The choir had just finished a run charity events. Mayor’s bash, Freemasons and local posh golf club. Not a strange handshake or short trouser leg in sight. Dyce recalled when they first got those sorts of jobs, back in the days of Dilwyn. The golf club gig had been particularly memorable.
The rehearsal took place one night in the week. Bert had warned the choir to wear smart casual, strictly no jeans. Many of the singers had not been before and were impressed by the clubhouse, an imposing sixteenth century manor house with additions. It came into the hands of the local squire at some time and then he’d passed it on. The Doc said the course was tastefully laid out in two arms with the clubhouse as the torso.
‘You won’t be allowed in the clubhouse. If it rains, it rains. You’ve a reserved area in the car-park.’
Dilwyn, ‘We know what open-air concerts are like. We’ll just have to do our best. Just a word about To Music. It needs to be a touch more sensitive.’
‘Did you hear that, Boyd? Sensitive,’ shouted Rog from the tenors, a cue for some generalised nudging and chuckling.
Only one turned up in jeans, but there was no one important who noticed. Big Clarry came in a Blues Brothers outfit. It rained so the rehearsal finished off in the wood panelled dining room complete with minstrels gallery. Singers were allowed to buy beer from the ‘hatch’ and sandwiches were provided. All a bit of a damp squib, apart from all the notices around the clubhouse, beautifully done in brown italic script on black wood. ‘No golf shoes in here’, ‘Jackets, ties or cravats must be worn in here’ and so on. Didn’t seem to apply to the choir. Dyce had been expecting to be given the once over, but not so. He’d once walked into golf club and met a lady who didn’t say hello, just looked at his shoes. Thankfully he was wearing his cricket boots. He learned later she was the lady captain. Rumour has it the ladies are the worst.
Dyce had to admit some prejudice. In fact, when twenty years old, his attitude to golf clubs defined him and his approach to life. ‘They weren’t to be trusted. Business people with a few bob and a load of privileges. Like Masons, they think they run the job from their self-satisfied smug private clubs and large houses with fancy gardens. Who do they thing they are?’ Dyce recognised himself at that age. No evidence. He was simply repeating what his dad had told him. Still these early seeds get buried deep and he had a vague feeling of discomfort somewhere. Singing to the nobs would be a betrayal.
It rained heavily on the day so Dyce thought no one would turn up. Then the sun came out. As he and the childbride had arranged to make up a picnic party with The Doc, George, Rog and their wives there was no escape. The Doc was also a golf club member, proud of the course, not overbearing about exclusive membership. Speed limit of 20 mph. Directed to the car park. Dyce put his feet in it within minutes of arrival. He recognised someone from his old school walking up the path. They shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. It had been a long time.
It was pretty obvious his old school pal was a club member. He smiled, ‘What are you doing here? Would you like to be put up for membership?’
Dyce saw red. ‘I don’t play golf and no I wouldn’t,’ came the truculent reply.
The guy’s smile vanished, ‘Who invited you?’ he asked.
The Doc ruefully accepted the responsibility ‘We’re here to sing.’ It was a sour beginning and they moved to the bar. Later, Dyce saw one further school acquaintance in the distance, but he remembered him as always being a ponce who’s dad had a bit of brass.
The meal was laid out and a bottle of wine opened just as the first act was warming up. An all-male traditional jazz band of what seemed like sixty year old greybeards wearing gaudy waistcoats played drums, banjo, cornet, clarinet and washboard. Dyce’s attention was taken from the stage when he spotted a bloke he used to work with, a little natty man with a wickedly snotty turn of phrase who richly deserved some of his unsavoury reputation. Dyce was sure he’d cultivated it, as, in quiet times, like most people, he’d been relatively human. Without several pints of beer or glasses of wine, Dyce struggled in these situations. It had happened so many times.
‘How are you?’
‘Fine,’ which, at his age, is often a lie. He told the truth occaisionally, but had to smile to show it wasn’t really true. His teeth were falling out, his joints ached and he wasn’t sleeping.
‘What are you doing now?’
‘Oh, I thought you were retired. Part-time what?’ Always persistent, the questioner went for the kill, like a hound after a fox.
Dyce had several answers prepared all of which made him cringe inside. He knew it was probably harmless social banter, but best avoided. He admitted to writing as a hobby for a while, but kept getting asked how much he’d published. Fed up of saying nothing, he’d given up mentioning it. Although that’s not quite true. He had something in the Dersford dry-stone walling newsheet once.
Dyce and his former colleague subsequently did a series of ritual dances whereby they successfully avoided one another. Maybe he felt the same way too, though Dyce doubted it.
Over the meal Dyce calmed down and watched. The golfers were in two parts. An open air contingent had taken the cheap seats within twenty-five yards of the stage. Dyce’s party were in the space behind them, in front of the rest of the golfers who were camped in thirty or so gazebos erected toward a small rise backed by trees. The eating arrangements varied from put-up tables and chairs with sandwiches, fruit and chocolates to formal dinner on long wooden tables, set with matching selections of plates, cutlery, wine glasses and candelabras. One group even had a butler. The gazebos were first to catch the lengthening evening shadow and the gloom emphasised their superior position and sense of exclusivity. Even within the golf club there would be a hierarchy, thought Dyce, with informal rules and customs that made it clear who was who.
He pointed out a group of picnickers to the childbride. Difficult to imagine, but Dyce and his childbride had sent two of their children to private school. And surprise surprise, picnicking away in the cheap seats, golfers who were also fellow parents. One of them was chairman of The PTA. Dyce had made a small contribution to the life of the school. Once, he’d played in a lurid blue tracksuit at the dads v. boys cricket match. He’d supported the athletics and swimming galas from time to time. Every year, he’d attended the mind-numbing prize giving. But most courageously and on a daily basis he’d fought with other parents to park in the hopelessly inadequate car park. Some of the women stayed there for hours. Beamers, mercs, chelsea tractors. Dyce had long since stopped wondering what they talked about. Stunning some of them, Dyce referred to them as his painted ladies. And there was one right in front of him, next to the mum who used to get her stopwatch out at the swimming gala and give little Jocasta grief if she didn’t break a school record.
Bert was the compere, a golfer who played washboard in the jazz band. He was a decent singer who’d been one of Dyce’s sidemen at the famous audition. He also did the odd solo with the band. The Doc had it on good authority that he was the worst golfer in the club, which was a perverse comfort to Dyce. He got a good reception as compere despite a series of unfunny jokes. Something to do with coming across as refreshingly unimportant, not frightened of laughing at himself.
A dozen of the choir arrived all at once with their ladies and sat with Dyce’s group. The rest came in bunches of twos and threes closer to the time of performance, unaccompanied because of the £10 ticket price. Corkage at £4; if you didn’t a large dark woman from greek mythology got you.
Not even Lady Harrington came. Not real royalty, just acted like it.
A tenor-soprano duet followed the jazz band. Light classical solos to show off and songs from the shows to entertain. Anonymous dinner jacket and eye-catching figure-hugging evening dress with strappy bare shoulders. Easy listening in the evening sunshine. Rog and George smiled a lot.
Whilst there was never much of a queue at the wine gazebo, a constant stream of men returned steadily to their seats with two and three bottles of red. No lurching throng of rugby club and cricket festival at the beer tent. Just he odd jacket and tie clutching a plastic pint to his breast. And Dilwyn.
A big white trailer backed up to the side of the clubhouse. Young men and women, boys, girls, and a man who looked like Father Christmas gathered round as the doors to the trailer were unlocked. Strange black shapes emerged, along with music stands, a xylophone and a set of cymbals. As the black shapes began to unveil their brass contents, Dyce noticed the writing on the side of the trailer – Skeltham Brass Band. Jakefield Male Voice had done several gigs with Skeltham, but not on equal terms. The band were competitive and kept getting promoted whilst the choir, keen and half-decent, were not. The band thought themselves a cut above and hogged the performances, too many numbers that went on too long. The conductor was a short bloke who acted as god’s gift to bands and audiences alike. Too much flannel between numbers, jokes and banter that suited some but not everybody, including the choir who’d christened him Smartalec. Relations were not helped by the recurring Whit Monday bloodbath, otherwise known as the local derby football match between the young psychopaths of Skeltham and Jakefield. General civic pride was at stake and scores were regularly counted and settled. The band had several footballers. The choir had one – Grant, a beautiful bass voice for one so young. A ready smile edged with barbed wire.
For a short time, no more that two hours, five disparate populations coexisted within the same space. The choir, dotted about, came and went from the bar and the toilet, chatting in amiable clumps or sat with their ladies. The brass band disappeared into the clubhouse where they’d been allocated the dining room – the choir’s changing facilities were a squeeze in the men’s locker room. Then the cheap seats and the gazebos. Finally, the jazz ensemble, fanning themselves on seats under an oak tree, faintly amused. All gamely held together by Bert.
The natural break between jazz departing and brass setting up was filled by The Captain’s speech. His voice came and went as the mike kept turning off.
‘What’s he saying?’ asked Big Clarry.
‘Dunno,’ replied Rick, ’Silly old fart.’
‘Can’t keep his finger on the button.’
‘Has he got a tremor?’
Dyce managed to catch a few of The Captain’s thankyous and then it was over. Simple and unpretentious. He and Bert were a sharp contrast to the fluffed-up pouting of the cheap seats and the dark arrogance of the gazebos.
The band opened with Vicar of Dibley. Smartalec then went into his standup routine which depended heavily on audience participation.
‘Did you like that?’
‘Did you like that?’ he repeated in a louder voice.
A slight murmur of assent hovered somewhere.
He tried again, ‘Anyone here know The Dambusters March?’
No reply. He paused, turned the mike off and put it down, swivelled abruptly round, raised his baton and crashed straight into the music. The cornets were nearly taken by surprise. Back view looking stiff and jerky, Dyce guessed Smartalec’s front would be verging on thunder.
The word went round.
‘We’re on now.’
‘Supposed to be quarter to nine?’
‘It’s not half past eight yet.’
Bob looked at the watch on his left wrist, ‘Seven past seven in New York.’
‘There’s fifteen still to come.’
‘Get Dilwyn from the beer tent.’
Bert’s times, so carefully explained at rehearsal, and so painstakingly designed, had gone awry. Men in bowties and sweaters, brown polo shirts and other shades and styles of smart casual slowly detached themselves and formed a muttering disorderly queue at the one entrance to the clubhouse that had been left open. A minute later, in the men’s locker room of clinical pale green washed walls lined by small vertical locked wooden boxes, thirty-five widely differing shapes and sizes jostled in a space that comfortably held ten. Thirty-five smart brown jackets and bowties then emerged in an outside courtyard, forming up in three rows around a murky yellow pool. Dyce was reminded of a fairy story. They may look like swans he thought but thankfully below the waterline they’ll still be sharp and stroppy.
Don was the choir minder. He’d managed everyone successfully to this point, ‘Right, who’ve we got?’
‘Tony’s team are missing. They’ll be at the pub.’
‘Phil and Joe aren’t here. Not like them.’
‘They’ll be aiming for the original time.’
‘Fourteen short,’ said Don. Five minutes to go.
Dilwyn huffed and curled his top lip, ‘Well, we’ll just have to go on.’
Bert looked torn in two, ‘I’ve to do the announcements. Set off when you hear me start. You’ve to go all the way back round the way you came in.’
Phil and Joe appeared already changed. Bert breathed easier and disappeared.
The single file of brown jackets wound through the clubhouse and out the door and in fading light, reassembled in three rows just out of sight of the arena. Cars appeared at the entrance to the drive half a mile away.
‘Here they come.’
‘They’ve seen us.’ Dust clouds rose up behind the lead car.
‘Shocking, exceeding the speed limit,’ observed Bob.
They parked where they could, next to a wall which, Dyce couldn’t help noticing, was adorned by splendid brass plaques.
‘There’ll be trouble,’ said Phil.
Twelve car doors opened. Tony and his team were doing their best – Tony and Boyd were pulling on trousers, Jeremy was fastening shirt buttons, Grant somehow clipped on a bowtie and did a zip at the same time, and others finished off donning jackets and bending over shoe-laces. Sweating a bit, they smiled, as sheepish as if their grannies had caught them with their hands in their pockets. Three rows of brown jackets smiled back. Grateful, if partially-dressed, the latecomers melted into the ranks.
‘We’re off,’ commanded Don, pointing to the first man with a flourish.
‘Boyd, your tie’s not straight. Come ‘ere.’
‘Collar down Jeremy.’
‘Have we done our flies up Baz?’ coughed Bob looking blankly ahead, right index finger pointing at Baz’s crutch.
Dyce was last onto the stage where he stood way out to the right on the back row, head brushing against the underside of the white weatherproof canvas awning.
‘Close up lads,’ said Don and the rows tightened up into three semicircles around the keyboard.
‘Would you put your hands together . . . ‘ Dyce missed the finish of Bert’s introduction when thunder clapped away in the distance. Bert gazed up in thought, shrugged, put the mike down and joined the front row of the baritones.
Apart from two spotlights for the stage, the arena was dark at the end of the first set, – a welsh hymn, a pop song, a negro spiritual and a couple of others from the male voice repertoire. Dyce was no expert and performing out-of-doors was something they were still learning, but the consensus was that it’d been good enough to good. Like the going at Haydock. Dilwyn was certainly benign. The crowd clapped a lot, even the odd whistle. Not sure if it meant anything; vats of red wine had been consumed out there. The singers broke for the beer tent and the brass band returned.
‘Bridge went well,’ said Rick. He grinned, ‘It’s my favourite.’
The baritones all knew Simon and Garfunkel were his favourites as he was forever reminding them. Dyce suspected he’d rather like to be Paul Simon, though he only ever admitted to wanting to be Mike Samm.
Baz minced by with a little brown paper bag held daintily in his left hand.
‘Sandwiches, crisps and an apple.’
Jeremy walked past with one.
‘Where do you get those?’
‘I fancy a bite.’
‘Get me one.’
‘Yeh, me too.’
‘I’ll bring a fistful.’
‘Good lad is Boyd.’
‘That wasn’t what you said Tuesday.’
‘That was Tuesday. I’m warming to him today.’
The band finished Riverdance and moved into on with no padding from Smartalec. Ah, thought Dyce, Smartalec’d cut his standup routine. That would upset him. The band had been miserable enough since they came.
Boyd returned with the promised goody bags. ‘The band are in a miserable mood. Complaining about the weather and turning out on a Sunday with a bunch of pub singers.’
Oh nice, thought Dyce. By the looks of the others, they were in agreement.
‘And guess what?’ said Boyd. ‘I’ve just seen Lyle snogging with the Smartalec’s girlfriend round the back of the clubhouse.’
Dosey beggar, thought Dyce. Lyle was a lady’s man, so no surprise. And he’d started wearing kaftans and sandals recently; maybe she was the reason.
Don somehow got the word about to meet round the corner, ready for their final set. The band was going to stay on stage and the finale was to be joint items, including the golfers.
‘Try not to make a noise between numbers,’ said Don, ‘the microphones are picking up everything, coughing sneezing everything.’ Don looked straight at Boyd, ‘Picked up you asking what the cricket score was.’
Don turned as the band went quiet, ‘We’re on . . . No we’re not.’
‘What’s Smartalec doing?’
‘Oh, for goodness sake. They’re not doing another?’
‘Did anyone get Dilwyn from the beer tent?’
Don pursed his lips and went to check where Dilwyn was. He’d this habit of hiding until the last moment so as to milk the compere’s introduction to the hilt. John the pianist was the same. Don reappeared with Dilwyn, but Dyce could see Don was put out and was Dilwyn a mite unsteady? Drops of rain began to fall.
‘Come on. It’s getting cold out here.’
‘We’re going to get wet.’
‘Not another. They’re really taking the mickey tonight.’
‘Can’t someone have a word in Smartalec’s ear?’
The choir got tight round the piano as the rain rapped on the tarpaulin. Leaves rustled loudly behind the gazebos and the cheap seats unfurled their umbrellas. Dilwyn grabbed the mike before Bert could and looked daggers to his left. Dyce and the rest of the choir couldn’t see the band because of a partition in the awning. ‘Thankyou for that courteous extended programme from the band,’ said Dilwyn, ‘We will continue with American Trilogy.’
‘What? That’s not on the programme.’
‘We haven’t rehearsed that.’
‘What’s Dilwyn up to.’
‘John hasn’t got the music.’
‘There’ll be trouble,’ said Phil.
Grant fell sideways into the partition and crashed into the cornet section of the band – an accident. One of the girls sat heavily on the intruder which to her was just a shape in the white tarpaulin, but was in fact Grant’s head. He untangled himself and was immediately up on his toes looking for a sparring partner. He found one – the left back from Skeltham AFC who played cornet – and threw a right cross. The left back replied with a smack to Grant’s midriff and they squared up, about to go ten rounds when Smartalec grabbed hold of Grant’s arms from behind. Grant arched his neck backwards and butted Smartalec on the bridge of his nose. Smartalec was stunned but quickly regained his senses and kicked Grant on the rump. Not a blow to cause any damage, it was a signal for the bass section to intervene. Whilst they might have been trying to stop the problem the trombones reacted by getting their defense in first. Then it was an ugly brawl in which the battlers struggled to keep their footing and cut the wet grass up into a series of mud slides. One or two onlookers shaped to get involved, but Dyce could see they didn’t know where to start. He turned and looked into the night, wondering what the golfers were thinking. Shaking his head, he looked again but he was right first time – the cheap seats and gazebos were empty. The audience had gone. Lyle and Smartalec were grappling centrestage on the grimy lawn when the storm finally hit. Thunder, lightning, gale force winds and a deluge of stinging rain flapped the awning precariously. It broke its moorings and became a big white sail that whipped the metal frame. Tempers cooled rapidly as valuables had to be rescued – cornets and trombones, keyboards, drums, speakers and microphones. The clubhouse was locked and black so everyone ran for their cars or found shelter where they could. For some reason the spotlights were still on and Dyce, Bob and Phil, who had made it to a gazebo, watched Bert trying in vain to tie down the awning.
‘There really will be trouble now,’ said Phil.
Bob was as bemused as ever, ‘I’ve never seen anything like it.’ They waited until the worst was over and the white weatherproof awning had settled back. It might as well be a shroud, thought Dyce. Big Clarry sauntered across, ’We never did get chance to sing Land of Hope and Glory,’ he said, ‘it’s is how the upper middle classes enjoy themselves – jingoistic piffle’. Evening in tatters and Big Clarry wasn’t going to let the class war die.