by Linda Tyler
Once a week Heather ran our community choir in the dusty village hall. For an hour and a half, we sang songs from around the world. Her favourites, perhaps, were those from South Africa calling for freedom, from Russia praising the deity of our choice, from Scotland lamenting brave men dying in battle. She would call our chattering group to order by singing a bar or two of whatever we had been practising the previous week, until gradually we came to attention, joining in and taking our places. The sign for us to end the song was when she raised her arms.
“High waving heather,” my friend the English teacher whispered to me.
I recognised her reference to Emily Bronte’s poem. “I hope we don’t sound like stormy blasts,” I murmured.
A woman of over seventy, Heather’s fashion style was nevertheless on trend. Her boxy jumper and beads were brightly coloured; her slim hips were clad in denim. Her hair, though grey, was worn artfully messy on the crown of her head.
Her only failure of age was that sometimes, as she began to sing a piece well known to the rest of us, she forgot the words or tune. Then she would wave her arms, bringing to a halt those of us who were singing correctly, and say, “No, no. Stop. Listen to me.” And off she would go again while we listened dutifully until she finished, before returning to our original version. Then she would nod, pleased we had grasped it.
After the session, we would all pile into the café next door. Occasionally she would join us, pulling a chair over to our long table and breaking into the lively chatter with some unrelated anecdote.
“When I was at Oxford…”
There would be silence as, mugs held in midair, we waited politely for her to speak.
“When I was at Oxford, Yehudi Menuhin was a customer at my local coffee shop. Then I moved to London and bumped into him again!”
We would glance at each other, uncertain how to respond; some muttered to their neighbour.
Did she really mean she had studied at Oxford, I wondered. Once or twice, perched on the edge of her seat in the cafe, she had mentioned other establishments.
“I was a student of music and art at the Sorbonne. Paris was different in those days.” A faraway look would appear in her eyes.
Presently, after one of these announcements was met with bemused looks, she would rise, assemble a smile and say, “I must check the arrangements for the concert next week.”
With wrinkled fingers covered in rings, she would hand round leaflets advertising the latest entertainment in the village hall.
“The cellist is a young man I met when I was in Spain. He was playing in a little taberna—such a wonderful musician—and I invited him to come over and stay with me.’
“What kind of music does he play?” someone asked.
“Oh, all sorts,” she said, pinning up a loose strand of hair, “but he mainly improvises.”
The others round the table would stifle their laughter, burying their faces in the frothy liquid in their mugs. She never drank coffee with us or stayed long.
Sometimes, when on my way to my afternoon book club or setting out to meet my walking group, I would come across her in the high street. She looked smaller, somehow—lost and insignificant.
“I’ve entered a woodcut in an exhibition,” she would say, or tell me she was arranging to have a piece of her artwork framed. Away from leading the choir, her smile would take on the rigid appearance of a mask.
One day at the end of the singing session she said to us, “I’m having a little party on Saturday. There’ll be food and drink.” She gave her address. “From eight o’clock.”
The others said something about how nice, will try to come if we can get baby-sitters, dog-sitters, husband-sitters, and she said, “Of course. I understand.”
I made some expression of pleasure at the invitation. She said, “Well, you all have the address.”
I nodded. The others had moved away when it occurred to me that there might be a reason for the party. “Is it a special occasion—your birthday, perhaps?’ “
“Yes,” she said. Her voice was thick.
She picked up the sheet music from the top of the piano and tapped it into a neat pile, before pushing the papers into her satchel. Her school bag must have looked like that once, I thought, when she had dreams of an exciting future.
“I’m sure I can come to your party,” I said.
On Saturday evening I drove to her house on the outskirts of the village. The driveway was overgrown and leaves rustled in the wind. Her house was in darkness and for a moment I thought I had come on the wrong day. As I turned off the engine, I was sure my car beams picked out a movement at an upstairs window. I sat for a moment but saw nothing else; I lifted the bottle of wine from the passenger seat and walked to her front door. The sound of the knocker echoed in the night air. It sent a flock of black and white magpies rising from the tall ghostly trees, but it brought no one to the door.
I bent to peer through theletter box. Against the wall stood a table with a telephone; her coat hung on a peg.
“Heather,” I called. “Are you there? Are you okay?”
The only response was the harsh chatter of the magpies.
Gradually the birds quietened again and a heavy melancholy settled back around the darkened house. I waited a while longer, then I got into my car and left.
“You’re back early,” said my husband, looking up from the television.
“It seems the party was cancelled,” I said.
“Strange woman.” He turned back to the screen.
I had an image of Heather as she raised her arms to end our last song and it seemed to me they drooped. And, running through my head, the thought that after all we were the stormy blasts ’neath which she bent.
Linda Tyler was born in London and now lives in a village on the edge of the Scottish Highlands. She has been published by Ouen Press, D C Thomson, Bards and Sages, Riding Light, Alliteration Ink, blink-ink, and Thema. Stories in forthcoming publications include “Grey Wolfe” and “Alban Lake.” A retired lecturer, she now runs self-catering holiday accommodation and is walked daily by her Labrador.