It’s the day of my dad’s performance at the Royal Opera House. The laryngitis that kept the original Wotan from performing tonight is still preventing him, which means my dad is going to get his dream fulfilled. As he’s nearly 72 now, it really is his last chance.
He had given up years ago, but mother and I never did.
I’m meeting Annie in twenty minutes, and we’ve decided to bring Sue to the performance. I’ve already taken her out of the closet and put her on the kitchen worktop. I’ve found a presentable bag that has room for the box, that at the same time won’t look weird on row five in an international opera house.
I’m wearing my tuxedo, which doesn’t happen all that often, but this is a special occasion – for several reasons.
I’ve called for a cab and make my way downstairs to greet it. We’ll pick Annie up on the way, despite that being a little bit of a detour. The woman is 30 weeks pregnant, whatever that actually means in real terms. Eight months? I’ve only spoken to her on the phone since she met my parents three weeks ago, so I don’t know how much she’s grown, but from what she’s said it’s substantial.
I wonder if Sue is going to show up and join in tonight – in spirit, so to speak. I find it a mix between alarming and amusing that I think this is normal now, to have the spirits of dead friends hanging around. What’s actually more alarming than funny is that I have her ashes in a bag on my lap at the moment, intend on taking her to the opera and call that normal behaviour.
Don’t worry, there’s a reason for it.
We stop outside the Old Vic theatre where Annie is waiting. She’s dressed in a bright red, flowing dress that comes in under her breasts and lightly hugs her growing belly. She has a black shawl around her shoulders to – I presume – keep her arms covered in the wind. This will, in fact, be rather important later.
‘Thanks for picking me up,’ she smiles and gives me a brief kiss as she sits in. I’m not sure if it was meant to land on my mouth or if she was aiming for my cheek, or if I provoked the outcome by turning my head towards where I presumed she was aiming for. One more analytical thought like that, and I need to check if I still have my cock intact.
‘Are you ready? For everything?’
‘Absolutely. Is she in there?’
I nod and briefly show her the box. It’s snowing again, more than it has for decades, and the weather has disrupted just about every road and every airport in the country. So the chances are that the bass-baritone set out to do Wotan wouldn’t have been able to get here from Germany anyway, even without laryngitis.
The wind hits us hard as we drive across Westminster Bridge, and for once I don’t mind that. I have a knot in my stomach about tonight. I know dad will do well, I’ve heard him sing a million times before, but I know how important this is to him. This has been his dream since I was a child. He’s always wanted to be on that stage.
‘Are you nervous?’ Annie asks and puts her hand on mine.
‘A little,’ I admit. ‘But I’m pretty sure everything will work out tonight.’
‘I’m sure it’ll all be perfect.’
We pull up on Bow Street and get out. I notice that she’s been sensible in her choice of footwear, and has left her heels at home. Being in heels tonight would be hard for several reasons. I offer her my elbow and we stagger across the sidewalk and in through the main entrance.
I wonder who mother is bringing to be her “date” for the night, but I’ll soon find out. She’s always early and we usually arrive separately. I’m also pretty sure she’ll be backstage with dad for as long as he’ll let her, to help calm his nerves.
‘What a lovely place,’ Annie enthuses and looks around. What a wonderful first time experience for her. The first time I was in here I was seven. Dad and I went to see “Fanciulla del West” in January of 1978, starring Plácido Domingo as Ramerrez.
It wasn’t a bad first time, I must say.
We find our seats in the middle of row five, and as we’re about to sit down mother arrives with dad’s friend Mr. Wilkinson. I’ve never known his first name, come to think of it. He’s an old man now, bless him. He must be more than fifteen years older than dad – which makes him almost ninety. Yet, he still walks without a stick, and only uses glasses for when he reads the newspaper.
‘Elton, my boy, this is a great day for us all,’ he greets me. ‘And who might you be, my dear?’
‘I’m Annie… Sir,’ she says and smiles.
As we sit down, I smile to myself.
I don’t know exactly why people immediately treat Mr Wilkinson with such respect. I’ve always felt him very authoritarial although he’s never told me how to speak to him. It’s funny that Annie’s reaction was to call him “Sir” as well. It could be because he’s always spoken with a terribly posh accent, a bit like John Gielgud.
We hear the final announcements, which basically means we’ve only got a couple of minutes to go. Even before the curtain is up, we hear the well-known intro; “Ride of the Valkyries”. I notice Annie’s grinning as she recognises the music. She leans across to whisper something in my ear.
‘Kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit, kill the waaabbit!’ she sings, aping Elmer Fudd, which basically makes me fight the urge to laugh out loud. Mother gives me a stern look as she realises that I’m snorting and shaking, as I’m trying not to burst. I try pulling myself together, but every time I succeed I think of Bugs Bunny as Brünnhilde in that opera-piss-take cartoon.
In front of us, the Valkyries (read: sopranos) are doing various high notes, still with the same music in the background. I’m sure I’ll be fine as soon as this particular tune fades out.
Ten minutes into the performance dad walks in, clutching his score. The anticipation is just about killing me. Annie grabs hold of my hand and squeezes it. I hold onto mother’s on the other side. The audience have no idea who the new Wotan is, and will be suspicious until he opens his mouth.
‘Hörst du’s, Brünnhilde,’ he growls, as he’s supposed to be angry with her for disobeying him. Her punishment is basically to be transformed into a mortal and be held in a magic sleep on the mountain, a prey to any man who comes by. The other Valkyries look on in dismay before disappearing, leaving Brünnhilde to plead with Wotan alone. Finally he consents to her last request: encircle the mountaintop with a magic flame, which will deter all but the bravest of heroes.
The soprano who sings Brünnhilde has a massive voice but the most satisfying thing about it is that dad actually manages to produce an equally big sound. Although he’s, let’s face it, a short-arse, he actually sound like the dangerous, Norse God he’s meant to portray.
That’s Odin, by the way, if you hadn’t figured it out yet.
When he does the soft, moving “Wotan’s Farewell”, none of us can help ourselves and quietly dry our faces. If this had been a proper opera, this is when he would have laid her down on a rock, embraced her and kissed her eyes closed, sending her into an enchanted sleep. Instead, she exits the stage, leaving him on his own to summon Loge, the Norse demigod of fire, to ignite the circle of flame that will protect her. He then slowly departs in sorrow, after declaring (in German), “Whosoever fears the point of my spear shall not pass through the fire.”
The curtain falls.
There is a stunned silence.
Then there’s roaring applause.
We all stand up, as the singers make their way through the curtain and take a bow. Dad is grinning like a Cheshire Cat, bowing and blowing kisses like a true star. Annie’s holding onto my arm, quietly drying away tears as they keep running down her face.
I can’t think of anyone that I’d rather be here with me this evening than her.
The lights come on and we’re being informed of a break. Yes, this isn’t just one forty-minute concert, you see. As a part of the Wagner evening, they’ll do selected acts from four of his works: “Die Walküre”, “Lohengrin”, “Tannhäuser” and “Der fliegende Holländer”.
Annie and I will miss at least parts of the remaining three, hopefully just one.
We make our way out of the auditorium, and I bring out a little map that I’ve drawn. I’ve spoken to one of the chorus tenors and asked him to find out how to get to the emergency exit to the roof. This is why it was important for Annie to have sensible shoes and something to cover up her naked skin. We won’t have a whole ceremony, but we’re planning to release Sue up there.
It’s the closest thing to a perfect send-off we could think of.
‘This way,’ I whisper and push my way through another door. The idea is to not be seen, and to follow the right signs towards the right emergency exit. Finally we end up by a stairway that goes upwards. I’m surprised none of the doors are locked, but I guess in case of an actual emergency, they can’t be. The last bit we have to climb up an iron ladder, and finally we’re on the roof.
The wind blows straight through our clothes and as I help Annie onto the flat roof, I take off my jacket and put it around her.
‘No objections,’ I say before she has the time to protest. I take the box out of the bag and hand it to her. ‘Is there anything you’d like to say before we send her off?’
‘I miss you, Sue. Life isn’t quite the same without you… Most of all, right now I wish you could have been here to see my baby grow up. I know you’d have loved to be an auntie to her. I hope you’re happy where you are now,’ she sobs, clutching the box containing her friend’s remains.
She takes a moment before handing it back to me.
‘I hope you felt loved when you were here with us, because you were…’ I start and then my mind goes blank. Everything else I’ve had rehearsed in my head is gone. My head feels light and I suddenly feel warmth, like I’m not standing on an opera house roof in the middle of a snow storm.
‘Do you feel that?’ Annie asks. ‘I feel warm!’
‘Let’s release her,’ I smile and hold the box out in between us. Annie opens the lid, and we stand there for a moment, watching its contents, until a gust of wind grabs hold of it and takes it away.
I swear I can hear Sue’s laughter as the ashes mixes with the snow and wind and disappears.
Then suddenly, it’s freezing cold again.