Walking Backwards for Christmas: A Tale of Woe from Soggyhall, Chapter 2, Edgbaston, September 1960, “Stan”[Notes: (1) The featured picture is an early version of Reggie. We thought it looked too serious at the time, but as the story gets darker in later books we may well return to him, aging him a bit and lengthening his hair; (2) The Indian suffix “ji” is honorific, similar to the suffix “san” in Japanese.] Stan; I met him during the first week of school.
Not on the first day, mind; I honestly can’t say which day of the first week it was, but I remember well the time and place. It was in choir, my class immediately before lunch. We were an elite group—boys only, ages 8 to 11—who possessed sufficient knowledge of music theory and the requisite soprano voices to sing descant to the older choir “scholars” of our twinned independent or, every so often, even collegiate or adult choirs.
We were half an hour into rehearsal when the music room door banged open, revealing a boy about my size standing at the threshold, with dark olive skin, large brown eyes and tousled black-brown hair. He strode into the room.
“Enter Gupta, waits for applause,” he announced with grandly exaggerated gestures, in as stentorian a tone as the slightly strident soprano of an eight-year-old could muster.
The room became as silent as the grave.
Unfazed, he waited a few beats, went into full comic pout and added, with faux petulance, “Not a sausage!”
I laughed, for the first time since Gramfer’s funeral, and applauded—though I cut both short as I realized I was the only person in the room who was. Was I the only one, besides him, who knew this routine? That couldn’t be it. He smiled at me, in gratitude and relief, I think, as much as anything else. I pulled up a chair, signaling for him to sit beside me. Our director regarded both of us censoriously before turning the lion’s share of his attention to my new cohort.
“I take it you are Mr. Gupta, the newest member of this choir.”
My new companion smiled at him ingratiatingly. “Stan Gupta, good sir, and your most obedient servant.”
I nervously bit my lip. Had he intended his reply to be so tongue in cheek?
“You, young sir, are registered in this school as ‘Sanjit’ Gupta,” the choir director said coldly.
“And so I remain called by my family,” Stan replied, his Anglo-Indian accent more pronounced than before. “I’ve but made a mere anagrammed shift uff the final letter to the first but one. It provides me with a given name more, let us say ‘accessible,’ to Anglo ears,” he added, in yet another apparent eager attempt to be ingratiating — one very much at odds with his turn of phrase.
“If you’d done that properly it would make your name ‘Stanji,’ not ‘Stan’,” our director retorted, his iciness giving way to gloating, laced with mild disdain.
“And so I am certain I shall be called, in time,” Stan said brightly. “But a suffix uff the nature of ‘ji’—it’s much too early days, I think, to extend me such spontaneous accolades and distinctions as it affords. Please, simply call me ‘Stan,’ for the present—and the foreseeable future.”
The director glowered.
Stan had definitely undertaken some risky business with such glib banter, however intended There were several teachers in the school who wouldn’t have hesitated to subject students to severe discipline for less than this. Luckily for Stan, the director wasn’t one of them. He turned his attention to me instead.
“Mr. Stone, perhaps you would honour us with your rendition of the music we’ve studied this morning, to give ‘Stan’ an idea of how it is to be performed.”
I stood up, still nervously biting my lip. I’d definitely landed myself. I was stuck in the spotlight; its glare wouldn’t go away by my becoming a shrinking violet.
I took a deep breath. There was no help for it—I was going to have to brass this out.
But I was not alone.
It turned out to be the first of countless times, over the years, that St. Cecilia, patron saint of music and musicians, would come to rescue me. Although we’d just completed our first run through, I closed my eyes and sang the piece at performance level, including phrasing, dynamics and tone. I can claim credit for none of it, save maybe to the extent that my having sufficient lack of ego allowed the gentle saint to guide me more easily as I sang.
I opened my eyes.
The director’s expression had softened, although he refused to give me the satisfaction of a smile.
“Well done, Mr. Stone,” he said quietly.
I said a short prayer of thanks under my breath.
© 2014, 2015 G.H. McCallum and Duvanian Press. All rights reserved.
G. H. McCallum
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