Her Voice Was Ever Soft
The cat's name was Rover, because Uncle Hal had always wanted a parrot, but he lost faith in her when she began to howl every time he stood me on the scullery table to impersonated Gracie Fields.
I would have preferred to spend more time with my cigarette card collection of Famous Cricketers; I needed only George Gunn for the set and that veteran Notts-opener was proving dispiritingly elusive. But Uncle Hal said impersonating Miss Fields would expand my diaphragm. If I hoped to grow up to scotch the capitalist system, he said, I would need an expanded diaphragm.
As it happened, I had been auditioned as a soloist for the school concert to raise soup for orphans, but when the music master called on me, I stood on his foot and my diaphragm, remote form its protecting scullery table, refused to yield up my voice.
'What is wrong, boy?' the music master asked.
'I've left my glasses in the chemmy lab, sir,' I offered.
He sighed and awarded the solo role to the ginger-haired girl who was at that time the femme fatale of the Mixed Juniors, notable for her thwarting of ardent expectations.
The music master was a sad eccentric bachelor, easily moved to tears. He frequently sobbed over his own accompaniments and had taken to heavy smoking after the music class had rather badly mauled Purcell. He hated his job and had ambitions to be a jockey and to that end had been eating dry toast for many years, but his dream began to fade when he grew to be six feet seven.
The ginger-haired girl sang Bless This House with heart-rending sweetness and the music master dashed away a tear with the Racing Handicap Book and dismissed the audition class.
The cat disappeared from the scullery one wet night when I was singing The Biggest Aspidistra in the World. It was another case, according to Herbert Mangle, the Wallsend poet, of the incompatibility of life and art, whichever was which.
'Mind you,' he asked Uncle Hal, 'how would you like to listen to impersonations of Gracie Fields, knowing that your owner never looks at you without seeing the dog you might have been, given that a parrot is exotic beyond his hopes?'
Uncle Hal said nature was above art in that respect. He wasn't usually optimistic, but he had been reading King Lear.
'Shaw said that although Shakespeare sank to blasphemous despair,' he told my old Aunt Emma, 'to the end there was mighty music in him.'
'It's raining,' said my old Aunt Emma, 'and she hasn't got her collar on.'
The cat had run away more than once, but she usually came back for Sunday dinner, because she was addicted to Yorkshire pudding. When the weekend passed and the scullery was still cat-bereft, my old Aunt Emma said she feared pussy might be in heaven. Uncle Hal said he hoped God remembered that the secret of Yorkshire pudding was to let the mixture stand overnight. He called 'Rover! Rover! unavailingly in the backlane, but privately suspected that the cat had set up home with the milkman.
My own dismay was partly assuaged by my burgeoning interest in the ever-expanding diaphragm of the ginger-haired girl. At the next rehearsal, I told her of my vain guest for George Gunn.
'I have a surplus of Maurice Tates, Walter Hammonds and Patsy Hendrens,' I explained. 'But George Gunn, you see, scored a hundred in his first Test.'
She said she was sorry to hear that. 'Why not come back after home time?' she whispered, between 'Bless the Roof' and 'Ever Open to Joy and Love'.
'Pardon?' I said.
'You won't need your glasses,' she said.
'What's this got to do with George Gunn?' I asked.
'Very little, I hope,' she said.
'What are you doing?' the music master demanded when he surprised me climbing in a school window at twenty-past four.
'I've left my bicycle pump in the chemmy lab, sir,' I offered.
He sighed again and went home to his lodgings. He found no solace in his lonely dry toast and tear-stained Racing Handicap Book. At forty-two, he knew he had little hope now of becoming a stable apprentice. His landlady kept pressing him to butter his toast and use a handkerchief and he realised that he was sinking fast into orthodoxy and might even end up married.
That night in the scullery, not a little distracted, I transposed the second verse of Granny's Little Old Skin Rug with the chorus of Walter, Walter, Lead Me to the Altar. Uncle Hal failed to notice. He was asking himself if ripeness was all. I descended from the table and went into the gas meter cupboard with my Famous Cricketers.
'I'm going to see Herbert Mangle about King Lear,' Uncle Hal told my old Aunt Emma.
'I've got a good mind to change the milkman,' said my old Aunt Emma.
It transpired that Herbert Mangle, like Dr Johnson, could hardly bring himself to read the harrowing last act of King Lear, which was why he had composed his Mortifying Lines:
Was Shakespeare, like his tragic hero, mad?
How many understood his Lear?
Well, precious few, I dare to fear:
And they'd have killed the author if they had.
I should have left the volume on the shelf.
Was all that desolation planned?
Did even Shakespeare understand?
If so, he surely would have killed himself.
The cat came home; she had decided that the milkman's nocturnal hours were uncongenial. Besides, she had divined that I had abandoned the scullery table and that Uncle Hal, for his part, was prepared to abandon exotic hopes and change her name to Marjorie.
Uncle Hal put aside King Lear. For the moment, he said he was more in the need of an ounce of civet to sweeten his imagination and he turned up at the school concert to shed a tear at the ginger-haired girl's ravishing rendition of Bless This House.
It was a felicitous occasion. The music master pressed his foot on the soft pedal, wincing, and the ginger-haired girl sang 'Make them pure and free from sin' to warm applause, not least from me, even though I had left my thwarted expectations in the chemmy lab.
Next day, the music master stopped me in the corridor. One of the advantages, he said, of heavy smoking was that you acquired a large number of cigarette cards. He was anxious to get hold of Patsy Hendren and could offer George Gunn, if I was interested.