Breakfast With Dame Janet

(This story has been offered to a number of journals and rejected. It is posted here as I, perhaps wilfully, wish it to have one more chance. But that could be unwise. In any case, here it is.)

It was warm. That was how she knew that day was waiting for her. Light couldn’t penetrate the room because she wouldn’t let it in unauthorised. The room was a void, with light and sound absent, and that was the way she liked it. She had the power to decide these things, and as far as she was concerned it was not quite daytime yet.

Travelling meant late nights and strange hours, and it also meant keeping your own timetable. Dark muffled noises could be heard down on the street, made by those for whom the day had begun some time ago. It was becoming warmer now: too warm to keep your doona over your head. And so she emerged slowly from the Sheridan cocoon, with eyes still shut tight behind a sleep mask that she had bought from the sleepwear counter in Macy’s New York. Still her eyes were sensitive, reluctant, unyielding.

Her skin felt cold. But it wasn’t cold. It was the absence of warmth. The slow process of becoming awake had begun and there was no turning back. At this point she always took decisive action: whipping off the mask and placing it with her glass of water and her pills next to the lamp on her bedside table. It was better to be quick about it, like taking off a Band Aid. Squinting now and sitting on the edge of her bed, feet dangling, she peered into the shadows enshrouding the room.

It wasn’t so bad being awake, she thought. She could do it. Face the day. And then the listlessness came again, and she was reminded that jetlag affects people unequally. That it plays cruel games with the sensitive and creative and vulnerable. That it could take her weeks to feel right again, and she rarely had weeks to adjust. She often had to sing when it felt like there was jelly in her veins. It was part of the job – the hard part – but it made the beautiful music you produced so much more handsome.

Being a singer was what she had wanted to do since an age before counting. Her mother had wanted her to be a singer – they agreed on this, as on much else then – but by the time her voice matured they were beginning to want different things. They still agreed on the singing, they would always have that, because singing was the most important thing, the best thing, the only thing, and to be a singer was something very rare and fine and noble. She believed this, and she knew she was lucky and she knew that it had nothing to do with luck: nothing at all.

Her mother used to say, “Do justice to your gift. Be passionate. Always serve the music, Ophelia.” And Ophelia never forgot this and she always gave everything.

Music wafted through the apartment like perfume, filling the spaces, finding its way to the farthest corners. It was jazz, Dave Brubeck, which she listened to at home because to listen to Schubert would have seemed too much like work. There were many speakers, so the music was never loud, but it surrounded and pervaded her as she sat at the butcher’s table she found at the local antiques market and ate her breakfast. Breakfast consisted of a bowl of sensible cereal with full cream milk (as a treat), but not too much, and two bananas for energy.

Ophelia listened and ate and looked up at her collection of cat cartoons, framed and hanging from the walls of her dining room. And the picture of Dame Janet Baker stared down into the room, judging her and everything else in it, and she suppressed a minor smirk as she peeled the first banana and ate it in small pieces from the tip all the way to the end of the shaft. She thought “shaft”, and smirked again. It was childish, and she wondered if Dame Janet would be critical of her. But there were so many things she could be judged for – legitimate, real things, important things about singing – and with that thought she wasn’t smirking any more.

Singing was serious, and it had always been serious. When Ophelia was at school she was never allowed to sing. Not in the choir or in the musical and not in any other school activities. She sang for her singing teacher, in her lessons, and she sang for her mother when she practiced at home, although these overheard concerts were really just her mother lingering in doorways to listen. The woman had given her so much – discovered her gift, been her first teacher, nurtured her talent and her fragile vocal chords – but she became just another spectator. Her mum could hear less through closed doors, and Ophelia would make sure they were closed.

Part of Opehlia’s mum wanted to be in control and parted of her wanted to be Ophelia’s best friend, which seemed strange because she wouldn’t let her have a cat. A cat was the one thing Ophelia ever wanted, but her mum said that cats shed hair, and she was probably allergic to animal hair, as sensitive people often are. Family friends said the two were like sisters, because they shopped for clothes together and behaved like friends, and the men who said this had pursued Ophelia’s mum when she was a talented girl soprano herself, and they revived their pursuit when Ophelia’s dad left to live with his new family at the university in Bologna.

Actually her mother was beautiful. There was a picture of her on the bookshelf in the lounge room – she was nineteen and standing on stage at the opera house, holding a gigantic bunch of flowers and serenely accepting applause. Ophelia loved that picture. She desperately wanted to be radiant, but instead she was neat and presentable. Everything was in the right place, which made her attractive, but it was a conventional look, and she knew it. She was not compelling and romantic and her eyes were not black and fiery and she did not have dark flowing hair. Instead she was merely pretty. Envy moved between the woman and her daughter, in both directions, binding them together.

And they were friends when Ophelia was at school, in the years when it would have been better to have a mother than a friend, and Ophelia’s mum was proud that they were friends still. It was an unbalanced friendship though, where all the fabulous news about glittering occasions and gorgeous shimmering people is on one side, and on the other there is no news at all.

Anonymous uncles often appeared in the lounge room during Ophelia’s girlhood, hanging on her mother’s every word. They would play opera records and sing and dance. She was a charismatic woman when the bottles had been uncorked and the glasses filled. She could make a dressing gown seem mysterious. The men didn’t notice Ophelia, which made her glad – until she wanted attention, and she always wanted attention eventually. Then she was curious about how to attract admirers. This was a new thing and she didn’t know how to practice for it. Her mum became her teacher again.

As a student with special talent Ophelia mixed in strange circles. Her friends were not drawn from the musical groupings at school – she hardly knew the music teachers and spent little time in the theory classes and was not involved at all in the choirs and orchestras and other performing groups.

Private lessons accounted for most of her free time, meaning that Ophelia couldn’t do extra school activities, with the exception of a brief dalliance with the debating team. There she proved herself capable of original argument, and there she made the acquaintance of a girl named Molly, who was said to be a lesbian by people who didn’t know her, because she didn’t know how her hair was supposed to look and wouldn’t have cared if she had known. Molly was attracted by Ophelia’s fast and witty mind, calling her an “intellectual mutineer” and telling her that she was too good for the vacuous groups she drifted through at school. Their chats in the back row of French were lively, and these continued after Ophelia was sent home from the Year 11 debating camp for being caught in a compromising situation with the second speaker from a boys’ team. His parents said their son wasn’t that kind of boy, which amused Ophelia as he had told her he only did debating to meet girls.

“Of course,” she said to him. “Any debater who says otherwise is a fraud.”

But there was always singing, and singing provided an excellent excuse if she chose not to attend a certain class or to leave early or if she should end up in a place where she wasn’t supposed to be. And that meant that she was a natural fit for a group of rebellious girls who did what they liked and were constantly in trouble for smoking and failing to show up to softball, and were then bailed out by their honey-tongued parents, assuring the principal that their daughter had already turned over a new leaf and would make the school proud when she did her Year 12 exams.

These girls were a tight group and they knew some students from the neighbouring private boys’ school, Finchurst. The boys they knew were similarly rebellious, but boys and girls are different and the boys never seemed to be in such dire trouble as the girls were, and they all laughed about this fact when they met on the dark side of the public toilets in the park where the buses left after school, and smoked and talked and stood around assessing each other. An observer might have concluded that the two groups kept to themselves, but in fact rather subtle judgements were being made. The girls congratulated themselves that they knew some really hot guys who were in the football team, while the boys thought themselves fortunate to know a small pool of young women who were willing and compliant.

The boys thought Ophelia was a “top chick”. She loved a beer, and the boys thought that was very good indeed. She was good looking, with the figure of a woman when she was only sixteen, and she didn’t smoke, something to do with her singing, which none of the boys ever asked about, because they didn’t care or it didn’t occur to them to ask. But that made her more interesting, as she wasn’t trying hard to fit in. The boys wanted their girlfriends to look and behave a certain way, but they didn’t want them to try too hard – that certainly wasn’t cool – and Ophelia, or Fifi as they called her, was cool. She liked a filthy joke and would drink at parties and had an earthy, seductive laugh and an awesome rack. She also said she liked football.

Entry into the company of these young men with floppy hair and flapping shirt tails conferred a status, which would be taken away if you fell out with the other girls, or with a key member of the congregation – someone like Georgia Penrose, whose dad was an accountant and whose mum had a beautiful Burmese and was the daughter of a supreme court judge. Georgia was a smart girl who devoted herself to lip gloss and nail polish after boys discovered her skin was smooth and tanned and her rack was awesome on about her fifteenth birthday. Since then she had worn her skirt shorter and allowed her hair to fall about her shoulders in dusty blonde ringlets and spent the minimum possible time on her school work. Good education genes were still getting Georgia through, even if the teachers realised her results had begun to slide. She did what she wanted to do, and what she wanted to do was hang out with cool boys.

Meanwhile as far as the footy guys were concerned their female companions were all pretty much interchangeable, in a lazy hazy sort of way, dimly apparent in their own minds, which really means that they didn’t think much about the subject and certainly didn’t worry about it. They were assured of their status as members of the footy team, and they would have been perfectly happy with the company of other boys, for the most part, if there was enough beer.

Ophelia upset several complex social structures the day she was irrevocably cut from the group for being seen to kiss Adam Fraser: she remained friends with Adam, and most of the footy guys, even though she was on the permanent outer with the girls for stealing away Georgia Penrose’s boyfriend.

It was silly, and Ophelia knew it was silly, and she didn’t care about being ostracised. What she cared about was not being able to play with Georgia’s mum’s Burmese Harry. Being separated from the other kids her whole life meant that she had a genuine ability to take or leave acquaintances with a certain resigned equanimity or just a shrug. Lieder and arias and scales were more important and the advice of her teacher and even her mum was more important than the opinions of fatuous teenagers, even when she was herself a fatuous teenager. When Ophelia grew older she realised that friendships did not come easy. Making friends was not a skill she had ever needed and she had certainly not practised it enough. Other things took priority, as they always had.

Romance was even harder. Champagne for two on a beach at sunrise was one of many unfulfilled fantasies. She loved the idea of the thoughtful surprise – the pillow fluffed up just the way you like it, flowers for no reason at all or a foot rub – but life was routine and surprises for her took the form of immigration complications at airports or receiving unwelcome letters from taxation authorities.

This didn’t rule out love, of course. Many of those who travel are looking for love. But this kind of love is the vapid and brutal kind, brief and purely physical. Ophelia would not be governed by these nasty rituals, and told her mother she was looking for the right man. Still looking, getting closer, culling the candidates and approaching the inevitable answer to the challenge which her mother had unknowingly set all those years ago. For a little while Ophelia thought Adam was the one, and her mum encouraged her to think that. She said an artist’s life is about passion, and she should be passionate about other things than singing. But it wasn’t real. They were both children. It couldn’t be real, even if Adam’s dad was in construction and a fantasy life seemed to be opening up before her in the months after school finished, while she was waiting to be accepted by the Conservatorium. It wasn’t love. It was playing at love, without risk, without attempting to truly lose yourself and serve the other person. Although Ophelia knew now about losing yourself she had never done it because there had never been anyone willing to lose himself in her.

Auditions were all she had known, in the absence of the perfect thing she was searching for. There was always singing, though, and there always would be. Her affection was given to music. It was a substitute because she needed a substitute.

Dame Janet continued her steady gaze. It was 5pm and Ophelia was in her red pyjamas and it felt right because she decided it was still breakfast time. And the music played, and the banana skins lay on the small plate she had placed on the table from the antiques market, and the cats played with balls of wool and romped in and out of boxes in the pictures along the walls, and she felt healthy and thought about performing on the weekend. She had two nights off, which was a wonderful treat, and her one good friend Molly was coming over soon to catch up and Ophelia would tell her about all the men who had recently broken her heart, and they would drink vodka, but not too much, and eat pizza from the gourmet place on the corner, as Ophelia didn’t cook and didn’t really have a proper kitchen anyway.

The clock ticked antiquely on the mantelpiece and Ophelia heard her heart beat and marvelled at the body being an engine which produces beautiful sound if you treat it right. It felt good to be home, lingering over breakfast. It felt good to feel good. Daily she reminded herself what a sin it was to get sick – a professional and moral sin for someone in her position. She had got a cold on her first trip to Budapest, and never forgave herself for losing what would have been her first contract that day.

At the Conservatorium they were all careful about germs and microbes and drinking tea with lemon and taking Vitamin C and Echinacea, because they were competitive. It was a competitive group of individuals, playing a serious game where you win because the next player loses. Already the students were splitting off and becoming isolated from each other by this time, and those who did well, the success stories who went on to careers in music, were forced to hunt alone, which suited Ophelia, because she had been trained to live that way.

Male music students devoted huge amounts of energy to having sex with as many of their classmates as they could. They talked about art and feelings and spiritual connections but these young men were interested in having a good time and telling their mates about it just as much as the boys she had known at school. They drank red wine, not beer, but that was the main difference. Ophelia wondered if there was more to men than that. There had to be. If Schubert could write the Winterreise then there must be purity in all things. In looking for a man, her task was to find a measure of purity sufficient to resonate with her own. This reasoning became for her an article of faith.

It became a quest. As success touched her career, she set up small homes in Europe and Asia and North America, and she became more alone. There were singers, of course, but they travelled as she did, and they were so self-absorbed. She was as inspired by their commitment to art as she was repelled by their vanity. Intimacy with baritones and tenors reminded her that her ego was both large and fragile, and she really wanted a simpler, more grounded partner. When her mum asked after her romantic life Ophelia gave a detailed account of what had happened recently. There was always news. Names and dates and places changed, but the stories were much the same – it was never satisfactory and always fell short of being real, true passion.

At last count, seven men had proposed to her. There had been a pilot, an academic, a diplomat, and a professional hockey player who had studied poetry at college and thought Ophelia conformed to his ideal of beauty. The others had been singers. All thought she was a jewel and wished to put her with their collections, and she thought their ardour was sweet but essentially juvenile, and she was after more.

A conductor from Argentina had been in her life for a tempestuous few months at one point. He was older, which was fine, and they instinctively understood each other, but when they clashed, which became often, it was volcanic. He didn’t propose to her. He had never married and she understood why. The experience made her wonder if she ever would.

But she told her mum there would be time for that. There was no hurry, if you wanted to get it right. There was room for passion and there always would be, and she could have told the same thing to the unruly-haired woman on her doorstep holding a sleek grey feline in his travelling box and pressing the front door bell repeatedly. The last warm glow of the evening filled the porch with mellow light, rendering a kind of soft focus halo around the apparition of the strange woman and her cat.

“Sorry I’m early,” said Molly when the door was opened to her. “I’ve just been at the vet with Algy. He has a cold, the poor little man. I couldn’t leave him at home on his own so I brought him too. I hope that’s alright.” The animal’s eyes were half-closed with muck and it sneezed with gusto.

When Molly asked, “Can we come in?” her friend was forced to stand there for some time in her silk pyjamas and choose her words very carefully.

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Published in: on March 22, 2016 at 6:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

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