arrived, their loud babbling in Italian reaching Christine’s ears before they even entered the church. Christine had had a slightly difficult time convening Carlotta to join another choir…
“Ah but how do you know they want me!? Last choir, did not want me.” Said the disgruntled woman when Christine had explained the situation to her.
“No, no, Carlotta, I’m running the choir this time. Erik and I are. And we definitely want you.”
“That is what you say last time…” She had said, with narrowed eyes. Clearly, Carlotta’s assessment of Christine had cooled since the Madeline debacle. She was far less friendly and no longer called her Bellissima. But Christine had eventually won her over in the only way she could think of: by appealing to the woman’s operatic ego, and promising her a solo at some point.
Agatha had been easier to convince, having witnessed Madeline’s treatment of Lulu. Christine had expressed worry that the kind but meek woman might have a hard time standing up to Madeline, but as Meg had pointed out, “She’s a single working mum. She’s tough.”
Meg, who was close to Richard and Peggy, had managed to convince them without too much of a problem, and Garth had been happy to finally be accepted into a choir.
So, there were nine.
And they were sitting in the audience now, peering at her expectantly.
Christine swallowed and stepped forward. “Thank you everyone for coming. We all know why we’re here, because- because music shouldn’t be exclusive, for any particular group, and definitely is not just for upper class white people, basically. It should be for everyone, and the choir we’ve come from didn’t reflect that. Um. But this one will. Anyway, I’m sure that Erik will be a wonderful conductor. Over to you Erik.”
Christine awkwardly shuffled off the podium and into the first row, cheeks burning a little.
Unlike Christine, Erik appeared to be a natural leader, at surprising ease in the limelight for such a recluse. He casually pulled up a music stand with one hand, keeping it stable with his foot, holding a piece of music in the other. The movement was natural and fluid.
“Good evening.” He addressed them all. “Tonight is about seeing where we are all at musically, so decisions can be made about what we will be singing for Music Fest. Pay attention to the new sound, this is a smaller choir and the way you function as a part of a whole will change because of that. No slacking, weak spots are more obvious in a smaller group. I am strict but fair. If you are struggling with something, simply speak up. See it as an opportunity to grow. And please, follow the baton.”
He was so confident, effortlessly radiating authority and commanding respect. The group appeared to be hanging off his words in a way that they certainly hadn’t for Christine. This was irritating, she admitted, but also quite impressive.
“Now, no more wasting time, let us begin warm ups.” Erik moved to the piano and sat down, letting an opening chord ring out. Unfortunately, without members to spare he would be both pianist and conductor for now.
Everyone stood, and Christine quickly jumped up to follow them. What became obvious quickly and filled Christine with hope, was that each singer’s voice was of a very high quality, and sounded well-trained. They began the exercise by making their way down the scale, going very low for the basses, Erik ordering everyone to cut out when their voices felt uncomfortable. At the end they were left with just Garth entertaining them with his extremely low voice which eventually succumbed to growling.
“Very good, Garth.” Erik said, smiling wryly as they reached the end of his range. There were several chuckles from the group. “Now let’s see how high we can all go.”
Christine sang the exercise to the best of her ability with the other sopranos as it went higher and higher, watching Erik’s hands as he directed the tempo. Christine knew this was where she really shone.
Peggy and Agatha eventually gave out and sat back down as it became too high and it was just Carlotta and Christine left singing. The woman seemed determined to drown out Christine, belting her notes and adding a lavish vibrato; she turned a little red as she strained for the upper notes, but still Christine’s voice rose effortlessly upwards. Glancing at Carlotta, Christine faltered and stopped, not wanting it to look like she was deliberately trying to show her up, and not wanting the woman to hurt herself trying to beat her, either.
But Erik was staring at her with an intensity that startled her when she met his eyes. Almost… hungry. She felt a little flutter in her chest.
“No!” He ordered her loudly over Carlotta’s shrill voice. “Don’t stop yet. Your voice has yet to begin straining. Keep going Christine, I know you can go higher.”
She obeyed, opening her mouth for a deep breath and continuing the exercise where she had left off. Carlotta, bright red at this point, sat down, fuming.
Christine was a little embarrassed, but continued to follow Erik’s hands for the beat. Finally she reached the end of her range, and sang her last note which rang out, echoing pleasantly in the Church acoustics.
A round of applause rang out.
“Woo-ee! Girl’s got lungs!” Richard cried appreciatively, and Meg and Lulu let out appreciative whoops.
Erik was also smiling at her, his eyes intense, and Christine caught his gaze, and grinned at her feet.
“Shit, we could actually win this thing.” Meg said in awe. “Just give this girl a couple solos for good measure…I think we could actually win this.”
After rehearsal had ended and the hungry choir had devoured the thermos tea and slices of fruit cake that had been provided by Peggy in an effort to keep them energised through the rehearsal, the singers gradually began to head off home. The atmosphere after their first, very successful rehearsal was vibrant and excited.
“Want a lift, Christine?” Lulu asked, Meg’s arm locked in her own and dangling her keys in front of her face.
“Oh, no thanks, got to clean up.” Christine smiled tiredly but happily.
“Don’t work too hard girl!” Meg said, smooching Christine’s cheeks together and giving her a kiss on the forehead before walking away with Lulu and Agatha.
Christine gathered the sheet music and began to pack it away hastily. They had decided not to leave any trace of their rehearsals in the church lest Madeline get wind of what was taking place under her nose and try to somehow sabotage them. Christine had no doubt that Madeline had contacts in the Music Fest competition that she could persuade to disqualify them. But Christine had read and re-read the rules of the competition, and emailed various sources to check that the choir would be eligible for entry despite their late addition to the competition, as initial heats were not yet over and they were only required to compete in three of four first round heats.
As everyone filtered out into the cold Wemberly night air, Christine found herself happily humming while she placed music into folders or packed away chairs to make the church as closely resemble how it had looked when she entered as she could.
“Are you sure you won’t accept my offer?”
Christine glanced up in surprise at Erik’s voice, she had thought she was alone.
“Oh Erik, I thought you left. But look, no shrieks this time. I’m getting used to you creeping up on me.”
Erik chuckled. “I’ll have to lift my game, then. And of course, it would be unfair of me to let our president work so hard cleaning up while I simply went home. I am somewhat unimpressed with the group contributions to packing up the church after rehearsal…I might have to have a word to them about that next week.”
Next week! Christine’s heart did a pleasant jolt at that. Her brainchild had come to life! They were a choir, they were going to compete, and they sounded good together, dammit!
Christine’s could keep a huge grin from forming on her face. “Oh, I don’t mind at all, everyone’s doing me a favour really by being here.” She said happily, glancing at him. Her joy seemed to be contagious because he started to smile back.
“That’s not true at all.” Erik said softly. “Christine, don’t you see that you’ve done something wonderful here? You took an unpleasant situation, an unpleasant woman, and turned her follies against her. If we win Music Fest using Madeline’s discarded cast members, that’s got to be the biggest screw you she will have experienced in a long while. This cast could have given up and moved on after she rejected them, but you’ve shown them that a far stronger thing to do is to stand up to her. ”
Christine grinned. “You make me sound far more heroic than I am.” But quietly, she was touched. And, she couldn’t stop thinking about how he had looked at her when she sang. And was she imagining his glances at her even now as they moved music stands into the storeroom? She felt eyes on her, but whenever she turned to look at the tall masked man, he was quietly going about his work.
Eventually, the church was clean, and Christine pulled on her coat from the hanger at the narrow alcove before the large wooden doors. The long belt that wrapped around the waist of the coat got stuck on a prong of the hanger, and she was just going about standing on her toes to untangle it when Erik approached.
“Please allow me.” He said politely, unhooking the trapped material and handing it to her.
“Thanks.” Christine said awkwardly. “And I assume this one is yours?” She asked, handing him the last coat on the rack. As if she didn’t recognise the iconic black trench coat she associated him with now as strongly as the mask. “Armani, hey? I never had you down as a fashion snob.” She joked.
“It’s my fatal flaw, I think you’ll find.”
“If that’s your fatal flaw…I think you’re doing pretty damn well.”
“Well, goodnight.” Christine said smiling as they arrived in the car park.
“Can I offer you a lift home?” Erik said, removing his car keys from his very expensive coat.
“Oh, I’m just around the corner, it’s barely worth it.” She smiled. He really was actually quite lovely when he wasn’t being a dick. His face flickered in- was she imagining disappointment?
“Very well.” There was a very pregnant pause. “Christine- since you are no longer taking vocal lessons from Madeline, and are, hopefully, no longer in any doubt as to my musical abilities, and, well, we appear to be getting on at last- is there any chance you would reconsider my offer of voice lessons?” He didn’t give her a chance to go on before he hurried on. “Hearing you sing tonight,” He paused and shook his head. “You have such a beautiful instrument. I could hear traces of Madeline in it however.”
“Erik.” Christine smiled up at him. “Of course, I would love to.”
Thanks for all your lovely reviews folks!
Chapter 8: Apologies and Interruptions
As Christine left Mrs Valerius' house for her first lesson with Erik, she paused at the garden gate for a moment, noticing how strange it was to be turning left rather than right. It was almost comical, to have ceased lessons in one Wemberly mansion, stately, old-fashioned, sand-stoned Wemberly House on one extreme end of the village, only to start them up in the sleek, modern mansion on the other. When the trail through the woodlands opened onto a vast grassy space and Erik's house appeared before her, she allowed herself to have a good look at the place, having only gleaned a vague impression of the building the other time she had been here in the dark.
Mrs Valerius' assessment of the house as a "modern eyesore" was unfair, Christine felt. Yes, it was modern. Yes, it certainly didn't complement the quant stonework cottages of the town, but the design was sleek and attractive in its sharp angles and muted brown tones. Somehow, it fit beautifully with the craggy landscape near the ocean, and Christine could smell the sea air. She could see now why she had almost inevitably run into Erik on that bizarre walk up Candlestick hill a week or so ago; the trail was probably accessible from his back garden.
She made her way up to the front door past an immaculately maintained rose garden- so Erik liked roses just like Madeline, Christine noted with vague amusement- and she rang the doorbell, positioned to the left of the door which was beautiful and wooden with an intricate geometric design involving shapes Christine had not noticed her first time arriving here in the dark.
The door opened silently and Erik's tall, skeletal frame appeared, along with the long hall disappearing behind him. He was more casually dressed than she had ever seen him, wearing dark chinos and a simple, grey long-sleeved shirt.
"Christine." Erik said warmly as he opened the door. "Please come in." As they walked down his long hallway, Christine took time now to notice the space and drink it in. Neutral hues that somehow complimented each other masterfully and made for a calm, modern, if slightly dark space. The decoration was limited; the few artworks Erik had hung on the walls were mostly muted abstract lines and hints of figures. It looked like a house in a minimalist design magazine. Christine enjoyed taking in the surroundings, realising how little she had noticed on her first, frantic visit.
"Please, make yourself at home." Erik said when they reached the music room, "I will fetch us some water before we begin."
Christine placed her rucksack on a chair and looked around the beautiful room as Erik walked to the kitchen. The music room was clearly situated in the ideal location in the house. The entire back wall was glass windows which overlooked the lawns and surrounding forest outside, glimpses of the glistening ocean were visible through the trees. The room was naturally lit; a large skylight was embedded in the ceiling, illuminating the grey walls, black floorboards, and a rather remarkable piano, the keys of which were entirely black. Ayesha was lying curled up on the ground in a little patch of sunlight, her eyes watching Christine sleepily. Christine gave the cat a little scratch under the chin.
When Erik returned with two glasses of room-temperature tap water it was straight to business. If Christine had been expecting a cruisy lesson where she would hear more broad flatteries about the gorgeous natural timbre of her voice, the stunning heights towards which it could so easily soar, and how its raw beauty inspired Erik (she had) … she was in for an unpleasant shock.
"I think it is best that we return to basics to begin with." Erik said. "Your breathing is your weakness; your lower range is quite poor as well. Below middle C your voice strains -you are a natural soprano, but if you are serious about singing you do need to work on these areas. Let us begin with this exercise." Erik placed a handwritten exercise on the music stand beside the piano and Christine examined it. It looked tricky, all difficult descending intervals and accidentals. Erik had clearly written this himself to challenge her.
"How is your sight- reading?"
"Uhh." She said sheepishly, suddenly intimidated. "I thought it was ok, but these intervals look tricky to be honest."
"No matter. We will work on that too." He said, businesslike.
Thankfully, Erik played the intervals for her on the piano so she only had to concentrate on her singing technique, not also attempt to sight-sing simultaneously.
He watched her from the piano as she began the warmup, "No, no. You are straining." He said, stopping her after she had sung only one interval. When your voice strains you need to engage your diaphragm, push down hard on it, supporting the breath with the core and not the vocal chords. Again."
After several more attempts at the one exercise, and with Christine already feeling exhausted and beginning to wonder what she had got herself into, he was finally satisfied.
"That is marginally better than when you started." He said, nodding, "Ok, next exercise."
The next morning at work, Christine's core was aching, she could barely bend down to carry out her various domestic duties without her poor muscles cramping up in protest. She had thought she had a relatively strong diaphragm with all of her singing training over the years, but what Erik had asked her to do last night was next level. Groaning, she figured he knew what he was doing and the pain would be worth it…
As rehearsals started to build up over the next few weeks, Christine's confidence in the choir began to quietly, excitedly grow. Each rehearsal they did warm-ups and Erik's gruelling vocal exercises, before working on the hymn they were to sing for the first round of the competition: O Magnum Mysterium. It was an incredibly beautiful piece. Stunning harmonies that teetered on the verge of dissonance but still managed to sound haunting and pleasant. The written notes themselves were beautiful, but as time went on, Erik had managed to coax into the choir such a wonderful control of dynamics, such perfectly synchronised breathing and carefully cultivated emotion, that Christine's eyes were often wet by the end of the song.
Erik continued to excel as a director, he was strict, requiring nothing less than perfection from each person and each part. Sometimes it could come across as abrasive: "Richard, you've been flat on almost every B, practise that please." And, "Altos, bars 18 to 24 were repugnant. Again!" "Garth, your solo is sounding very pleasing, there is no need for that expression of a dear caught in headlights. You have the notes. Now sing them with confidence."
But compared to the scathing insults Christine knew Erik was capable of, this was all very good-natured and so far, he hadn't crossed a line. And, his methods were yielding great results.
In addition, each week Christine took three private lessons from Erik, and those times were quickly turning into Christine's favourite hours of the week. It felt good to exercise and stretch her rapidly improving voice to new heights, to work for his approval. He did not praise her often during the lessons, rather choosing to critique her mercilessly, but when the praise did come it felt monumental, and well-earned.
Afterwards, they would sometimes spend another hour in which Erik would quiz her on musical theory, or play ultra-high-quality recordings of various pieces for her on his extremely expensive-looking sound system, discussing with her the performer's merits and weaknesses and asking her to dissect them herself.
One evening in one of their early lessons, Erik introduced her to his digital musical collection on his extremely sleek laptop. He handed her the device and gave her free reign.
" 135,000 songs, Erik." Christine gaped. "135,000!" Holy hell.
How many were on her iPod? 1000, maybe, at most?
She trawled through the endless albums. There were popular and more esoteric operas, classical piano, classical voice, classical clarinet, oboe solos, violin solos, classical flute; classical anything pretty much. Baroque music, a few film soundtracks, she even found a Gregorian chant, and then music from the 1900s up until now.
"There's no way you've listened to them all." She grinned, challenging him a little.
"Try me." He smirked. And they amused themselves for several minutes, Christine picking pieces at random and Erik attempting to see how quickly he could name the piece and composer. He did remarkably well, and at 9/10 Christine conceded his knowledge was pretty damn impressive.
The weeks went by, and finally, the day arrived and it was time for the second round of music fest.
Nervous and excited, Christine hopped out of bed to dress. Erik had predictably suggested that everyone wear black. Still, it was far classier, Christine thought, than Lucille's pink shirt atrocity. This colour choice was fortunate, as one of Christine's few pieces of nice clothing was a pretty black dress, one she had bought several years ago. It was a little too short now, but Christine figured if she wore black stockings too no one would notice.
She also rubbed a bit of mousse in her hair to tame it and applied a little makeup. She wanted to look nice today. Because of…. reasons.
Finally satisfied with her appearance, she waited to be picked up by Meg and Lulu.
"Howdy!" Lulu called as Christine closed Mrs Valerius' gate behind her and ran up to hop in the waiting car, its engine running for her on the side of the road.
"Are we pumped, ladies?" Meg called cheerfully from the passenger seat in the front.
"Nervous, but pumped." Christine said a little breathlessly.
"Don't be nervous. We're gonna be awesome!" Meg bellowed in response out of the rolled-down window. "I'm so ready to win, goddammit. We've worked too hard to lose."
After the drive to Adderton, a small town several hours north of Wemberly, the sun crept out from behind the clouds and it was looking like it was going to be a beautiful day. There was an exciting buzz in the air at the Adderton Community Hall as Christine, Meg and Lulu walked from the car park through the grounds and into the hall, a pretty, old-fashioned brick building, where the competition was to be held. Hundreds of people stood around on the green grass between the rose-beds, mostly in their choir groups, and the sounds of their warming up scales or quick run-throughs of the piece each had prepared mingled with the chirping of birds and the rustling of trees in the breeze.
Meg spotted Erik, Piangi, Carlotta, Richard, Peggy, Agatha and Garth standing under the shade of the building, all also dressed in black. Piangi and Carlotta were quietly gossiping, looking haughtily over at their competition. Erik and Garth were standing slightly to the side of everyone else, and dear Lord, was that Erik's hand on Garth's shoulder?
Erik seemed to be giving Garth a pep talk.
"Garth, listen to me." Christine could hear Erik say calmly but firmly. "You will be absolutely fine, just sing it the way I've heard you sing it a thousand times before."
"But we have an audience this time!" Garth said, panicky, tugging on his shirtsleeve.
"They aren't there. Ignore them. Just keep your eyes on me. Ok?"
They were talking about Garth's bass solo. He hadn't wanted a solo initially, but had been the only one with a range able to manage it comfortably, much to Piangi's chagrin.
Meg groaned quietly next to Christine and whispered, "Stage fright is the last thing we need right now…"
Richard and Peggy began to contribute to the Desperately Attempt to Install some Confidence in Garth cause, Peggy patting him on the shoulder and Richard encouraging him to take deep breaths. Unfortunately, Garth seemed to become even more overwhelmed at all the attention and began to hyperventilate. Erik put his head in his hands and groaned.
Meg and Christine turned away a few moments later to survey the other competitors.
"Well, well, well." Meg whispered once they were out of earshot, a sly grin on her face. "Cute little dress you have there, miss. Dressing to impress, were we?"
"No!" Christine said, going red. "It's the only black clothing I own."
"Uh-huh." Said Meg, not even pretending to be convinced. "Wanting to look banging for the ex? I don't blame you."
Oh. Meg was talking about Raoul. Christine laughed in relief, but then Meg's sassy attitude suddenly evaporated as something behind Christine caught her eye.
"Oh, God, it's them."
Christine looked at where Meg was pointing. Walking along the path towards the hall was a group of fifteen or so people, all dressed in matching maroon pants with a white dress shirt and matching maroon bow-tie. The Wemberly Community Choir had clearly outdone themselves fashion-wise this time. Madeline and Father Callaghan led the group, Lucille, Miriam and Felicia following closely behind. Christine couldn't see Raoul or Phillipe anywhere. The newer choir steeled themselves for the inevitable confrontation as they drew closer.
Madeline, usually so unflappable, did the most satisfying double take Christine had ever seen in her life when she noticed them. She appeared at a loss of what to do, stopping in her tracks, Lucille nearly bowling her over from behind. The rest of the choir looked over in their direction, and jaws started to drop. After a moment, Madeline visibly steadied herself, then marched over to Erik and Christine.
"If this is your idea of a joke, Erik, it is characteristically poor in taste." She hissed. "I'm surprised you're showing your face here. Coming to see what you're missing out on? Did you really think that was a good idea?"
"Are you sure that's why I'm here, dear mother?" Erik said icily.
Now it was Christine's turn for a comically exaggerated jaw drop.
Mother and son ignored her, however. Their eyes were locked and they appeared engaged in a hostile stand-off.
"Why else would you be here?" Madeline hissed.
"This is a public competition, is it not?" Erik said, matching her tone.
Madeline looked around at the band of people standing behind Erik. She looked from Garth to Lulu to Peggy to Richard, then back to Erik. Her expression changed as the penny dropped.
"Ah. I see. You've entered this little band of misfits into the competition." Madeline scoffed. Then she looked past him to where the rest of the choir was standing. "So, Richard and Peggy, you were not leaving my choir to take up lawn-bowls I see. And Agatha!" Madeline hissed, and the poor woman visibly shrank back from her words. "I expected more than this deception from you. If I were you, I would quit singing to spend more time raising your children. They are veritable nightmares from all accounts." She said scathingly.
"Leave us alone, you horrible woman." Christine seethed. Madeline's eyes flickered briefly to Christine's, cold, then she addressed Erik again.
"Well Erik, best of luck to you." And she stalked off. Most of her choir followed meekly behind, but Miriam Fletcher stayed back for a few moments.
"I hope this isn't too embarrassing for you." Miram said coldly to Erik and Christine.
"More or less embarrassing than that costume you are wearing right now?" Lulu quipped cooly. "Maroon? Really?"
"Oh, be quiet, you horrid little midget." Miriam snarled.
Shouting broke out on both sides then, and Richard and Garth had to step in between the two angry women.
Christine decided it was best to lead the choir away, and when Lulu had calmed down, they moved to a different open grassy space.
"Right." Christine said to the group when everyone had been rounded up, clapping her hands together anxiously. "We probably should have been more prepared for something like that. But please guys, don't let that rattle you. What they want is for those words to affect us, and especially our performance. That's about it from me, Erik…any words of wisdom?"
Erik addressed the group seriously. "You are all sounding even more wonderful than I could have expected. If we sing in the way we are capable today, we will do very, very well. Please, sing like I know you can."
Erik led the group towards the doors of the hall, Christine trailed behind, trying to process everything that had just happened. Madeline was Erik's goddamn mother? How had she been so stupid? Did everyone else know? Oh, God, all the terrible things she had said to him, about how he didn't know Madeline at all, how she was so kind and good, came back to her in a terrible wave of humiliation. It came to her abruptly that she had never actually seen the two interact before today. But learning that they were related seemed to snap two puzzle pieces together in her mind. Now that she knew their relationship, it was obvious. They possessed some striking similarities, she realised. Their dark hair, their tall, elegant statures, their expensive tastes, their musical prowess, their perplexing, volatile personalities, oscillating between extreme shows of gentleness and callousness- even the shared interest in bloody roses.
But, oh, the terrible things Madeline had said about her own child – Christine felt pity and anger on behalf of the man.
Lost in thought, she felt a tug on her right hand that brought her back to the present.
"Christine?" It was Raoul. All blonde hair and good looks and puppy dog eyes. Her heart stopped for a second. "You started your own choir? That's – that's kind of brilliant." Raoul grinned, he appeared genuinely impressed. "I bet mum's pissed though."
"Everyone's pissed, where were you like ten minutes ago?" Christine said with slight exasperation. He had caught her off guard. "We had Miram and Lulu at each other's bloody throats. And Erik and Madeline looked about ready to murder each other too. Raoul- am I the only one who didn't know that Madeline is Erik's mother?" Christine rubbed her temples as she spoke, trying to soothe the oncoming headache she felt as a result of all the stress of the morning.
"There was a fight?" Raoul's mouth fell open. "That I missed?" Christine felt the urge to roll her eyes.
"Goddam it, mum and Phil and I came a bit late." Raoul said. Then he looked back at Christine's impatient, raised eyebrow. "Oh, the mother thing? Um, yeah, I thought you knew? We had a conversation about it that night, don't you remember, the first night you joined the choir and all anyone could talk about was Erik leaving?"
Christine tried to recall the hazy memory. Had that been mentioned during one of the many times Christine had been daydreaming about the very man standing in front of her now? She felt colour rising to her cheeks, which was inconvenient.
"OK, I must have somehow missed that. God. I'm an idiot."
"You're definitely not an idiot." He said kindly, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Hey, I'm sorry we haven't really spoken since…look, I'm just really sorry about…everything."
Christine looked up at his pretty face. "Me too." She smiled sadly.
"Good luck today." Raoul said, his arm dropping back to his side. "Genuinely. I hope you beat us!" The smile he gave her made her heart do a sad little somersault, she returned his smile automatically, mentally kicking herself as he jogged off to catch up with Madeline's choir. She watched him go with just a tiny hint of wistfulness.
When Christine turned back around to continue thought the doors of the hall, she jolted in surprise to see Erik standing in the door way, his eyes on her.
"Oh. Erik." She said automatically. "I thought you went inside."
He was giving her a piercing look, and she felt her heart rate begin to increase. His disapproving gaze was making her feel like she had done something wrong.
"We need to be in the hall, now." His arms were folded and his expression was stony.
"I know, I'm coming. Raoul just stopped me to ask what happened with Miram and Lulu."
"So I heard. We do not have time for you to fraternize with the competition." Erik said coldly.
"'Fraternize?' Erik, come on." She said exasperatedly. "Raoul may be the competition but he is not a bad guy. He literally just said he hopes that we beat them. Or weren't you eavesdropping on that part of the conversation?" His eyes narrowed and she regretted her testy tone as soon as the words left her mouth.
Erik opened his mouth quickly and Christine braced herself, certain something angry and scathing was about to come out of it- but then he gritted his teeth and spoke with a controlled calm, "Let us just head inside, shall we?" Their eyes met and there was an unspoken truce -it would not be in their best interests to argue right now.
"Yes, ok. Is Garth feeling better?"
"I believe so."
He extended a long arm, his palm open, and Christine sighed, but she obliged,walking through the large doors as his hand hovered behind the small of her back, ushering her through.
The hall was quickly filling up with the various chorales, and the MC, a large woman who shuffled to the microphone slowly, announced the first set of choirs - who then performed in succession. Several other choirs had also chosen to do a hymn, which worried Christine. All very pretty hymns. Not all of them were executed quite so prettily, however, which filled her with vague hope.
A very talented choir wearing all blue and named the Alderstone Community Choir performed At Calvary. A, frankly, god-awful choir performed Great is Thy Faithfulness. Christine tried to be polite and keep a poker face, but couldn't help wincing as they reached for the higher notes and fell devastatingly flat. She glanced at Erik who was sitting on her left. He returned her gaze at a particularly screechy soprano moment right as Christine was trying to stifle a giggle, and at the noise Erik's lip curled, breaking his poker face. She figured the argument from before was all forgiven.
Then, it was Madeline's choir's turn.
They got onto the stage very professionally, with no chatter at all and in three straight lines that marched swiftly to their places then went completely still. Madeline walked purposely to stand before them and after a beat of silence, conducted them in. Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus was their song of choice. Christine's brow furrowed as their pure sound rang through the hall, each of the parts melding beautifully together, dynamics clear, phrasing neat and perfect. Though she had to appreciate the beautiful performance, their perfection elicited a twinge of jealous despair.
They received a huge round of applause at its conclusion. Christine sneaked a glance at Erik again. Even he was clapping reluctantly. Raoul smiled and gave her a little wave as the choir filed back into their seats. She returned it a little unenthusiastically, and was then hit with a double dose of guilt as Erik stiffened perceptibly next to her, and Raoul's happy expression fell a little at her lacklustre response. She didn't seem to be able to win here.
Then finally, at the very end, it was their turn.
"And now." Said the MC. "A brand-new choir and first-time entrants into competition…It's the Wemberly Community Chorus. Not to be confused with the Wemberly Community Choir, their friendly peers in competition!"
Well, despite the MC's cheerful attitude, there was nothing friendly in the way that Madeline was looking at Erik, Christine and their choir in that moment.
"They will be performing…O Magnum Mysterium."
Christine took some deep breaths, more nervous than she had expected, clearing her head of all the worries of the morning, and walked to her place on the stage, eyes locked on Erik as he stood before them. She tried not to look past him into the sea of eyes in the audience, tried not to think of Madeline sitting in the audience now, willing them to fail. Instead she focused on his reassuring, confident presence. She took another deep breath. There was a wonderful energy in the air, every member on alert, ready to give their best. As Erik raised his baton, he looked at the group, eyes moving between members. When his eyes met Christine's, he smiled and as he held her gaze she felt her nerves fade away. She was ready to perform. Then he nodded, directing them in, and they were singing.
They sang wonderfully, better than they ever had in rehearsal. Garth, despite his earlier nerves, nailed his solo section. Christine's eyes remained on Erik the whole time, time halted and nothing existed except for the expert movements of his baton, the tiny expressions on his face, leading her and the others to adjust their singing accordingly. When the din of applause entered her perception, Christine felt suddenly reconnected to reality, as if waking from a dream. It was loud, enthusiastic applause, someone was whistling in the audience, and Christine and Erik caught eyes again, he was grinning at her, and at his little nod to indicate that he was very pleased with how they had sung, she couldn't help a wide smile of her own.
"Thank you very much to the Wemberly Community Chorus. The judges will now take a twenty-minute recess to deliberate and the winners will be announced shortly after."
They filed off the stage, buzzing and chatting and high on the thrill of a wonderful performance.
"You did it, Garth!" Peggy said encouragingly. "See, nothing at all to worry about! You were wonderful!" Garth was blushing happily.
"We have to have won. We sounded incredible." Lulu exclaimed. Agatha and Meg agreed loudly.
"Don't get too ahead of yourself." Richard warned. "Madeline's lot were very, very good."
"Yeah but our song was way better." Meg added.
"Yeah." Lulu agreed. "I mean, Mozart's good, you can't go wrong with Mozart, but our piece was the best of all by far. Well chosen, Erik!"
After the recess, the results were ready and they sat back down to hear them, tense and nervous in their seats.
"We heard some astounding talent today and we are very impressed with all the choirs who performed. Those choirs who receive first, second or third place will advance to the next round. Those choirs are as follows: In third place, Adderton Community Choir."
There was a round of applause as the director of the blue-costumed choir who Christine had thought were quite good came to the stage to collect their paper award.
"In second place…"
Christine held her breath.
"Wemberly Community Choir."
Madeline collected their certificate with a graceful smile.
"And in first place today…is it beginners' luck or are they just amazing?" Christine was gripping her seat very, very hard. "It's Wemberly Community Chorus!"
Christine, Meg and Lulu squealed over the applause, and Christine saw the closest thing to happiness she had ever cross Erik's face reflected in his grin as he walked onto the stage to shake the MC's hand and collect their little paper victory. Christine could barely breathe, she was so ecstatic. The applause was a din in her ears. Everything about this moment was wonderful, most of all the fake smile plastered on to Madeline's face…and the blatant expression of horror on Miriam's.
After announcing the winners, the MC had mentioned that it was tradition for the competing choirs to visit the local Adderton pub, which was where Christine now found herself, seated at a bar stool, watching Manchester score a goal on the little television screens above the bar, something everyone except Christine seemed to be overly excited about. Christine had never had even a passing interest in sports of any kind, and watched the little figures on the screen with an easy disconnect.
Tellingly, none of the Wemberly Community Choir appeared to be in attendance, though various members from other choirs were present- recognisable by their matching outfits at various levels of gaudy, and their tendency to spontaneously burst raucously into laughter, or four-part harmony.
The members of the Wemberly Community Chorus however, were getting progressively more drunk, giddy on both their success and… booze. Richard, Peggy, Garth and Agatha were seated in the corner with three pints of beer and a steak and chips. Carlotta and Piangi were talking animatedly to the harassed-looking MC. Lulu and Meg were lining up for drinks at the bar while Christine waited with Erik at a table. Random members from other choirs kept coming up to Christine and Erik and shaking their hands, drunkenly telling them that they sounded great, and two intoxicated, what Christine thought was probably best described as "goth" teenage girls, dressed head to toe in black and with black hair and black eye shadow, who she remembered from one of the less polished choirs in the competition, had come up to Christine, started playing with her hair and told her how pretty it was.
"How do you make it like, so like, curly like that though?" Said one of the girls, running her hands through Christine's hair as Christine stiffened in discomfort.
"Uh, my genetics I guess?"
"But like, what products do you use?"
"Um, water and shampoo?"
"Ooohhh. That's so cooool. Curly hair is like, totally in right now."
This was poor timing, Christine thought. As dead straight, thinned hair had been 'in' during her teenage years, she had spent her entire adolescence waking early before school and desperately trying to straighten her hair, which had led to one of her less favourable teenage memories; the burning hair incident of '09. Alternatively remembered not-so-fondly as the year Christine learnt that there are numerous methods to cover a bald patch, none of them foolproof.
She shuddered at the memory.
The goth girl who wasn't blatantly invading Christine's personal space seemed to register Erik's stony presence. He seemed at a loss in this unusual social situation. The young girl stared unashamedly at his mask for a moment.
"Cool mask, dude." She said softly. Christine cringed internally.
Thankfully, Erik was spared a response as Meg and Lulu returned, holding more drinks than they could comfortably carry, and the goth girls slunk away as the conversation became more and more sloppy. After a few minutes of drunken chatter, at Lulu's request, the bartender cranked up the sound on the loudspeakers to play dance tunes from the 80's that Meg and Lulu immediately got up to dance to, leaving Erik and Christine alone.
This was fun, Christine thought happily, watching her friends dance as apple cider coursed through her veins, filling her with warmth and giddiness. There were some nice people here, and she was lucky to have found the choir. Who knew what she would have been doing right now had she not? Moping around at Anna Valerius' home, stroking cats and sneezing, probably. And here she was, sitting next to Erik, despite all odds, now a good friend she had come to like very much. Very, very much, she suddenly realised, smiling and nodding dutifully as he ran through his ideas for the next performance piece. She wasn't listening, truth be told. Her head was spinning from the alcohol, and his words seemed to be going into her ears faster than her brain could process them. More than anything, she was just listening to his voice. It really was quite attractive, so low and resonant. Masculine. He was staring straight ahead while he talked, his long, bony but elegant hands animating his thoughts about the choral pros and cons of Gluck versus Handel. The unmasked side of his face was closest to her. She had never really noticed before, his sharp jawline, the hard angles of his face, kind of attractive in their own strange way. Not conventionally attractive, but she liked it. Dear God, am I attracted to Erik? She thought with a surprised jolt. It made sense that he would be a little bit beautiful, given that his mother was the most attractive woman Christine had ever seen. Holy shit, that's right!
"Erik!" She shrieked, gripping his arm tightly. The poor man startled.
"Madeline is your mother? How the hell did I not know that? How the hell did no one tell me?"
Erik paused, setting down the drink he had nearly spilt during Christine's outcry.
"It's no secret, but I suppose I don't like to advertise it." He said cautiously. "No doubt- the feeling is entirely mutual." His lip curled into a sardonic smile. "But anyway, I am not surprised that it wasn't apparent to you. We aren't the most conventional…relatives." He seemed to have stopped short of saying 'family'.
Christine shook her head and placed it in her hands. "All those times I spoke to you so awfully, acting like I knew Madeline better than her own son. I am the worst human alive."
"You are far from the worst human alive." He said softly.
"Forgiven." He said easily. "I certainly owe you an apology for the unkind things I said to you, as well."
"Forgiven." She echoed. "Man, we really didn't get off to the best start to friendship, did we?"
"You mean most of your friendships don't begin with mutual dislike and verbal abuse?" He said, eyes flashing wickedly.
She laughed. "Hate to say it, but I think you might have been doing the whole human interaction thing…wrong?"
"Me?" He said innocently. "Nonsense, I'm extremely popular. You can ask my…"
"Precisely. I can guarantee rave reviews."
She watched his hand reach out to his glass of whiskey and bring it to his mouth. Was she imagining this…vibe? Somehow, over the course of their conversation they had moved closer to each other in the little booth at the table. Was that just because it was loud in the room and they couldn't hear each other? Was it just the alcohol in her system making it seem like Erik….? Get a grip Christine. He said you weren't the worst human alive. Not the worst. That's certainly not code for …. She shook her head, willing herself not to do anything stupid while she was drunk. But this feeling was becoming quite overpowering, just the strong awareness in her body, that he was there, right beside her, feet away.
"What confuses me," Christine said, wanting to break the budding tension with words. "Is if your relationship with Madeline is so bad, why did you join her choir? Why even live in the same town as her? You could live anywhere?"
Erik sighed, rubbing his temples with one long, bony hand. "It's a bit of a long story."
"Oh, ok. You don't have to tell me." She wasn't sure if it was a sensitive topic.
"I would not be…opposed to you knowing." He said thoughtfully. "In fact, I might prefer that you do. It might explain some of the unpleasantness I displayed, when we first met." He grimaced.
"Ok then." She smiled, encouraged by his openness. "Well…it's kind of hard to hear in here. Should we go outside, walk around a bit? Some fresh air might be good to clear my head, to be honest." And if she was sitting less close to him, perhaps she could actually concentrate on what he was saying.
Erik agreed, and they slipped quietly out of the pub and began to walk around the quaint streets of Adderton. The sky was a pretty lilac as dusk slipped over the town.
"Well." Erik began, taking a deep breath. "It's a bit of a miserable story, I'm afraid. My childhood was…not the happiest. Madeline loved my father, from what I can gather, but never wanted a child. That I do know for sure… from the numerous times she has told me so." Christine felt a twinge of sympathy for him as he said the words, for his tone of dull acceptance.
"She enjoyed her life of frivolities and parties and climbing the social hierarchies- at the latter she was remarkably talented, actually. I think you are aware now, too, of how manipulative she can be." Christine grimaced, nodding.
"And then, I was born. And that would have been only a minor inconvenience to her, in any normal circumstance. She could have simply hired more servants and nannies and had as little to do with me as she pleased except to parade me around to others as another symbol of her familial success, her happy, perfect life. But, of course, I was not any ordinary baby."
He said the last line bitterly, and gestured to the masked side of his face. Christine tensed, this was the first time he had ever addressed the mask outright. She said nothing, fearing any wrong word or reaction from him would halt the story in its tracks.
"Apparently, when I was born, Madeline screamed, and refused to believe I could possibly be hers. She thought the midwife was playing a cruel practical joke on her." Erik laughed without humour. "She wanted nothing to do with me. Her socialite 'friends' wanted to see me, but she refused, isolating us, she saw me as a personal disgrace. When my father returned from military service, he was horrified by the state of her; depressed, sickly, retreating into her own mind. To his credit, I have come to understand, that her attitude towards me repelled him. I think he had been under the impression that he had married a loving woman, not the narcissistic sociopath she presented as after my birth. He filed for divorce, which she contested. He filed for custody of me, which she accepted. But then, he died. Killed in the middle east."
Christine winced in sympathy.
"I will spare you the details of the rest of my childhood, and simply say that Madeline and I did not have a typical relationship. Her life had fallen apart, and I was the reason why. After fifteen years I found the mutual resentment intolerable, and I left. We had no contact for the next two decades."
He took a deep breath, and they followed a bend in the road.
"Around five years ago, I was in London. Contrary to my usual tendencies, I was to appear at the opening for a building I had designed. And, incredibly, Madeline was at the event. She found me, took me aside, and presented me with a tearful speech, telling me how much she regretted what happened twenty years ago, that she had been young and stupid and unable to deal with a 'problem child'. She said she wanted to have a real relationship with me, to make up for lost time."
Erik slowed his pace for a moment, self-hatred colouring his next words. "And even though I knew better, I knew how manipulative she could be, there was still a part of me that, stupidly, stupidly, believed her." He shook his head.
"So, for a while, we entertained the charade of a relationship." Erik sighed. "She would invite me for dinners, come to the premier's for films I composed for, she would bring me to high-society social events where she could introduce me to her "friends". You probably know me well enough by now to know how insufferable I found this. And, though I denied it to myself for some time, it quickly became clear to me what her real intentions were."
"After years of feeling ashamed of me, like I had ruined her aspirations for rising in society, the success I had built for myself as a composer and architect was now something she could use to her advantage. Suddenly, she wanted everyone to know I was her son. The press got involved. There were tabloids about me." Erik's lip curled in disgust. 'Tragic masked architect reunited with socialite mother.' 'Masked composer steps out of the shadows.' I was asked for interviews, followed by the press- she denies this but I believe she leaked my London address. It was highly inconvenient. This lasted all of six months, until I snapped. I told her I was getting out of the spotlight. We had many fights about that. I moved out of that address, changed my nom de plume. I went back to New York for several years. I thought that stage of my life was over for ever."
"Then, six months ago, Madeline contacted me again. She had settled back down in the small town of my birth, detached herself a little from London's social scene, and wanted to try again…"
They stopped walking, and Erik pressed his palms to his forehead, "I am an idiot, Christine, I believed her. Again. It would be different this time, she said. There were no social high-flyers in Wemberly anymore. It was a small, sleepy town, now. And as Madeline directed a choir here, she wanted me to join. I acquiesced. I think she saw it as some sort of mother-son bonding activity." He said the word with disgust. "And in the interest of objectivity, I think her attitude was different, this time. Things were manageable- tense, but manageable- between us for a while. I think, perhaps, she did regret the past and did actually want to build a relationship with me. She is not a complete psychopath, I think she does feel guilty, sometimes."
He sighed, and took his hands down from his forehead. "But, as we now both know, her fundamental views have not changed. Though perhaps she will not admit it to herself, she still is a sycophant to society, she still does not accept what is different. She would not allow Garth into the choir, despite him being a more than adequate singer. Now Madeline herself is not racist, I am sure, she is far too intelligent for that. But she is political. She knows that the demographic of the choir wants things kept a certain way. She wants the influential people in this town loyal to her, and so she will do what she perceives to be popular opinion, to maintain her own status. When I found out that you had been accepted into the choir when Garth had not- my apologies, I had nothing against you, really, other than the fact that you had been accepted presumably on the colour of your skin - I confronted her. A lifetime of resentment came to a boiling point that night. I said some unpleasant things that I regret. I told her that she had not changed, that she was just as shallow and unkind and awful as before, that she had no principles and that Garth more than deserved a place in the choir. She then said some things in retaliation." His face darkened. "I will spare you the details of this too, but she knows exactly what to say to get under someone's skin, and even knowing this, I let her get to me. She made me see red. I quit, furiously. I wanted nothing more to do with her. When I ran into you that night, I was livid, and I took that out on you. I apologise. Really, my anger was directed at her."
Erik sighed, "No, that's not true. My anger was directed at myself. For falling for it- again. For actually, stupidly, believing that she actually wanted-" He stopped abruptly there, staring at the ground in stony silence.
"Oh, Erik." Christine murmured softly, eyes wet at the heartbreaking words left unsaid. She moved closer to him, her hands hovering in front of her helplessly, she desperately wanted to reach out and comfort him, but was unsure if she should. If this was any other friend, she would not hesitate to throw her arms around them, but Erik was different, some instinct told her that he would not react to touch like an average man.
Eventually, she found the courage to gently touch his arm. He looked at her, shaking his head in self-contempt.
"Erik. I am so sorry. The only thing I can really say is that it is remarkable how well you have turned out, with someone like that for a mother. I'm so sorry for not believing you, and siding with her. You are not stupid for believing her again. You said yourself how manipulative she is."
"I can accept myself falling for it once, but twice?"
"Don't beat yourself up about it. Love makes us do stupid things. Even if you don't think you love her- well, she is still your mother. And we all crave love, especially from our parents."
He seemed to process her words for a moment. A sad smile formed on his lips.
"You are so kind." He said softly. "So good. I do not deserve this kindness from you, Christine. If anyone should have been understanding of someone falling for Madeline's manipulations- it was me. And instead I berated you for it. I am a monster."
"You are not a monster. It's a very human reaction. I think you reacted so strongly because you also 'fell' for it, to use your words." Christine said. "I think it is easy to hate someone, when you see your own fears reflected in them."
He slowly turned back to look at her, they were only feet apart. His mouth was curved in a half-smile. "You are wiser than I give you credit for." He said, teasing and sincere in equal measure.
She smiled back, and now that their eyes were locked that feeling was back, the magnetism urging her to get closer to him. She watched him gulp as she took a step forward, his Adam's apple bopping, and she halted abruptly. Searching his eyes for some sign that she was not misreading this situation, she saw that they were trepidatious, guarded. Perhaps she had over stepped. Perhaps this feeling was one sided.
"How is it that someone so young is so wise?" He appeared to be talking to break the tension and to cover his discomfort.
"Hmm. I think one sad story is quite enough for one night." Christine said with attempted lightness, physically and emotionally pulling back. Erik's brows furrowed in concern, but he took her hint and did not press the matter.
"Well. You certainly put an old man to shame."
"'Old man', pfft. How old could you be? 30?" His little joke had lightened the mood.
He chuckled. "I will be 36 in February."
She knew he was older, but it was quite difficult to tell, with the mask. She hadn't expected it to be by quite so much, however.
"Ah. A Pisces." She mused.
"Indeed." He said. "Would you like to read my palm, too? Or are you going to whip out your crystal ball?"
She rolled her eyes at his playful jab, but smiled. "Sure, I'll read your palm." She took his hand in her own, and glanced down at the pale, criss-crossing lines for a moment. She tilted her head back so that she could look into his eyes.
"It says here that you're a twat."
He chuckled at that. She could make out specs of yellow in his unusually coloured light brown eyes. Without knowing how they had got there, and despite her resolution not to get any closer to him, Christine found that her hands were suddenly on his waist. Her heart was beating very fast. She heard him sharply inhale.
There was a clattering behind them as the door to the pub opened, and Erik and Christine jumped apart as if shocked. Christine realised that in the time they had been talking they had walked the whole way around the park and back to where they started.
Meg, supported by an equally-if-not-more-drunk Lulu, stumbled out onto the cobblestone streets.
"Oi, you too, we're off!" Lulu slurred drunkenly.
Richard, Peggy and Agatha swayed out next, singing an old sea shanty in three-part harmony that was decidedly off-key. Even Carlotta and Piangi were smiling and rosy-cheeked as they exited the pub. Meg started singing 'Dancing Queen' very loudly, complete with 70's disco dance moves, performing a one-woman show on the cobblestone.
Christine was happy to see her friends happy and celebrating.
But, she couldn't help but be just a tad miffed, as they had certainly ruined the mood.
Chapter 9: Songbird
Christine spent the week of the Wemberly Community Chorus’s fabulous debut and win working at the childcare centre, which was significantly less exciting than the competition had been. Working when you were in debt, Christine had come to realise, was a highly unsatisfying process. There seemed to be no reward: Each time a payslip came through she sighed, then slowly sent all of the money to the various places she owed: her father’s remaining medical bills, funeral costs, that last month of rent for her London flat which was now significantly overdue. But she was getting there. Soon she would actually be able to begin saving. Thankfully, Mrs Valerius was not charging her rent, and Erik was not charging her for vocal lessons – to them both she felt indebted, guilty and thankful, all at once.
Erik’s revelations about Madeline from several night’s prior were on her mind incessantly. It was an enormous relief to finally have an explanation for Erik’s inexplicable, instant dislike for her that had plagued her since her arrival in the town, and to have heard his side of the story about what happened that night. She scoffed now, to remember what Madeline had said to her, how she had attempted to lower Erik’s credibility in her eyes by saying that he was a drunkard, that he had been borderline violent. It was ridiculous to think of now. He barely drank anything during their pub celebrations- he was the most sober of them all!
And then there was what had happened after Erik’s story…and her realisation that she might just have a small crush on her strange music teacher. Attraction was a funny thing, and whether those feelings were returned remained to be seen. Christine was content with the way she looked- some new clothes and a haircut would help- but some more money would have to come in before she could even think about that. She was comfortable with the fact that she was appealing to some, and not of much interest to others, like all people who hovered around the average level of attractiveness. The question was, did she appeal to Erik?
She was in two minds about it. She knew that Erik liked her voice, very much, and had finally come around to her as a person, but she had been unable to work out if his interest in her extended any further than that. His reaction to her interaction with Raoul before their performance -though irritating, and on the possessive side- piqued her curiosity. Was that some sort of romantic jealousy? Or could his response be explained simply by genuine dislike for all members of Madeline’s choir, and the stresses of their first performance?
She had thought she sensed chemistry between them that night at the pub – but then, bafflingly, there was that wary look in his eyes when she had been so close to him in the street. Hardly a come-hither signal. More of a please back off, you are making me uncomfortable signal. The last thing Christine wanted to do was ruin things with someone who was quickly becoming very important in her life, and Erik was her choral co-director, music teacher, and most importantly, a valued friend. She figured that the best course of action was simply to sit back and see how things played out.
In any case, her lessons with Erik were fast becoming the highlights of her week (possibly aided by her budding feelings, but also of their own merit). She watched the clock all through her shifts at work, willing the hands to move faster, so that she could finally waltz free out the doors, away from the children and their various bodily fluids, and escape to Erik’s house, which was something of a haven.
Her first lessons had been formal and gruelling. Erik wanted to focus on her technique, and gave her exercise after exercise, making no attempt to hold back his disapproval if she turned up to her next lesson without it memorised to perfection. She spent most of the lesson exhausted and frustrated with herself, and a little bit with him: There were no easy moments. Everything he asked her to do was difficult. Even when they worked on seemingly easy tasks, her poor breathing, for example, he would find a way to show her that even breathing could be analysed and dissected and all the ways she was doing it wrong could be made apparent to her: he asked her to adjust her posture, her diaphragm strength, bend her knees slightly, no not that much Christine you look ridiculous. He asked her to sing major keys, minor keys, diminished intervals, augmented intervals, trills, sustained low notes, rapid staccato high notes, to strengthen her chest voice, purify her head voice, warm her middle register. He quizzed her on keys and song structures, made her recite the circle of fifths, decode complicated rhythms and time-signatures, started playing with the blues scales- when they started working on the modes, she nearly went insane.
But then, one day, Erik asked her to revise some old exercises. And she found that, to her delight, the very exercises that had given her so much trouble when she started were now easy. That she could glide through those intervals, skip through those fast passages, hit those lower notes, all with the ease that she could sing a children’s lullaby. As she completed up the last exercise, her finishing notes rung out into the room, and where there would usually have been a quick, detailed critique from Erik there was only silence. His eyes were closed and there was a small smile on his face as he savoured the dying notes. He turned to look at her, angling his whole body towards her from the piano stool. His eyes were bright as he delivered her a precious morsel of rare, warm praise.
“That was quite astonishingly beautiful, Christine.”
She hadn’t been able to stop beaming all week.
Her confidence had increased after that. After years of feeling stuck, of knowing she could sing quite well, but always only quite well, never very well, her abilities had finally surpassed their plateau and she was getting better, so much better, at a faster rate than she had thought possible.
It was incredible how quickly she had come to feel at home in his house, too, the music room more familiar to her now then her own bedroom at Mrs Valerius’. Once, she had been given the opportunity to explore the room without his presence, and had gained some further insights into the increasingly compelling man who owned the house.
That day she had arrived to a lesson to find Erik talking rapidly into a sleek smart phone when he opened the door, looking frustrated.
“One moment, Nadir.” He said brusquely, then held the phone’s microphone against his shirt, holding his other arm out to welcome her inside.
“Christine, my apologies, but my agent is being something of an ass at present, I am going to have to take this call. Would you be willing to entertain yourself for fifteen minutes while I finish up here? There are books in the music room if you find yourself bored, or you can look over exercise 41 again?”
He kept talking on the phone as he led her down the hall, in a tone that was argumentative and persuasive in turn, she couldn’t really work out what the conversation was about- the word ‘client’ was thrown around, perhaps an architectural project he was working on? Given how she had sassed him at their performance, she figured she would be a bit of a hypocrite to attempt to eavesdrop.
In any case, Christine was perfectly happy to entertain herself for a while, enjoying the opportunity to peruse the music room at her leisure while she could hear Erik’s muffled voice at various volumes as he paced round in the room next door. She gave Ayesha a pat as she sat her things down on the floor, gazing out of the enormous windows into the pretty forest. The cat’s tail shot into the air as she arched into Christine’s affections, characteristic little kink noticeable on the black tip. Christine opened the sliding doors for a moment, and the little cat followed her out onto the patio, the bells on her collar tinkling as she searched for a patch of sun to frolic in.
After a few refreshing breaths of sea air, and taking in the ocean’s dull roar in the background, Christine went back inside to use this rare opportunity to examine Erik’s things- he had, after all, just given her permission to do so. She started with the bookshelf, running her hands over large scores of operas, classic novels, and encyclopedias. There were several volumes on architecture and composition, and numerous books written in German, Italian, French, Arabic and Persian. She recalled Erik’s story about how he had found Ayesha on the streets of Kashan, and wondered just how many languages he could actually speak.
Erik had all sorts of instruments around the place, a clarinet, a guitar, a violin. She wondered over to the shining violin case set neatly on a counter, and opened it delicately. As her father had been a violinist himself, she knew the instrument well, although she regrettably couldn’t play. This one was tremendously high quality. She leant in to examine it more closely and then baulking, she realised the beautiful thing was a Stradivarius. She considered her already high estimate of Erik’s wealth, and tripled it. With shaking hands, not wanting her clumsiness to come out at such an inopportune moment, Christine very, very gently closed the lid.
And then there was the intriguing black piano. Christine sat down on the stool- the height was all wrong, Erik had much longer legs than herself- but she felt suddenly wistful, wanting to play with all the ease and grace that he possessed, but knowing that in comparison to him at least, her piano skills were dismally lacking. She ran her fingers lightly over the black keys.
Seeing the violin had stirred thoughts of her father. Of nights spent singing together, or listening to him play, sometimes she would accompany on piano. He would play records for her too. Classical pieces but also all of the old rock classics, that was what he liked. There was an old record he used to play on repeat, Fleetwood Mac, one particular song had been his favourite. Songbird. He had called her his little songbird for a while, one of many endearments she had outgrown and come to find embarrassing as an awkward teenager. How she longed to hear that endearment from him now.
She started to play the opening piano melody, her fingers stiff, her memory for the piece rusty. But the notes returned to her, and she began to sing along with her own accompaniment, softly, not wanting to create too much noise while Erik was on an important call just one room over.
The lyrics were soft and tender and loving, the melody bittersweet. Christine remembered her father singing it to her when she couldn’t sleep, as a young teenager, once she was too old for silly lullabies about cats - but not too old to be soothed by her father’s voice to sleep. Her eyes began to well up, and she stopped playing, blinking away the tears before Erik came back to see her bawling like a mad woman.
“My sincerest apologies Christine,” Erik’s voice called from the hall behind her as the door to the next room opened and he strode back into the room, “I expressly asked Nadir not to call during this time but he is a tad irritated with me at present. Unfortunately, my client is harassing him because - oh.” He stopped short in the doorway when he noticed her sitting at the piano.
“Sorry.” Christine said quickly. “I should have asked before I- .”
Erik waved away her apology. “Nonsense – I just didn’t know you could play. Of course you are welcome to all of the instruments in this house.”
His eyes flickered behind her to the violin perched on the counter.
“However,” He said a little stiffly, “I will request that you do take care around the violin, it is rather valuable and would not be easy to replace. Not to say,” He added quickly, “that you are in any way, ah-” He floundered.
“Accident -prone?” Christine laughed, recalling the car, and the shrubbery, and the apples, it came out a little watery but Erik thankfully was too busy grimacing at his own awkward insinuation to notice. “It’s ok Erik,” She said, putting the man out of his misery. “I know I am. I won’t touch the violin. I know how valuable those are- my dad used to play. Pretty sure I dinged his a few times, to be honest.”
“What were you playing?” Erik said with exaggerated curiosity, appearing to want to swiftly move on from the topic of priceless violins.
“Trying to play.” She corrected self-effacingly. “Some Fleetwood Mac. Songbird. It was my dad’s favourite, but I can’t seem to remember it.” The sentence came out sounding very sad. “He passed away recently.”
He walked to the piano slowly, expression concerned, seeming to cotton on to her wistful mood. “Nothing that cannot be re-learnt.” He said gently. “Would you like me to teach you?”
She sensed suddenly that if she heard another note of that song she would burst into tears.
“I’d rather sing today, if that’s alright?” She said abruptly, extracting herself from the piano stool.
“Of course.” He said politely, emotionally drawing back. “How did you go with exercise 41?”
He was unusually gentle with his criticism that lesson.
As Christine’s voice blossomed under Erik’s tutelage, rehearsals with the choir also continued to go well. Erik did an exemplar job of bringing balance to their slightly strange arrangement of voices, and as he gave general titbits of advice for singing in general as well as directing and conducting the choir, members often remarked upon the improvements they had seen in their own voices in recent weeks.
Having led the choir together in – wait for it, harmony- up until the present, Erik and Christine were finally facing their first directorial disagreement. They were performing Haydn’s Creation, and Christine had insisted that Carlotta take the coveted Soprano solo, as she had weeks ago promised the woman a solo, shamelessly using it as a bargaining tool to raise member numbers to the minimum required amount to enter the competition.
Perhaps Christine should have seen coming how vehemently Erik would oppose this.
“Please trust my judgement on this,” Erik said in a low voice as they were setting up the hall one rehearsal, choir members filtering in, “The solo should not go to Carlotta.”
“Erik, I can’t allow you to just give me all the solos, that’s hardly fair on the other members. And not a very good look for the ‘president’. It makes me look self-centred and narcissistic.”
“If other people’s opinion of you is the problem – no one who knows you could possibly think that.”
“It’s not that, it’s the principle of it. If I get all the solos then that’s favouritism.”
“But it is better for the choir as a whole. I thought we were in this competition to win it?”
“We will not do well if Carlotta has the solo. She uses far too much vibrato, her voice is overpowering and operatic, it needs to be able to blend with the other voices.”
“We can help her blend in more, she can learn.”
Erik looked at her sternly. “Christine, you know as well as I do that I have been trying to guide her- for weeks. She does not take direction well.”
“I’m sorry, but it has to be her.” Christine said, struggling to extend a rusty music stand, frustrated. The bloody thing finally came loose and she dinged her hand on it as it swiftly extended. “Ouch- goddammit.” She sucked on the offending wound irritably. “The way I convinced her to join the choir after I messed her around with the whole Madeline choir thing was by promising her a solo. I can’t go back on my promise.”
She looked up into Erik’s eyes. His brows were furrowed, a small wrinkle forming in the mask.
“Even if that is to the detriment of the choir?”
Christine bit her lip. “I don’t think it will be as detrimental as you think.”
“Ok, how about this. Next time, I will choose something with multiple solos. She can have a small solo then. If we get to the next round. Which we only will if you have the solo now.” His eyes were intense and his tone persuasive and she felt her will melt away.
She sighed. “OK, Erik, fine, but you are making the announcement- and,”
“Done.” Erik said brightly, looking delighted. “Right everyone, assemble please,” he said, swiftly striding towards the centre of the room before she could even finish her sentence.
The next time Christine went to the grocery store, she checked her bank balance when she got home, as the purchase had not been as expensive as she had expected. To her great surprise, it was finally in the positives. She checked how much she still owed for her father’s funeral bill- ah, how serendipitous she thought smiling, the amounts were exactly equal, and quickly, she paid the last of that particular bill. Progress. She was so proud of herself for that, all of the hard hours at the childcare centre, the move to Wemberly was finally starting to financially pay off.
Then she burst into tears.
Erik was in his home office, sending the last pages of score and complementary demo audio files through to Nadir’s New York office. That irritated phone call from his agent-friend had spurred him on to put a bit more effort into the whole thing- he had been slacking with his work of late. The client had quite rightly asked where the drafts for the score were, and Nadir had called him- irritatingly, just before a lesson with Christine- muttering about deadlines and his reputation and professionalism. Erik knew his attitude to his work at present was poor, and had done some hasty, inspired writing over the last few days, confident that the client would be more than happy with the final result and his lapse would be forgiven. It was just that there was so much in Erik’s life at present. For the first time, he appeared to have a social life.
As if to demonstrate the truth of his train of thought, Erik’s doorbell rang shrilly.
This was happening more and more of late, and Erik was almost getting used to this constant onset of visitors. The other day, sweet old Peggy and Richard from the choir had popped in with a casserole they had made, simply thanked Erik for all the hard work he did for the choir, offered him to come on a walk with them which he stiffly (but politely, he hoped), declined.
At last, there were people in his life. People that, to Erik’s increasing surprise, he quite liked. It was remarkable how much your life could change, how much less dark the world could seem, with a few friendly faces in the town you lived in.
Erik rose from his computer as the last few gigabytes of the file uploaded, and he quickly sent them on their way. It was with a pleasant feeling of accomplishment that he opened the door, and a small smile- one that instantly evaporated when he saw her.
Christine Daae was on his front porch, her face tear-streaked.
“Erik.” She said, sniffling. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know where else to go. Meg’s at work, Mrs Valerius is- I don’t want to upset her.”
“Christine?” He said, fearing some sort of horrific accident, “What on Earth is the matter?”
“I’ve- I’ve finally done it. I’ve paid off my dad’s funeral bill.” She burst into a fresh stream of tears.
Erik was at an utter loss. A bill had been paid. She had had a debt and now it was gone, and she was…sad?
“I see.” He said, pretending to understand. There was nothing but the sound of her quiet crying for a moment. She looked up at him with big, expectant eyes.
Then, he had a sudden flash of inspiration, remembering his limited repertoire of social conventions, “Can I make you a cup of tea?”
Several minutes later, Christine had calmed down and was curled up in Ayesha’s armchair of choice in the living room- Erik had hastily shooed away the cat to her chagrin, brushing her fur off hastily and gently led the crying woman by her elbow to his most comfortable chair. Erik himself perched awkwardly on another chair, sitting on the edge of his seat, grasping the mug of tea anxiously. She was upset and he didn’t know what exactly he needed to do to fix it.
“Thank you for the tea.” She said, smiling weakly at him from under wet eyelashes, taking a sip of the earl grey tea she had requested. “I’m sorry… for being a mess.”
“Did you want…to talk about it?” He said stiffly, after a long beat. This really was a bit beyond him.
“Um. Yeah, I guess I haven’t told you my miserable story yet.” She chucked sadly.
“Um, well, my whole life pretty much, it was just me and dad. Mum died shortly after I was born. Dad later. Both cancer – doesn’t bode too well for my chance at longevity.” She said with an uncharacteristically dark tone. Erik was gripped with a sudden pang of irrational fear and started searching her face for signs of illness, then internally kicked himself. “Anyway, we weren’t too well off to begin with, they had me before they could really afford a kid, and then there was the added strain of her medical costs. And then his medical costs. And then, when he…” She swallowed, fighting back tears. She took a deep breath. “Well, funerals cost a lot too. So do degrees. So does rent. I had a bit saved, and I thought I’d be able to pay my way through a degree, and I did for two semesters, but then my rent went up and the store I was working at closed down, I looked for another job but nothing else could pay as well…basically I ran out of money. I’m not good with money, never had much of a head for maths and I didn’t know what I was doing. All the expenses…I don’t know. I was so pathetic. My dad had always dealt with all that stuff, you know? And I was suddenly on my own, I had to learn super quickly how the adult world worked. Didn’t go too well. So, I had to drop out. I came here because I don’t have many relatives, but Mrs Valerius was kind enough to say she’d take me in, she’s an old family friend of dads. Somehow, she managed to wrangle me a job at the childcare centre here, so yeah. That was my plan. Come here and get my shit together financially. And it has actually worked because today I was finally in the positives again. So yeah, all that sounds good I know and you’re probably like why is this crazy lady crying.” She laughed weakly. “But it’s just that, you know, I’ve paid it off so like, he’s really, finally…gone now.” Her voice broke on the word and his heart along with it.
It was misery, watching as a steady stream of tears rushed down her cheeks again and she buried her face in the already damp sleeve of her tattered jumper. Instinctively, he reached out, but he closed his hand into a fist mid-air, grateful that she hadn’t seen the silly, futile gesture. He didn’t know what he had thought he was going to do. Embrace her?
He wanted to, far too much. Out of a rare experience of deep empathy? Absolutely. But there was a less noble side to his desire to touch her as well, and he reproached himself for even the half-formed notion of it in his mind.
She looked so young, crying there. And her youth had never been more apparent than in this sad story about losing a parent and struggling with finances, of all things- he wished desperately, irrationally- that he had known her then, that he had been able to help her out of her debt. That stupid violin he owned could probably have paid for her entire university education. How extravagant it seemed. How selfish he was, with all his wealth, this nice house, his expensive clothing and electronics while she struggled and suffered. He didn’t deserve any of it, bitter, spiteful man that he was, he wished suddenly, genuinely, that all he owned was hers, and he was the one with nothing.
But of course, had this not happened to her, she never would have come to Wemberly. She would never have run into that ditch on the road and made a nuisance of herself, never embarrassed him in front of Richard and Peggy in the bushes outside the church, never stood up to his mother and had the gall to start her own choir, to bring people and laughter and amusement into his sorry, lonely life. He knew it was selfish and unfair but he couldn’t wish that all that had never happened to her, because if it had not, he never would have met her and he never would have fallen-
He stopped that particular thought from fully forming with the expertise of someone used to exerting considerable effort and control over their own mental processes. He had thought, perhaps, in that night outside the pub when her arms had inexplicably found themselves around his waist- but no, no, no. He must have misinterpreted.
He reminded himself again, firmly: She was so young. He was nearly old enough to be the father she was grieving now.
And that was to say nothing of his face. If his age wasn’t a sure end to any sort of something that could possibly exist between them- his face would always be the checkmate.
He did not take her into his arms. But he did have another idea.
“Christine. May I play something for you?”
She looked up from the jumper, all big, beautiful sad eyes, and sort of endearingly blotchy skin. She watched him as he settled himself at the piano and took a deep breath, for the first time that he could remember, he was actually nervous to play music, something that had always felt as natural to him as breathing. The nerves were undoubtably there because he was desperately hoping that this was not a horrible social misstep.
Seventies rock was not usually his genre of choice, but, as the lyrics to this song were about to rather serendipitously suggest, for her, anything. He opened his mouth and started to sing.
Thank you so much for all the lovely comments and kudos! You guys keep me motivated to finish this thing. :)
Chapter 10: Inconvenient Allies
When Meg had described Erik’s voice as “earth-shatteringly stunning” all those weeks ago, Christine had written off the comment as owing to Meg’s flair for the dramatic. “Earth-shattering” was a descriptor so hyperbolic that it almost always set the praised phenomena up to disappoint. It was a cluster of adjectives best reserved for impossible feats of acrobatics, circus tricks involving the juggling of dangerous, preferably flammable, objects, ultra-high-speed theme park rides…or perhaps, if one were to be so fortunate, certain events of the bedroom variety.
Now, she would argue, the description did not go nearly far enough.
She had been surprised and touched when Erik had started to play the opening piano melody of Songbird, having expected him to opt for one of the more soothing works of Chopin or Debussy were he attempting to calm her down. She had mentioned that the song was her father’s favourite only once, and he had evidently taken that information in, as well as taken the time to learn it. Not that it would take him particularly long to learn a simple pop song. Actually, given the depths of his genius she had only recently begun to appreciate, she strongly suspected he had just listened to it once and instantly knew it by ear. Perfect- pitched bastard.
His piano skills, she knew already, were astonishing, and while her attempt at the melody had been clunky and stiff, he effortlessly coaxed the gentle, fragile quality of sound from the piano that characterised the ballad. Sweet, soft notes in a major key.
Then he opened his mouth to sing, and she thought she was hallucinating. She quite literally wondered if she had somehow slipped off the armchair and hit her head because there was no way in hell that a human being could sound like that. The rich, sonorous timbre of his baritone, the impossible soaring purity of his tenor. His voice was angelic, and when she had recovered from her shock enough to actually listen to what he was singing she realised that he sang the lyrics, raw and vulnerable enough to sound cheesy in the wrong hands, with a perfect care and tenderness she would admit she had not thought he possessed.
It was the most beautiful rendition of her father’s favourite song that she had ever heard.
It was simply the most beautiful anything that she had ever heard.
Mostly, his eyes were closed as he sang, his brow furrowed in concentration, or emotion, she could not tell. But when he sang of wishing the song’s subject all of the love in the world, he tilted his head and their eyes met, his with an expression so full of longing that her breath caught, and for a moment she did not know if he was simply feeling the music, or if there was something in his gaze directed at her.
What had happened when he finished playing was a bit of a blur. She thought she remembered requesting that he play something else, anything else, just to please not stop singing. He had obliged and began a light, sweet song in French she did not recognise but that was sufficiently soothing, and the next thing she knew she had woken up hours later, blurry-eyed and somehow tireder than when she had fallen asleep, to the sound of Ayesha mewling for her dinner and plates clinking as Erik fed her in the kitchen. The sun was setting, and there was a blanket covering her on the armchair.
She had left quickly after that, embarrassed over her emotional outpour and that he had seen her sleeping (and probably drooling). But she did not cry over her father any more that night, instead, Erik’s voice featured heavily in all of her dreams.
For Erik, rehearsals with the Wemberly Community Chorus were becoming …difficult.
He much preferred his one-on-one lessons with Christine. Teaching her, it was expected that he should be wholly focused upon his budding protégé. And so, it was perfectly natural that he should study her every movement as she sang; he was simply a diligent teacher, checking that she was breathing correctly. That he should notice the charming curve of her cheek, the delightful arch of her eyebrows as she closed her eyes to feel the music in the way he had coaxed her to do, that his eyes should roam to her lips to observe her…embouchure, of course... these were just side effects of his role as her music teacher.
In their rehearsals, he was in control, she listened to him eagerly. He would admit that a primal, ugly side of him got a kick out of how she hung off his every word as he gave instructions and advice. It was quite flattering, he was discovering, for someone to trust your judgement so much, to desire to know your thoughts so intently, to want to do what you tell them to so badly.
In rehearsals, however, exclusively concentrating on her was an impossibility.
While he was directing the choir, there were a range of other things that needed his attention and concentration. Nine people looking to him for direction. Four vocal parts he needed to know inside out. He had to correct the other singers, pay attention to the music, delegate tasks, answer questions. He could not, while helping Richard with a tricky section of the tenor part, let his eyes flick over to Christine who he could hear laughing at something Meg had said to her. No, he had to keep his eyes on Richard, smile politely, answer his query, pretend that he was not picturing her as he knew she looked right now: eyes closed, head thrown back, smile wide and enchanting. Richard was inconveniently astute. Peggy, even more so. He had to exercise his iron will and act casual, nonchalant, especially around Christine, so that so that neither of them, nor anyone else, would ever suspect his feelings for the woman. He was constantly paranoid that someone was going to accuse him of being a creep, see though his perilous façade, accuse him of being in love with the young girl.
It was exhausting.
It felt like only half of his mental energy was spent doing the things he needed to do. The other half was spent getting the first damn half to stop thinking about her and actually focus.
Was this why nearly every song ever written was about love, and not something more original or inventive? Because once you were in it, as most normal humans often were, it was quite literally impossible to think about anything else?
Tonight, seeking some relief from his constant desire to look at her, to position himself ever nearer to her, he took the liberty of slinking off to “pack up” in the storeroom, moving sheet music between boxes. He could hardly believe how strong his feelings were. He seemed to have developed some sort of sixth sense for her whereabouts, so that he could track her movements around the room, could accurately predict if she was to his left or right and how far away, even when facing away from her, like a snake using heat to sense the movements of its prey in the dark.
Oh dear. That analogy had come out a bit…predatorial for his liking.
The most damnably enticing thing, though, what made it hardest for him to stamp out his stupid futile feelings, was hope. It was the ambiguous moment they had shared outside the pub that night. It was that since he had sung for her, the way she looked at him had changed. Several times, when he had demonstrated a line or two for her, he saw in her expression what he would best describe as awe. And after every lesson now, she asked him to sing for her. And their lessons already seemed to be going later and later into the night.
He wondered vaguely if that was why he had done it, why he had sung for her. Sung that song, with all of the emotional ties it held for her. She would never be attracted to his physical form, could hardly be expected to ‘look deeper’ to his non-existent good nature…but could she be enticed by his voice? Hell, he didn’t have any other natural advantages, was it really so wrong for him to play his one, pathetic card? It wasn’t his fault that his voice seemed to have an effect on women. And, he was her singing teacher, for Christ’s sake. She should know the sound of his voice!
He felt self-righteous, for one moment, then was overcome with a burning shame.
Of course it was wrong. If he had been genuinely trying to comfort her, fine. But if that was the reason that he had sang for her, then he was a sick man, trying to lure this young woman with her whole life ahead of her, and plenty of attractive, good men, very willing to be hers.
He took a deep breath, no longer even pretending to be working stacking boxes.
He looked resolutely at the wall.
There were two possibilities here.
She did not have romantic feelings for him. His altered mental state would mean that he would probably begin to see “signs” that she did everywhere, in a pitiful example of confirmation bias. This was the more likely option, and he was probably already misinterpreting that night at the pub, her admiration of his voice, seeing what he so desperately wanted to see.
She had suffered some sort of otherwise asymptomatic brain aneurism, and she did have romantic feelings for him. In this case, he was morally obliged to refuse her anyway. She was far too kind, too lovely, too wonderful, to settle for a creepy masked man with an ugly personality and even uglier face.
“Stop thinking about it.” He muttered to himself out loud, gritting his teeth. “ It’s not for you. Never for you.” Unconsciously, his hand moved to rest against his mask.
“What was ‘zat, Erik?” A loud voice with a strong Italian accent said from behind him. Carlotta Guidecelli, had just popped her head into the storeroom.
He wasn’t often caught off guard. It was an unpleasant experience.
“I said, ‘Damn this shoe, this bloody shoe.’”
Thankfully, Carlotta wasn’t interested in much that wasn’t herself and didn’t press the matter.
“Christine said she wanted to speak to you, about some entry form for the competition …or something.”
At the sound of her name, his heart soared. He took a deep breath, compartmentalised, then crushed those feelings down.
“Ah. Please let her know I will be right out.” He said evenly.
Come on, Erik berated himself. Stop hiding in the storeroom. Get a grip. You can do this. You can go and discuss some banal administrate detail with the girl without confessing your undying love and eternal devotion. Probably.
For Christine, lessons with Erik were becoming difficult.
Hearing Erik’s voice had done nothing to help the budding crush on her teacher, and it was significantly impacting upon her ability to focus. At rehearsals, it was a different story; she could get some relief from the ever-increasing magnetic pull that he had on her when they were in close proximity, or when they were making eye contact. She could distract herself with the music, and running the choir, and goofing around with Lulu and Meg.
But in their lessons, in close, private quarters, her feelings were now relentless.
Since she had told Erik her sob story, he had suggested (well, insisted) that she audition for some of the scholarships on offer at the Royal College, which would help her pay her way through them when she eventually got back to university to finish her degree. With her debts slowly being paid off, and with Erik’s invaluable help with her voice, it was starting to feel like less of an impossibility. And rather than Madeline’s offering of a “scholarship”– what Christine was now coming to see as basically bribery – Erik was, she hoped, going to help her voice be good enough to actually deserve the funding.
He had handed her a selection of pieces to try out, and today they were singing through them, so that Erik could get a feel for what might do the best to showcase her voice.
They already bashed through Mozart’s Un moto di giola which Christine quite liked, and Jauchzet Got in allen landen by Bach which she liked even more, but Erik had mostly frowned and shook his head, unconvinced.
What was unfortunate, on a day when they were trialling pieces, was that Christine knew she was certainly not bringing her best to the table right now. She was singing, but her brain was on autopilot. The rest of her was zinging with a strange energy. She could not stop thinking about his voice. She could not stop replaying that moment in her mind, when he had turned around, at the very piano he was sitting at now, singing of love, and looked right into her eyes with utter tenderness.
“No, Christine,” He cut her off, jolting her back to the present, his eyes currently full of what would more accurately be described as irritation. “The rhythm is like so.”
She watched his hands move as he played the offending phrase on the piano, effortlessly, drawing out sounds from the instrument with impossible grace.
She sang again, brain functioning well enough to get the rhythm right this time, but he quickly stopped her again.
“No, no.” He turned around to face her, expression disapproving. “I can tell you are not concentrating. You are singing bar 6 but your mind is in bar 7. You are reading ahead, pre-empting the music to come. You must be in the moment. You need to be wholly engrossed in each and every beat of the song. Again.”
She had half a mind to tell him that her mind was certainly not in bar 7, and was located more accurately around about his forearms, his sleeves were rolled to just before the elbow as he played and she was watching the elegant strokes of his arms, the sinews tightening and relaxing as he moved, she was imagining his long, strong fingers – ahem.
She felt heat rise to her face and desperately hoped that he did not turn around until she had got a chance to settle the heck down. Taking a slow breath, she tried to concentrate, and he seemed much happier with her progress after that.
That night, Christine sang well past the agreed upon two hours, neither she nor Erik seemed to notice until Christine’s voice began to give a little, cracking on a high note. She cleared her throat self-consciously, and Erik glanced at the clock.
“Oh, I seem to have kept you singing longer than I intended.” He said guiltily, jumping up from the piano. “My apologies. Your poor voice is wearing out.”
“No complaints here. I was having fun.” Christine grinned at him. Their eyes locked and he started to mirror her smile.
“I’m glad.” He said softly.
The air itself felt wired, tense, as Christine she packed up her things. She didn’t rush. They had got into the habit of talking quite late into the night lately, and she was hoping that it might happen again tonight. She cleared her throat again, not even realising that she had until Erik frowned. “Your poor voice – my fault entirely. Can I offer you some tea, perhaps with honey? It does wonders for a croaky voice.”
Christine laughed. “It’s hard to imaging you with a croaky voice. But, sure. I’ll have some tea. Cheers.”
Erik busied himself in the kitchen for a while, Christine could hear the kettle boiling from the next room. Her hands were trembling slightly, with…something. Anticipation? Nerves? A new or hitherto unidentified phobia of Earl Grey?
What the heck was wrong with her? This was Erik. Erik!
Erik came back with the tea.
Their hands touched briefly as he handed her a mug, and Christine could hardly bare the smooth feeling of his insanely appealing hands.
“So,” She said brightly, loudly, trying to cover up her discomfort. “Is there some secret ingredient in here,” She grinned up at him. “That can make me sing like you?”
He raised an eyebrow dubiously.
“Careful what you wish for. A baritone voice coming out of a twenty-something, not particularly masculine female might be a bit alarming.”
“With a voice like that- I hardly think anyone would be paying attention to my gender.”
“I doubt that.”
“Erik, your voice is,” She shook her head, unable to find adequate words, “I’ve never heard anything like it.”
“Ah, it is not so special.” He said, lightly.
Christine made the facial expression equivalent of the Sure, Jan meme, and Erik chuckled.
“I’m glad you liked it. I wasn’t sure if singing that song would comfort you or make you more upset.”
“It was beautiful. Thank you again. My dad would have loved it.”
The smile he flashed her lit up his eyes.
“What I don’t understand, though.” She said. “Is how you could think my voice sounds like anything other than awful, squawking, possibly dying pigeons, in comparison.”
Erik laughed loudly at that.
“You don’t sound like dying pigeons squawking, Christine.” He said generously.
“Geese honking, however, might not be that far off as a descriptor…”
She swatted his arm playfully.
“Well, it is getting late. I should head off, I suppose.” Christine said.
She gathered her things and he accompanied her to the hall, one long arm, sleeve still rolled, pushing open the heavy door for her to exit. As he opened the door a gust of the cold night air flew through her thin jumper.
She instinctively wrapped her arms around herself.
“It’s quite cold.” Erik said, concerned as she shivered. “Don’t walk home- I can easily drive you.” He turned back inside to fetch his keys but she waved his offer away automatically.
“Don’t be silly Erik it’s such a short walk.”
He frowned as he watched her shiver. “At least let me lend you a coat. Chill isn’t good for the voice, at the very least.”
She laughed. “Truly, I’m fine. Thanks though.” His concern was endearing. Flattering. It made her wonder again…
“Jeez Erik, tea, lifts, coats….you’re being awfully nice to me tonight.” She tucked a stray curl behind her ear and grinned up at him, flirting a little.
Ok, that was a bit clumsy. You’re rusty. Or possibly you’re just an awkward excuse for a woman. But come on Erik, if you like me too…let me know.
But contrary to her hopes, his eyes met hers in an expression of alarm. He swallowed, distinctly uncomfortable.
“Can’t a man be nice to his friend?” He said evenly.
Oh, wow. Ok. Ouch.
There was far too much emphasis on the final word of his sentence, and her heart plummeted.
Cheeks glowing slightly, Christine managed to force humiliation aside and reply curtly. “He can. Thanks Erik. Night.” And she hastily walked away, to metaphorically lick her wounds. She couldn’t look back at him to even wave.
Dear lord. How embarrassing.
Oh, well. Christine thought grimly, later when she lay in bed, one of Mrs Valerius’ cats nestled on her stomach and another in her hair. That’s life. Not everyone is going to like you romantically. But you’re young! There will be other guys, just forget about it. You can still just be friends, it’s not like he said he didn’t even like you as a friend, right? And it would have been kinda weird, anyway, dating your music teacher who is like twenty years older than you...
Suck it up.
It was a little hard to do that at present. And she would probably be pretty embarrassed in front of him for the next little while. But what Christine was able to do was roll over, fall asleep, and forget about it for the time being.
Later that week, shortly after her shift ended, Christine received an unexpected phone call from a slightly deranged-sounding Meg, insisting that they meet at her place in a half hour.
Balancing the wine she had bought (expecting Tinder gossip and possibly tears) on her hip, Christine rang the doorbell, then promptly dropped the bottle which then smashed all over Meg’s front porch, when the door was opened… by Raoul.
“UM?” She said intelligently.
“Oh, shit.” Raoul said, watching the rapid red stain soaking through Meg’s doormat and beginning to stream down her stairs.
“Aw Christine, what the heck.” Meg said, poking her head through the door. “Red wine is impossible to get off stuff.”
“It’s not her fault.” Lulu said, also coming to the door. “One of us should have opened the door. Not her literal ex.”
“Sorry.” Raoul said meekly. “I was trying to be helpful. And polite.”
“What’s going on? Oh, welcome Christine.” Phillipe said, also coming to detachedly examine Christine’s rapidly expanding red pool of shame.
After the mess had been hastily cleaned, the group lounged around on Meg’s living room sofa.
“Well.” Said Meg.
“Well indeed.” Said Lulu.
“I do not understand.” Christine said. Last she had heard…Lulu and Raoul were not on speaking terms.
“I feel I should explain.” Raoul said still standing, anxiously. He took a deep breath. “Christine, I’ve already apologised to Lulu and Meg, but I still owe you an apology. I’m really sorry I didn’t listen to you about Madeline. We have seen in recent weeks…that you were completely right.”
“Oh.” Christine said, shooting Meg a quizzical look. Meg indicated with her eyebrows and a not particularly subtle head tilt that Christine should continue speaking to Raoul.
“Okaay.” She obliged. “What… has she done now?”
“She seems to have a certain vision for the choir, members she wants and doesn’t want…” Raoul trailed off uncertainly and looked at Philippe.
“You may or may not have realised Christine, that I’m gay,” said Phillipe simply. Christine hadn’t, but now she thought about it, it didn’t come as a huge surprise. “I’m perfectly comfortable with it in my life at Oxford…but in a small, conservative town like this, it’s more complicated and I try not to make it known. Mum, I think, suspected, but didn’t have any proof…at least, she didn’t before about a week ago. My boyfriend from Oxford, John, sent me this love letter and flowers. At the time I didn’t know how on Earth he got mum’s address, since I specifically never tell people for fear of something like this happening.”
Raoul winced, and stepped in. “It was my fault. John asked me for it over Facebook. I thought it was for a prank or a birthday surprise present or something.”
“It’s fine. Honestly, it’s a relief to be out.” Philippe said, waving away what was clearly already forgiven. “Anyway, mum saw that the letter was signed John, and freaked out. Can’t really write that one off as a unisex name. That was an uncomfortable few days. But Raoul was really supportive, and tried to talk some reason into her.”
“It’s the least I could do.” Raoul said, still looking guilty and forlorn.
“Anyway, next week in Church, which mum still forces us to go to,” Philippe rolled his eyes, “Father Callaghan gives this lecture about why homosexuality is a sin, I’m going to burn in hell, rah rah rah, nothing I haven’t heard before. Most uncomfortable forty-five minutes of my life.” Raoul nodded vigorously. Phillipe put on a high, shrill voice. “‘You shall not lie with a man as with woman; it is an abomination.” He rolled his eyes again. “Shoot me. Anyway, mum must have told Madeline. Who told Callaghan. So it’s probably safe to assume now everyone in the choir knows. And let’s just say going back to that choir and having him and everyone else look at me like I’m a freak was not exactly what I wanted. So I quit.”
“Mum threw a fit of course.” Raoul said. “Tried to turn me against him. Then when I stuck firm, she got Madeline to talk to me, I see now what an evil witch she is. Saying all this stuff about how Phil was a disgrace and was corrupting me. I quit too.”
“That’s horrible. I’m so sorry.” Christine said, disgust and rage at Madeline boiling under her skin.
“We are really sorry, Christine.” Phillipe said. “We should have listened to you, and Meg, and especially Lulu.”
All eyes were on Christine.
“Soooo.” Lulu said, eyes twinkling. “Are these fools forgiven, Christine?”
Christine made her face into a dark expression.
Meg and Lulu’s smiles fell. Raoul’s eyes widened.
“Yes of course, you silly twats.” Christine said, unable to hold a poker face for very long.
Meg squealed and pulled Christine, Phillipe and Raoul into a group hug.
“Fabulous! So, they can join the choir, we’ll actually have decent numbers for the next round!” Lulu said excitedly.
“I guess I should really run it by Erik, but of course he will say yes!” Christine said. “This is actually great, two more tenors could really improve our balance!”
They started talking excitedly about the piece, Christine pulled the sheet music up on her phone to show the brothers what they would need to learn before the next performance. Lulu darted around trying to find a laptop and get it to connect to Meg’s printer.
This was fabulous! More and more people were deserting Madeline’s choir, taking a stand against the horrid woman. Erik would be thrilled! She couldn’t wait until her next lesson where she could spill the happy news. Oh, even better, she was seeing him on Saturday for Lulu’s birthday celebration! She was also feeling better about him having rejected her romantic advances, he was a great man and while she did still have feelings, she was content to be simply his friend.
Plus, she had bigger things to worry about right now than men. She had a competition to win.
While Erik was becoming more and more used to his newfound, marginally social existence, the situation he found himself in on Saturday night was still, highly unusual. He was surrounded by…friends, at a house party, celebrating a woman’s birthday. It was Lulu’s 26th, and she had invited all of the members of the choir, as well as some other family and friends Erik vaguely recognised from the village, and some people he frankly did not. Well, even in a town this small, Erik still did not “get out” enough to have met everyone.
The chatter of happy voices, laughter, and the (unfortunate) doof doof from the music Lulu was blasting around him was a little disquieting. But Erik sat dutifully and a tad uncomfortably on the couch, outside of the main group of people who were mingling in the centre of the lounge, spattered across the kitchen and trawling out into the back garden which was lit with fairy lights and glowing paper lanterns.
Erik was mostly making small talk with Agatha, one of the more calming presences from the choir, sipping some vodka concoction Lulu had insisted on mixing for him. It was bright orange and vaguely disgusting, but he was determined to be polite and finish the goddam thing.
He listened with what he hoped was a courteously interested expression to Agatha talk about her two young sons, something else he didn’t particularly comprehend. What she had actually said about the boys made them seem like two small demonic creatures from hell. The older of the two consistently appeared to be attempting to asphyxiate, maim or brutalise in some other way the smaller one. The smaller one sounded like it had a constant flow of bodily fluids which Agatha was always finding, sometimes in carefully hidden locations. Despite this, the tone she used implied a great affection for the small nightmares.
As Agatha excused herself to use the restroom (or, he suspected without offence, to find someone more interesting than himself to talk to), his eyes flickered around the room for Christine, a habit that was becoming all too deeply entrenched.
She was dancing up near the speakers with Lulu, to some musical atrocity from the 1980’s.
‘Addicted to Love’. Really. Fleetwood Mac he could tolerate, even enjoy, but this song was really quite appallingly bad.
She looked charming dancing to it though, her brown curls were bobbing up and down, swishing side to side, becoming adorably messy, and remarkably, poofing even further out of their mop-like enormity as she danced. LuLu grabbed her hand and they spun together in a wild circle, laughing. He felt a twinge of something- love? Yearning? A futile wish that Lulu’s hand was replaced by his own?
The song came to an end and Kiss On My List replaced it. Ah, how unpleasant. It was a little like when he attended the Opera and the third trombone was a fraction sharp, and listening to it felt like a fly buzzing around his head, or nails down a chalkboard. This was the same, but the whole song was the third trombone. Erik didn’t notice the disgusted scowl creeping onto his face.
“Well, you look like you’re enjoying the music.”
Erik turned around. It was her, looking down at him, for once, since he was sitting and she was standing, the low angle accentuating the length of her dark lashes, a gentle smile on her face.
Quick. Say something sarcastic and witty.
“Who needs Wagner when there exists in the world the poetic genius of Hall and Oates?” He said dryly.
Not your best, he thought. But she seemed amused enough, grinning slightly.
“I know right. I mean ‘your kiss, your kiss, is on my list? I’m swooning at your romantic prose, guys. It’s good to know I’m an…option?” She said.
“Indeed, who wouldn’t be flattered by that?” Erik said ironically. “Number one on my list: milk. Number two: eggs. Number three: your kiss.”
She laughed, then sang, a little drunkenly ad-libbing: “Your kiss, your kiss it’s on my list…it’s number three, not very important to me!”
They laughed together, and she lowered herself down onto the couch next to him.
“Sooo, Erik.” She said, “Now that there’s a bit of liquid courage in me, I just want you to know, that…about that thing the other night…” She was chewing her lip uncomfortably, gazing at the floor.
His eyebrows furrowed. What ‘thing’?
“Uh…I just want you to know that, like, it’s all good, like, don’t worry about it. And I’m sorry, if anything was awkward, like, it was just a silly mistake, I know you aren’t really, like… I’m not really your…you know, but I won’t say that stuff again, now I know that you, you know, don’t really, like…And I’m really happy to just be your friend! Like really happy, I enjoy your friendship…so like I hope nothing is weird….so like just best we move past it…yeah…” She rambled.
His heart sunk. She was talking about the moment a couple of nights ago, after a lesson, when she had asked him why he was being so nice to her. He had feared that she had cottoned on to his feelings, and now she was confirming her suspicions…and kindly (if not eloquently) rejecting him.
Erik wondered vaguely if his heart shattering into a million pieces was evident on his face or not.
Hopefully she would attribute his grim expression to Kiss On My List continuing to mock him in the background.
“Right.” He said, as evenly as one can when one’s hopes and dreams are going up in flames before them.
“So, we’re still cool?” She asked, concern marring her pretty features.
“Great.” She gave him one of her enormous, dazzling smiles and his heart appeared to shrivel up and wither in agony in his chest. “Just wanted to…avoid any potential awkwardness.”
“I have some news, as well.” She said brightly, after a pause. “Good news!”
“Oh, yes?” He asked, trying to sound like he wasn’t deeply depressed.
“Raoul and Phillipe are joining the choir! They’ve finally come to their senses and have realised what a piece of work Madeline is!”
It might as well be his bloody birthday.
Christine launched into some long story about Phillipe and his lover outing him as gay to his mother, Madeline and Father Callaghan’s homophobia and its role in prompting the brothers to leave the choir. Erik was hardly listening.
He put down his glass to avoid shattering it in agitation, hoping Christine didn’t notice his shaking hands as he did so- she didn’t appear to have, she was looking out at the garden now. Probably searching for the brat Raoul now, Erik had seen him and his brother lurking around the party earlier that evening. She had seen him talking to her at the first performance. Seen him take her hand.
She continued to speak, gesturing animatedly with her hands.
Raoul. What a stupid, pretentious name.
Now he understood why she had wanted to make her desire only for friendship so clear.
Raoul was no longer the enemy, and she planned to start a romantic relationship with him. Why wouldn’t she, he thought despairingly. He was attractive, her age, wealthy.
Christine seemed to sense that something was wrong, and asked him several times if he felt ok.
He lied, and politely extracted himself from the party, feigning tiredness.
He needed a drink. A real drink.
THANK YOU FOR YOUR LOVELY COMMENTS! I didn't really expect anyone to get that into this story since it's a bit kooky, but now I'm very glad that I decided to post it. :)
Chapter 11: Flowers? A Candle?
Ring, ring. Ring, ring. Ring, ring.
“Nadir. Izzz -hic!- me.”
“Erik…it’s midnight here. I was asleep!”
“I’m sorrrrry, Nadir. But it’s an emerrrgency. And in -hic!- emergencies, one duzznot take the time to cal-cul-ate the timeee difference between the -hic!- yewww kayy and New York!”
“Nooooo! Yeah. I dun -hic!- no. Everything’s spinnnning. Oh, God, Nadir. You havvvve to help me.”
“Erik! What the hell was that!?”
“Nothing, Nadir. Aren’t you gunna ask me what the emergennncy is?”
“Did you just break a glass!?”
“A bottle of chardonnnnnay, to be precise. Ha, ha, ha.”
“Ok…what’s the emergency?”
“I’m -hic!- in love.”
“Nadir? Are you there? Did you -hic!- hear me? I’M IN LOVE!”
“Don’t use that tone with me -hic!- Nadir. I don’t need your pity. Tell me what to -hic!- do? What do I do!?”
“Uh. Well. Does she…love you back?”
“Ha! Ha! Ha! Oh, Nadir, you are tooooo funny.”
“Erik…call me back when you’re sober. We can talk about this when you’re sober.”
“No! Nadir! Don’t -hic!- hang up! I need advice!”
“Does she know you love her?”
“Ha! Ha! Ha! You have to stop with these -hic!- jokesss, Nadir. You’re tooo funny, I’m getting a bloody stich! ‘Hello Christine, I’m aware that I’m -hic!- fourteen years your senior, antisocial and as hideous as a -hic!-corpse that’s been -hic!- rottinggg for two decades, but would you like to -hic!- marrrrry me anyway?’ ”
“Oh, Erik... Has she seen…?”
“No Nadir, she has not bloody seen!”
“For God’s sake Erik, stop breaking glass! You’ll hurt yourself!”
“Too late for that, -hic!- Nadir. I’m bleeeeeding already. And I’m not talking metaphorrrically. Ha! Ha! Actually, I should clean thisss -hic!- up. I’m dripping- goddammit. Wait one -hic!- second. Wait for me.”
“Ah, you waited, you’re a good -hic!- friend. So. What do I do?”
“Uh…have you tried, you know, to woo her?”
“ ‘Woooo her’? How?”
“Uh…flowers? A candle?”
“FLOWERS??? A -hic!- CANDLE??? AS IN, ONE CANDLE? CANDLE SINGULAR? I’m paying -hic!- one-point-two-five pounds a minnit to speak to you, Nadir, and that’sss the advice you give me?? That’s horrific -hic!- advice!”
“Ok, ok! Calm down! What about, um, you could …write her a love poem?”
“I think I just threw up a bit in my -hic!- mouth.”
“Look Erik, I don’t know. I’m not good with this stuff.”
“You were -hic!- married once.”
“An arranged marriage. You know this.”
“Yes. I wish I had an arranged -hic!- marriage with Christine. It’s the only way she wuddeva…oh, but that would be cruel. I’m being -hic!- cruel. She deservessss so much, much, much, -hic!- better. But not Raoul! Not him.”
“Is Raoul Christine’s boyfriend?”
“Well…maybe… He has probably asked her –hic!- though. They are probably together now. Or maybe…maybe she is aspleep- asplee- asleep in bed. Don’t even tell me the time, Nadir. I need to -hic!- throw up. Talking about him has made me feel…sick.”
“I don’t think it’s Raoul who has made you sick, Erik. I think it was probably the third or fourth bottle of wine.”
“Look. We should both really get some sleep. But…”
“Just make sure she knows. Before you abandon all hope. Don’t- don’t- profess your undying love or anything. And certainly don’t do it while you’re drunk. But just… make sure she knows you feel …warmly towards her, you never know, she might return those feelings. You’re a good person, Erik. You have things to offer too.”
“Yuareahgud friend, Nadir.”
“She’s…she’s twenty-one then?”
“I am a -hic!- sick man, aren’t I.”
“My wife was ten years my junior. If she’s mature…it could work. I don’t want to give you any false hope, though. Just…don’t forget how young she is. Remember the stupid things we used to do at that age.”
“Thankyou -hic!- Nadir.”
“Go get some sleep, Erik.”
“Not a proper chapter”, you say? Sorry, I can’t hear you over the sound of Erik breaking wine bottles in the background. :) :) :)
Chapter 12: Stage Fright
Christine had enjoyed a wonderful time at Lulu’s birthday party. Lots of drinking, lots of dancing, and things with Erik seemed to have been smoothed over for the time being which was a relief, and things with Raoul were finally a bit less awkward than they had been.
She had spent some time with Raoul and Phillipe over the week, getting them up to scratch with the bass part for Creation which was to be their performance piece for the next competition. Sure, it was a little awkward being around Raoul, but, Christine figured, they had better get used to it if they were going to be spending time in the choir together again. Phillipe was also a fortunate third wheel.
The night after Lulu’s party was the next rehearsal for the Wemberly Community Chorus, and Christine was very pleased to see the existing members welcome Raoul and Phillipe to rehearsals with open arms, and only one playful jab from Richard.
“Ah, Raoul, Phillipe, defected to the dark side, have we?” He grinned as they walked into the church that evening.
“We heard your bass section was in dire need of some help.” Phillipe joked.
“What he lacks in numbers he more than makes up for in volume, hey Garth?” Richard said, elbowing their only bass at present in the ribs playfully.
“We are glad you are here, poppets.” Peggy said warmly.
There was one person, however, who did not appear particularly enthused about the arrival of the new members.
Erik walked into their first rehearsal with the new recruits uncharacteristically late and looking…frankly, awful. From his body language, a sort of skulking-crouch, Christine could tell he was in a bad mood, and there was a dark circle under his visible, bloodshot eye. His gaunt, sickly looking face and sour expression suggested it had been far too many hours since his last good sleep.
“Right. Everyone up.” He had said abruptly as soon as the clock had hit 7:35, not bothering to apologise for being late. “There are only three weeks to go before the finals of the competition, so I want everyone to give their absolute all. To our… newcomers,” Erik said icily, glancing at Raoul and Phillipe, “I expect you have learned your parts inside and out. I will not refrain from being brutal tonight.
And true to his word, he was absolutely foul.
During warm-ups he criticized everyone with seemingly no remorse at all.
“Tenors, your sound is abysmal this evening, do something about it.”
“Basses, kindly attempt to sing the correct notes.”
“Altos, you’re growling your low notes. G3 is really not that low. Fix it.”
“Sopranos, if I wanted to hear screeching that unpleasant, I would install an aviary of cockatoos.”
Christine was perplexed. She spent the rehearsal in a desperate state of embarrassment, her cheeks flushed, desperately trying to meet Erik’s eyes to silently ask him what on Earth was going on, but he seemed to have no intention of acknowledging her existence. She had spent so much time over the last few days gushing to Raoul and Phillipe about what a wonderful director Erik was, how he was nothing like Madeline, how he was kind and helpful and valued all the choral members, even those slower to pick things up, and how he made an effort to ensure everyone achieved their best.
And now here he was, making a complete liar and fool out of her.
In their break, she slunk off to Meg who was huddled with Raoul and Phillipe, who were looking a little like two big Labradors who had enthusiastically hopped in the car thinking they were going to the park and wound up at the vet instead.
“What on earth has got into Erik today?” Meg hissed, pulling Christine to the side. “Raoul and Phillipe are going to bail if he doesn’t start acting like a human being.”
“I have no idea.” Christine said truthfully, as perplexed as her friend.
“Honestly guys, he’s never like this.” Meg said, turning back around to face Raoul and Phillipe. Her expression suggested she was also suffering from second-hand embarrassment on Erik’s behalf. The brothers shared a glance, not appearing overly convinced.
“Our of the kettle and into the frying pan, huh.” Phillipe joked nervously. “I think I need five minutes of fresh air.”
“Me too.” Meg said seriously, and left with Phillipe.
Christine and Raoul were left standing together.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know why he’s being such an arsehole tonight.” Christine said again, to break the uncomfortable silence.
“Are you sure he wants Phillipe and I here?” Raoul said doubtfully. “I don’t think he likes me very much…judging by all the glares…”
“Of course!” Christine said, mortified. “I ran it by him literally just last night.”
“If I get another death stare, I think I might actually cark it.” Raoul added.
“Well, in that case…just make sure to keep your death groans in tune so we don’t cop any more flack.” Christine joked unsteadily. They glanced at each other for a second then burst out into a laughter that felt conspiratorial in the icy mood of the room. Christine covered her mouth and tried to urge him to shush but they both let out a few more inappropriate giggles.
Christine could sense Erik’s scowl on her back before she even turned to look at him. Her heart sunk.
Great. So, she had made his appalling mood even worse.
When they reassembled it was time to practise their performance piece. Erik had barely given Christine any warning before conducing in the opening solo of Creation, then he had given her a harsh accusatory look when she had missed her entry.
“I’m sorry, Christine,” He said frostily. “Do you have something else you would prefer to focus on than your solo?”
“Sorry.” She said, wincing.
Nervous as they repeated the opening, she came in at the right time, but his weird mood was throwing her off. Her throat tightened; her notes came out sharp.
“Have you lost your sense of pitch?” He snapped. “Again. Just Christine this time.”
Christine shared a glance with Garth, who was standing at the front as well, as he was doing the bass solo, but he just looked scared.
Pressure mounting, Christine became more and more nervous and flustered. She tried to communicate with her expression; please, Erik, I can do it, if you would just stop being so horrible! But he seemed hell-bent on not looking at her.
Agatha gave her an encouraging, weak smile. She too appeared intimidated by Erik this evening. Everyone did. There was an uncomfortable silence in the room.
Christine listened to Erik play the piano, waiting anxiously for her cue to come in. What has got into you, Erik? I don’t understand? She wrung her hands together. You were joking around with me last night and now if feels like we’re back to where you hate me for no reason.
Erik’s hand crashed down on the piano in anger. A loud dissonant chord rang out into the church hall. Christine jumped, then felt trepidation drop like lead into her stomach.
She had missed her cue again.
“Carlotta, you will be our soprano soloist now.” Erik stormed over, snatched up the soprano soloists’ music from the music stand in front of Christine and handed it to Carlotta. A pointless gesture really, as Christine had had the solo memorised for a week now, and Carlotta had had it memorised probably since birth, but it certainly brought the point home.
Christine watched him with an open mouth. The rest of the choir was staring at Erik in horror.
“It seems Christine is unable to count in four simple bars.” He said, glaring at her. Christine’s eyes filled with tears at his scathing words. “As well as being unable to stay on pitch. So, Carlotta will take her place.”
“Erik, do you really think-?”
“The decision has been made.” Erik snapped, whirling around to face Richard who had come to Christine’s defence. Richard recoiled and Erik looked around the room menacingly, as if daring someone else to challenge him. “We have numbered rehearsals left and since Christine’s focus is clearly not on the music this evening, Carlotta will sing the solo.” He waved his hand at Carlotta to come forward, which she did, looking as if her birthday, Christmas and Easter had all come at once, and Christine meekly made her way back into the general ensemble.
She was stunned.
She could hardly believe what she had just heard come out of his mouth, it did not compute.
Not long ago he had been trying to convince her to take this very solo instead of Carlotta. She watched her feet as she walked back to the ensemble and Carlotta took her place at the front of the room.
When they began again, Carlotta opened her mouth on cue and sang, completely on pitch. Perfectly.
Erik nodded his approval. “Good.” He murmured, and Christine’s heart twinged.
The excruciating rehearsal ended at last.
“Alright.” Erik said brusquely. “That’s enough for tonight. I will see you all on Friday. Don’t be late. And if the sopranos sound as horrific as they did tonight, I’ll consider cutting their part altogether.” He threatened.
Christine blushed again, and felt a small wave of rage. You jerk, Erik. By ‘the sopranos’, he meant ‘Christine’, and everyone knew it. She hadn’t really been on the top of her game since he humiliated her, and she had had to more or less sight-sing the soprano chorus part since she had assumed she would be doing the solo and had not bothered to learn it
Erik disappeared into the back storeroom for a few minutes while everyone else packed up the music stands and spare chairs. Great, don’t help us pack up. Christine thought moodily.
“Finally, Erik ‘as come to ‘iz senses.” Carlotta said loudly, standing where she was in earshot of the entire choir. “The girl’s voice is satisfactory, but she cannot carry ‘ze pressure of Eve.”
“You were wonderful, mio caro.” Piangi replied.
Meg gave them both the finger behind their back as they waltzed out of the church doors into the night, which made Christine feel slightly better.
“Hey.” Meg said softly, her concerned voice making Christine’s mood plummet again. “You ok?” Meg placed a concerned hand on her shoulder.
Christine shrugged, not wanting to cry.
“That was brutal. This whole evening was a shit show.”
Lulu shook her head disbelievingly. “God knows what on earth he had shoved up his arse tonight. And I think he made a really dumb decision. You sounded a gazillion times better than that vibrato-obsessed diva.”
“Carlotta is ok.” Christine said weakly.
“You honestly did.” Lulu said loyally. “Plus, it was really hard for us to follow her, since she’s doing the solo so differently to you. And also, she does it differently every time, all those dumb embellishments.”
Christine gave a watery laugh, grateful to her friends.
Later, when she and Meg were out of earshot of the others she said, “Meg, I really have no idea what’s got into him? Do you know anything?”
“Well, for starters, he looks like he’s hungover as hell.”
“But apart from that, the only thing that was different tonight is that Raoul and Philippe are here.” Meg shrugged.
“I thought he’d be happy to have them, we had literally one bass, now we have three. The balance is so much better now! Also I ran it by him, if he had a problem….then was the time to speak up!”
“You need to say this to him, not me.”
“I know. But I don’t think I can face him tonight.”
Meg tilted her head in thought. “Maybe he resents them. Maybe it’s some weird male dominance thing. Think about it…they’re young and attractive and rich.”
“He’s old…er and rich.”
“I don’t know, I always thought he must be into you to have agreed to all this, I know he wouldn’t have been on board if just Lulu and I had asked him randomly to make a choir…I’d say he was threatened by them because they’re young and male.”
“I know he definitely isn’t into me.” Christine admitted a little ashamedly, “I kind of…let him know I was interested a few nights ago. He made it pretty clear he wanted only to be my friend. He likes my voice, nothing else.”
Meg raised her eyebrows in shock. “You like him?”
Christine shrugged, blushing. “Not when he’s like this. But yeah, I guess. I did. I’m fine with being just friends though.”
“Hmm. Idiot. Anyone would be lucky to have you.”
The mood of the Wemberly Community Chorus’s next performance heat was a lot less jubilant than its predecessor. Even the day itself seemed less joyful: it was cloudy, drizzling and cold. Christine shivered and wrapped her silk scarf around her neck as they walked in a group from the car park to the performance hall, worried that the weather might make her sing slightly sharp. Not that it mattered so much, she thought bitterly, now that she was not doing a solo.
It was clearly a level above the last competition. The atmosphere was far more formal, the costumes were far fancier and there was a special room for warming up, which was a step up from the first round in which the choirs had simply sung warm ups over each other on the lawn outside. Serious-looking choral directors and their choirs passed Christine solemnly in the hall; a large auditorium specifically built for choral performance.
“Now you’ll notice a lot of reverberation when we perform today.” Erik warned them as they walked down the long hall towards the warm-up room. “Much more than we get in the church. But don’t let it throw you. Just keep watching my hands if you feel you’re losing the beat.”
Erik’s mood seemed to hardly have improved in the lessons and rehearsals since the Carlotta solo incident. Their lessons in the past week had been formal and cold, Christine had left right on the hour with absolutely no chit-chat before or afterwards. There had certainly been no late-night tea. It was almost like the Erik she had known had totally disappeared and been replaced with the cold, rude, stranger she had met initially.
Christine’s stomach twisted nervously as she spotted Madeline leading her choir into the hall from the other direction. Madeline smiled, and marched over to them. Seeing the ugly, cold expressions on Mr and Mrs Montgomery’s faces, Christine was tense. Eva de Chagny seemed to be furiously pretending that her two sons were not, in fact, directly facing her in the choir opposite. Christine saw Phillipe’s face droop as his mother blatantly ignored his existence, and felt instantly sad for him. Raoul put his hand on his brother’s shoulder in solidarity.
“Mother.” Erik said with ice-cold formality.
“Hello, Erik. Best of luck to you all.” Madeline said politely, holding out a long elegant white hand for Erik to shake. He did so warily.
“May the best choir win, I suppose.” Lucille said coolly.
Christine watched Lulu and Miriam eye each other off in a manner so exaggerated that it would have been amusing was it not so distressing.
“Indeed.” Erik said, and carried on down the hall, Christine and the rest of the choir obediently following behind.
The rehearsal room was warm, and was a welcome relief from the horrid tension of all the awful severed connections the two choirs represented.
Erik had just run them through a couple of warm-up exercises and they were having a water break when Richard looked puzzled for a moment then said, “Where’s Garth?”
Christine’s brows furrowed. “I actually don’t remember him coming in with us. Perhaps he got lost on the way over here?”
“We had better go and look for him.” Richard said.
Christine, Richard and Erik ventured outside into the long hall where they did not have to walk particularly far to find him, standing with his back to the wall and eyes screwed closed, breathing shallowly.
“Garth! What’s wrong? Are you ok?” Christine cried. His skin looked pallid.
“Madeline said…I…she said…”
“What did she say?” Christine said, laying a concerned arm on his shoulder, but he just shook his head violently.
“Forget what she said.” Erik said irritably, and Garth and Christine both flinched from the harshness of his tone. “You were fine last time, and you will be fine this time. Ignore Madeline.”
Garth started breathing shallowly, a panicked look coming over his face.
“No…no! I can’t do the solo, I can’t.”
“Garth, just breathe for me, ok.” Christine said, trying to make her tone soothing in all the ways Erik’s wasn’t. “I know Madeline can say some nasty stuff but you are stronger than that.”
Garth shook his head. “She said…that I’m a bad singer. That I was only allowed into this choir because…it’s for rejects.” He looked up at her guiltily. “She said that I’m just going to embarrass myself today, and let you all down.”
“That’s just not true! Remember how you were all nervous last round, and then you did so well! Stage fright is all in your head!” Christine said gently.
“Not this time. I can’t. She said I won’t be able to do it this time. The judges are harsher this round, she said…Richard, you have to do it instead.” Garth said, turning to look at the concerned older man.
“I can’t! I’m not a bass!” Richard said helplessly.
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Erik hissed at Garth. “You are not pulling out now.”
“Erik.” Christine whispered, widening her eyes to signal that he was not helping.
“I can’t do it! I can’t!” Garth wailed, turning from Erik. “Piangi then! Piangi will have to do it!” He covered his face with his hands, and was immovable by any of Christine’s other attempts.
Christine and Erik looked at each other in distress.
“Piangi probably does know the solo.” Christine said uncertainly.
“He has never practised it with everyone, the timings might be off.” Erik grimaced.
“Well. Our options are limited. It’s either him or Raoul or Phil…”
“Please. Those morons barley know their own parts.”
“Erik?” A short woman with a clipboard walked through the hall and up to the group. “Wemberly Community”- She looked down at her clipboard- “chorus… sorry, I got confused, there’s a choir in here with nearly the exact same name as you! Anyway, you guys are on in three minutes! Break a leg!” She said cheerfully.
“Garth, please.” Christine said, turning back to him. “I know how horrible Madeline can be but she is trying to sabotage us. If you let her get into your head, then she wins.”
“I’m sorry.” Garth said, on the verge of tears, or possibly a sort of mental collapse.
Despite Christine’s best efforts, Garth was immovable. In the next few minutes the woman with the clipboard was back. “One minute. I would highly suggest getting on the stage.” She said helpfully.
“I don’t suppose we have a choice.” Erik said grimly. “Piangi!” He called, stalking back into the rehearsal room. Christine put a comforting hand on Garth’s shoulder as he continued to hyperventilate in the hallway.
The calibre of performance in this round was much, much higher than the last. The final chords of the choir on before them rang out into the lovely acoustics of the hall, angelic and resonating. Erik led them through the dark backstage area and then silently gestured for them to file onto the stage.
When they were in position, the lights burst upon them again, and were hot and bright on Christine’s face. She had so squint through them to see the panel of adjudicators and the several choir groups who had either performed already or whose performance was scheduled for after the break, so were watching them intently from the audience.
Too soon, Erik was conducting them in, and they were off. Their timbre was magnificent in the hall, but their overall sound was definitely a little off due to Garth’s absence. Carlotta performed her solo well, she over-embellished but the choir was used to this now and followed well. Their trouble really began though when it was time for Piangi’s solo. Confidently, he began, but he was overdoing the vibrato, spending far too long on the longer notes, relishing his time in the spotlight…but at the detriment of the rest of the choir. Their timing was off, she could see Erik fighting to keep Piangi and the choir in time, but the damage was done. They finished with moderate applause, and Christine walked off the stage utterly downcast.
No one spoke much as they watched the rest of the performances. Only Piangi and Carlotta seemed to be in good spirits; Carlotta seemed to consider her husband’s swooping in to save the choir at the eleventh hour dashingly attractive, so was busy smooching him when the lights were off between acts.
When it was their time, Wemberly Community Choir was unfortunately, flawless, Lucille Jones had a solo, Christine had to grudgingly admit she sounded very good. Their high standard only darkened her mood. After they performed, the adjudicators put down their pens to clap, and the few people sitting in the hall made a raucous, whistling and cheering on top of the applause.
Then it was time for the winners to be announced.
“We heard some very, very impressive performances today.” The head adjudicator said. “We were especially impressed by the soloist from the Hurstville Choir.” There was a round of applause for an elderly woman who stood up and did an elaborate bow, earning herself a laugh. “And also by the attention to detail from the Wemberly Community Choir.” Madeline beamed irritatingly. “We will now call out the names of first second and third place. We also have a fourth place award for highly commended, but unfortunately only our three best choirs can progress to the finals.”
“In fourth place, The Wemberly Community Chorus.” Christine’s heart sunk.
“In third place, Hurstville Choir.” The choir of elderly women looked thrilled.
“In second place, Ederton College Girls’ choir.” A round of applause followed.
“And in first place, Wemberly Community Choir.”
It was over. They had failed. They weren’t going to the finals, and Madeline had beat them. They had worked as hard as they could, and Madeline had still won.
Erik, Christine and the rest of the group trudged mournfully outside.
“I know the result isn’t what we hoped for,” Erik said to them all. “But I want you to know that I was very pleased with how you all sang. We did well in a difficult situation.” His tone was so half-hearted Christine had to stop herself from laughing hollowly.
“But not well enough.” Lulu said gloomily.
Garth’s head was hanging so low Christine wondered how he could see where he was walking.
“I really let you guys down today. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault, Garth. That cow got inside your head.” Christine said, and the three girls huddled around him to give him a hug.
The Wemberly Community Choir Social Committee (well, Meg) decided that what they all needed at that moment was a nice long sorrow-drowning session at the pub, so they set off, glumly, heads held low.
Erik hung back and watched the choir go, hoping to slip away unnoticed. He had absolutely no desire to drink with the choir. It had been a horrible day, a horrible week, and he would far rather be miserable on his own than in company. Besides, he was pretty ashamed of his behaviour over the last week. He had let them all down, and especially, he had let Christine down. He had let his temper get the better of him and he was disappointed, and sad, and very, very pissed off. At himself, at his mother, at that boy... and at Christine a little as well, if unreasonably.
Madeline appeared beside him suddenly like a bad smell.
“I imagine you know now to leave the choral directing to mother, hmm?”
“Mother.” Erik said. “What an unpleasant surprise.”
“Really, Erik. That was quite astonishingly dismal. Please do come to the finals; we can show you what a real performance looks like.”
Erik said nothing.
“Still, I expected far more from you. Who on Earth’s idea was it to let that awful Italian woman solo? Far too much vibrato.”
“I think we benefitted even less,” Erik said, fury rising. “On the meltdown of our bass soloist. I suppose a congratulations are in order for that one?”
“Simpleton’s really are so easy to influence.” Madeline said breezily. “Do you see now why I didn’t let him into my choir? Performance is about more than just the voice, there’s confidence, presentation, stress-tolerance…appearance. Perhaps you realise that now.”
“Haven’t you got somewhere else to be? Philandering with the adjudicator, perhaps?”
“Now, Erik. No need to be rude to your poor old mother. I would much prefer a visit with my only son. If he would only see me.” Madeline said, having the audacity to look wounded.
“Why?” Erik scoffed. “So you can chastise me over tea and scones instead of in this car park.”
“ Toh-may-to, tomato. You say chastise; I say lead gently to greater things.”
“And I say let’s call this whole conversation off.”
Madeline’s expression hardened. “Fine,” She snapped. “If you want to be impudent, I can’t very well stop you. So tell your mother, hmm, why didn’t you let pretty little Daaé sing instead? Her voice might have made up for the Italian idiot’s foibles; you would have placed.”
Erik stiffened. “That is literally none of your business.”
“Ah. I thought so. You’re in love with her.” She said, eyes flashing wickedly.
Erik gawped. To his chagrin, felt his face go bright red.
“I say this in your best interest Erik, but give it up. For your own sake. You would be a fool not to see how infatuated Raoul and Christine are with each other. How else do you think she persuaded him to join her? Raoul was perfectly happy in my choir.”
“Go. Away. Madeline.” Erik said with gritted teeth.
“Why- look at them right now.”
Almost against his will Erik turned his head in the direction in which Madeline was gesturing.
Christine was trailing the back of the choir who were headed off in the direction of the local pub. She was talking with Raoul, laughing, glowing.
“And even if she wasn’t- you wouldn’t wish…your situation…on anyone, now would you Erik?” Madeline said, her voice concerned, placing a hand of long manicured nails on Erik’s back in apparent concern.
Erik shrugged her arm off him violently, and quickly stalked off, in the direction of his car.
The pub was dull, no one’s heart was really into celebrating, and as the minutes ticked on and Christine realised Erik wasn’t coming, Christine found herself becoming increasingly annoyed. Firstly, she was obviously angry that he had given away her solo. Their leadership of the choir was supposed to be equal, and while it was an unspoken rule that all musical decisions were up to Erik, for him to make that executive decision not only without consulting her but in front of everyone, was not exactly excellent behaviour. Secondly, she was mad that he had been acting like such a prick towards her recently, for no apparent reason. Thirdly, he had completely sabotaged her attempts to calm down Garth this afternoon by failing to keep his temper. And fourthly, he hadn't even said sorry for any of this! Nor even goodbye to the entirety of the choir this afternoon! Instead, he had just slunk off alone like a horrid...slinky thing! He was a bastard, and she was mad as hell.
She was fuming as Lulu dropped her home sombrely. So ferociously fuming that she did not realise she had made the conscious decision to walk the short walk up the hill, along the gravel driveway, up to the beautiful black door of Erik’s house and to press the doorbell irrevocably. She couldn’t tell if there were lights on inside or not as most of the exterior on this side of the house was windowless stone.
When there was no answer, she rang the doorbell three times in quick succession, rudely, angrily.
He didn’t answer.
She pressed it three more times.
Still no answer.
Practically growling with rage and frustration now, she pressed it incessantly, numerous times a second for about three seconds, the sound of the doorbell ringing out only to be interrupted by another ring, then another, irritating to her own ears, and then finally she heard a crash inside, causing her to leap back, and then the door was swept open and Erik was before her.
“What in the bleeding hell iz goin’--?” A look of utter shock overcame his features, the mask drooping as his mouth fell open at the sight of her.
Christine quickly realised, both by the slurred quality of his words and the red blurriness of his eyes (and, on that note, the way he was now swaying dangerously form side to side in front of her, trying it seemed, with far more effort than should really be necessary, to focus his eyes upon her person) that Erik, vocal teacher extraordinaire, the picture of decorum, control and order…was drunk. Completely and utterly sloshed.
“Erik!” She exclaimed, utterly flabbergasted. “You’re drunk!”
“Why, as always, Christine, your capacities ‘f mental deduction ‘re quite simply astonishin’.” He slurred heavily, letting out a drunken laugh, apparently at his own hilarity. “Ha! Ha! Ha!”
Christine put her hands on her hips and had to refrain from stamping her foot like an eight-year-old. “You are utterly infuriating. I came here to yell at you and be all mad and now we can’t even have a rational conversation because you’re bloody drunk! You bastard!” She said huffily.
It seemed to take him a few more moments than usual to process her words.
“You’re mad at me? He asked, pointing his finger at her and then at himself, like some not-particularly-bright child. “Why???” He demanded.
“Why do you think, you idiot? It starts with ‘you’ and ends with… ‘gave my solo to Carlotta’. Causing, may I add, us to lose today.”
“You didn’ even want that solo.” Erik said huffily.
Christine’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t you dare try that bullshit. You know what you did.”
They scowled at each other for a moment.
“C’min.” Erik ordered suddenly, gesturing at her to walk forward.
“Come in the house?”
He led her down the hallway and into the living room she had been in so many times before, unstable on his feet, using the wall as support as he swayed dangerously. When they reached the music room he stumbled over to a cabinet behind the grand piano and opened it to reveal bottles and bottles of alcohol; vodka, brandy, whiskey, tequila, wine, and a whole lot of others Christine didn’t recognise.
When he turned back around, he was holding two glasses of scotch.
“If we’re goin’ to fight, we may az well make it fun.”
He gestured for her to take one of them.
“No!” Christine exclaimed, jaw dropping. “Erik, I think you’ve had enough! Was Madeline telling the truth when she said you were an alcoholic? Why the heck do you have so much alcohol?”
He merely shrugged at her refusal, threw back both of the glasses in quick succession, then grimaced, shuddering slightly.
“Because, my innocent studen’, alcohol is a w’nderful way to shut down those areas of the brain associated with pain and anxiety and enter a w’nderful, if false, alternate reality. Which was necessar’ for me tonight.”
“Because we lost.”
“Oh? Then why?” Christine said with concern. “What happened to you?”
“Somethin’ that has not happened before, but has gon’ about as well as e’pected” He said vaguely, pouring himself another glass. As he downed it he grimaced again, gasping a little this time. Christine grimaced too, imagining the burning liquid searing his throat.
“An’way. I believe you wanted to yell at me?” He asked.
“Yeah.” Christine said, feeling slightly put out. It was far less satisfying to argue with someone who could hardly walk in a straight line they were so intoxicated.
“Well, go on then. I am all yours t’ abuse.” He said, bowing low with one arm spread out wide and the other behind his back like a Victorian gentleman. Liquid sloshed out of the bottle in his hand and onto the wooden floor. He quickly tried to right the glass but ended up over-correcting and the liquid merely sloshed noisily out of the other side.
Christine groaned with frustration. “I just want to know why you did it? You’ve been such a hypocrite. Sure, I initially wanted Carlotta to do the solo, but as you know that’s only because I promised her a solo, and then it was you who convinced me that I should do it instead! Then you just arbitrarily take it away from me in front of everyone, do you have any idea how humiliating that was? And I didn’t even sing that badly! It felt like you were out to get me, and deliberately trying to hurt me.”
He didn’t answer, merely slumped down at the piano. Drunkenly, he began to softly play a series of chords and start humming under his breath.
“You’re not even listening to me!” She cried, throwing her hands in the air. “This is pointless!”
“I was.” He said simply.
“Then answer me.”
“Jus’ did. My answer is: I was.”
“You were deliberately trying to hurt me?”
He was silent for a minute and she opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. She hadn’t expected that response. She had expected him to deny it and say he had simply been doing what was best for the choir.
He bent over closer to the piano and played a note repeatedly.
“This E is slightly flat.” He said. “I shoul’ tune it.” He fumbled with trying to open the back of the piano.
“Forget the bloody E!” Christine cried. “Why were you trying to hurt me? I thought we were friends!”
“Yes, friends.” He said shrilly, laughing humourlessly. He turned away from her, grasping for a bottle resting inside the cabinet, but she snatched it out of his reach.
“You’ve had enough, Erik! And I’m trying to have a conversation with you! Your actions don’t make any sense -all that rubbish you said about how my voice is so good, did you even mean any of that?"
His eyes flashed up to meet hers, horrified. “Of course I meant that! How could you ask that!?"
“Well, you put all this effort you put into our lessons and then I mess up one time and you give my solo away? It makes no sense at all! Why train me up just to punish me by not letting me sing!? Also - do you know how hard I had to work to convince Raoul and Phil that you were a good, kind director, nothing like Madeline- then our first rehearsal, you make me look like a liar! I literally don’t know what was more embarrassing! Losing my solo that night or your behaviour.”
“I’m sorry that association with me is so embarrassing for you!” Erik suddenly roared, seeming to sober up in his rage, his words articulate and angry. He jumped up from the piano as he spoke, and towered over her, scowling. “It can be no easy feat to associate with such a freak!” He gestured stiffly at his face.
Christine stood her ground firmly. “That is not what I said or implied and you know it. I have never cared about the mask. And, if you think you can physically intimidate me out of this argument, you don’t even know me -”
“I think I know you pretty well.” He hissed. “You, dear Christine, are a naive, infuriating little-”
“Oh, I’m infuriating!? Your mood changes every two freaking seconds, you refuse to even talk-”
“Oho! You want to do name calling now? Real mature. Well, I’ve got a few; grouchy-”
“I AM NOT A DRUNKARD!” He yelled, swaying from side to side, clutching a bottle of scotch.
“You are impossible!” Christine cried, throwing her hands into the air. “We are arguing and arguing and you just won’t answer the question- why the heck did you give my solo away!? It’s like you sabotaged the choir just - because!”
“I gave your solo away, because ever since that wretched boy joined the choir, you have been more interested in making eyes at him than focusing on the goddam music.” Erik snarled.
“What!?” Christine shrieked. “How dare you! You’re angry that I let Phil and Raoul in the choir? You were the one who said the balance was off and we needed more male voices!”
“I couldn’t give a shit about balance!”
“Then what's the problem!? It almost sounds like you’re jealous!?”
“Of course I’m jealous!” Erik roared. “My God, are you really so oblivious!? I’m in love with you, for Christ’s sake! I love you, but I am a hideous old man and you are going to fall in love with that goddam boy- oh, God.” Erik moaned, his words retaining their slurred quality as soon as she stopped shouting. He put his head in his hands and stumbled a step backwards. “No, no…I’m going to regret that when I’m sober... Tha’ was exactly what Nadir told me not to do…oh, God, I’ve ruined everything.” He began to back away from her, pulling at his hair.
“WHAT!?” Christine yelped. “Are you serious!?” She could barely register the shockingly good news over her intense rage. “You’re in love with me!? So these last few weeks, with me obviously interested in you and making moves, and you rejecting me… what was with that!?” She shrieked. "Is your sole purpose in life to humiliate me!?"
“What?” His brows were furrowed, “Reject you? What?”
He had scrunched up his blurry red eyes and was squinting at her, as if trying to see through a thick sheen of water. It was very unfortunate that this conversation was happening while he was so sloshed.
“You know exactly what I’m talking about! I flirted with you and you were all ‘can’t a man be nice to his friend’.” Christine flushed at the memory.
“You mean to tell me,” Erik said slowly, the cogs in his inebriated brain inevitably turning slower than he would like, "That that..." he pointed a long white finger at her, “That that…was you…flirting?”
Christine’s face twitched.
“IS IT REALLY NECESSARY OR APPROPRIATE TO INSULT MY FLIRTING SKILLS RIGHT NOW!?” She shrieked.
Erik covered his ears from the shriek, shrinking away from her and crashing into the piano stool in the process. “Madwoman! Let me explain! I thought you were hinting that you knew of my feelings - for you - and you wanted me to…cease them.”
“What the heck, Erik!? Why would you think that? I even came up to you at the party and apologised to you for my awkward blunder!? What part of ‘I’m sorry I flirted with you I realise now you’re not interested and I won’t do it again’ is so hard to understand!?”
“You didn’t say that! You rambled on about something or other...friendship...? I had to draw my own conclusions- namely, that you wanted to just be friends! You were barely coherent!"
“Oh, so now my communication skills are the problem here!?"
“Yes! I daresay they are!” Erik barked, apparently as frustrated with her as she was with him.
“YOU ARSEHOLE!” She screeched. “I’VE SPENT THE LAST WEEKS DESPERATELY TRYING NOT TO BE IN LOVE WITH YOU AND SOMEHOW IT'S NOW MY FAULT?"
Erik’s jaw dropped.
“YOU LOVE ME?” He yelped.
“SO WE ARE IN LOVE WITH EACH OTHER!?”
“THAT SEEMS TO BE THE CASE!”
“THEN WHY ARE WE STILL YELLING!?”
“I DON’T KNOW!"
After a beat of confused silence, the kiss began with a lunge on Christine’s part, which experience tells is never a good way to begin so intimate an act. Thankfully, the amount of teeth-clashing experienced was minimal. Minutes later, Christine was snug in a close embrace with the masked, utterly-stunned-looking man.
“You love me?” Erik asked again, bewildered.
“You love me?”
“Yes!” She said, smiling.
He gulped. “What about that… boy?”
“Not a good match.” Christine said honestly.
“And you think…this is a good match?” He said in wonder.
Christine shrugged. “If our history of screaming at each other is anything to judge by, probably not good for my vocal cords in the long run…” She grinned.
“But the mask…my age…my…self?”
“I don’t care about the mask, and I don’t care about you age. Don’t you know, sugar daddies are in now?” She jabbed.
He looked highly disgusted.
“And I love your self.” She said softly and genuinely.
“I love you.” He said with watery eyes. She leant up to kiss him again. It was softer this time, more intimate, less teeth-clashy.
“Your breath reeks of scotch.” She whispered as she nuzzled against his neck.
At last, hey? :P Not much more to go now…I love reading what you think!
Chapter 13: Finale
Christine opened her eyes groggily, with the vague notion that this was not the room she normally woke up in. The first few rays of sunshine were starting to come through the large glass windows of Erik’s music room- oh, that’s right. The highly emotionally charged events of last night all came back to Christine in a flurry as she realised exactly where she was: sleeping on Erik’s large leather couch, the man himself wrapped up tightly in her arms. Her lips spread into a wide smile as she remembered the revelations of last night. Erik loved her. After all the nonsense and the misunderstandings and the jealousies…they were finally, finally together.
Erik groggily blinked open his eyes from beside her, looking not-particularly awake, but far livelier than she would have reasonably expected, given the abuse he had inflicted on his poor liver last night.
“Christine?” He whispered in awe. “You’re…here.”
“Sure am.” She smiled, snuggling into his bony chest. “I’m surprised you can even talk, I thought you’d have the mother of all hangovers this morning.”
“I have never felt better in my life.” Erik said, voice low and heavy with meaning as he tenderly stroked her hair.
They lay together in silence for a while, warm and comfortable. Ayesha trotted into the room and started to yowl, demanding breakfast.
“Hush, you irksome animal.” Erik groaned. “I am not getting up to feed you. I will not be leaving this heavenly couch, as long as I live.”
“Oh, crap.” Christine said, checking her watch with an unpleasant pang of realisation. “I actually have to be at work in half an hour.”
“Call in sick.” Erik said, wrapping his arms around her tightly, as if he would prevent her from leaving. “Spend the day with me.” His voice was low and enticing…and Christine seriously considered his offer.
“I would love to…but I really can’t leave Meg alone with the children.” Christine said reluctantly. “She’d kill me.”
In the days that followed, lessons with Erik became somewhat of a problem…in the most pleasant way.
Whenever Erik’s criticism of her became a little harsh, Christine would simply step up to where he was sitting at the piano…
“Christine, you’re sounding nasal in your middle register and growling your bottom notes -ah!” He suddenly broke off.
…and begin to gently massage his shoulders.
“I’m sorry.” She whispered onto his ear, then she began to brush her lips against his neck.
“Ah…no, no, you, you sound… acceptable…” He would concede in something of a daze.
“Only acceptable?” She said with narrowed eyes, releasing his shoulders.
“Wonderful!” He corrected quickly, emphatically. “You sound marvellous, simply breathtaking…”
“I think,” He said later, from a different, more comfortable location. A location which may or may not have been his rather luxurious king-sized bed. “That these lessons aren’t really going to work out if you keep seducing your teacher.”
“Mmm.” Christine murmured from where she was comfortably nestled into his shoulder. “They say the honeymoon stage wears off pretty quickly.”
“I really doubt that.” He said in a low voice. She grinned against his chest.
“Hey,” She said gently, “You know you don’t have to wear the mask around me…especially in bed.”
His entire body went tense under her and she wondered if she had made a bad move.
“I think,” he said, clearing his throat uncomfortably, “That you would feel quite differently, if I did.”
“Erik, I love you. Whatever is under there, it makes no difference.”
“An easy thing to say when you have not seen.” He said darkly.
“Then show me.” She said, trying to keep her tone casual. “Let me prove it to you.”
“Definitely not.” He said firmly. “I would never want to burden you with such a sight. You will have nightmares.”
“I never have nightmares.” Christine said brightly. “All sunshine and rainbows in this baby.” She said tapping the side of her head.
Erik looked unmoved. “You will.”
Christine sighed. “Love is sharing burdens, Erik.” She said softly. “I don’t want to make you uncomfortable about it but if we’re going to be …in a relationship, I just want you to know that I’m here. I won’t judge you for it, I won’t be horrified, whatever it is, it will not change how I feel about you. ”
Erik was quiet for a long time.
“It’s a deformity. Congenital.” He said at last, the words coming out in a rush, as if he had to force them out before he changed his mind.
Christine held her breath, scared he wouldn’t go on.
“The skin is so thin in some places that you can see all of the veins and capillaries. Thousands and thousands of tiny blood vessels.” He glanced at her to gauge her reaction. She kept her face expressionless.
“The bones are not formed properly; the shape is all wrong. There is scarring, horrid scarring, from past attempts to fix it. Attempts that failed pitifully. There is no…eyebrow. On that side.”
Christine just held him tightly for a long time. “It has caused you so much pain.”
“It is monstrous.”
“It doesn’t sound like anything I couldn’t handle seeing.”
“Not today…please. I couldn’t bare it if I was to cut this, us, short, because I was stupid enough to believe that someone could…” He choked on his words, unable to finish the sentence.
“I can.” Christine said firmly. “But it doesn’t have to be today.”
She held him close to her for a long time, placing gentle kisses all over his uncovered skin.
“Do you trust me?” She said softly.
“Unequivocally.” He said.
She made sure he could see that her eyes were screwed tightly shut as she slowly removed the mask, with extreme gentleness.
She placed a single kiss onto his cheek.
She carefully replaced the mask, and when she opened her eyes there were tears in his.
“You know,” She said later, wanting to lighten the mood. “I’m really proud of us for how we handled that conversation. It’s a real pity we didn’t work on our stupid personal problems before last round of the competition. If we had…I’m certain we would be rehearsing for finals now.”
“I’m sorry.” Erik grimaced. “That was all…largely my fault.”
“It was Madeline!" She protested "...Well, yes, and little bit of you.” She conceded.
He gave her a dry expression and she laughed.
“And of course, you are more than forgiven.” Christine said easily. “It’s just a shame. We got so, so close.”
Erik frowned, as if deep in thought.
Another morning, from her own bed this time, Christine awoke with the light of dawn, decided that it was a ridiculous time for a sane human being to arise, so she rolled over and promptly fell back to sleep. Hours later she woke properly to a more reasonable alarm (11:30 am) and checked her phone to see that she had one new message.
She read it with interest; it was Erik, scheduling an emergency rehearsal…for ten minutes from now.
Christine scrambled to find some clothes, and was out of the door.
Later, in the church hall, eleven sets of eyes followed Erik eagerly as he paced around the room.
“Well.” Erik said, smiling around at them all. “I’m glad you all came. I think you’re going to like what I’m about to say.”
They glanced at each other in interest.
“This morning, I received a call from the adjudicators of Music Fest. Apparently, Hurstville, the choir who came third at the semi-finals, was disqualified for being over the performer limit. Since we placed fourth at the semi-finals, we were automatically moved up to third place.”
“We’re going to the finals?!” Christine cried, jumping up out of her seat.
“No way!” Cried Meg.
Peggy clapped her hand over her mouth, and Richard yelped in happy surprise. Agatha was grinning, and Garth was actually wiping tears from his eyes. Even Carlotta and Piangi began to speak rapidly in happy Italian.
Only Raoul and Phillipe seemed a little less than enthused about the prospect of having to perform under Erik’s direction yet again…
“Suck it, Madeline!” Meg shouted, and there was raucous laughter.
“Which means.” Erik said, eyes sparkling. “It’s time to rehearse the Great Mass in C Minor.”
Later, in the storeroom, pretending to busy himself with packing away music stands and sheet music, Erik was beaming. Yes, it was wonderful that the Wemberly Chorus had another chance at beating Madeline. For that, he was truly grateful and happy. He could achieve his recent dream of… besting his mother in a community choir competition? Leading a medium level community choir to greatness?
That was, he supposed, objectively quite nice.
But in this moment, he couldn’t really seem to find the energy to care. How insignificant it all seemed now. Compared to this. This feeling in his chest, the electricity in his veins. The pounding of his heart every time she entered the room. She loved him. She actually loved him. She had kissed him. Kissed him! Under his mask. And today, to make up for all the rubbish he had put her through, he had made her happy with the news.
He was quite content to dedicate every second of his life from here on to making her happy.
Of course, he had no plans to tell her that he himself had been the one to ensure Hurstville was disqualified. That he had spent hours trawling through conditions of entry forms, searching for some loophole to get Wemberly Chorus back into the competition, and that he had been the one who called the Music Fest adjudicators board to report Hurstville for the rule he had only recently discovered they had violated…
He was probably quite unpopular with some people right now.
He really couldn’t give a rat’s arse.
Sorry, Hurstville, but to see her smile like that, to see her entire being light up in happiness with the news…he would do a lot worse than disappoint some old soprano pensioners.
The email Christine had received was down-right nasty.
Subject: Screw you
Dear President of the Wemberly Community Chorus,
Do you think it’s funny, do you think it’s brave, to STEAL a place in the finals from a choir of old ladies!?
Do you think it makes you a “good” person, to stoop to the level of scouring through the Music Fest rule book to CHERRY-PICK for a loophole to disqualify us, so you can take our HARD-EARNED place in the finals!? So WHAT if we had ONE performer too many?! We won that competition on MERIT and you LOST because you simply weren’t good enough!
Our oldest member Prudence is 96, SHE PROBABLY WON’T SEE ANOTHER YEAR OF MUSIC FEST. And you think it’s ok to take the finals away from her, for your own selfish means!?
This is the most dishonest, unsportsmanlike thing we have ever seen in fifty years of participating in Music Fest.
You are a selfish cow; we hope you crash and burn in the final!
The Hurstville Senior Chorus
She read, then re-read the email with gritted teeth.
“I’m going to bloody kill him.”
Hours later, at a small Italian restaurant several miles out of Wemberly, on what was supposed to have been their first official date, Christine angrily shoved her phone into Erik’s face.
Romantic bliss was apparently not without its issues.
He read the email displayed on the device swiftly, then handed it back gingerly, cringing.
“Ah. Well. This explains your expression.”
“You took our place in the final from a choir of old ladies!?” She hissed, ducking her head low so the father and his kids at the next table wouldn’t hear her whisper-yelling. “You have to give it back!”
“I can’t!” Erik said helplessly. “The board officially disqualified them.”
Christine glared at him.
“I did it for you!” Erik protested. “You said the other day that it was a shame that we hadn’t made it into the finals- and the fact that we did not is very much my fault. I was trying to make amends!”
“I was not asking you to steal from pensioners!”
The father at the table next to them glanced over and gave Christine a funny look.
“Look,” Erik said reasonably, “it was hardly stealing- we have every right to the place, they were disqualified.”
“They were disqualified because you spent probably hours, trailing through the rule book looking for a loop hole! Look at this email- my name is tarnished forever!”
“I’m more than happy to take the blame, plus they have next year-”
“Not Prudence, Erik,” Christine said coldly. “Prudence doesn’t have next year.”
“They’re just saying that to tug at your heart strings" Erik said, rolling his eyes. "I’m sure Prudence is fine.” Erik said.
“She is ninety-six!”
"Anna Valerius is something like that, isn't she? And she’s healthy as ever.”
“Anna Valerius does Pilates! How many octogenarians do you know who do Pilates?! Anna Valerius is the exception not the rule!”
Erik sighed and put two long bony fingers to each of his temples.
“I am genuinely sorry it turned out this way, I did not expect them to find out who…dobbed them in. I certainly didn’t except that you would get an angry email from them. I was trying to make you happy. All I want is your happiness."
“Do I look happy?” Christine hissed.
“Christine.” Erik sighed. “You’re being over dramatic.”
“I’M OVER DRAMATIC!? HAVE YOU MET YOURSELF!?” There was a vein popping out of her forehead in her effort to keep her rage under control.
“Alright, alright, touché.”
Their food arrived, Christine thankfully ceased her whispered yelling and just continued to glare at Erik while the waiter uncomfortably placed down napkins and cutlery.
“Well?” She said, as the waiter retreated.
“I’m sorry.” Erik said again helplessly. “I can’t undo this.”
She glared at him some more.
“Just eat your ravioli.”
“Somehow I don’t feel particularly hungry at present…”
“Erik. Just eat.”
“Like I said, I’m not hungry.” Erik said petulantly.
“Now you’re going to make me eat alone? Like some sort of sad, glutinous slob? Oh, no buddy.” She said with dagger eyes. “If I have to prize open your cold, dead jawbone with my bare fingers and shovel this ravioli down your trachea with a spork, so help me God, I will do it.”
Unused to such violent threats from narrow-eyed, frizzy-haired young women he was in love with, he didn’t seem to know what to say, opening and closing his mouth a few times.
“I think you meant the oesophagus.” He said at last. “The trachea is the wind pipe.”
“All the better.” She warned. “All the more pain and suffering-”
“But you said by that point I’ll already be dead-”
“Just eat the bloody ravioli Erik!”
Finally, he meekly obeyed. She tucked into her food angrily as well and they ate in a furious silence.
A young, spotty waiter came over to them, breaking the silence.
“Can I interest sir or madam in our fine selection of wines?”
“No thanks.” Christine responded coldly, staring directly at Erik. “My friend here has a meeting with AA tomorrow.”
“Oh…I’m sorry-” The waiter stammered, highly uncomfortable, and abruptly left them alone.
Erik raised his eyebrow at her.
“Hilarious.” He said dryly as Christine sniggered to herself.
They ate for a few more minutes. Until Christine finally sighed heavily. “Ok. I’m sorry for my reaction. I’m just very, very angry at you.”
“Because you are very, very annoying.”
“You know what.” Christine suddenly said, her fork clattering against her plate as she placed it down. “This was the least romantic date I’ve had in my entire life. The food is average. The atmosphere is kind of…family friendly.” She said, glancing at the next-door table which had three young, drooling toddlers happily spooning pasta into their mouths from matching high-chairs. “There were no candles or flowers or violins gently serenading us into the night. I’m mad as hell with you. And still, it was the best date I’ve ever had. Because it was with you.”
Erik’s eyebrows shot up. Even the one under the mask; she could tell by the crinkling.
“It seems I have severely overestimated your romantic history.”
She swatted his hand.
“I love you. But if this is going to work, you cannot do things like that again, you can’t make decisions for the choir without me- especially ones of dubious morality- and you certainly can’t make decisions about us without consulting me first too.”
“I am truly sorry Christine. I thought it would be a pleasant surprise. I really don’t know how they found out.”
“Their finding out is not the point- and actually, were you ever going to tell me what you had done, if they hadn’t?”
“Probably not.” Erik admitted.
“See that’s what I mean. Tell me you understand what I’m saying.”
“I do. I should not have concealed the truth. I suppose I am highly unused to the idea of being in a ... partnership. Of having to answer to someone. But I love you. I couldn’t deny you anything you asked of me.”
She interlaced her fingers with his across the table.
“Thank you. That's all I need to hear.” She tilted her head thoughtfully. “Do you think the entire duration of our relationship will be filled with fury and screaming matches?” She wondered wistfully.
“The entire duration of our relationship? I had hoped for something more akin to the entire duration of my life.” Erik said.
“Yeah, alright buddy. You got me. Keep saying romantic shit like that and I’ll probably forgive you anything. Probably.”
“I love you.” He said, staring at her with an adorably hopeless expression.
She beamed at him, leant across the table to take his face in her hands, and kissed him.
“Oi.” Said the moustached father of the three toddlers sitting across from them in his thick, American accent. “This is a family restaurant, girly. If you’re going to behave like that you can take your creepy-ass masked boyfriend somewhere else.”
Erik scowled and opened his mouth, but before he could respond, Christine said something not altogether polite to the man, and took Erik’s hand to go, throwing down some cash on the table.
“ ‘uck ‘yoo?” She heard one of the toddlers mimic as the door of the restaurant closed behind them. Its younger siblings began to mimic it gleefully. “ ‘uck ‘yoo!” “ ‘uck ‘yoo!”
The expression on the moustached man’s face was priceless.
Erik looked at her in utter awe as they walked hand in hand back to his car.
“You, my dear,” He said, laughing a little, “Are a truly remarkable woman.”
In their last rehearsal before the final of Music Fest, Erik was in an uncharacteristically cheerful mood.
“Wonderful, everyone. That is sounding as close to perfection as we have come. Now, from the top.”
His mood had been pretty consistently good ever since the formal start of their relationship. He was cheery, less testy with people for getting things wrong, and far more optimistic. And the effect it was having on the choir was obvious: the choral members were a perfect mixture of relaxed (even Raoul and Phillipe) and excited, and consequently their sound was better than ever.
“I have a good feeling about this.” He said. “We’re going to sound fantastic.”
He also seemed to have a difficult time refraining from looking at Christine, all throughout rehearsals. And smiling.
“Is something going on between you two?” Meg whispered during the break as they got their tea from the hot water flask at the far side of the church. “He’s so… happy! And look, he’s humming to himself now!” She exclaimed quietly, and they both looked over to the conductor’s podium where Erik was flicking through the score and softly singing its contents to himself under his breath, his right foot energetically tapping the ground.
Meg stared at her, eyes widening as the silence drew on.
“There totally is! Holy cow, really?! Happy?”
“Very happy.” Christine smiled.
“I knew it. I knew he was into you all along. Mother Megan knows. Mother Megan is wise.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Christine said rolling her eyes.
“Hey, Lulu, Raoul, Phil!” Meg called. “Christine’s got some news!”
“Meg!” Christine hissed. “Not yet!”
“Please, as if I hadn’t guessed.” Philippe said, flicking back his hair. “Christine and Erik have got it on.”
“Phil!” Christine chided. Raoul looked slightly horrified and Christine felt a little jab of guilt.
“Oh, please babes, it’s cute.” Lulu added.
“Lulu! You knew too?” Christine said despairingly.
“Do I look stupid to you? I’ve seen Erik smile once, maybe twice, the whole time I’ve known him? And look at him now, he couldn’t wipe that dopey grin off his face if he tried!”
“Ok, ok.” Christine conceded. “Just please, don’t spread it around, I don’t want everyone to know just yet. We haven’t talked about who should know…”
“What are you girls hissing about!?” Agatha asked, coming over to their huddle and sipping her tea.
“It’s Christine and Erik, they’re a thing!” Meg said excitedly.
“Aw, well congratulations to you both.” Agatha said, taking another sip of tea.
“Meg!” Christine said helplessly. “Thanks, Agatha, but please don’t spread it around just yet, we haven’t-”
“What is all this chatter?” Richard asked. Peggy and Garth accompanied him, also looking intrigued.
“Christine and Erik are a couple!” Meg said again.
“You owe me fifty pounds.” Peggy said to her husband. “Oh, and congratulations dear.”
“Thanks, but if you could just keep it to yourself for now, I don’t want everyone finding out-”
“What is all this gossiping about?” Carlotta said quizzically, strutting up to the huddle.
“Christine and Erik are a couple!”
“I had guessed as much.” Carlotta said haughtily. “There is always a sexual energy between teacher and student, I remember in my youth-”
“OK! Cool! Yep! Enough of that train of thought!” Christine interrupted uncomfortably, “Now if you would just kindly keep this information to yourself,”
“Mio caro!” Carlotta said, yelling at Piangi across the room, “Mi devi cinquanta sterline!”
“Ok, I guess you would obviously tell Piangi but please just don’t tell everyone just yet because I kind of want to keep it-” Christine said desperately. “Well, actually. That’s pretty much everyone now. Thanks a bunch, Meg.”
Meg flashed her an angelic smile.
People moved on to other topics of conversation, and Christine found Raoul standing by himself, looking quite put-out.
“Hey Raoul. I’m sorry you found out that way.”
“It’s ok.” Raoul said, shrugging and looking a little sad. “I know I messed up my chance with you. It just took me by surprise is all.”
“Yeah. I understand. I hope there are no hard feelings.”
“Of course not. I’m moving back to Oxford after Christmas break anyway, decided to start my masters after all, so it couldn’t have really worked out. Unless you got in to Oxford.” He said looking thoughtful for a second. “But the entry requirements are pretty high…” Raoul trailed off tactlessly. Christine found herself shooting dagger eyes at someone for the umpteenth time that evening.
The finals were held in a large, majestic hall in the heart of London. The crowd was large, finally extending beyond the choirs attending and their close family and friends. A TV crew were filming the event and there were even media personnel interviewing participants and members of the audience, as well as the judging panel.
Christine walked by just as Madeline was being interviewed.
“In summary, yes, music has always been my passion. It is an expression of the self, of the soul. A noble art.” She smiled charmingly into the camera. She noticed Christine watching the interview and her eyes narrowed.
The interviewer then asked a slightly less softball question.
“Now, I hear that another choir that shares your name is here today…the Wemberly Community Chorus. What do you make of that, Madeline? Is the competition between you all the more heated because you are from the same district? Or is it just friendly competition?”
Madeline’s smile appeared to freeze on her face. She let out a shrill, false laugh.
“Of course the competition is friendly.” She said stiffly.
When her interview concluded, she came over to Christine.
“I heard you managed to drag yourselves into the finale.”
“Seems that way.” Christine said easily.
“Screwing over pensioners to get your way. I’m almost impressed. I didn’t think Erik had it in him. Still, I thought that tipping off the old crones might scare you off.”
“Ah so I have you to thank for that email. No surprises there, honestly.”
“You’re like cockroaches, you and that choir of yours.” Madeline said, gritting her teeth. “You just won’t die.”
“I’m flattered.” Christine said dryly.
When Christine found Erik to tell him about the encounter, a young, nervous-looking intern from the film crew came up to ask him for an interview. He was merely stared at coldly until he thought it best to walk away. Trying not to laugh, Christine walked up and linked arms with the masked man. The intern looked at her in complete shock.
The show started half an hour later than expected as the over-excited crowd took longer than they should have to settle down into their seats. Christine could see Anna Valerius sitting excitedly in the audience near the front as she peeped through the curtains behind the wings of the stage into the crowd.
The performances were all incredible of course, some choirs appeared a bit spooked by the cameras but otherwise the standard was incredibly high. Wemberly Choir performed flawlessly, despite her obvious frustration earlier Madeline’s show face was well and truly screwed on and she was unsurprisingly, a natural in front of the cameras.
When it was their turn, Christine took a deep breath, gripped Erik’s hand for moral support- he gently squeezed it back, and they were on.
The music began, and Erik wordlessly led them in. Everyone was singing in top form, energised by the lights and the atmosphere of excitement emulating from the audience. They surpassed even their best rehearsal. Carlotta was wonderful during her solo, singing, thankfully without too much embellishment. Erik had wheedled some of that out of her during their long, gruelling rehearsals. Piangi was magnificent also.
When the time came for Christine’s solo, nothing felt real, she walked out to centre stage as if floating on air in a dream. The months and months of training, of Erik’s gruelling techniques, all melted away as she sang. Had she ability to step back look at herself she would see that she was doing all he had taught her to do. Her posture was perfect, her breathing deep and calm, her throat relaxed, her core engaged. Her tone was bright and pure.
But as she sang, in her mind there was nothing but the music, and Erik’s eyes holding her own.
And then they were done, and the applause rang out.
“Wonderful!” The MC cried, walking to centre stage, over the din of cheers and whistles that seemed to go on and on. “Wonderful. Yes I know, they were simply fantastic, weren’t they! How about that soprano soloist!?” More raucous applause. “Now, the judges will need several minutes to deliberate…and then we can announce this year’s winners!”
The tension was tangible as they waited. Meg started biting her fingernails in a frenzied fashion and Christine gently pulled her hand out of her mouth.
“Ladies and gentlemen…the winner…of this year’s Music Fest grand final…is…”
“Whatever happens, I’m proud of us.” Christine whispered, squeezing Erik’s hand.
“The Wemberly Community Chorus!”
Christine and the choir shrieked and cheered their joy, and clambered up on the stage to collect their prize, as the TV crew zoomed in on their ecstatic faces. Christine could not stop grinning; they had done it. They had won.
Later, at the after-party in the enormous building’s function room, the media personnel, the judges and audience, Christine was busy chatting happily to Meg and Lulu when Erik tapped her on the shoulder.
“Christine, if I may interrupt, there’s someone here who’s been dying to see you.
Christine turned around, intrigued by who could possibly want to meet her, and came face to face with the beaming expression of one of her old teachers from the College, Sorelli.
“Oh my gosh, Sorelli, how are you!?” Christine gushed, shaking the woman’s hand enthusiastically.
“I am wonderful, thank you Christine. Erik invited me along today to hear you sing.” The kind woman said, grinning at the back of Erik’s retreating head as he tactfully went to fetch himself a drink, “I was definitely not disappointed.”
“That you so much for coming! I can’t believe you came out all this way to hear me sing.”
“Erik rang me up a few days ago and asked me to come, he could not stop gushing about your voice…I admit I was seriously intrigued. Erik is not easily impressed, as you probably know. The fact alone that he agreed to take you on as a student is testament enough to how much potential he heard in your voice, and hearing you today, hearing how far you have come, was truly inspiring.”
“That means a lot.” Christine said genuinely.
“You always were a beautiful singer Christine, but what I heard today…” Sorelli shook her head in wonder. “Was something else. I always knew Erik was a musical genius, but I had no idea he was such a phenomenal teacher. I’m begging him to return to teaching at the college now- not that it does any good. Perhaps I can get you to persuade him.” She said with a wink.
Christine grinned. “I can try.”
“I am actually here for another reason, Christine. I’m on the scholarships admissions board this year, and I came to highly, highly advise you to apply.” Sorelli said. “I would be very surprised if you were not offered an all-expenses scholarship for your final year.”
Christine’s eyes filled with happy tears.
She found Erik, later, chatting with Richard and Peggy. She smiled to see him so comfortable in the company of other people, and so warm. There was no tenseness, no awkwardness as he talked to his friends, just a relaxed…joy.
“There you are.” Christine said, wrapping an arm around Erik.
He returned her embrace, and Richard and Peggy diplomatically excused themselves.
“I’ve just been talking to Sorelli.”
“Oh, yes?” Erik said, smiling innocently. “And what did our old mutual friend have to say?”
“I think you know very well what she had to say.” Christine grinned.
Erik merely tried to look innocent.
“Thank you, Erik, for convincing her to come out all this way just to listen to me.”
“It didn’t take much convincing,” Erik said, smiling. “She remembered you, ‘one of my brightest students’, she said.”
“She did not.” Christine said, swatting him gently and rolling her eyes.
“She did.” Erik said. “And she’s right.”
As they stood in an easy embrace they watched the couples who had started to ballroom dance to the music being played by a live band at the far end of the hall. Christine put her head gently on Erik’s shoulder.
“So, if I do get that scholarship, are we moving back to London, then? Sorelli wants you to teach again, as you are probably well aware. How about it?”
He looked at her with no small wonder in his eyes, and shook his head with a small smile. “This still feels all so surreal. To be even considered in your plans for your life…”
Christine’s heart soared with the sweetness of his words.
“Don’t be thick, Erik.” She joked. “It took us what, six full months, to stop despising each other? And a lot of work. This girl ain’t losing you after all that.”
Erik’s arms tightened around her and he placed a gentle kiss on her forehead.
“If London is what Miss Daae desires, London it is.”
“Wonderful.” Christine beamed. “I’m going to miss Wemberly, though.” She said, with a touch of melancholy. “I’m going to miss the choir, and Meg, and Lulu.”
“They are young, I wouldn’t be surprised if they move to the big apple too, sooner or later…”
“I don’t think so.” Christine said, shaking her head. “I don’t think they will ever leave. They love the place too much, Lulu has her house, and Meg’s got her ballet studio plans.”
“Well, we will visit.” Erik said gently. “I don’t have any plans to sell my house anytime soon, and it’s not so far between London and Wemberly.”
“How about you? Will you miss any of it? What about dear mumsy?” Christine teased. “I bet she’s a barrel of laughs after today’s result.”
Erik gave her a mock-sour look.
“I am more than content to never see that woman again in my life.”
“I’m glad.” Christine said genuinely.
“And besides,” He said, “How could I ever miss anything, when I have you?”
“Well, shall we?” He said, offering his hand and indicating his head towards the twirling couples behind them. As she looked at his outstretched palm, she sensed that he was offering much more than just a dance.
“Yes.” She grinned. “I think we should.”
She took his hand.
Thank you so much for reading folks! This is the first story longer than a few pages that I’ve ever written, and oh boy, even for this silly little story it took a lot more time and effort than I thought it would. The idea for this has been floating around in my head for about 6 years now, and I’m so glad I finally made the decision to just write it. It is far from perfect, but I’m proud to have finished. Huge thank you to everyone who followed along, I have read every review and they have kept me motivated, entertained, and many of them made me laugh! Y’all need to go write your own E/C romcoms now 😉