GOOD ADVICE FROM GRANDMA
The back garden of Nellie Balfour’s home near Falkirk was filled with an assortment of fuchsias. She did not see too well these days, but it still gave her pleasure to walk through the archway of pink briar roses at her back door into the garden to marvel at the mauve, pink and white combinations of fuchsias, planted so lovingly by her late husband, Bob, many years before.
On the spur of the moment, her grand daughter, Marion had asked if she could come up to visit for a few days. She had sounded dejected on the phone. Nellie trusted she was not having problems either at school or in her personal life.
Marion, a lively red-head with accompanying creamy complexion and blue dancing eyes, was twenty-five years old, a music teacher at a school in Belmont, a small town south of London. She relished teaching and was working towards a higher singing diploma to add to her qualifications. She sang in a big choral society in London and had taken several leading parts in productions of the Belmont Operatic and Dramatic Society. Only a fortnight ago Marion had written a joyful letter to tell Nellie she had been chosen to play Phoebe in The Yeomen of the Guard and rehearsals were well under way. What could have gone wrong in such a short time?
Nellie heard the doorbell chime and hastened creakily from the fuchsia garden to the front door. Her grand daughter was standing dejectedly on the doorstep surrounded by suitcases. Far too many suitcases for a short visit, thought Nellie, rather alarmed, as she stretched out her arms in welcome, and Marion rushed into them, resting her head on her grandmother’s ample bosom, before bursting into tears. Nellie remained calm and still, stroking Marion’s thick locks gently.
After a few moments, as Marion became even more agitated, Nellie said, “Come away in, dear. Sit yourself down and I’ll put the kettle on. You can tell me all about it in a minute.”
With tears still falling freely, splattering on her shoes and then to the ground, Marion managed to pick up the suitcases, leaving them near the staircase leading up to the room with the sloping roof, where she had slept as a child on visits to her grandparents. All she wanted now was to go upstairs, hide herself in the small bed under the eaves, and forget the treachery engendered by her fellow human beings – one in particular - in the outside world.
With a cup of hot strong tea and a piece of grandma’s succulent gingerbread, dripping with melting butter, in front of her, Marion wiped her eyes, realising she must look a sorry sight. She had been weeping on and off on the flight to Edinburgh and then on the bus to Falkirk. For the first time in her life, she was completely miserable.
“You remember I wrote to you about our new musical director at the operatic,” she began. “Gregory Sullivan.”
Nellie remembered Marion’s effusive letter praising Gregory Sullivan to the heights. An excellent musician, the musical director at a local church and head of music at a public school, he and the committee had chosen Marion for the part of Phoebe. All the women in the show, including Marion, thought he was charming and handsome. He was in his mid-thirties, a product of a minor public school, with the resulting accent and self-confidence. He had an even temper except when things didn’t go right musically. Then he lost patience and made the offender feel small and stupid.
After a few rehearsals, he asked her to dinner and she was thrilled to be singled out. They had a lot in common and enjoyed their evening together.
Nellie particularly remembered that Marion was flattered when he had kissed her gently on her doorstep at the end of the evening, without trying to pressurise her into anything more, as most of her other dates did as a matter of course. She had gone up to her little apartment feeling on the top of the world, longing to see him again.
Marion seemed to know exactly where to pick up the story to tell her grandmother:
I lay in bed that night thinking about the wonderful evening I had with Greg. He had good manners and we just seemed to feel comfortable with each other, as though we’d known one another for years.
After our initial date, Greg discovered my cosy flat, where he was content to have coffee with me after rehearsals. He would arrange to come round to the flat, but he never singled me out more than any of the others, although we were seeing each other regularly by then.
Once I bumped into him in the wings when it was dark and we were by ourselves. He suddenly took me in his arms and kissed me quite fiercely, and then, just as abruptly, he stopped, when all I wanted was to stay in his arms forever. I was breathless and fired up by his kiss so I felt lost when he pulled away from me.
”Are you ashamed to be seen with me?” I asked, reaching for his hand.
”Not at all,” he replied, ‘But I am the musical director and it won’t do much for my authority if I show you undue attention. You do understand, Marion? Anyway, I’ll see you at your flat later. We’ll have all the time in the world to ourselves then.”
His lips brushed my forehead and he was gone. I felt restless and excited, wanting the rehearsal to end early so that we could spend more time alone together. I hoped we might see each other at the weekends: maybe go to a concert or a play. I suggested this one evening, but he was quite sharp about it.
“No good, Marion. I save the weekends for my mother. She’s not well you see, so I go to her home in Watford. She can’t get out much so my visits mean a lot to her.’’
”I’d be happy to go with you and cheer her up,” I said, without thinking I was being forward. “I usually get on with older people.”
But the minute I spoke, I could see I had gone too far. He was furious that I was trying to muscle in on his private life.
“My mother doesn’t welcome strangers,” he said coldly and left soon afterwards.
Not long after that evening, at a principals’ music rehearsal, I was sitting next to Angus Urquhart, another Scot like me. He’s playing Colonel Fairfax and sings beautifully. He’s a doctor in a practice in the town, after a long stint in the local hospital. He had to choose between music and medicine when he left school. He’s the nearest thing to a pro in our society.
Angus looks like a young Viking and we were all thrilled that night when he stood up to sing his solo, ‘Is life a boon?’ He has a beautiful unforced tenor voice and he’s taking lessons with my teacher, Helen McAlpine. We worked on some of the vocal ensembles and then Greg called a halt to the rehearsal for that night.
”Don’t forget that stage rehearsals start in two weeks time, so get all your songs and your dialogue by memory so that we can do the walk through with the director without scripts and scores holding us back.”
Greg smiled at the groans that greeted his remarks. Learning things by heart takes up a lot of time when you have to do it sandwiched between work and house keeping.
”Do you have a lift home?” Angus asked me, catching my arm as I was walking out of the hall. ”I could drop you off, if you like.”
”You’re very kind, but my car’s outside. I have to rush tonight for I’ve an early start in the morning.”
I smiled at him, anxious to leave as soon as I could, impatient to see Greg.
”Of course. Perhaps we could go out for a meal sometime, Marion? What do you think?”
I couldn’t stand there making small talk with Angus when Greg had already left and was probably at my flat already, annoyed because I wasn’t there yet.
”Lovely. We’ll talk soon. I have to go,” I said, hoping Angus would have forgotten his offer by next rehearsal. He’s a delightful handsome man, but I was besotted with Greg, with eyes for no one else.
My fingers trembled as I turned on the ignition in my little Uno and drove the short distance home. I feel a bit awkward telling you this, Grandma, but after coffee, we always ended up on the sofa kissing, as though we never wanted to let go of each other. You’ll probably think it all wrong, but I didn’t want to stop at kisses. I could never understand why he was always the one to call a halt, when I wanted him to stay with me so badly.
“Can’t you stay the night?” I whispered. “I really want you, Greg.”
Marion blushed, wondering whether her grandmother was disgusted with her being so frank. She knew that, had she told the same tale to her mother, she would already be having a lecture about morality, pride and dignity. That was why she had made the long journey to Scotland, rather than drive the few miles to her family home.
But her grandmother’s face was composed, as she listened closely and compassionately to Marion’s tale. Marion continued:
“Sorry, dear” he said bluffly. “I have a full day of school tomorrow and so have you, but I’ll see you in two weeks, won’t I?”
He wouldn’t budge and I felt sad and shoddy begging him to stay.
Once again, he held me, almost squeezing the breath from my body. “Sleep well, love,” he murmured as he closed my door firmly. I could hear his resolute footsteps on the pebble path on his way to his car.
That night I lay in bed shivering and weeping with frustration. I was mad about him and would have done anything for him, but although he relished our passionate kisses, he had behaved like a skittish girl, driving me to the brink of fulfilment, then saying no.
There were chorus rehearsals for the next few weeks. I didn’t hear from Greg and I wondered whether he’d given me up after my outburst. I thought of phoning him to apologise for being a pain, but he’d think I was being pushy, so I left it. Obviously he didn’t want to take our relationship too fast and I couldn’t press him in case he dumped me, and that I couldn’t bear.
I didn’t see Angus either, which meant I had no need to make up excuses for to avoid going on a date with him. I had a lot to do at school that week for we’re preparing an entertainment for the end of term. By the weekend I was counting the hours till Thursday evening’s rehearsal, when we would have our first walk through on stage with the director, Sabine Hunt. Greg and I could spend time together again. I was missing him terribly.
Greg led Sabine Hunt into the hall on Thursday evening. She was tall, dark and imposing, in her late thirties, with smooth dark hair drawn back in a severe bun. She’s starting to make her name as a professional director, so our society is lucky to have her working with us. I had only seen her once before at the auditions.
The accompanist was there and Greg was conducting us from the bow of the piano, emphasising that we had to keep half an eye on him, despite now having to move and act as well as sing. I start the show, sitting at a spinning wheel. There’s a long introduction to my song, ironically entitled, ‘When maiden loves she sits and sighs…’ Sabine Hunt was on a chair next to Greg. I saw them whispering to one another, his hand on her shoulder, during the introduction. I was jealous and nearly missed my cue, and when he gave it, he avoided looking at me directly.
We went through the rehearsal, marking our moves according to Sabine Hunt’s directions. She was polite, but authoritative. She would be formidable if things went wrong. All the time I was trying to catch Greg’s eye, but it seemed he was avoiding me. Had I disgusted him the last time he had been in the flat? Although he treated me the same as the others, he usually found time to give me that special look, which always turned my nether regions to jelly. I was determined to speak to him. I was past caring what anyone might think.
Doctor Urquhart arrived late. He seemed upset and didn’t sing as well as usual. We were in the wings together waiting for our separate entrances. I took a chance to ask if everything was all right.
”Just a bit of worry over one of my patients,” he whispered. ”I’ll ring the hospital later and see how things are going.”
He looked rather forlorn and suddenly very boyish. I squeezed his hand.
“I hope you have good news,” I whispered. I heard my cue and had to make my entrance hurriedly.
When I arrived in the Blue Room most of the others were drinking coffee or mineral water from the dispenser. Angus stood up and beckoned to me.
”I got you some coffee. I hope it’s what you want.”
I sat down and sipped gratefully. I saw Greg at the next table with Sabine, deep in conversation, so I couldn’t catch his eye, far less go over and speak to him as I had planned. Angus was trying to make conversation, but I hardly listened to what he was saying. All I wanted was to speak to Greg. With a start, I saw him cover Sabine’s hand with his. Was she his new interest? Was he going to spend the rest of the show ignoring me now that he was with Sabine?
After the rehearsal, I hung around at the stage door, praying Greg would come out on his own. Angus left before me. He was the one in a hurry that night.
”I want to phone the hospital so that I can sleep easy tonight,” he said. ”I haven’t forgotten our date, by the way. I’ll have a few days off next week – we’ll talk at the next rehearsal.”
He squeezed my hand briefly. I was surprised he was still thinking of the date after the offhand way I had treated him earlier.
Just then Greg and Sabine emerged at the stage door, he with his arm round her shoulder, not seeming to mind if any of the cast thought he was being too friendly towards her. I was blocking their path, feeling forlorn and awkward so he had no alternative but to stop before me.
”Good evening, Marion’, he said bluffly, nonplussed at my unexpected appearance. “I thought everything went well this evening,” he said with a bland smile, but with no warmth in his brown eyes.
Sabine smiled more effusively than her companion. ”Yes, the show’s going to be great once I’ve put in some hard work, and with Greg as musical director, I have no fears for the music.”
Before I could answer, she turned and smiled archly at Greg. This is it, I thought. I'm being dumped and he doesn't even have the guts to tell me. There was an awkward silence. I was holding them up. Greg could hardly contain his impatience.
Eventually he said, “I don’t know whether you know that Sabine is my wife? She’s been directing a play in London for the past month.”
I could feel my mouth drying and my heart beating in my throat, nearly choking me.
”And it’s just wonderful to be home again,” smiled Sabine, drawing herself closer to Greg.
“Goodnight, Marion – that’s right isn’t it – we’ll meet again on Tuesday.”
I stood aside limply, watching their retreating figures, still arm in arm, Sabine’s head now on Greg’s shoulder. Don’t ask how I got home. Thank goodness, there were no policemen to witness my erratic driving. I wanted to curl up and die, give up my job, definitely leave the show, maybe even move back here and stay with you, Grandma. I took a stiff brandy to settle my stomach and at last, I managed to sleep. I called in sick this morning, when the only thing I could do was to come up here and forget the mess at home. I beg you not to tell Mum and Dad – you can imagine what Mum would say.
If I’d known Greg was married, I wouldn’t have looked at him twice. I loved him, but he’s just made a fool of me, with that silly tale of his sick mother in Watford taking up his weekends. He knew I’d find out eventually so why tell me lies? Now I just feel furious that I’ve been so gullible. I was begging him to go all the way with me. If you’ve got advice, Grandma, I’ll take it. I feel useless and I don’t know what to do. I just want to feel better.
“Come through to the kitchen, dear. You can help me put an omelette together for our supper. You must be famished,” said her grandmother.
Away from the frenetic life she lived in the south of England, the tragedy seemed less intense, even a bit trite, sitting here in her sensible grandmother’s cosy kitchen. They had a light meal and talked of other things, as though Greg Sullivan did not exist – her parents in St Albans, her job at Belmont Junior School, the extra work for the higher singing diploma – anything to avoid the dreaded Greg.
Marion was relieved that Greg and she had not consummated their passion, for passion was all it could have been on his part. He had probably missed Sabine, and was partial to the company and admiration of a pretty young woman, especially when each evening was rounded off with kisses, like sweetmeats after a decent meal.
Marion and Nellie sat in the front room with cups of cocoa. Only then did her grandmother deliver her advice. Marion listened carefully. Eventually she took the suitcases up to the little room with the slanted roof. She slept well and spent the rest of her time with Nellie peacefully, even with moments of contentment. Mentally she rehearsed putting Nellie’s suggestions into practice.
On Monday evening, she attended the rehearsal for The Yeomen as usual. It was a music rehearsal, as Sabine Hunt had returned to London to rectify a dilemma in the play she had recently directed. Marion greeted everyone cheerfully and was glad Angus had saved a place for her. Greg was late, so she chatted to Angus, this time listening closely to what he had to say, even finding it interesting. She discovered that, apart from their love and understanding of music, they had other things in common: an extensive knowledge of the theatre, favourite authors who were not entirely fashionable in present day Britain: Priestley, Tilsley, Maugham, Cronin. Marion was delighted that Angus loved Beverley Nichols’ novel Evensong, the story of a fading prima donna, as much as she did herself. They were united in their dislike for gym workouts. Marion had exercise from ice skating and swimming, while Angus liked cycling on country roads when he could find the time.
“A few of us are going to have a drink at the Queen’s Head after the practice. Would you like to come along?” asked Angus before the rehearsal began. “Just a quick one,” he added when he saw her hesitate. “We’ve all been working so hard we haven’t had a chance to get to know one another.”
She smiled, remembering her grandmother’s advice.
‘I’ll be there. I was up to Scotland visiting my Grandma this past week end, so I’m still recovering from the long trip.”
“Where does she live?” he asked. “I haven’t had a moment to get up to my folks lately. I’m quite often on call at the weekends.”
“She lives near Falkirk, in the same house I remember as a child, where my mother was raised. It did me good to see her again.”
“I’m from Stirling myself,” said Angus. “Maybe we could go up together after the show is over. I could drop you at your Gran’s and go on to my own family. We could maybe meet up while we were there.”
Marion smiled wryly. She hadn’t even been out with Angus in Belmont yet so perhaps he was premature in his plans for Scotland.
Greg came in while she was chatting and she didn’t even notice his arrival. She was glad her trip to her grandmother’s had helped her come to terms with her sadness and hurt. Had she remained in Belmont she would still be devastated.
They managed to get through the entire score without any major disasters. Most of them knew their songs and ensembles now without referring to the score.
At the break, Greg came over to the table in the Blue Room where Marion was drinking coffee with Angus and several other cast members.
“Could I see you for a moment, Marion?” he asked.
He looked serious and commanding. She wondered if her singing had not been up to standard, although she knew he would have bawled her out in front of everyone if she had been bad. He drew her quite roughly by her arm to the door of the Blue Room. She felt self-conscious, still ashamed of her bad judgement.
“Look, Marion, I could see you were shocked to find out that I’m married, but I thought everyone knew. Sabine’s quite famous and we’re often featured in the papers as a couple. I thought you were seeing me with your eyes open. Am I forgiven?”
He looked directly at Marion with contrite brown eyes. Her heart almost melted from the granite state to which it had hardened in the last few days. Then she thought of her grandmother and the advice she had given her. She steeled herself to follow it to the letter.
“I wouldn’t have invited you to my flat for coffee or dined with you if I had known you were married,” she said coldly. “I’m not a woman who messes with someone else’s husband. You even told me outright lies – remember your sick mother in Watford! If there was no secret about your marriage, why tell me a lie about where you spent your weekends?”
“I didn’t mean to upset you, darling,” he wheedled. “Can I come round to the flat tonight and make it up to you? It’s so lovely to relax with you. It isn’t as though I’m betraying Sabine. We haven’t been to bed together, have we? We’re just good friends.”
Marion was beginning to lose her temper. How could she have felt anything for this self-centred man who ignored everything he didn’t want to hear? She was about to give him a mouthful, but once again, she saw her grandmother’s gentle face. If she lost her temper Greg would know he had really hurt her. She paused before speaking, summoning up all her acting ability.
“Sorry, Greg. I’ve made my plans for tonight,” she said casually. “I’d better go. My coffee’s getting cold.”
Outwardly calm, Marion returned to her seat at the table with Angus and the others. She just had time to finish her coffee before she was due back in the rehearsal hall.
“Is there a problem?” Angus asked, putting his hand over hers.
“No problem at all,” smiled Marion as they walked back to the hall, hand in hand.
Jeannie C© 31/7/2011
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