Swylce

Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

Excerpt: The School Showcase

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The concert hall was built like an amphitheatre, with raised seating running in a circle from the stage, leaving empty a large space in the centre of the room. The programme said that the walls were cream to give the optimum amount of colour reverberation without the sparseness of white, while the seats were black so each person could better absorb the sound. The programme also told her that Annie’s class had two sets: the opening piece, and another song three-quarters of the way through the three-hour concert, as well as being part of the finale. Bernadette would have no choice but to sit through the entire thing.

‘Ugh,’ came a voice behind her, ‘what awful colour scheme. You’d think a school with this much money could furnish itself better.’

Bernadette agreed, in her heart, but coming from Cherie – and in her best snobbish tone – the complaint irked her. She felt compelled to point out what the programme said, but, as usually happened when she considered making a response, she quickly decided that there was no point and remained silent.

Most of the families there for the concert consisted of mothers and fathers dressed in underwhelmingly smart clothes: shirts and no suits; blazers with t-shirts underneath; simple dresses and skirts. Among them, the older sisters of Annette Croshaw and Belle Montague stood out like black seats in a cream theatre. Bern hadn’t even considered changing from work, so she was still in her basic war-mage uniform: black shirt, black trousers and combat boots, blonde hair in a low bun and combat knife hidden on the back of her belt. Cherie, on the other hand, looked as if she was going to the opera instead of a school show: she wore a light blue dress with a ruffled asymmetrical hem that swept from above one knee to the opposite ankle, covered in multicoloured sequins in the image of a blue bird of paradise. Her black curls were perfectly styled and she had a light dusting of makeup – enough to make her look fresh and beautiful. Many of the people around her stared, with a large number of fathers stopping in their tracks to goggle at her.

Bernadette wished Annie had picked a different best friend, so she wouldn’t have ever had to associate with Cherie. This was the second time they had met, and Cherie had done nothing so far to assuage the negative first impression she had given a few nights ago. She had come to pick up Belle and take her home – ‘I can’t have her walking alone at night in this area,’ she had said – but then chose to ignore her sister and everyone else in favour of talking to Mac. Stupid Mac, Bernadette thought. She had hoped that any rich twit associated with this school would be too arrogant to pay attention to her brother, but his humble handsomeness had caught Cherie immediately, and he – fool that he was – responded to her attention and charm with the grinning shyness that always signalled the beginning of a crush. It was one of the few times when Bernadette was happy that Grenny scolded him as soon as the guests left.

And now she would have to sit with Cherie for three entire hours. She would have preferred field training in the rain to this.

They filed into their seats – near the middle, on the left side – and said nothing to each other for a long time. Bernadette guessed that Cherie was too busy judging her, or the other people around them, to speak.

‘Belle’s been so looking forward to this,’ she finally said, strange wording in her strange accent (not that Bern or any of her family could talk). ‘I hope it all goes well.’

The lights went down and the headmistress of the school, Ms Angeline Roue, came out from behind the curtains to open proceedings. She was middle-aged and not at all good-looking, but her waist-length, pin-straight hair was bright silver and shone like the moon, and even her speaking voice had a clear, lyrical quality to it. Annie had told her family that Ms Angeline was descended from the Queen; Bern was glad that before she opened her mouth, Grenny and Mac had both jumped in and said that that meant little in such a high-born place. The headmistress gave a few brief words about how grateful she was for everyone to be there, and how thankful she was that they had come to see their children’s progress. Of course we would, Bern thought. We’re the ones paying for this, after all.

With that, Ms Angeline disappeared, the curtains flew open, and Bernadette and Cherie sat forward and looked for their sisters. There Annie was, in the second row, near to their side of the hall. They must have adjusted the dye in her hair today at school again – where she had been tangerine this morning, she was now a burnt orange. The boys wore pale yellow shirts and trousers while the girls had pale yellow dresses, with white flowers in their hair. They were all slathered in makeup (what would Grenny say?). More noticeable than any other feature, they wore huge, painful-looking smiles across their cheeks. One girl sang the first tuning note, and then the opening song began.

It began as a quiet, half-sung chant in unison, which vibrated the air across the hall and became more intense as the volume grew. Finally, at the bridge, the class split into four harmonies and blasted out a forceful tune – and the air in front of the stage erupted into overlapping spheres yellow and orange and red, fireworks of colour. The choir quickly sank into the second verse, upbeat and marching, and the colours split into gaseous strips, flitting and melding and dancing with each other, before exploding again at the return of the chorus. The tone suddenly shifted in the middle-eight, into a chilling minor key with a piercing descant – that was Belle on top, it was clearly her – and the colours changed into blues and greens and shrank, before the bridge built, and built, and burst into the final chorus. The colours exploded not just in front of the stage, but in front of the audience: the air before Bernadette’s eyes was now swimming in translucent yellow, orange, scarlet (she half-thought she was going mad). The choir gave a final crescendo up to the final note, held it – the colours in the air grew and shook with the strength of it – and with a final push, the colours burst into nothingness and the singing stopped.

Bernadette felt curiously like she wanted to sneeze – subconsciously thinking that the colours in front of her eyes were made by coloured dust – but everyone else around her, especially Cherie, was clapping madly. She hadn’t heard Annie at all among the meld of voices, but her sister was there, beaming on stage. The curtains closed – Cherie turned to her and said ‘Wasn’t that a good start?’ – and the wonders continued.

Bernadette had heard some Singing, of course – it was one of the foremost treatments of battle fatigue – but she had never heard or seen it as she did that night. Explosions of colour were shown to be elementary, which was why Annie’s class had been able to do it so easily and as a first treat. The singers of the senior years painted entire tableaux with their voices, depicting the tales they sang, and the orchestra which accompanied them added a layer of depth and emotion that Bernadette had never known from the few country and folk songs she had sung with her family. She had never known it could be used as a form of magical kinetics either: two girls brought various objects – balls, streamers, hoops – out with them and moved them only with the power of their voices, bouncing them backwards and forwards and wrapping each other and acting so comically that everyone in the audience was laughing. But the true power of Singing – the manipulation of emotions – was the dominant display that night. The national songs – the only ones that weren’t sung in Anciene and thus the only ones with understandable lyrics – made her swell with pride and fervour; the ballads – of which Annie’s class sung one – filled her with a torque of longing and happiness and sadness. Finally, just before the finale, the hall went black, one circle of light beamed down on the stage, and one girl – from the oldest class, by the look of her – stepped into it. She had long, stylishly cut electric blue hair, and wore a simple white dress with a black border. And when she sang…

Bernadette had never heard any voice so clear, so inspiring, so angelic. It seemed to spin through the air and burrow directly into her heart. The song was simple, a capella, haunting and yet uplifting at the same time. She was technically perfect, hitting every leap and arpeggio with ease, yet her tone was warm and inviting, and even at the very highest notes she was never piercing or strained. Everyone was transfixed as they listened, carried away to another plane of existence as this one woman sang, and so wrapped them in warmth, in love, in pure beauty.

An unexpected motion is what tore Bernadette out of that place. She looked to her side, and saw Cherie moving her hand to her face. She was dabbing away the tears as she looked at this girl, an expression of intense longing on her face. She cried as if she understood something in the song that no-one else – who only heard loveliness – could ever know.

After her final, thrilling note died away, the applause was sudden and rapturous. Nearly everyone was standing and shouting. Bernadette heard someone say that she was the best Singer who had ever lived. Cherie sniffed and stood as well, clapping with a pained smile. Bern’s hands felt like lead as she applauded, not sure what to feel anymore, not sure who she, or Cherie, or anyone was anymore.

A pause as the orchestra reassembled, and then everyone was ready for the finale. The entire school came together; they took up every inch of the stage, a rainbow of hair colours above sea of white (they had all changed during the previous song, it seemed). A girl from Annie’s class began the piece with a solo, and then gradually more and more voices entered, until everyone was singing in a frenetic eight-part harmony. No explosions, no colours, no movement: pure emotion, pure energy, pure joy. Many of the parents stood up and began dancing and clapping and attempting to sing along, and though Bernadette did not stand, she could not prevent herself from smiling, then tapping her foot, then clapping along as the piece grew, expanded, and ended with one final near-cacophonous flourish. There was a beat of dead silence, and then the parents erupted. The ones who had children in the first year – for whom this was their first concert – were near delirious, whereas the other ones – particularly the parents of the seniors – smiled serenely as they clapped and said to each other ‘It was good again this year.’ Bernadette, after the range and rush of feelings, felt dead tired. Ms Angeline gave her thanks and everyone bowed again – the blue-haired girl got a second thunder of applause – and then it was over. She and Cherie filed out and waited outside as the students began spilling from the backstage door.

‘My,’ was all Cherie said at first. After a moment, she turned to Bernadette with a wan smile and added: ‘Listening to Singing does take something from you, doesn’t it?’

Bern nodded but wasn’t able to look her in the eye for more than a second. She felt raw, as if facing anyone right now would make her break to pieces. Luckily, it took a few minutes for the girls to come running out, and when they did Belle ran straight to Cherie and began talking.

‘What did you think? How did we do?’

‘Oh, it was so wonderful!’ Cherie said, giving her a swift hug, considerably cheerier at the sight of her. ‘You were all fantastic! Though,’ she added, licking her finger and rubbing out some of the heavy red eyeshadow off of Belle’s lids, ‘whoever did your makeup should be shot. Did she use a shovel to put this on?’

‘It’s stage-makeup–’

‘Anyway, I loved it,’ Cherie said, straightening. ‘I’m sure I could hear you the whole time as well, Belle.’

‘Did you hear Annie?’

‘No,’ Cherie said with complete ease.

‘See?’ Belle said with an elbow to her friend, who was standing grinning at them all as if she was still in space. ‘I told you no-one would notice your mistake.’

‘What did’ja think?’ Annie said, turning her wide eyes to Bernadette. Bern smiled and ruffled her hair, nearly knocking the flower off with her clumsy hands.

‘It wuz good, girly,’ she said quietly. Annie beamed, knowing how much praise it was to get even one word out of her big sister in such a place.

‘How come you didn’t have that solo in the last piece, Belly?’ Cherie asked. Belle rolled her eyes.

‘Ugh, I wanted to have it – I was going to have it – but Ms Caroline said I was singing flat, so I couldn’t do it. But it’s not my fault, I never sing flat! It must be this hair, it’s resonating me all wrong – I told Ma’m Dru I should have purple instead…’

She scowled the handful of pale pink hair she held.

‘Or, you’re just singing flat,’ Cherie said.

‘Well I wanted Annie to have it anyway,’ Belle said, tugging on her friend’s arm. ‘You’re far better than stupid Clara.’

‘I’m too quiet,’ Annie said, shaking her head.

‘Well, nevertheless it was excellent,’ Cherie said.

‘What did’ja think of Vicoletta?’ Annie said to Bernadette, who didn’t know who she was talking about until Belle laughed and said ‘Annie cried at her!’

‘Anyone with a heart would cry at that,’ Cherie said sharply. ‘She’s amazing.’

‘She came back from Harimville just for the concert,’ Belle said. ‘She’s been doing loads of concerts by herself – she’s going South to Eritramme to work there for a while. Can you imagine working at the halls there?’

‘She’ll probally go all over the world!’ Annie added.

‘Maybe you should get blue hair, Belly,’ Cherie said, taking her sister and turning them away from the hall, starting the walk home. The girls snorted and disputed this, and the talk of the concert continued as they walked.

‘I like your dress,’ Annie said shyly after a while. Cherie gave her a most gracious smile.

‘Why thank you! I wasn’t sure I would still fit into it – I made it a few years ago as one of my first big projects. Tell you what, if you come to the boutique and sing a nice song for me – one of those uplifting ones that’ll stop me from falling asleep – then I’ll make you your own dress.’

Annie gasped, Belle protested – ‘But you’ve got me to Sing to you!’ – and Cherie ignored them both as she looked keenly at Annie’s hair and complexion.

‘I’m thinking…gold. Something shiny – expensive looking, but innocent in style. Would you like that?’

‘Th-that would be amazing!’ Annie gushed. Bern eyed Cherie’s dress – it was easily worth two hundred, maybe four hundred shards. Surely she couldn’t just give that away! But Cherie kept talking about what Annie’s dress would be like, materials and cut and style, and Annie blushed and Belle complained that her sister never made her dresses, and they all carried on as giving away that much skill and money was easily done without a thought. Bernadette was too stunned to take in nearly anything else, until Cherie and Belle had to split off to their home.

‘Say hello to your family for me,’ Cherie said to Annie.

‘You mean Mac,’ Belle said.

‘I mean the family,’ Cherie said firmly, turning her eyes to Bernadette. ‘Thank you for sitting with me, Ms Croshaw. And Annie, I’m sure I’ll see you soon.’

They waved goodbye and turned towards their street, while Bern and Annie had a long way to walk to their part of town. They said nothing for a while.

‘What did you really think of the show?’ Annie said at last, turning her innocent eleven-year-old face towards her big sister. Poor Annie. Always worried over what she was thinking, when really Bern’s opinion wasn’t worth much.

‘I rilly liked it,’ she said, taking her sister’s hand. ‘But I ain’t used to it, and it’s tirin’. Mac can go with ya next time, and see.’

Annie nodded, slightly cheered. She burst into excitement again when they got home, telling Mac and Grenny about everything that was sung and went wrong and how Cherie was going to make her a beautiful dress in gold, just for her. Bern, without a word to interrupt her sister, kissed her granny on the cheek, nodded at her brother, and went straight to bed, where she tossed and turned for some time, trying to get Vicoletta’s beautiful song – and the image of Cherie crying – out of her head.

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Written by G.J.

12/09/2012 at 1:36 pm

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