Christmas Story

Wally Herbert, on his way to the Stonemason's Arms, came to a standstill outside the village hall and listened. It was a long time since he had heard music in the village. Once, long ago, he and Elsie had sung with the church choir, back in the days when old Oliver Barton had led them, before the choir collapsed.

But this was not the church choir resurrected. For one thing there were many more voices, and for another they could tell one note from another. And they had music, too. He could hear the tinkling of a piano. This was real music.

Somewhat unwillingly he moved towards the door, stepped inside, and peeped round the doors into the main hall. There were some thirty people inside, plus Harold Mason conducting, and his son, Richard, accompanying on the piano. There were also three or four people sitting and listening. The choir was singing 'Gaudete', one of Wally's favourite Christmas songs, and making a good job of it.

He listened through the song, then turned to leave. One of the choir had seen him, but Wally ignored him and went on his way to his evening pint.


*****


Back in the room Charlie Fletcher was speaking.

"Did you see who it was? Wally Herbert no less. I wonder what he thought of it all."

"Can he sing?" asked Mildred Hawkins, a relative newcomer to the village.

"He used to sing in the old choir," said Harold. "Rich bass voice. Did solos of 'The Volga Boatmen' and some other numbers."

"Should we ask if he'd like to start again?" Mildred asked. "We could use another male voice."

"I doubt he'd be interested. He's getting on, and perhaps doesn't have the voice he once had. And he's more or less dropped out of village life since his wife, Elsie, died a few years ago. A few," he added reflectively. "It's probably over ten years now."

"What's his name again?" she pressed.

"Wally Herbert. Now, everyone, settle down. Let's try 'In the Deep Midwinter'. The tenors were a bit late coming in when we sang that last time."

He lifted his hands, and the choir their voices, which sailed out over the darkness of the village green.


*****


Mildred Hawkins cut up the thin bit of crust which was all that was left of her last loaf. She scooped the little cubes of bread into her hand and went to the door, where she threw them out for the birds. Almost before she had turned to go in a robin and a nuthatch were squabbling over them and she went to the window to watch them.

Wally Herbert, she thought, and decided that he must be a priority for today. When breakfast was completely cleared away, she left The Grange, the rambling old house she had bought when she had moved to Stoke Fercroft some three years earlier, and headed for the general store and post office run by Evelyn Norris. Evelyn would know all about Wally Herbert, she thought.

And Evelyn did know quite a lot about Wally, and she had the good fortune that the village gossip, old Ameline Evans came in whilst she was in the shop, and could add some details to the story of Wally Herbert. She learnt that he was a carpenter, now retired, and living alone in the house where he and his wife had lived since their marriage; where they had brought up their two sons, now living far away and seldom seen in the village, both married and with their own families. His wife had died at the young age of fifty three, and he had taken it hard. He had continued working, but a spark seemed to have been extinguished.

Although a carpenter, used to the woodwork of buildings, he had had a skill and enthusiasm which had made him a skilful creator of furniture, at least for his own use, and that of his family and friends, but all that had stopped, and it seemed almost with relief that he had turned sixty, and finally retired.

When Ameline had left Mildred had asked Evelyn where he lived, and had gone over directly.

Wally had just made himself a cup of tea, and was plucking a few biscuits from the tin box when there was a knock at the door.

“Mr Herbert isn’t it? I wonder if I can have a quick word.”

Wally Herbert stared at the stranger before him. Well, not stranger exactly. He’d seen her around the village, but never spoken to her. He knew she lived at that big old barn of a place the locals called The Grange, although it was rumoured that she only used a few of the rooms. She looked like she bought her clothes at the jumble sale and her hair - well the best you could say would be that no self-respecting robin would fancy it for a nest.

Since he had said nothing whilst these thoughts were going through his mind, she filled the silence that had fallen between them.

"I'll only take a few moments."

Wally sighed audibly. If he invited her in, she’d be wanting a cup of tea, but he didn’t see any way of avoiding it now.

“Well, you’d better come in I suppose.”

“Oh thank you, Mr Herbert. I won’t take much of your time.”

“Call me Wally. If you call me Mister Herbert I’ll be wondering who you’re talking to.”

“Mildred. Mildred Hawkins,” said the woman.

“I suppose you’d like a cup of tea?”

"Thanks, but no. It's not long since I had a cup at home. If I have any more, I'll slosh when I walk!"

He led the woman into the kitchen. He very rarely used the living room now, since Elsie had died.

“Right, sit down then and tell me all about it. You won’t mind if I drink a cup while you talk?”

“No, no, not at all. I live at The Grange..."

“I know.”

"I love it in this village. The moment I came to see the house I felt as though I'd lived here for ever. You know what I mean?"

"Not really. I have lived here forever. It does very well for me."

"Well, anyway," continued Mildred, a little nonplussed, "I quickly found out that Stoke Fercroft is teeming with all sorts of cultural events. There's the amateur dramatic society, there are two reading circles that I know of - I'm a member of one of them. And the Mason's organise concerts now and again, not nearly often enough to my way of thinking. And we've a couple of professional photographers, retired now, and a textile artist, and I don't know what else."

Wally took a sip of his tea and offered her the plate of biscuits.

"Thank you," she said, and continued. "But the strange thing is there's no choir. Can you imagine? In a village of this size? No choir."

"Are you sure you won't have that cup of tea?" interrupted Wally. "Its no bother - there's tea in the pot."

"Well, perhaps half a cup."

"There used to be a proper church choir," said Wally, as he poured out a cup for Mildred. "Back in the days of Oliver Harding. He was a professional singer, used to sing with the Royal Opera House, retired, and he took the church choir in hand. My wife and I used to sing with them. He died suddenly, and there was nobody with the experience to take over, and no money to hire someone, so you could say the choir died with him. Alf Turner tried to step in, but he just didn't have what it takes. People began to leave. Elsie and I weren't the first to leave by a long chalk, but in the end it was just too painful to listen and know what had happened to the choir we loved. Finally they were down to a half-dozen people, most of whom didn't know one note from another, or a crotchet from a quaver. In the end the vicar told them that enough was enough, and they joined the congregation. That's if they were church-goers. Not all of them were, of course. And that was the end of that."

Wally himself was surprised at the length of this speech. He put the cup down in front of Mildred and sat down at his place almost with a feeling of shame at having said so much. Mildred took a sip of tea.

"I didn't know all this," she said. "People have told me that there used to be a choir, but none of this history. It's fascinating."

She was silent for a moment.

"Anyway," she went on. "I couldn't help thinking that it was a shame. I got talking to Harold Mason in the pub one night, and we decided to see if we could get one going. He offered to be leader, him being retired, and we began collecting folk. We had a notice in the general store, and another in the Stonemason's, and one on the village notice board. Maybe you saw them? People began to contact us, and they knew others, and soon we'd gathered a sizeable group. We're working on a carol service now. I gather you heard us and took a peep in last night although I didn't see you there myself."

Wally made no comment.

"So I thought I'd come and see if you'd be interested in joining us. Harold told us you used to sing bass, and that you did solo numbers. So how about it?"

Wally looked at her without seeing. He saw instead his wife in the days when they had been members of the choir. He remembered how they had practiced together, he singing the bass part and she the soprano. Sometimes they would take it one at a time, but as soon as possible, together. He remembered the sense of belonging when they arrived for choir practice together, a part of the whole. He remembered the sense of loss after Oliver's death, as they saw their little community disintegrate until there was not enough left to hold them, and they resigned. He remembered the sense of loss, when there were no more Monday evenings mastering the intricacies of a new piece or just lifting their voices in harmony in a piece they already knew.

And now Elsie was dead, and even if he joined this new group, she would not be sharing it with him.

"I don't sing nowadays," he said.


*****


Mildred stared at him and realised that she could get no farther today. But she was not finished with him yet.

"I understand," she said. "But then I've another request. After the carol singing, I'm planning a party for the choir and all those who help us. I've a nice big room at The Grange, big enough for a dining room, but no furniture for it. I need a couple of long tables, about five metres each, nothing fancy, just something to throw a cloth over. They tell me you were a carpenter. If I pay for the wood, do you think you could make two tables? Maybe I could pay you a bit for your work."

Wally was unwilling to turn her down twice in ten minutes, which kept him silent for a few moments.

"I'm sorry," he said finally. "I'm retired now."

He saw her face fall, but there was nothing he could do about it.

She heaved a big sigh, finished her cup of tea and stood up.

"Well, thank you anyway, Wally. I'm really sorry I couldn't persuade you to come and sing with us."

She turned and left the kitchen, walking along the hall to the front door, which she opened herself. Wally had followed her, and she turned and shook his hand.

"Bye then," she said, and walked away down the path to the gate. Wally watched her go until she disappeared behind his hedge, then softly closed the door and went back inside for another cup of tea.


*****


Thursday was shopping day for Wally, as Evelyn had a special discount for pensioners if they shopped on Thursday, thus leaving Friday and Saturday freer for others at the weekend. On Thursday he met Harold Mason, who was in the general store on the same errand. After the compulsory comments on the weather and their respective health, Harold took Wally by surprise.

"Charlie Fletcher told us you were watching us sing last Monday," he said. "You should have come in and listened."

"Didn't have time to do more than peep in," said Wally. "I was on my way somewhere."

"You were on your way to the pub for your daily pint," countered Harold. "You could have put that off for half an hour."

"I didn't want to disturb you."

"We had an audience of half a dozen already. You wouldn't have disturbed us."

"What were they doing there? It wasn't a proper concert.

"They're the musicians. They were working on a good arrangement to accompany the choir."

Wally had nothing to say.

"Anyway," went on Harold, "if you've nothing better to do drop in and listen to us next Monday on your way to the pub. We're beginning to sound quite good, I think."

Wally merely grunted and went on with his shopping.


*****


He was reading the newspaper by the fireplace in the Stonemason's Arms that evening when Charlie Fletcher came over. Wally was not used to people doing more than giving him a wave or at best an "Evening, Wally", and was surprised that Charlie actually stopped beside his chair, and even more surprised when Charlie sat down in another seat beside him.

"Saw you at choir practice," he began. "You should have stayed."

"So Harold said."

"We've got a good choir together now," went on Charlie. "Maybe even better than we were in Oliver's day."

"It did sound good."

"Harold really works us. You know he and his family give concerts once in a while?"

"I heard. Not been to any."

"You want to come on Saturday. They've got one booked then. Richard's got a new girlfriend. Well, bit more than a girlfriend, it seems. She plays the clarinet. They've got Mozart's clarinet concerto on the program."

"I might," conceded Wally.

"I'm going and taking the missus. I'll look out for you."

"We'll see."

And Charlie took his pint and went to join his mates for a game of darts, and Wally returned to his newspaper.


*****


Wally shaved carefully on Saturday. Not that he felt he was committing himself, but just in case. And having gone to all that trouble, it was a pity not to have an early dinner and then go upstairs and put on his suit. He checked his wallet. How much could they charge for a village concert? He had twenty quid in there, and they could hardly take more than that.

Six thirty found him hanging up his coat in the cloakroom of the village hall. They'd only taken a tenner, and that was going to charity. And his ticket included a cup of tea and a bit of cake in the interval. Not bad for an evening out.

He went to the door into the large hall where he had seen the choir practicing. The piano on the stage had been rolled out, and around it were a number of chairs with note stands in front of them.

He looked around. The place was beginning to fill up. Good job he'd not left it till the last minute. He saw someone wave. It was Charlie, waving him over, and there was an empty seat beside him. And there was Charlie's missus, looking round and smiling at him. He moved to join them. They had good places in the first few rows.

"I knew you'd come," was Charlie's greeting. "Didn't I say he'd come," he asked his wife for confirmation.

"You did, Charlie."

"Hello, Iris," said Wally. "Everything all right?"

"Fine, thanks."

They did not have much to talk about whilst waiting for the concert to begin, but at last the lights dimmed and the murmur of voices in the hall stilled. The musicians trooped onto the stage, carrying their instruments, except Richard, who was the pianist. In the centre was a big but attractive and proportionally built woman carrying a clarinet, and this, Wally assumed, was Richard's new girlfriend.

For three quarters of an hour Wally lost himself in the music, and was silent as they went out during the interval in search of their tea and cake.

"What did you think, then, Wally?" asked Charlie.

"Not bad," replied Wally. "Good choice of the Grieg overture to start with. And then the the clarinet concerto, especially the second movement."

"Everybody loves that," agreed Iris.

"What's to follow?"

Charlie consulted his program.

"A medley of all the usual bits and pieces," he said.

The second half of the concert was as good as the first, and afterwards Charlie and his missus persuaded Wally to come with them to the pub for a pint or, for Charlie's missus, a gin and tonic.

"So what did you think of the choir, Wally?" asked Charlie at one point.

"You sounded very good."

"I think so, too, but we're a bit light in the men's department. There are enough tenors, but there's only me and Algy Pelham in the bass. We could really do with you to make up numbers."

"Make up numbers?" protested Wally. "Thanks a lot!"

"You know what I mean. You'd give us a real bit of body."

"I don't sing nowadays," he said.


*****


The following Monday Wally set off for the pub a little earlier than his usual time, and it was five past seven when he passed the village hall. The sweet tones of the choir floated out over the grass surrounding the hall, and he unwillingly stopped to listen.

When the choir began again after a short pause, with "Gaudete", he suddenly took a determined step towards the door, went inside and into the large hall. To his own surprise Wally joined in, his bass voice swelling the male contingent. Harold Mason turned in surprise, lost his control, and the whole choir came to a ragged halt.

"Sorry," he said. "Didn't mean to disturb. Maybe I can join you for this one. My favourite."

"Come in, come in," said Harold. "You didn't disturb. Just caught me off-guard. Come and give us a hand. We need a boost in the bass department."

"I don't sing nowadays," said Wally, and turned again towards the exit.

"Yes, you bloody well do. You just did. Now, come and show us it wasn't just luck."

Wally reluctantly entered the hall, took off his coat and threw it over a chair, and walked towards the choir.

"Well, perhaps just for this evening," he said.

He took the file of note sheets which Harold offered him and began to leaf through it, looking for 'Gaudete'. Not that he needed the note sheet for that song, but...

He moved up to where the other singers were grouped, and Charlie Fletcher and Algy Pelham made room for him.

"Right," said Harold, "from the beginning for Wally's sake."

He gave them the beat, and the choir began.


"Gaudete, gaudete! Christus est natus

Ex Maria virgine: Gaudete!"


And on to the end of the song.

"By gum, but that made a difference," exclaimed Charlie, breaking the silence that followed the last notes.

"Not half!" said Harold. "You're in, Wally."

"In what?"

"I'll tell you later. Let's not waste any rehearsal time now. Turn to 'Please to see the King'."

At nine o'clock Harold released them.

"Well done, everybody. And you, Wally, I'll expect to see you here again next Monday."

"I don't sing nowadays," said Wally.

"You do now," said Harold.

Wally made his way to the door and out into the street. He had got no farther when Charlie and Algy caught up with him.

"Come on, Wally, we're taking you for a pint," said Algy.

"Well, I was on my way there," agreed Wally and the three men set off for the Stonemason's Arms.

They were joined a few minutes later by Mildred Hawkins.

"Glad to see you in the choir, Wally," she said.

"I'm not in the choir. I don't sing nowadays. This was just a one-off."

"Bullshit," countered Algy. He turned to Mildred. "He's in."

Mildred smiled.

"We're thinking of reviving the old carol singing," she told Wally. "In the old days the church choir went round the village just before Christmas singing carols. They collected money for charity. We're going to do that again."

"And then we're planning a carol service in the church," said Charlie.

"And don't forget the midnight service on Christmas Eve, and a twelfth night concert, added Algy. "Christmas is a choir's busy season."

"Is this a church choir?" asked Wally.

"No. The choir is Mildred's idea. She cajoled Harold into leading it, at least until someone else comes along."

"That's right," said Mildred. "But I don't see it as a church choir so much as a village choir. But the church needs a choir, so we offer our services."

"What made you want to start a choir?" Wally asked Mildred.

"I listened to people talking about the village," she replied. "How it used to be 'in the old days'. They told me how the church choir, as it was then, also gave concerts, and did the round of carol singing in the village. Many people told me how they missed this, so I decided to try and restart the choir, but keep it separate from the church."


*****


And that was how Wally suddenly found himself a full member of the new Stoke Fercroft choir. At first it was every Monday which saw him in the village hall together with the other members, but as Christmas approached, so did the frequency of rehearsals. They had four different events to prepare for. To be sure there was a good deal of overlap.

"You'll be coming to the party after the carol-singing, Wally?" asked Mildred one evening after rehearsal.

"Hadn't thought about it," said Wally.

"Well, think about it now! I'm planning it as a 'bring and share' party. Everybody brings something, maybe a couple of pies or a cake or whatever, and share it with all the others. Some people call it an American supper."

"Never heard that," said Wally, "but I'd like to come. And while I think of it, weren't you wanting a fifteen foot table for your dining room?"

"If you want to call it a fifteen foot table," she said. "I call it a five metre table. I need two. Don't say you've changed your mind on that, too?"

"Well, since I'll be eating at it, I reckon I should do my bit to help. You said you'd supply the timber."

"Yes."

"Well let me take a look in Waterston's timber yard tomorrow, and I'll give you an idea of the cost. Then you can say yes or no."

"But will you have time before the concert? It's only just over a week away."

"I'll do what I can."

And sure enough, the following afternoon, Wally followed a lorry-load of timber to The Grange.

"Thought I'd build them on site," he explained. "They're going to be a bit on the heavy side, not to say big, for transporting around the village."

Before the day was over he had moved a substantial part of his tool collection to The Grange, together with portable benches and everything he thought he would need, and the following day he set to work. Two days before the carol-singing, the tables were ready, built in such a way that they could be dismantled into relatively easily portable parts. Mildred was beside herself with delight.

"They're beautiful," she said, clasping her hands.

"I suggest you put table cloths on them for the party," said Wally. "I've not had time to varnish them, so any spillage could seep in and discolour them."

"I will," she promised.


*****


December 23rd was the day for the carol-singing. They were to wander round the village, stopping at strategic places to sing whilst a number of non-singing assistants would knock on doors. The final destination was to be the green outside the village hall, and they had arranged with the local fire brigade to have a bonfire there, and the non-singers would be brewing tea and coffee and selling biscuits and slices of cake.

Promptly at seven o'clock they began at the far end of Main Street where it met the Sheepy Parva road. There were not many houses at this end of the street, but they managed to sing three carols before the collectors had done their work, and told the local residents to come to the green later.

They worked their way through and around the village, taking some of the side roads, and by eight thirty they were at the green. The fire engine stood off to one side, beside a respectable bonfire, which the firemen lit whilst the concert began. A great many of the villagers had come to the green, and word had clearly spread, as many from the surrounding villages had shown up, and helped to fill the collection boxes.

Several members of the choir sang solos, at least one verse, sometimes more, and sometimes a descant to the choir's accompaniment.

"Now, Wally," said Harold at one point, and Wally stepped forward. The number was 'In the Deep Midwinter', and Wally sang the first verse as a solo. He was moved by the enthusiastic applause when the number was over and he could step back to his place in the choir.

There was a roar of disappointment from the onlookers when Harold announced that the concert was over, and the choir was persuaded to deliver not one, but two encores before they could draw the event to its conclusion.

Eventually the spectators had left the green, the firemen put out the remains of the bonfire, and the choir set off for The Grange and their party, which lasted until quite late. Wally was a little embarrassed at the number of people who came up to him and complimented him on his solo number.

He had the company of Algy Pelham for part of his way home, and the two men reminisced over the evening's success. Wally decided to brew a pot of tea before going to bed, and sat in the kitchen over a cup. He was pleased with the choir, and with his performance. But the thing which brought the widest smile to his lips was the feeling of belonging to his village once more, a feeling he had begun to lose when he and Elsie left the old choir, and which had completely evaporated with Elsie's death.

Now, once again, he felt that he was a part of Stoke Fercroft.

© James Wilde 2015