First practice

The rehearsal room was at a local primary school. There were no spaces left to park so Dyce backed out onto the road and waited. Another car soon edged up behind him. The driver, who had a music case under his arm, crossed the car park. Dyce lost him when he disappeared round the far side of a two-storey building. Instead, on turning the corner, he found two smokers, standing next to swinging double doors.

‘Is this the choir practice?’ he asked.

‘It is,’ pointing their cigarettes at the doors.

The room itself was lined with shiny brown wall bars. Ropes, hanging off hooks inserted into the tall ceiling, looped to tie-backs on the walls. Between the bars were crayon pictures – animals and people with arms and legs coming out of their heads, flowers the size of trees, huge yellow suns with long hair and houses with doors and windows that a giant would need. A table in a small annex had a display of musical instruments. Three rows of small chairs were neatly arranged in semi-circles facing a black upright piano. Most were covered by a bag, a file or a piece of music. Thirty or so men and a lady in her thirties milled and chatted in small groups toward the back of the hall. Others sat in pairs or alone, reading, waiting, patient. Dyce sat on a low bench and no one knew he was there apart from one of the men from the evening class who’d nodded.

Len arrived hot and harrassed and spent ten minutes sorting paper in his briefcase. Fifteen minutes after the scheduled start he stood at the piano and played a chord. The lady sat down behind him, the men rejoined their bags and files and Dyce discovered an empty chair.

‘Evening gentlemen. We’ll do a few scales.’

Len played a series of rising and falling notes and the choir followed. Only those on the far left could sing low and the lower they went the more the rest of the choir coughed and snickered. Still Len continued downward. At a point where the note was felt rather than heard, someone laughed.

Len stopped playing and the room fell silent.

‘Well I’ll . . .’ He paused and swivelled sideways. Then he turned back to the choir and shouted, ‘You’ve just ruined that. We were trying for an extension.’ A small spray of spittle flecked his chin. He shook his head and walked across to a music stand. The lady moved to the piano.

Len opened his file, ‘Right gentlemen. We’ll start with Llanfair’. The choir breathed out in communal relief and the rehearsal got underway. Dyce’s neighbour shared his music, pointing to the relevant line, and Dyce soon realised he couldn’t hit the notes. They struggled along to the break when Dilwyn and a short bloke from the front row read out a few notices. Finally Dilwyn introduced him, ‘Would you welcome Dyce . . . sorry, I don’t know your second name’.

‘Dyson.’

The choir clapped, one or two arching their backs to try and see who they were clapping for. Nothing further was said so the choir went into interval mode. The smokers disappeared, small groups formed and reformed, bottles of water and soft drink were consumed and mints or cough sweets were handed round. Dyce’s neighbour thought he’d best move to the baritones and introduced him to Alan, a fair haired sixty year old.

‘You’ll need some music. Jeff’s the librarian’. He waved, ‘Jeff, have you a minute?’

A rather severe looking bloke detached himself from a group in the annex. ‘Right, come with me,’ he went over to large grey filing cabinet and extracted thirty or so songsheets, ‘These’ll get you started’.

Dyce went and sat with Alan. ‘How often does Len get upset?’ he asked.

Alan smiled, ‘Pretty often. You’ll get used to it’.

The second half was a blur. ‘You must come to the pub,’ someone said when it ended, ‘White Horse. Follow me if you like.’

Dyce wished he hadn’t. Most people were in cliques he wasn’t a member of. One bloke tried to chat a bit but the back room at the pub was too loud. Then someone stood and the room went quiet. ‘Jolly Roger’, he said, and the room began an impromptu set. Songs Dyce couldn’t know. He looked out of place and felt like a homesick new boy on his first day at school.

He kept going, gradually becoming comfortable with the choir’s routines. The first night had been daunting, but he’d got enough out of the experience to persist. He even passed the odd comment with the guy who sat next to him. Whilst the wall art and the table project changed every week, one poster, illustrated by glossy photographs, remained permanently on show. It told the story of a young African girl and how the children at new Mill could help. When the choir stood to warm up or practice a performance, and if Dyce’s concentration wandered from Len, there she would be. A regular assignation that occurred simply because choir members sit in the same seat every rehearsal. Many arrived early to book their chair. Even a late-comer would find his spot reserved by his neighbour. New boys have therefore to stake a claim. Easy for Dyce as he simply added an extra chair to the back row. Fellow baritone one side, little black girl on the other.

Not long after his first night, Dyce arrived to find a white-haired eighty year old sat in his seat. Gerald, another new boy. Miffed, Dyce began turning up early for rehearsal.

Gerald read his music so close to his eyes it seemed as though the sheet was pinned to his face. Some problem with his sight he said and self-conscious about using a magnifying glass. He had the choir’s repertoire off by heart in no time; awesome, given the formidable amount of stuff to learn. It was ages before Dyce’d memorised enough to feel comfortable in the back room of the The White Horse.

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