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NICHOLAS ELLIOTT, WHO HAD HAD MANY REVERSES IN HIS YOUNG life, pushed open the inner door of the cathedral porch, and heard the singing. It was early, not much after eight in the morning, and outside the cathedral there had been no sound but the wind and a few gulls looping, crying round the tower. Now, with the felt-padded door softly shut behind him, he could hear nothing at all but the singing, far off but very clear. They were singing Palestrina’s “Tu es Petrus.”
He began to walk rapidly, on tiptoe, across the back of the nave towards the north transept. In the corner of the transept was a door he had opened every morning for four years, which gave on to a flight of stone steps that led up to the practice room. That room was where they were singing now, twenty-four choristers among the music stands and the dust, with the miniature cricket stumps on the disordered mantelpiece, the stacks of psalters on the scuffed benches and chairs, the engravings of past organists askew on the walls. When Nicholas had been head chorister, he had stood and sung beneath William Goode, vastly fat and hugely benign, who had played the Aldminster organ from 1782 until 1801.
The door at the foot of the staircase was open. The singing had stopped.
“And what,” said the voice of the organist clearly from twenty feet above Nicholas, “is that sharp doing there, may I ask?”
Memory filled Nicholas’s mouth with the taste of stale Weetabix imperfectly brushed from his teeth in the early-morning panic. He could hear his mother, as they dashed erratically along the city’s ring road, shrieking that she would never have countenanced his being a chorister if only she had known—
“If it’s three-two, Wooldridge,” said the organist, “what is it? Come on, come on—”
“Three minims, sir?”
“Now find that anthem. The Batten one. It’s the one you will sing in procession. Listen to this note. Now, a nice round O—”
Probably, in fact certainly, he was playing the same old Steinway up there, with its keyboard facing the huge diamond-paned window blurry with dust and its top heaped with sheet music in sliding piles.
“Look,” the organist said, “the altos have got the tune. Haven’t they?”
Nicholas could smell the smell up there, dust and paper and boy. He was sick with envy. Under his hands he could feel his old copy of Byrd’s “Magnificat” in its thin stiff red covers, with the cathedral crest stamped on the title page and NOT TO BE TAKEN AWAY underneath in purple ink.
“Now,” said the organist, “we haven’t much time left. Tallis. ‘If Ye Love Me.’ Right up to ‘commandments’ in one breath and you’ve got to do a bit of counting. All right? All right, Hooper? First time round that’s only two beats—”
Five minutes later, when the organist came down the steps to the transept, in a skirmishing crowd of boys amiably bashing at each other with carrier bags and fiddle cases, he found a perfectly strange young man on a bench by the wall, gripped by a paroxysm of weeping.
“I gave him to Sandra,” Leo Beckford said to the headmaster of the King’s School at break.
“Who did you give to Sandra?”
“The chap I found in the cathedral this morning. He said he was a chorister here once, head chorister in 1976. I’ve looked him up, and he was. I was awfully moved by him. It seems to me that he was seeking sanctuary, somehow. Are you listening?”
“Sorry,” Alexander Troy said, “not really.”
“I know he isn’t your responsibility really, but as an old boy—”
The headmaster twitched his gown more securely on to his impressive shoulders.
“Tell Sandra. She’s so competent. I expect she’ll feed him.”
“I have. She did. She sent him into breakfast and he was overjoyed that it was still bacon and tinned tomatoes on Wednesdays. Are you all right?”
“No,” Alexander said, “I am not but I can’t talk about it just now, not even to you. Sorry.”
“When he had plunged out of the common room, Leo knew that his own protective colouring had, as usual, gone with him. Leo disliked the common room; he had no place there, not being on the staff, and he only came in to find the headmaster or to do battle, to explain, as temperately as he could, to one master after another, why choir practice must take precedence over football practice and cricket practice and rowing practice and athletic practice. He began to move towards the door and somebody said, “Beckford,” and he unwisely said, “Yes,” and the athletics coach (who taught woodwork in winter) said, “About Wooldridge, Beckford—”
“We sing Monteverdi’s ‘Stabat Mater’ in evensong. It has three treble parts. Wooldridge is the second-best treble we have. He can jump about any time.”
“I hope you know,” the athletics coach said, losing his temper in an instant, “that you musicians are a total irrelevance in the modern world.”
Leo looked at him.
“Is that so,” he said, and left the room.
In the corridor, Sandra Miles, the headmaster’s secretary, was pinning notices on to the Gothic bulletin boards that had hung there since the building went up in 1850. She was small and pretty, with prim little shirt collars turned down over the neat necks of her jerseys and a bell of disciplined pale hair.
“I spoke to the HM,” Leo said, “but he doesn’t seem to be taking much in this morning.”
Sandra looked at once soberly discreet and self-important.
“I don’t think this morning is the morning to trouble Mr. Troy.”
Leo grinned at her.
“Don’t you call him Alexander?”
Sandra blushed rose pink. Beneath her Marks and Spencer jersey, her heart sometimes called him darling, and after two glasses of Liebfraumilch, lover.
“Ho-ho,” said Leo, and then, in order not to tip the teasing into taunting, said, “What have you done with our refugee?”
“I’ve given him to Mr. Farrell to help mark out the running tracks. He seems awfully pathetic. He hasn’t anywhere to go.”
A bell rang and immediately the hubbub of a resumed morning began to swell around them.
“Mr. Godwin remembers him,” Sandra said confidentially, having put the unused thumbtacks into a neat square in a corner of the board. “He never used to see his father, and his mother was terribly neurotic and used to turn up on parents’ evenings and make scenes and cry all over everyone. And then he went to find his father in America and he had married again and had got a new family and they wouldn’t take him in. Then he got a place at Oxford—Mr. Godwin says he can’t think how except on the strength of his voice—and they threw him out after a year for failing some exam or other. And now he can’t get a job. He told me he doesn’t know what he wants to do. Pathetic, really.”
“I suppose I could give him a bed for a bit,” Leo said uncertainly, thinking of the deep litter in which he lived and which he never noticed unless it was to be subjected to outside scrutiny.
“Oh, don’t bother, Mr. Beckford—”
“Leo—it’s all right. I’ve seen matron and she’s putting him in the sick bay for a night or two, because that’s almost empty, what with this being the summer term. He can do odd jobs for now, and one more for meals won’t break the bank. The Cottrell twins don’t eat anything as it is. Mr. Farrell said to remind you that he needs Wooldridge for the hurdles this afternoon.”
“Mr. Farrell,” said Leo, “can boil his head, and I have virtually told him as much. Sandra—”
“Sandra. Is Mr. Troy all right?”
She looked at him with her clear blue glance and there was real sadness in it.
“No,” she said, “I don’t think he is. But we must none of us interfere,” and then she went quickly and lightly away from him down the red and ochre tiles of the corridor and left him, disconsolate, by the notice boards.