I’m writing this at Graham’s request, although not necessarily just for his consumption. Unlike him, I’m not a journalist so I don’t really know how this should work. After all, I only worked in the copy department.
Graham started as the music critic some ten years ago, when I was working there in the IT department – repairing PCs, fixing things, that kind of thing. Of course, working with my headphones on, and him being a music critic, the first thing he said to me was obvious: “what are you listening to?”
I don’t really remember what I was doing, of course – probably some printer driver issue or other. We had some very expensive printers around that time that used to give us endless trouble. I have no idea why we had them, except that some bright spark in accounting decided that they were the thing to have because they were some three or four pounds cheaper than something built like a tank that would last forever. That’s the trouble when you put the bean counters in charge, I reckon.
Where was I? Oh yes. I think it was Berlioz; probably “Symphony Fantastique”. Which surprised him, as he was expecting I’d be listening to nu metal or some such. We ended up talking about music while I attempted to make the infernal printer work. He enjoyed all sorts, from metal to Mozart, while my tastes where a bit more avant garde. But opera? Ah, that’s where the common ground really lay.
And did it ever – we loaned each other CDs of Kathleen Ferrier, Joan Sutherland, Enrico Caruso: I even managed to find Alessandro Moreschi’s recording of “Ave Maria” on the web, which is a transcendental, if surreal, experience.
Then one night Graham asked me a question that would change my life.
“Have you ever heard of the March society?” he asked me.
I shook my head. “Never heard of them.”
“Opera thing,” he replied. “I’ve been invited to join but I don’t think I’ve got the time. Can I recommend you and you can go along and see what it’s all about and report back?”
“Ok,” I said. “Sure.”
I had visions of Glynde House in my mind, of sitting in that famous theatre, listening to Deborah Voigt, Luca Pisaroni, or any of the rising stars of those days. Of course, it was nothing to do with that at all.
In fact, I met a solicitor with a huge walrus moustache in his office over a shop on Oxford Canal Street.
“Can you keep a secret?” he asked.
Which was odd, certainly.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Good,” he said, handing me a form and a pen.
I skim read through the three pages, and signed it. There was nothing particularly worrying, simply not to divulge the identity of any of the visitors, or the performers, due to having to protect the society.
“Looks OK, if a bit odd,” I said, handing it back.
He smiled. It was an open grin, really: friendly.
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” he explained. “Basically they’ve had some people in the past who’ve tried to… shall we say, undermine the society? And it’s a society of friends, really. So they don’t have to admit anyone they don’t want. And they definitely don’t want anyone who wants to harm their star performers, ever again.”
I nodded. “What was it? Assassination attempt?”
He shook his head. “You know, right now, as much as I do. I’ve never attended and haven’t been invited. So I can’t really comment, I’m afraid. Besides, opera’s not really my thing.”
Despite not being a fan of opera, I liked him. He inspired some kind of warm feeling inside me; at the very least, I felt I could trust him.
“Do you know why it’s called the March society?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“I know that, at least,” he continued. “Apparently it was founded by the man who discovered their star singer – Colonel March – back in the late 1800s I believe.”
It was interesting, but it didn’t explain a lot. I was hoping the meetings would at least shed some of the gloom.
It turned out to be three weeks before I was even invited to one of the meetings. It turned out to be at a famous cave complex – you’d know the name, so I best not say it out loud.
The invitation said seven o’clock, so naturally, I turned up early. I had to wait about twenty minutes before two huge security men opened the entrance doors.
“Photo ID,” one said to me. “You know the rules.”
“I’ve never been before,” I said.
“Check your letter. Photo ID. And show me the letter.”
I’d brought them both, of course. I’d read the letter – carefully. I wasn’t really expecting much, but I didn’t want to let Graham down. My report of the meeting I’d had with walrus moustache had made both of us all the more curious.
I’d been to the complex as a visitor a week before, when I’d learned where the meeting was to be. The main entrance, which was built some ten or fifteen years ago, is rather grand and special. There’s a rather splendid restaurant, a gift shop, a small theatre with a film about the caverns, and a point where people queue for the guided tours, which happen every twenty minutes. It was the older entrance that we were directed to – a smaller, less grand building that appeared to have been disused for a few years. When I got there the only person was a middle-aged woman, maybe mid 50s, with short greying hair.
“This is the old entrance,” she told me when I asked. “We used it until about ten years ago, when we built the new one. The way in here was becoming so used that it became a little unsafe for our purposes. Please help yourself to tea or coffee.” She pointed to a table with several of those corporate style flasks for hot water.
“No alcohol?” I asked.
“Not when going underground,” she shook her head. “Far too dangerous.”
She bustled away into another room, helping herself to a biscuit from the one of the plates on the table as she went. Just as she went into the offices through one door, the door behind me opened and a couple dressed in thick tweeds entered.
“Evening,” he said, extending a hand and introducing himself. “You must be new?”
“Yes, first time,” I replied. Introducing myself. “I’m very interested to see, really. I don’t know much about it.”
“Ah,” My new friend nodded, sagely. “You probably won’t work out much until you get down there. But trust me, it will all be worth it.”
The door opened again. Over the next ten minutes, about twenty or thirty other people entered. I recognised some of them: there was a famous actor who you’ve seen in a few films, a cabinet minister and what I assume was his wife, a professional footballer and I’m sure a lot of “captains of industry” and similar types. I did recognise a senior account executive from an IT company, who nodded to me vaguely and came over to talk.
“I didn’t know you were a member of the March society,” she said.
“I’m new,” I replied. “First time. Not sure what to expect, really.”
“Well I’m glad you’re here. Clearly my reference worked.”
“Mustn’t say too much. But everyone had to go through a reference process. Especially after…” she grimaced, and tapped the side of her nose with one finger. “You know what.”
“I don’t, but thank you,” I replied. “I’m looking forward to it.”
The white-haired woman came out of the office, now wearing a high-visibility jacket and a hard hat over her business suit.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she almost shouted. “Follow me please. Bring some of the torches from the table, and as usual, please leave any electronics or recording devices on the table.”
I turned to look at my sales acquaintance, and she dug into her handbag, produced her mobile phone, and nodded. I followed suit and placed my phone on the table.
“Some people tried to record,” she whispered. “One poor soul… it drove him mad.”
I nodded, trying to make it look as though I already knew what she was talking about.
She unlocked the far door – the original entrance to the caves, I assumed – and started off. We followed, a few places behind.
How our guide knew where to go, I don’t know, because every wall looked the same to me. But I suppose when you work somewhere like this, you begin to understand the geography of the place. After ten minutes, she unlocked another door and took us through, locking it behind us again. The thought of being locked in underground scared me.
The tunnel here led into a small chamber. I gasped as the sour smell hit my nostrils. A cross between rotten fish and that smell you get when you’ve had a cold for three days that smells like your own nose decaying. There were a few coughs and retches from others.
“You get used to the smell pretty quickly,” the rep whispered in my ear.
I nodded, trying not to throw up.
Looking around, I saw several rows of fairly uncomfortable looking chairs. There were maybe fifty chairs, arranged in rows of ten, facing a pool in the corner. At the side of the pool sat a string quartet, who clearly were on a break, drinking what looked like maybe coffee from aluminium flasks similar to the ones in the reception area.
Everyone started to sit down, and I saw a general air of anticipation. People were smiling, fidgeting, anxious for things to start.
“Come on,” my new friend said, and we sat in the back row. The view was acceptable.
“This is an opera company?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Just one soloist,” she replied. “But you’ve never heard anything like this.”
There was a ripple in the water. One or two of the audience started to clap.
The water broke over a dark, slimy head. The smell intensified tremendously as a body resembling a giant slug, with huge milky eyes and a giant mouth with protruding mandibles squirmed from the water towards the music stand.
I started up, but my neighbour grabbed my arm.
“It’s here,” she said, turning to me, her eyes shining.
I turned back to look, unable to disguise my disgust.
“Good evening, my friends,” said the creature, and coughed.
There was a tumult of applause. The audience rose to its feet.
“Thank you,” it said. “Thank you.”
Eventually, after what seemed like hours, everyone sat down again.
“As you know,” the creature continued, “it’s almost the anniversary of the death of my beloved friend Colonel March.”
I nearly jumped out of my seat.
“I know,” my IT colleague whispered to me. “Nobody knows how old she is. Or he.”
“So if nobody minds,” it continued. “I would like to open with something from the last opera my friend went to see.Lakmé”
I groaned, inwardly. The flower duet – with one singer?
The string quartet began playing. And the creature began to sing.
I really don’t remember what the creature sang. I don’t really remember whether the string quartet were any better than just merely adequate. I don’t remember that smell. I remember that voice.
I have never heard, before or since, a voice like it. The clear, resonant notes rang out like glass bells, each syllable was perfectly accented. The emotional highs and lows washed over me like a roller coaster. Every high or low note was reached without any effort at all. “Sempre Libera” felt like a mere warm up exercise. The act 3 aria from “Nabucco” was just a mere scale test.
And the emotion. As technically perfect as could be, it was emotionally full at the same time.
I can’t tell you who it sounded like, because it didn’t sound like anybody. It would be like comparing Joan Sutherland to sandpaper, Domingo to a dog’s bark, Pavarotti to a parrot with laryngitis. Even the greatest singers I’d ever heard sounded like beginners compared to this creature.
Half an hour later, I could barely see for tears. Most others were the same.
The creature stopped. It looked around, as though startled by something.
“I’m sorry my friends,” the creature coughed. “I’m afraid I don’t feel so well, I…”
I heard a gasp. The creature started to lean sideways, and fell into the water. A woman screamed.
My memories are hazy at this point. I know one of the audience was there with a stethoscope, and he looked up and shook his head. I remember my rep friend wailing, tears running down her face. I saw the cabinet minister fall and break his ankle (even though the newspapers said the next day that he had fallen in the shower).
I don’t quite remember how I got home. I don’t think I got particularly drunk, but I remember drinking somewhere. I remember getting home around eleven.
I vividly remember putting my headphones on, and trying to listen to something comforting. Pavarotti sounded emotionless. Domingo sounded like sandpaper. Ferrier like someone beginning their operatic training.
For a few moments, I had heard perfection. I had sat in the same room as the greatest singer this world had ever seen gave his or her final performance. And then, cruelly, never to be heard again.
I remember that next morning, tears in my eyes, going through my music collection. My prized Deutsche Grammophon 80s vinyl, the Japanese imports, the Naxos recordings of operas I can’t seem to find on any other label – they occupied eight large cardboard boxes by the time I’d finished.
I game them all to a charity shop.
As I say, I can’t listen to music any more.
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