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Open Features: The Recital

In this wonderful story Judith Jacks tells of a concert given by the most famous singer of her age, Clara Butt, in aid of the war wounded.

Judith brilliantly evokes time, place and setting. Here's a story you wont't forget.

‘I never dreamed Mrs Furness would send a Rolls-Royce for me...’

‘Not a Rolls,’ the young chauffeur turned slightly. Gertie could see that he had a war wound: a red weal puckered the side of his face, the edges sticky as though a dressing had been recently removed. ‘This one’s a Crossley. They only send the Rolls out for nobs, not the likes of us.’

He began to laugh, then to cough, thumping at his chest as he drove away from the railway station at Grassington. His young brother was sitting up alongside him operating the handbrake. With his cropped hair and jug ears, he didn’t look old enough to have been a soldier. He tried to speak but his voice gave out.

‘Did you two get a bad cold off of somebody?’ Gertie called out, gripping onto the window strap for dear life. The car had begun to bump along the narrow lane leading to Bolton Abbey. ‘I do hope I won’t come down with anything...’ After two hours on the train she was feeling a bit out of sorts herself.

‘Won’t catch owt off me,’ the chauffeur croaked. ‘It’s not a cold.’

‘Not a cold.’ His brother coughed into his clenched fist. ‘Gas. Ypres.’

‘Blast,’ said the chauffeur. He was hunched over the steering wheel watching out for the two carved posts which marked the turning to Furness Hall. ‘Bloody great blast at Verdun.’

***

The Crossley crunched up the driveway and pulled into the coach yard at the rear of the house. Although Furness Hall was less than a decade old, it had been built with stone salvaged from a ruined manor nearby and was riddled with damp and mould as though the past was contaminating the future. When Gertie had worked there before the war she had to lay a fire in every room, summer or winter. Now, though it was nowhere near dark, electric lights shone out from every window. A dozen men, gardeners, boot boys, general handymen, sat in a row along the stone wall of the kitchen garden drinking tea.

‘C’mon old pals!’ they called out to the brothers, raising their mugs. ‘Char’s hot even if our arses are froze!’

‘Keep it down, lads.’ A sober-faced man in a black apron was waiting at the scullery door carrying an armful of earth-heavy onions like a bouquet.

‘I’m Mr Lister,’ he said to Gertie, ‘and you do just as I say.’ Then he smiled. ‘I’ve heard all about you, Gertie. You’re a good little worker. Make yourself scarce till this Clara Butt arrives. You’ll be busy enough then.’

‘But don’t you stand idle, Tilly,’ he barked at a kitchen maid. ‘Go and get a few more crocks. We’ve a houseful arriving.’

Gertie left them to it and drifted through the steam-filled kitchen. The cook was lining a basin with a poultice of crusts soaked in spoiled milk, tipping in berries, squashing them down with her knuckles till they burst. A pair of hares hung from the rafters, their blood dripping onto the slate floor. She went out into the stable yard where she stood quietly, gazing out over the dales.

The men began to sing It’s a long way to Tipperary.

There was someone else in the yard, a tall man leaning against the outside wall of the pantry. She heard a match strike and flare, then smelled sulphur and tobacco smoke. She went a little closer.

‘Mr Orde!’

He stood up straight, peering at her.

‘It’s Gertie, sir. I was Miss Furness - I mean, Mrs Orde’s maid before she was wed.’

‘The famous Gertie...’ Mr Orde smiled down at her. He was wearing a checked driving cap which he took off and folded and put into his jacket pocket. His hair was blond and sparse; a sandy moustache drooped over his top lip. ‘They rope you in for the Clara Butt shindig?’

‘Mrs Furness has kindly give me a week’s work, sir,’ said Gertie, ‘but today I’m to be lent out to Madam Butt to give her a hand with her dress when she comes.’

He raised his eyebrows.

‘She hasn’t arrived yet, sir. I just come out here for a breather and then I smelled your smoke.’

Mr Orde looked amused. He took out his cigarette case and snapped it open.

‘Do have one.’

‘Really, sir? I’ve never smoked a tab.’

‘Well, have a go.’

Gertie was aware of his flat pale eyes watching her as she fumbled in the silver case. He lit another match and held it steady.

‘That’s the ticket,’ he said, then laughed as she took her first few rapid puffs. ‘You look as if you’re blowing goodbye kisses.’

The men sitting along the wall in the coach yard began to sing again.

Pack up your troubles in your old kitbag
And smile, smile, smile

‘Any sign of Tilly with them cups, Gertie?’ Lister’s voice came at her over the half-door to the kitchen. ‘You’ll need to be getting a move on soon.’

‘I’m on the lookout, Mr Lister,’ she called back.

‘Lister was in charge of scores of men during the war.’

‘You can tell.’

While you’ve a lucifer to light your fag
Smile boys that’s the style

Gertie pecked at her cigarette. It was making her feel a bit faint. Mr Orde frowned out over the Furness estate, a patchwork of sloping fields tacked together by the treacherous Strid. Sheep were everywhere, munching purposefully. Far below, the sleek black shape of a Rolls-Royce left the main road, its canvas roof just visible above the winding stone walls, and began the long climb upwards.

‘How’s your man, Gertie? Thomas, wasn’t it?’

‘Tommo, sir. Tom O’Leary.’

Mr Orde nodded. ‘Tommo.’

The men in the coach yard changed their tune.

Hold your hand out
Naughty boy

There was the sound of a slap and a shout of laughter went up in the kitchen. They heard Lister move swiftly to quell it.

‘ Came home all in one piece, I hope?

‘Not exactly.’ Gertie’s voice was husky, her head down. ‘I should be glad he came home at all.’

‘ But he’s not the man he was.’

‘No.’

‘Head injury?’

‘His back, sir.’ She held up her hand, counting along her fingers. ‘He crushed his 6th, 7th and 8th vortibray. He’s in a veteran’s hospital at the moment getting used to his crutches.’

Mr Orde gave a deep sigh. ‘Active sort of man beforehand, was he?’

‘He was a Bobby, sir! A mounted policeman.’ Her mind was suddenly full of her first sight of Tommo, tall and straight-limbed, riding his horse through the market square. ‘He didn’t have to go, sir. But he said he wanted to be a soldier. Our Pearl was only fifteen days old when he went off.’

Gertie’s cigarette had burned right down, almost scorching her fingers. She threw it on the ground.

‘Ah. You’ve a child. Family much help?’

‘When they can. Pearl’s stopping with them while I’m up here working.’

Mr Orde reached across and patted her shoulder awkwardly.

‘Must all soldier on, Gertie. No consolation to hear, I know, but very few of us returned in the condition we went.’

‘Oh, I hope you weren’t wounded, sir.’

He gave a sad smile. Lister flicked a switch in the pantry behind them and a binding of golden light slanted across Mr Orde’s face. ‘Not in a place you’d see,’ he said, then laughed and shook his head as Gertie looked away flustered. He tapped his forehead. ‘Up here’s where the damage is done. Bad dreams.’

There was a sudden juddering crash from the kitchen and the sound of crockery breaking.

‘I think Tilly’s arrived with the cups.’

Gertie dashed indoors. Lister and the cook were standing hands on hips, watching a few last willow pattern cups slide slowly off the kitchen maid’s tray. There was a rattling thump from the cupboard under the staircase and all the lights went off. When she looked around for Mr Orde, he was gone.

There was an explosion of shouting and sobbing from the kitchen. Someone was crawling about in the electricity cupboard muttering at the row of switches. A hand tapped her sharply on the shoulder.

‘She’s arrived,’ said Mr Lister. There was a sizzling click and the hall chandelier came back on, its lights glinting off his hair, turning it shiny as boot black. ‘They’ve put her in the music room – which is the drawing room to you and me.’
Shadows stood back against the walls as Gertie hurried through the house. The lights flickered on ahead of her, exposing damp stains on the maroon carpet but transforming the brown wall-tiles to cornelian and bloodstone.

Every chair in Furness Hall, old and new, stuffed and carved, was lined up in the drawing room. A scarlet-fringed gypsy shawl had been draped over the piano. A small tubby man in evening dress had lifted its lid and was peering inside, his foot on the damper pedal, his left hand probing and thumping the keyboard. Gertie could hear another man talking in the room somewhere and then alarmingly a noise like a honking goose.

‘That’s just Madam,’ the tubby man whispered reverently, ‘clearing out her tubes.’

‘Are you there?

A statuesque woman, dark curls gathered on top of her head like a warrior’s helmet, came into view. She was shouting, her voice as deep as a man’s, into a telephone and rattling its hook impatiently as if it were a door latch.

‘Dearest Clara!’

Mrs Furness swept into the room carrying two crystal glasses aloft. A garnet necklace spattered the bodice of her burgundy velvet gown like spilled wine. ‘We have all the accoutrements necessary for telephone calls but, alas, we are not yet connected. It appears we are lacking a -?’

She looked enquiringly at Gertie.

‘A – a doodah?'

The enormous woman gave a giant’s fee-fi-fo-fum of a laugh.

‘Now you know why we’re giving Gertie to you,’ said Mrs Furness, handing a glass to the singer. ‘Drink up, darling- it’s a magnificent Nuits-Saint-Georges my husband rolled all the way back in its little barrel from the front lines.’

Mr Lister appeared at her side and murmured something. Mrs Furness gave an exasperated snort and left the room.

Clara Butt spoke. ‘You are called Gertie?’

Gertie nodded, not raising her eyes above the singer’s bosom, which was wide and firmly upholstered in ivory-beaded georgette.

‘Gertie. No, Gur-trrr-ude...’ Madam Butt almost sang the name. Her voice made Gertie quiver as though she was sitting too close to the church organ. ‘Definitely not. I shall call you – Truda.’

Mrs Furness was back. Lister ruddy with embarrassment trailed behind her, a waterfall of silvered silk draped over his outstretched arms. She made shooing gestures towards a curved lacquered screen.

‘Do you see, darling? We’ve made a little dressing-room for you in the alcove.’

Lister and Gertie carried the dress behind the screen and laid it carefully over a chair. They stood looking down at it in amazement.

‘Ye gods, so many sequins!’ Gertie whispered. ‘That was a job and a half for somebody.’

‘It’s the frock she wore for one of her Harrogate sing-songs,’ Lister whispered back. ‘They said she looked like a great glistening haddock.’

Oh, they all look the same in khaki,
They all look the same in uniform

A succession of motor car horns began to sound from the driveway outside of the window, drowning out the men singing and trailing off into the distance like fading bugle calls. Mrs Furness appeared, her hands over her ears.

Dukes’ sons and cooks’ sons
And every mother’s lad
When they all go marching by

‘Lister, our guests are here and there’s a column of motor-cars going right back to the Burnsall bridge. Get Gas and Blast to lead them off somewhere. And tell the others to stop their racket. Madame Butt needs to compose herself.’
Lister left swiftly, swerving as the singer entered her makeshift dressing-room.

‘Go now, Marjorie,’ she said in a commanding voice to Mrs Furness. She turned to Gertie. ‘Truda, you may now help me dress.’

***

‘A singer’s lungs,’ said Clara Butt, taking a deep chest expanding breath, ‘are like bellows. Leave me room to breathe.’ She slapped herself in the midriff. ‘Rock hard, Truda, do you see? Firm foundation for the voice.’ She belched and gave another of her goose-like honks as Gertie laced her up.

She was surprised at the old-fashioned clumpy shoes Madam Butt had brought with her but knelt and raised the silvery fishscale dress out of the way and fastened them up. The singer stamped her feet like a carthorse, almost treading on Gertie’s fingers.

The drawing room was filling up. There was a buzz of voices, the scraping of chairs. A tinkling arpeggio from the piano told them that the accompanist had taken his seat. Madam Butt cleared her throat luxuriantly and spat into her handkerchief, handing it to Gertie. She made a booming sound as though calling down a well.

‘All is as it should be, Truda,’ she said standing up straight. She pressed her joined fists into her ribs, lifting her bosom, and gave one final honk before gliding out of the alcove and over to the piano. Gertie watched her raise her arm regally to the applause of Mrs Furness and her roomful of friends. The arm fell - and all was suddenly quiet. Clara Butt began to sing.

***

Gertie leaned back against the pantry wall gazing out into the dusk as the singer began the piece from Handel’s Messiah which would bring her concert for the war wounded to a close.

And He shall feed His flock
Like a shepherd

Her voice accompanied the retreating sun as it sighed along the rim of Loup Scar and down into the shadowy dale. A few sheep, their coats turned rosy gold in the dying light, raised their heads as if to listen then returned to their unhurried cropping. A shepherd’s lad, shouldering his stick like a rifle, leaped stepping-stones laid like bronze shields across the rill and got his boots wet.

The voice continued, the deepest notes reverberating like a tolling bell.

And he shall gather the lambs with His arm
And carry them in his bosom

The chauffeurs and boot boys and general handymen had left the darkening garden and filed silently into the yard to listen with heads bowed. It seemed that behind each of them stood another, a shadow with its hand upon their shoulder.

Gertie thought about Pearl and about Tommo but then she began to think about the hares bleeding in the kitchen. She wondered if they were the same pair she had watched all one warm evening just before the war as they leapt and boxed in the long grass like joyous brothers refusing to be called in to bed.


© Judith Jacks 2009

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