For July a story from Alexander which grew into the novel, ‘La’s Orchestra Saves the World’.
La lived in a small town near the Suffolk coast. It was not Aldeburgh, but it was close enough, a town which had had a market, once, but which now had none of the bustle which a market town has. It had a Norman church and several other beautiful buildings, including an old wool house which attracted visitors. There were farms nearby, some of which were rich ones, some of which barely scratched a living.
La came there in 1938, and founded an orchestra. She was at that time in her mid-thirties, a tall, not unattractive woman, with a careful, measured way of talking. She had married young, barely into her twenties, and then had been widowed when she was thirty two. Her husband had left her well provided for, but nothing could make up for her desolation. I loved him so much, so much, she thought. I can never love another man; no man will ever be his equal. None.
She bought a house outside the town, about half a mile down one of those quite roads that wind through the Sussex countryside. It was a sprawling old house, its walls of wattle and daub, oak-beamed, and painted on the outside in that extraordinary subtle pink that one sees in parts of the Suffolk countryside. It had large gardens, five acres or more, with lawns and a rather overgrown pond. Sheep had ruined part of the garden before she bought it, but she repaired the fence and kept them out. The sheep looked in, aggrieved.
La started her orchestra when a friend had suggested that they should invite an orchestra from London to entertain them with a concert. La was feeling cross with London because another friend had made a condescending remark about people who live in the countryside.
No need to invite anybody from London here,” she said sniffily. “We’re perfectly capable of forming our own orchestra.”
“Are we?” said one of her friends. She sounded dubious.
“Of course we are!” snapped La, now quite convinced that this is what should be done. “There’s an abundance of talent here. An abundance.” She waved her hand airily in the direction of the window.
Her friend looked outside. The lawns, on which the evening sun had descended, were touched with gold. There were two pigeons cooing somewhere. But there did not seem to be any orchestral talent.
Nothing daunted, La proceeded to speak to the editor of the local paper. He listened to her gravely. These people, he thought, come up with some very odd suggestions, but this was surely one of the oddest. Discreetly, unseen by La, he scribbled on his pad: La’s Orchestra.
At least the editor of the paper had the grace to admit that he had been wrong. It transpired that not only was there a great deal of musical talent in the area, but it was talent of a reasonably high level. Several retired players from great London orchestras offered their services, and many others, some coming from as far away as Cambridge, offered to play. It was, it seemed, a thin time in the orchestral world, and the possibilities of the occasional engagement in return for dinner at La’s house and a rail ticket to and from the concert was enough compensation for many. In the manner of a skilful manipulator, La knew how to cajole and exhort, and people found themselves committed to a far greater extent than they had envisaged at the outset.
Most of the players, though, were amateurs, but they were competent amateurs. There were two, indeed, who had spent some time in conservatoires, and some who could have done so, had life worked out rather differently for them. Then there was a handful of what were known as the weaker brethren. They, like those of a congregation who were more likely to falter, were generously watched over by their more accomplished colleagues. Difficult passages were explained, tactfully, and the occasional whispered reassurance was given: “I’ll do it. Just follow if you can.”
In general, though, this was not necessary, and the orchestra’s performances were, by any standards, solid. On the orchestra’s first anniversary, in May 1939, it gave a special concert. La basked in the glory – modestly, of course – inviting numerous friends and giving a series of parties to mark the event. Nobody begrudged her this triumph.
But it was 1939. people asked: “What about the orchestra, La? With things as they are …”
“We’ll carry on,” she said. “Isn’t that what we’re meant to do.”
So the orchestra continued during the War, augmented by the talents of various musicians who were stationed in the area. An American airman livened up the percussion section for a brief and glorious period, and an accomplished Canadian violinist added real distinction to the strings for almost six months.
The orchestra performed concerts for the forces. “It’s not much of a contribution,” said La. “But music makes a bit of a difference, I suppose.”
“But of course it does,” she was told. “It all helps.”
She pondered these words. It all helps. She had seen a man in tears at one of the concerts when they had played Dvorak, and she knew that, yes, it was true. Music helped.
It was at round about this time that La’s Orchestra had its finest hour. A conference was being held in a country house. It was all very secret and the orchestra, invited to play one evening for the entertainment of those at this meeting, was taken to the venue without any idea of where it was going. When they saw who was in the audience, they knew why.
He was tired, and fell asleep briefly in one of the pieces. But afterwards, when he came to congratulate the conductor and the leader, he smiled and assured them that their presence had made been important.
“Music helps,” he said. Then he produced a cigar from his pocket, waved to the players, and was gone.
La herself could not play an instrument. In the course of her somewhat chaotic education she had learned the rudiments of music, though, and her father had been a competent cellist. He had encouraged her to take up the flute. But for a variety of reasons this had never happened. The idea that she might one day play it had remained. “The flute,” she said, “is the instrument I do not play.”
Her main contribution to the orchestra – apart from acting as secretary, financial backer, venue organiser, and tea maker – was to copy out difficult to obtain parts, by hand. La somehow managed to borrow scores, but parts would often be missing and she would go to Cambridge, consult a library, and copy the missing part by hand. She would spend hours doing this, her fingers stained with black ink. But her notation was clear, and people liked to have La’s parts to play from, with each page signed at the bottom: La.
She had the time to do this, as she had no job. Of course, during the War years there was plenty for her to do. She drove an ambulance on four days a week, releasing its usual driver for other duties, and she also did shifts at a small rehabilitation centre where wounded servicemen were looked after. But for the rest, it was the orchestra that took up her time and energy.
Sometimes, in the early hours of the morning, La would wake up and worry about her orchestra. What would happen if the conductor could no longer conduct? He was getting on a bit, she thought, and he had complained about his heart. Conducting was sometimes vigorous work and she imagined that it might, in some circumstances, put a strain on the heart. Perhaps this should govern their choice of music in future. Perhaps she should look at scores in advance and determine whether they were going to be a little bit too physically demanding.
And what would happen, if the unthinkable occurred? What if the country were to fall? What would happen to her orchestra? Would everyone be sent off somewhere, or just forbidden to play? What if music itself were to be banned, to be declared subversive? Her orchestra then might have to go underground, playing secretly, in people’s houses, furtively racing through the repertoire with somebody standing guard outside, ready to give warning.
Such thoughts – ridiculous thoughts – made La turn on the light. Light dispelled such fantasies, such defeatist ruminations; light put them in their place. The country would not be overrun; they would hold out. It was impossible to imagine defeat, not because one could not imagine what it would be like, but because it was just such an unlikely outcome.
And everyone thought that, she told herself. She knew nobody who thought otherwise. Indeed, one member of the orchestra, a recently-recruited Polish exile, had said to her, “We will win this, you know. We will.” He had looked at her, as if to challenge her to refute what he had said. But she did not, of course, and the Pole had then said: “You know why we will win? It is because music is on our side.”
This Polish exile, who was called Felix, worked on a farm. He had been wounded, and limped as a result. This made him unfit for the army but fit enough to drive a tractor. He lived in a small cottage at the edge of a sprawling arable farm. The farm was owned by an elderly man who was something of a recluse. He saw Felix once a day, gave him his orders, and then disappeared back into the farmhouse.
Felix was in his mid thirties, which made him fifteen years younger than La, who was in her early fifties. He was a quiet man, who had lost his confidence after his injury. He never spoke about what happened to him, and La knew better than to pry. There were so many people around to whom terrible things had happened, that it was better to wait until they chose to tell you, if they chose.
He had come to one of the concerts, and that was how she had met him, and recruited him. The concert had been in the hall of a school, and at the interval they had served tea from one of the school’s large urns. La had been serving, along with two other women who helped her with these tasks. She had not noticed Felix in the queue, but suddenly he was before her, holding out the twopence that they charged for the tea and a small, rather tasteless biscuit.
She had poured his tea and passed it to him. He had taken the cup and it was then that she noticed his hand was shaking. The cup rattled in its saucer.
He saw her looking at his hand, and the shaking stopped. He moved away, but when La had finished serving tea she looked up and saw him standing by himself at the end of the room.
She folded up her apron and went up to him.
“I haven’t seen you at our concerts before,” she said.
“No,” he said. “This is the first time.”
He smiled at her as he spoke, and she smiled back. He was a foreigner, obviously, although his English was good enough. She asked him where he was from. He told her.
She thought: I would have put him down for French, from the way he looks, but no, that would have been a mistake. The French were more self-possessed than this man; he was diffident in his manner.
“You obviously enjoy music,” she said.
He reached to put his cup down on a table at the side of the room. Somebody walked past him, and bumped him slightly, and he blushed, as if he was embarrassed at being in the way.
“I do. Yes I do.”
“We might play some Chopin again,” La said. We played him at the last concert.
“That would be very nice.”
She noticed that he shifted his weight from foot to foot, as if in discomfort. Poor man.
Then he said, “I play the flute, or I used to. I have not played for a year now. No, more than that.”
This interested La. She said; “You must tell me your name.”
La went to Cambridge by train, laving shortly after ten one morning. It was summer, but the day, which had started with sun and warmth, had become rainy. Great grey clouds had built up to the West and she could see the rain in the distance, over the fields of Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, falling, shifting veils, like curtains. From the window of her train, through drops of rain on the glass, she watched an aeroplane describing circles, lazily. A woman seated opposite her saw her watching and said: “They’ll be training. Just boys, you know. Mere boys. Eighteen, if that.” She shook her head, in what could have been disapproval, or regret; La could not tell.
La said: “Thank heavens for them.”
The train continued on its journey. Now Cambridge came into sight; familiar spires; well-worked allotments, every inch given to the cultivation of food; a forest of bicycles at the train station. She had to walk to the shop and it took her over forty minutes; the rain held off, but it was there, she felt, in the air, not far away.
“You telephoned me,” the man said. “You’re the person who telephoned?”
She nodded. “That was me.”
He was standing behind the counter. He looked past her, through the window. “Rain,” he said.
“Well then,” he said. “The flute.”
He turned round and opened a cabinet behind him. He reached in and took out a narrow, leather-covered box, which he opened. “Here it is,” he said. “It’s a very nice instrument. Would you like to try it?”
He handed her the flute. The metal was cold to the touch. More a moment, she saw herself, fragmented, in the silver. “Try it? No, I don’t play, I’m afraid. I’d like to, but I don’t.”
“So it’s for someone else? A child?”
She shook her head. “It’s for a man – a man who used to play but doesn’t have a flute at present.”
“Then he’ll be very happy with this instrument,” he said.
She left the shop, carrying the flute in an old shopping bag that the man had given her. It had not taken long to make the purchase – much less time than she had imagined, and this would give her the chance to do more of the things that she had on her list. But first, she wanted to get out of the light shower which had started. There was a tearoom at the end of the street – that would do.
She took the last free table in the tearoom and ordered tea and a scone. Then she took the flute out of its box and examined it, holding it delicately. He would be surprised, of course, but it would make such a difference to him. She knew the cottage he lived in, because she used to drive that way often. It was rather a dark place, she thought, and the farmhouse itself looked a terrible mess, even from the outside. Not a cheerful place to be, even in summer. Having a flute would make it easier for him, much easier.
La decided not to warn Felix that she was bringing the flute to him. The evening after she returned from Cambridge, she rode her bicycle out to his cottage. The rain had played itself out, or moved on, and the air was filled with warmth. In the field next to his cottage, cows were standing close to the gate, chewing, gazing vacantly at the road. Flies buzzed at their eyes. They watched her with their rheumy eyes as she walked up the small path that led to his front door. He could be working, she thought, as there were still hours of light left; in which case she could leave the flute on his doorstep, with a note perhaps. Even if she was not to leave a note, he would realise that the flute was destined for him, although he might not know who had left it there for him.
But he was in, and he answered the door almost immediately after his knock. He seemed surprised to see her, and for a moment he stood there, blinking, as if trying to remember who she was.
“This is for you,” she said, handing him the leather case.
He took it from her, gingerly, still surprised. He stared at it, turning the case over in his hands. He looked up at her quizzically.
“Open it,” she said. “Go on. Just open it.”
When he saw the flute, he gasped. “This is for me?”
She smiled encouragingly. “You told me that you played. You said that you didn’t have a flute. Well, now you do.”
He lifted the flute from its case and examined it carefully. “It is very fine. Very fine.” He paused. “But I cannot pay. Not yet. Maybe later.”
“Nonsense. This is a present. Consider it … consider it to be a thank you present for all the work that you’re doing here. Otherwise this place would be lying fallow.”
He nodded, showing that he understood. Then he lifted he flute to his lips, and without blowing, his fingers moved to a succession of positions. He was quick, light in his touch.
She looked through the door, into the room behind them. It was sparsely furnished – a table, a single chair, a small radio on a shelf. That farmer was mean – or so everybody said – he would not provide any comfort for this man who worked for him. She frowned.
“May I play it?” He tapped the flute. “It is so beautiful.”
“Of course. It’s yours now. Yours to play.”
She listened as he played – a tune she did not recognise. Is playing was deft; he knew his way about the instrument. She would invite him to join the orchestra; he was clearly good enough. When he had finished playing, she asked him whether he would care to join the orchestra.
“Now that you have give me this,” he said. “How could I refuse?”
“You could not,” she said. “Or rather, you could, but it would have been very rude.”
“In that case,” he said, smiling. “In that case, yes.”
The following week, Felix came for his first orchestral practice. La introduced him to the conductor and to the other flautist, and then went to the back of the hall where she sat during practice. “Just ignore me,” she said, and they usually did. But she watched, and listened, and knew the strengths and weaknesses each player. The bassoonist had a weak sense of timing and occasionally came in too late, or too early, or sometimes not at all. The cellos were good; they never made any mistakes; the brass section had a tendency to be noisy and from time to time had to be asked to keep quiet while the conductor was explaining something to somebody else; one or two of the violins were hesitant in their playing, and the conductor would lean towards them in an exaggerated way, a hand cupped to his ear.
During the break, when the players were milling about at the end of the hall, she saw that Felix was standing by himself, awkwardly alone. She had been talking to one of the brass players, but excused herself and walked over towards her protégé. But jut before she reached him, one of the violinists, a young woman whom she knew very little about – one of the transient, floating population of wartime, went up to him. La stood quite still. She saw this young woman smiling , sharing a joke with him, and the sight filled her with anxiety.
She pretended to be consulting her notebook, but she watched. The young woman had reached forward and laid a hand on his forearm in a gesture of reassurance, it seemed, or in the way in which one will emphasise a point. He was smiling, she noticed, responding to the young woman; smiling and nodding his head.
La turned away. She felt confused. Why should she be jealous of his conversation with this young woman? He was nothing to her, nothing; and yet she had gone to Cambridge to buy him a flute, an expensive present by any standards, and she had found herself strangely excited by the thought of giving the instrument to him. It was as if the gift bound them together in some way, which it should not, because she did not want to be bound to anybody, not now.
At the end of the practice, La busied herself with administrative tasks; consulting the conductor about his diary, noting down dates, handing a musical score to somebody. Then suddenly she was aware that Felix was there, standing close to her, the flute case tucked under his arm. His clothing, she noticed, was poor. He had changed form his working clothes of the practice, but the collar of his shirt was ill-fitting and had been turned, she thought.
He looked at her, his gaze fixed on her, serious, almost reproachful.
“You are cross with me for some reason.” He said. “You pretend not to notice me.”
She looked at him with what was meant to be astonishment. “Of course I’m not cross with you.”
He went on. “It’s because I was talking to that woman, isn’t it?’
La wanted to turn away. By what right does he imagine that I’m interested in him? she asked herself. Then he said: “I was talking about the music we were playing. That’s all.”
She stared at him.
He came to her house. It was in the evening, a few days after the practice at which they had had that unsettling conversation. She was in her sitting room, at the back. There was still the last rays of the sun on the trees and the light had that attenuated, soft quality that one sees, almost feels, on a summer evening. Drowsy; she felt drowsy. The radio was on, with the news from those far places, now so familiar, marked by some on little maps that they kept.
She suddenly became aware that there was somebody in the garden, coming round the side of the house. She heard him first, footfall on the gravel, a crunching sound, and she stopped dozing. Nobody came that way, at least in the evening. Sometimes the butcher’s boy would come round and leave his parcel at the kitchen door if there was no reply to the bell, but otherwise nobody.
In her slightly confused state she thought, this is something to do with what’s happening; this is something to do with the war. But then she thought, that’s ridiculous. She rose to her feet, and heard the footsteps again, closer now. When she saw him, it took a moment for her to recognise who he was, he was so unexpected. Her first thought was: how does he know that this is where I live; she had not told him.
He saw her through the french window and gave a start. Their eyes met, and then he smiled and made a gesture. He was wearing a cap, a grey cap, which he took off. There was something in his hands.
She moved towards the door and opened it to him. The evening air flooded past her, warm on the skin.
“I hope I didn’t frighten you.” His voice was quiet.
“No. Not really. Surprised me, though. The front door …” She trailed off. She saw that what he was carrying in his hand was the flute in its leather case.
“I knocked. But then I heard the radio inside and I knew that you must be in.”
She gestured for him to enter the room, and he did so, wiping his boots on the mat carefully, taking his time. He looked at her with an expression that she did not know how to interpret, although it seemed to her like apology. He handed the flute to her.
“I’ve brought this back,” he said. “I can’t accept it. I can’t take it from you, and I cannot pay for it. I ask you to understand.”
The flute was in her hands now, and she stared down at it, uncertain what to do. Of course he had his pride; that was it – people said that the Poles were proud; she had heard it. And she could understand. When your country was taken over, subjugated, you must have your pride, or small scraps of it.
She thought quickly. She wanted him to have the flute. She wanted him to play in the orchestra. Suddenly that seemed so important.
An idea occurred. He could work in her garden for her. He could earn the flute; it would be a fair exchange.
She became used to seeing him. He would come three days a week, in the evenings, and would set about his work in the garden. He knew what he was doing, she discovered; he knew the botanical names of the plants, which was far more than she did, and he seemed to have an understanding of their needs. He harvested lavender for her, and tied it in bundles, upside down. At the end of the path, where there had been weeds, it was now neat and well-tended. He planted new things, moved others to better spots. “You must be careful of shade,” he said.
Afterwards, when he had finished, she watched him walk down the road, with that halting gait of his, and felt lonely. But I can never allow myself to fall in love with him, she said. I’m finished with that.
The orchestra was going through a period of particular enthusiasm. They were working on a programme for a concert they were going to give in December. It was ambitious, and some of the members found it difficult. La attended every rehearsal, and watched him playing his flute. He smiled at her, almost in conspiracy.
“You get on well with your Polish flautist,” said one of the cellists. “A good discovery, from every point of view.”
La said nothing, but smiled. Orchestras always liked their gossip; people always liked their gossip.
The conductor said to her, privately, at the end of a session: “It was a good idea, La, getting that man along. He has a lovely playing style – have you heard it? The flutes are a joy now.”
She felt proud of her discovery. And when December came, after the concert, which proved so popular that two performances were arranged, she invited Felix back to the house for a meal. He accepted, and they sat in the dining room, Felix somewhat uncomfortable in a suit that she had not seen before, a grey affair with wide lapels.
“When this is all over,” she said, “What are you going to do, Felix? When you have Poland back?”
“If we have Poland back,” he said. “There are many people who might not want that.”
She was silent. “But it’s going our way. It really is. Look at Sicily. Look at Italy.”
He looked thoughtful. “We can play Italian music again,” he said. “And not feel uncomfortable about it.”
She laughed. “I never felt uncomfortable. Mussolini and his gang are usurpers. This is not what Italy is about.”
He smiled. “You are British,” he said. “You believe that everybody is good. I’m Polish. We look at things differently.”
She inclined her head. She was not sure whether he had paid her a compliment, or otherwise. But he had not answered her question, and she posed it again.
He shrugged. “I shall see how things are. I’m comfortable here, in this country. I like not being frightened of people in uniform. I like warm beer that taste like …” He made a face. “I like your little orchestra.”
They knew before it happened. It was clear enough, although there were set-backs, when the allies encountered resistance and things slowed down. But it was obvious now how things were going to end, and people felt a quiet satisfaction, just that; there was no triumphalism – people were too tired, too worn down. But soon it would come to and; the nightmare would be over.
He had long since paid for the flute with his work in the garden, but he insisted on coming still, especially now that it was spring, or almost, and the garden needed a lot of work. La watched him from her sitting room, and took him mugs of tea.
“I’ve been thinking of something,” she said to him one day. “I’ve been thinking of something. Do you think it’s bad luck to plan for something in advance? Before it happens?”
He seemed to read her thoughts. “Like victory?”
“Yes. In particular, a victory concert. It might happen at any time, you see, and the orchestra must be ready.”
He brushed some soil off his fingers and wiped his hands on his trousers. “A very good idea. We should plan it. But I have one request. Can we play something Polish? Please. I know it’s your victory, but for us, too, we have struggled …”
She readily accepted his suggestion. And they started to practise, although nobody said what it was for. They all knew, though, that this concert would be a special one. And when the day came, suddenly, dramatically, they made posters and put them up within hours. The orchestra was ready.
The programme was a long one, because La knew that nobody would want it to end. And in the hall it was packed; people stood at the back, their arms on each others shoulders. They embraced, and at the end instruments were laid down and the members of the orchestra shook hands with each other. They smiled at each other.
He walked back with her to her house. She stopped outside the door. He smiled at her and held out his hand. “You have been so kind to me,” he said.
They shook hands.
“What will happen to the orchestra?” he said. “Now that this … this is all over?”
They had not spoken about this before. She knew, though, that it would be difficult. People would leave, would move on. The orchestra would probably not continue. The conductor was too old now; he would not want to carry on, now that the country was at peace, or almost at peace.
“I’m afraid that it will probably fold up,” she said. “It’s had its day. Sad. But there we are.”
“It could carry on,” he said. “Life will go on.”
She smiled at him. “yes, life will go on. But I have to be realistic about the orchestra. We’ve had a good time. We really have.”
He sighed. “Oh well.” And then he turned and walked down the road. He did not see her expression.
It had been so difficult to travel, but now she could. She decided that she would go down to Cornwall, where her cousin lived. They had not seen one another for some years, and in that time her cousin had married. She wanted to meet the man whom she had only seen in photographs.
She spent three weeks in Cornwall, staying in the house which her cousin and the new husband at the edge of a village. Her cousin grew vegetables and kept hens; she ate large mushroom omelettes for breakfast, making up for the years when it had been difficult to find eggs. In the mornings, when she woke up, the new husband brought a tea tray and put it beside her bed.
“You’re spoiling me,” she said.
“You deserve it,” he replied. “You’ve been working so hard.”
Have I? she asked herself. Hardly; not hard when compared with others, with people on convoys, in the mines, in factories. The cousin’s husband himself was a doctor. He worked in a hospital nearby, and had done so through the war.
“And your orchestra, La?” said her cousin. “Tell us about your orchestra.”
“It does its best,” she said. “Some of the players are very good. Others are, well .. enthusiastic.” She pause. “I think that we probably won’t continue. People are leaving. Giving up. I suppose they’ve had enough.”
The cousin looked sympathetic. “Understandable.”
On the way back, on the train, she found herself thinking of him, of Felix, and looking forward to seeing him again. She had brought some cheese for him from Cornwall, because she knew that he had a weakness for cheese.
She let herself into the house. There was a pile of mail on the floor, and she saw his handwriting on one of the envelopes. She knew immediately what it would say; that it was his goodbye note. She opened it quickly, tearing the top of the cheap notepaper inside. “I have had to go immediately,” he wrote. “There are not many jobs for us now, but I have been given one up in Glasgow. There is a Pole there who has a senior position in a fertiliser firm. He has offered me a job. It’s too good a chance to miss and I have to take it up immediately. So I have left without saying goodbye, in person, without thanking you for everything – for your friendship to a stranger, for the flute, for your orchestra. Yes, thank you for your orchestra. Maybe people don’t say thank you to orchestras, but I do. Thank you.”
She put the note down on a table and walked through to her sitting room. The air was stale; the air of a house that had been closed up. She went to the french window and opened it. She remembered the evening that she had opened it to him and how the air had flowed into the room at that moment, so warm.
She was right about the orchestra. The conductor called off the next rehearsal – he wanted a break, he said, and she understood. Perhaps they would start again in the autumn, or even the winter, he said, but she knew that this would not happen.
She missed him to begin with; she missed the war, in an odd sort of way. It had given her purpose, something to do. Now there was no ambulance to drive and no call for volunteers. Nor was there much work for her to do. She began to help out at a riding stable nearby, although she did not really like horses very much. But it gave her something to do, and she became involved in the affairs of the stable.
She went to concerts, in Cambridge, and sometimes in London. But she did not like the grime of the city, the second-hand feel of the very air, and so the trips to London became fewer and fewer. She looked in the mirror. She was now in her fifties, although she looked less. I could still get married, she thought, but there were no men, and she was not prepared to look for one. I am destined to live my life here, in this quiet corner, not doing anything in particular. If we have a moment in this life, a time when we count for something, it was when I had my orchestra. La’s Orchestra. How many people can claim to have an orchestra named after them? That was an achievement – that was something.
Then, in 1959, she decided to treat herself to the Edinburgh Festival. It was the most glittering of the festivals and she had seen the programme. She splashed out on the best tickets for the big concerts; she booked a room at the North British Hotel, a room with its own bath.
She went to the opening concert in the Usher Hall. She was sitting in the fifth row from the front, among people who were formally dressed; dinner jackets, long dresses. They were elegant people – people from New York, London, Geneva. She felt out of place; she had stayed in rural Suffolk too long. Then, during the interval, she went outside to get some fresh air. And that was when she saw Felix. He was standing under a light on the steps, reading the programme notes.
She wanted to embrace him, but did not. They looked at one another, discreetly, assessing the impact of the years. He looked the same; smarter, of course, but otherwise unchanged.
There was so much to say. He told her that he was in the same job, but more senior. He was a manager now and had a share in the business. He had done well.
“And family?” she asked hesitantly.
“I am divorced,” he said. “Some Catholic, but there you are. She left me. I have a son. He is six. He stays with me.”
“You must come and see me,” she said. “Come down sometime. Bring your little boy.”
He gave her his address and a telephone number.
“And you?’ he said. “Same place? Same house?’
“Yes,’ she said. “The same.”
She had hoped that he would contact her, that he would at least telephone, but he did not. She almost telephoned him on several occasions, but stopped herself. If he had wanted to be in touch, then he would have done so. She should not pester him.
In 1960 she went to Italy for a month. She travelled as far down as Naples, where she was robbed. Everything was stolen; her passport, her money, her camera. She did not feel bitter; in fact, she was surprised how clam she felt. That is because nothing happens in my life, she said to herself. This is the most dramatic thing that has happened in years, and so I don’t really mind it. A friend said: “You’re very philosophical, La. If that happened to me, I’d be incandescent. Incandescent.” La smiled; the word had made her think of Vesuvius.
Then, the following year, something happened. It happened a long way away, across thousand of miles of ocean, but it seemed to La as if it were happening right next door, as if, oddly, it were personal. An American spy plane, cruising high over the Caribbean, photographed a missile installation in Cuba. Suddenly this was in the news; grave words were uttered. She read a leader in a newspaper which said: This is very, very serious. This could be the end.
La read this and thought of what the words the end meant. They meant the end of the trees on her lawn, of her old house, of the lanes that ran into the countryside, of the hedges at their side, of the innocent air, of the high, empty skies of that part of England. It meant the end of the village pub, of the butchers; boy with his bicycle, the end of London, of the radio, of music.
On that first night of the crisis she could not sleep. She lay there in the darkness and looked at the ceiling. It would come quickly, they said. There would only be, what?, a four-minute warning. Four minutes. And what can we do about it? She reflected on the fact that you couldn’t do anything once the build-up started; you couldn’t come face-to-face with the people concerned and say stop, or go down on your bended knees and implore them not to continue. You could not do that, because they were behind doors and walls; they were deep in bunkers, behind concrete, far away. You could not speak to them.
She got up at four in the morning, not having slept at all. She had decided, and the decision survived the turning on of her light. She would hold a peace concert, urgently, in a few days’ time. She would recall her orchestra. She would pay their train fares. She would bring the orchestra together one last time in a concert for peace. And it didn’t matter if nobody heard it or took any notice. It would have happened. They would have done something.
She wasted no time in telephoning the members of the orchestra. Some of them could not be traced, of course; some were dead, or had not been heard of for years. But word got out, and one would telephone another. Slowly the sections came together and agreed; yes, they could come and play in the concert. “It will be pretty much a scratch performance,” said La. “maybe one rehearsal.” Nobody minded that. They would be there.
She telephoned Felix last, because she at least knew exactly how to contact him, and because she had been anxious about it. He was silent for a few moments after she had explained to him what it was about.
“You want me to come, don’t you?’ he said.
“Yes,” she said. “I’m asking you to come.” She felt that it was almost as if she was calling in a favour, but she wanted him there, she particularly wanted him to be there. “Bring your little boy with you,” she said.
“I will,” he said.
They arrived. Old friends caught up with one another. There were exchanges of addresses, which she watched. She thought: if it doesn’t work, if there’s no peace this time, then those addresses will cease to exist; cease to exist. It’s different this time.
They managed one rehearsal, a brief one, and then the concert took place. Word had got round about it, and people came; too many, in fact, with the result that they had to open the doors of the hall and let people listen from outside. La sat at he back of the hall, as she always did, and at her side was Felix’s little boy, now eight. He behaved well, holding a small toy car that he played with discreetly on his knee, driving it up and down. She glanced down at him and smiled. He smiled back.
She had forgotten the various performances of her orchestra and so she couldn’t judge whether it was better now than it had been before, but it sounded beautiful to her, so beautiful, so much what she had wanted it to be. And at the end of the concert, when the last notes had died away, there was utter silence in the hall. Then, one by one, the orchestra stood up, and so did the audience. They stood up in complete silence. Nobody said a word, nobody coughed or shuffled feet; just silence. Then they went out. It seemed that everybody felt that it was wrong to break the moment by applauding, and so there was no clapping. Just silence.
La went outside and looked up at the sky, in which there was still a glimmer of light. The little boy was with her, but she had almost forgotten him. He does not understand, she thought, which was just as well.
She had put Felix and his son in the spare room at he end of the downstairs corridor. When she awoke the next morning and went into the kitchen, she saw that the two of them were already up, and were out in the garden. Felix was showing his son the shrubbery, and this reminded her that he had planted some of those shrubs and that they were still there after all those years.
He wanted to show his son where he had lived, and so he took him off after breakfast, in his car. She stayed behind. She was giving coffe to a number of members of the orchestra who had travelled down of the concert and who would be leaving later that morning.
“Well,” one of them said. “I hope that helps. I doubt it though. Isn’t it awful?”
“Music helps,” she said. “Even if … even if …” But she could not bring herself to finish the sentence.
Then they heard the news. It came on the radio, in the kitchen, and it was shouted out. Somebody said, quite simply, peace. She sat down, because she thought that she would pass out. She held her head in her hands. “Oh,” she said. Just, “Oh.”
She wanted to find Felix immediately, to tell him, but she waited until he came back. Then she went out to the driveway. He saw her through the window of his car and she realised that she must smile or he would think that it was bad news. She smiled. Then, to underline the point, she waved her hands in the air.
He said, “Good news? Is it good news?”
“Yes,’ she said. “Yes.”
He turned round and picked up his young son and kissed him. The boy looked surprised, even embarrassed. Then Felix took her hands in his. He did not kiss her, but squeezed her hands, as if sharing some secret good news.
“Your orchestra, la,’ he said. “Your orchestra saved the world. Again.”
She thought about this later. He had said again, and then she knew what he had meant.
They went inside, where she had made coffee. The last time they had been together there had been no real coffee; now such luxury. And there would still be coffee, and water to make it with, and people to drink it. There might not have been, but now there would be.
“When do you have to leave for Glasgow?’ she asked.
He hesitated, and she realised that there were times when something must be said, something wildly inappropriate, forward really.
“Don’t go,” she said. “Stay. Just stay. We could get the orchestra going again.”
He looked at his son, and then looked back at her. She rose to her feet and picked up the little boy and kissed him.