Read by Carrie Cohen
The Salters arrive as the November evening engulfs the provincial town. They park outside the Victorian civic hall as instructed by the secretary of the local music society. The gothic ornament of the exterior, dark streaked by pollution, is just as the Salters expect, for they have seen many such venues in their years of touring the provinces. The brief period when their names appeared at Covent Garden still warms their hearts. At least, it warms Mr Salter’s heart; he is often heard reminiscing about his ‘Toreador’, a part he took temporarily when the incumbent Escamillo had shingles.
Aged 20, Renée Salter understudied Cio-Cio-San in a major production of Madame Butterfly, and was widely regarded for her rich soprano voice. But her plain looks and pear-shaped silhouette did not equip her for the part of the glamorous heroine, and she had to resign herself to playing the parts of older women long before she became one herself. Maurice Salter, a man of rather blocky build, was once ruddily handsome, but is now merely ruddy. However, Maurice fails to acknowledge his faded glories in his dealings with younger women, often to his wife’s public humiliation.
The dressing room is dank and dim, but it is a designated dressing room and not a janitor’s cupboard or backstage toilet. Renée sits before the illuminated mirror to do her make-up. Half of the bulbs are broken and the glass is foxed. It seems an apt metaphor for the pair of them. Maurice takes a swig from his pre-performance tipple. Renée dabs concealer around her tired eyes.
They are to meet the mayor for a reception before the performance. Renée wears a once-expensive gold evening gown, cut low over her meagre bosom. The effect, with a tiara and diamanté necklace, is of an antique perfume bottle. She has mended the seams of the dress and of her husband’s evening jacket more than once. She hopes the lighting will be subdued and that Maurice will not drink too much. Renée seldom partakes of more than diluted fruit juice before a performance, and eats nothing.
Renée has seen a picture of the young soprano. She is all a twenty year old should be, lush-skinned with long, glossy hair and a cleavage to get lost in. No doubt she can outmatch Renée in sheer lung power. But the local audience will not be capable of distinguishing Renée’s technical superiority from the youngster’s athletic gust. Moreover, she knows that Maurice will humiliate her again. More than once she has considered leaving him, but the future for her, alone, descending into retirement and old age is more bleak than she cares to contemplate. But tonight she will sing Cio-Cio-San’s aria ‘One Beautiful Day’. Cio-Cio-San, of course, was little more than a child when she married the faithless Pinkerton in the story, even younger than the young soprano.
The mayor’s party is the usual blend of provincial social gamesmanship, lubricated with cheap wine and fortified by savoury nibbles served on paper plates. Maurice is soon up to his ruddy nose in alcohol and attempting to bury it in the well-exposed cleavage of the girl. A drove of paunchy middle-aged men snuffles around her like a herd of pigs at a trough. And the silly girl seems to be enjoying the flattery.
Renée is surrounded by the polyester-frocked ladies of the assorted local musical societies and feels, in her gold dress, like a battered museum specimen of exotic butterfly accidentally placed amongst the common or garden. As usual, she eats nothing, and drinks only mineral water, forgetting the missed lunch in the misery of the gathering. Not even the elderly men of the parish try to flirt with her these days. She has passed from vague allure to vaguely invisible as she approaches sixty. With this miserable thought, she faints.
The consequence is that she is told by a retired doctor to ‘have a lie down’ whilst the inebriated Maurice gets to sing duets with the plush soprano young enough to be his granddaughter. In the dismal dressing room she tries to make herself comfortable on a bony chaise, and is given a cup of tea and some left over nibbles by the pearl-buttoned woman assigned as her ‘minder’, who readily abandons her on Renée’s assurance that she will be perfectly fine. The tea is already cold, and she has no appetite for the orange furry cheese things or the miserly pretzels. She should cry, but tears elude her.
In the stage mirror her face is shadowed, but there is no hiding her age, nor indeed her plain looks. She would have gone into teaching had not Maurice convinced her that they were destined to bring opera to the provinces and that one day they would have their own television show. She realises now that he had been jealous of her accomplishment, not wanting her to outshine him, even as the plain pear-shaped older woman. Her voice had sold the tickets.
Through the door she hears blurts of sound – Maurice’s rough bassoon and the bright flute of the girl. She imagines him, in his shiny evening suit and the garish red bow-tie he had insisted upon wearing as an eager but aged cockerel in the company of a new hen. The jabbing piano sends darts of sound through her head.
Taking her coat and evening bag, Renée slips out of the back door of the hall into the drizzle of the street. She pauses at one of the posters. The photographs they used are old. It is a long time since they had professional ones taken. The girl’s picture is clearly an amateur attempt, but she looks fresh and new, whereas she and Maurice are faded and outdated. Renée sees they missed one of the ‘e’s in her name. She has become ‘Rene’, unaccented.
She finds the high street full of youngsters doing the pubs and clubs, the young women dressed skimpily with no coats wearing platform shoes, teetering like Japanese Geisha in Geta sandals.
Renée attracts glances with her gold evening gown, which swirls out from beneath her everyday coat. Some of the men comment, but good naturedly, they are not yet drunk. One of them recognises her from the poster. The drizzle will have made her make-up run and her hair frizzy. However, just being outside that grim hall and the burden of the lacklustre evening gives her energy.
At the entrance to the pedestrianised high street is a memorial of some kind, with steps leading to a modest monument with a canopied top. She climbs to the plinth and takes a throat pastille from her bag and assesses the location. She does some vocal exercises, judging the acoustics of the place. The canopy acts to focus the sound, allowing her voice to soar over the background sounds of traffic into the confined shopping street. Raindrops catch the light like sparks, but it is surprisingly mild for a night in November. A small audience gathers as she removes her coat. Renée welcomes them. She bows. She gives them some easy ballads to warm up her vocal chords. The crowd claps in approval. Her audience grows.
Renée delivers some Gilbert and Sullivan and some songs from West End musicals. Her audience claps and cheers. Renée can see their hopeful faces uplifted; full of anticipation. She moves on to Carmen’s habanera, a song of the vicissitudes of love, a song that she has long become inured to as far as any personal vicissitudes are concerned. By now, the rain has stopped. Even the background traffic noise seems muted. Her voice surrounds them all like a cocoon. They are part of the song. She flirts with them, and they respond, animated.
A young man pulls a red rose from a bunch he has tucked into a supermarket carrier bag. Renée blows him a kiss. An encore is demanded. She bows, raises her finger to her lips and smiles demurely. She transforms before them from the defiant, flirtatious Carmen to the poignant Cio-Cio-San, anticipating the return of her husband in the aria One Beautiful Day. The audience is stunned, then bursts into applause. She is received into the arms of the crowd, who walk with her back to the Civic Hall, buying her fish and chips on the way.
By the time Maurice staggers to the dressing room, his red bow-tie crooked, his nose ruddier and shiner, his ears ringing to the shrill notes of the young soprano, Renée is sound asleep in her damp evening gown. She is clutching the broken stem of a rose and smiling.
(c) Elizabeth Stott, 2016
Elizabeth Stott started her career as a scientist in industry, before turning to writing in mid-life. Her short stories and poems have appeared in various magazines and anthologies, and as a short story collection, Familiar Possessions. She is working on a further collection of stories and a novel.
Carrie Cohen: Recent theatre: Mrs Tarleton in Shaw’s Misalliance (Tabard), Hetty in Gelt (Etcetera) and Myfanwy in Hula Hoops Were My Downfall (The Space). Film: Grace in Mouthplay (Tabard) scheduled to shoot in January. TV: Hilda in Dara O'Briain's In Case You Missed It. Full CV, show & voice reels at www.CarrieCohen.co.uk