Two-part harmony

by PeterG09

When I moved up to secondary school from primary my Dad said I should join some of the various clubs and societies available. Apparently I needed to learn to socialise.

He was right. I actually hated socialising. I'd been to some parties and I hated them. The music was always too loud, there was a lot of horsing around. At one party, when the parents who owned the place were out for the evening, there was a mass brawl broken up only when the neighbours called the police. At another, someone smuggled in a bottle of vodka and one boy had to be taken to A&E to get his stomach pumped. Some fun.

I had speculated that perhaps I was gay, since I did not enjoy trying to impress the girls. Mind you, I was not trying to impress the boys either. Was there perhaps a sort of IQ test that you could take that would give an answer? I Googled "How do I know if I am gay?". I was immediately presented with a load of useless websites which could be summed up by saying 'if you think you are then you are'. Logically this seemed to mean that if you thought you were then you might be, and vice versa. Which brought you neatly back to the problem you started with.

There was no-one to ask and anyway I was quite OK with my own company so I just decided to do nothing and let things take their course.

I'd never been a great one for joining things. Being naturally quite lazy and uncompetitive I had no interest in sport of any sort. I looked at chess and the debating society but they bored me. I went along to the school choir and was immediately hooked. It was a mixed choir, perhaps more girls than boys. It was not a cool thing to belong to and that suited me fine. It meant that there was little chance of it being full of macho types trying to out-compete each other.

The music master, who ran the show, was one of those rare individuals who could bring out the best that we students had to offer. He didn't try to be our friend or anything trendy. He just taught us and expected us to try our individual best. I learned to read music, how to hold a part against other voices, how to blend in and not dominate. One of the most important things in a choir is to watch the conductor and I learned that too.

Some of the music we sang was not to my taste but a lot of it was. We did lots of concerts, sometimes with various parents and other staff members augmenting the students when a bit more power was needed. Some of the things we tackled were quite challenging but, as the master said, "If I didn't think you could do them I would not have suggested them".

Concerts we were usually accompanied by the school orchestra, which gave them a chance to perform as well. Working with them we also learned how to listen to musical cues from instruments and from other parts of the choir.

I loved it and choir rehearsals became the highlight of my school week.

In September of 2019 I was just about to start my GCSE year. I had a phone call from the music master. He said he had something for me. There was a male voice choir nearby that was having an open evening for prospective members. Apparently you could go along, have some sort of a voice test and then sing for the evening with whatever voice part you suited. He said he thought it would be just right for me ands suggested I go along and try.

MVCs were new to me so I did a bit of Googling and found that they were just that: all-male, but all four voices. It seemed to be a particular tradition in Cornwall and in Wales, but lots of other places also had them.

I told my Dad what I had found. He seemed very interested in the idea and said I should go and if I wanted he would go with me for support. I felt this was something I could do on my own. I could reach the choir rehearsal by bus. They met at a sports and social club.

I did not doubt that I would be good enough, but I did wonder if they would want someone like me. My voice had only just broken and had not really settled to any particular pitch yet.

I got to the club and discovered that the choir was quite big – around forty-five men were there. Mostly they were older than me – some a lot older. I introduced myself to one of the members and he pointed me towards the Musical Director. I expected someone rather imposing, instead I met a smallish man in scruffy jeans and a sweatshirt. There was a bar, and although I was too young to buy a drink he bought me a juice and introduced me to a few of the members. Another boy, a bit older than me, came in and was brought over to the MD.

While the choir went through their warm-up routine a man who I found was the piano accompanist took the two of us to a small room where there was a keyboard. He got us to sing a bit individually, and then together. He said we were probably both basses. He told us a bit about the choir and its repertoire and concert performances and then took us through to the rehearsal room. The choir was just coming to the end of the warm-up which was voice exercises and looked more fun than what we usually did at school.

The two of us were introduced to the choir. I learned that my fellow-wannabe was called Eric. The choir gave us a round of applause, we were introduced to the leader of the bass section and directed to stand in the middle of the other basses. This was so that we would "not be corrupted by being near the baritones". There was laughter at this: some sort of in-joke. We were given the music that was going to be rehearsed that night. I found it included a piece I already knew, and another that the choir was going to start learning that evening.

The first hour shot by. I really felt in my element. Eric and I got some help from basses around us. I found that one of the traditions of MVCs is that they do not take sheet music on stage for a performance, but learn everything by heart. It seemed that a lot of the members could not read music in any case and just learned by rote.

By the time a break was called I was tired and exhilarated. This was way better than I had expected. Eric and I sat with the rest of the section, were given some more drinks, and had some more introductions. When I was asked whether I enjoyed it I think my grin must have been the answer.

Eric and I chatted a bit He was easy to talk to. He had just gone in to first-year Sixth Form and went to the secondary school across town from mine.

Several basses said that they had heard me singing, at least in the pieces that I already knew, and that I seemed to have no trouble coping.

I got home at about 10:20, which was quite late for me to be out on a school night, but Dad knew the rehearsal times so there was no trouble. I told him all about it and I must have sounded very enthusiastic because he said "I was going to ask if you were going again, but I think it's a 'yes'".

During the week I worked on the music I had been given, so that by the time the next rehearsal came round I would be up to speed. I went to see the music master and told him what had happened. He seemed very pleased and said he'd had a feeling I would find it something I wanted to do.

I got there early next choir evening and several members said I must be keen. I was. Eric arrived, so he'd also decided to join. We were both legally too young to be served over the bar, but no-one seemed too bothered. We were told to go and place our orders and the club would pay for them. The lady behind the bar could not serve us alcohol but as it was a private club had no problem serving us.

The rehearsal began with the warm-up and we were able to take part in it properly. There were lots of breathing exercises as well as things like trying to sing tongue-twisters. To be in a room full of men all working together and not competing with each other was something quite new to me and I loved it. I noticed that the MD and the pianist seemed to have an unusually close understanding of what was wanted. Every time the MD wanted to go back over a passage, the pianist was ready with exactly the section required.

The next concert was going to be a Christmas one at the beginning of December. The rule in the choir was that you could sing in concerts, in choir uniform, once you knew at least half of the songs for the performance. I knew most of them so I was invited to take part. At the next rehearsal, just before it started, I was given my choir jacket and tie. Eric was in as well. We felt great.

There was a man in the baritones who always seemed to be on his own. He came up to me as I was getting ready to leave and said that he's noticed my address in the choir members' list and that he could give me a lift home as it was on his way.

We set off and I was chattering away, being quite excited. Without my noticing it he pulled in to a cul-de-sac near my house and stopped under an overhanging tree, away from the streetlights. Before I could register what was happening he put his left hand on my upper thigh and with his right hand was stroking my face and neck. I tried to push him away but he had the advantage of surprise and also strength. I shoved as hard as I could but he leaned in and said "You know you want this". I could only guess where it was leading and I fought back as best I could. Then there was a sharp rap on the driver's side window and a man was standing there. It seemed that the clown had parked across this blokes' drive and he needed to put his car in.

I lunged for the door handle, grabbed my bag and new jacket and ran.

My Dad was waiting up as usual. He knew I was getting my jacket and wanted to see it. I arrived at the front door panting and looking anything but happy. I told him I'd nearly missed the bus and had had to run. He didn't look as though he believed me, after all why would I still be panting if I had caught the bus?, but he did not push it beyond saying that if here was anything I wanted to talk about to just say so. There was, but not to him. I did not know who I could talk to.

That night before I went to bed I did two things. The first was to look closely at my face in the mirror and try and figure why this man had tried it on with me. The other was to hang the jacket in my cupboard. I had been going to hang it on the picture rail so that I would see it first thing in the morning. But now it felt dirty and grubby and I did not want to have to look at it.

The next afternoon when I got back from school there was a knock at the door. One of the men I recognised from the baritone section was there. He introduced himself and asked if he could come in. There was something he wanted to say and it would be a bit awkward to do it on the doorstep. I was still shaken from the night before so I asked him what it was about. He said "It's about what happened last night after rehearsal."

It was his drive that my clown had parked across. He recognised me, and my driver. He'd seen what was going on in the car. He'd seen me run off in a panic. And he'd then told my clown not to come back to the choir. I gathered it had been quite a confrontation.

I said "Will he be back this week?" and he said the man would be mad to try that. "I think he probably only joined the choir in order to get easy pick-ups". I didn't know clearly what a pick-up was but I was quickly getting the idea.

That night I was feeling a bit better about my jacket. At Dad and Mum's request I put it and the tie on and showed off. Mum took photographs (don't they always?) and Dad said I'd grown up. After Mum went back to the kitchen he asked me if I was OK. Had something happened last night? I said yes, but it had been dealt with. No problem.

At rehearsal something interesting happened. Well, a few things really. First, several of the baritones made a point of talking to me, so word must have got around. Second, I was having trouble with the new piece we were working on. I could not get the hang of an entry. We had to sing, then count a seven-beat rest and then come in again. I could not get it right. I was standing next to Eric, as usual, and he could hear me missing the cues. When we stopped for a moment while the MD sorted out some problem with the pianist, he took hold of my right wrist and said "When I squeeze, sing." It felt odd, but nice. No-one seemed to have noticed what was going on or if they did obviously did not care.

We sang. Eric squeezed. I sang. Brilliant. After we finished the piece he kept holding on to me. It felt good so I just let it happen When we sat down he released me. He leaned over and said "see me in he break." Intriguing.

In the break I went to the loo and he followed me. At the urinals he said "come outside". We went out. There were just a few choir members there who had to have their fag break. He led me to one of the benches so that we could be seen but not overheard.

I asked what it was all about. He had picked up a lot about what had gone on and wanted to let me know that he had my back. "Why did he pick on me?" I asked. "Well, because you were alone. And he felt the urge, and…" "Yeh, and what?" "…and because you're beautiful."

"What?" That I've never been. "You're telling me as a bloke I'm beautiful? Bollocks." "Well" he said "you may have beautiful bollocks, I don't know, but the rest of you is gorgeous."

Dumbfounded is an odd word. But what else does the job. Dumbstruck maybe. Dumb certainly. This felt like one of those moments of great decision. When you came to a fork in life's road and had to take one path or another.

"Are you gay?"

"Aren't you?"

"I don't know. Maybe". This was more than I'd ever said to anyone on the subject. "Does anyone here know about this?"

Then he dealt the killer stroke. The one I really was not expecting. "Martin. This is a gay men's choir. Everyone here is gay. Didn't you know?".

Well obviously not. I mean, who knew? And then here was the sound of pennies dropping. Many of them. Feeling comfortable in the choir. Enjoying the banter and fun. Suddenly understanding the in-jokes. Realising why my old music master said this would be right for me. Even understanding and feeling totally relieved. I understood.

And then I also saw that my own Father had worked it out. It felt as though everyone I knew had together created some grand plan behind my back. But they didn't need to. The only had to look at me and figure it out.

The concert was amazing. I was running on adrenalin. There were probably mistakes that the audience never noticed – there always are in a live performance. The choir always went to a pub afterwards for a drink, more singing and a wind-down. I was not the only one who was floating just a little off the ground.

Someone bought me a beer. I did not tell them that I was not quite old enough, and they did not ask. I drank it slowly I had no idea what it would do or how quickly. I had not drunk alcohol before.

As my inhibitions loosened and the happiness of the moment created a warm atmosphere, I began to look around. Suddenly the way men were talking to each other, standing in relation to each other, seemed to make sense. And then the singing started. Unaccompanied. These were evidently the songs that the choir had sung together many times. There seemed to be an endless supply People sang the parts they belonged to other sections, made up there own harmonies, played around with the words. It was a noise but not like the row of those schools discos.

I was confident that I would not be overheard so I leaned over to Eric in order to talk directly in to his ear. "Tell me about the MD and the pianist?" I whispered. "They're married". So that was also explained.

Eric said he wanted to walk home with me. It was about 20 minutes. We set off and soon he had taken my hand in his. I felt the night was complete. And it really was when we crossed the park and he led me in to a darker patch of night and we kissed. I hoped his would happen But I did not know how. He did.

When we got to my place I asked him to come in and meet my parents . They were delighted to meet him and tactfully asked no awkward questions but just talked about the concert. Eventually my Dad offered to drive him home. I went along for the ride. We sat together in the back seat and again no questions were asked. Somewhere down the line I was going to have to talk to my parents about this, but not tonight.

Eric gave me a Christmas present on the next choir night. It was a t-shirt. On the front was a large arrow pointing to my right and the words He's Mine printed underneath. He had the same for himself, with a left arrow. I usually stood on his left.

It all felt too good to be true. Like a soppy fairy story where they all live happily ever after. No-one lives for ever after, happy or not. The choir closed down for Christmas and re-started in the first week of January 2020. We began to hear rumours of a mystery infection that had sprung up in China. Soon it was not just a minor news item but the news, consuming all else. On March 23 rd we learned that the choir would not be meeting again until further notice. School was shut and I was supposed to do my GCSE studies online. We expected it would soon be all over. It wasn't. Eric and I could not meet. We started endless email conversations and quickly moved to social media. We exchanged thoughts and photos, but it was not the same as being able to lie next to my now official boyfriend.

Choir, like school, used Zoom. At first it was quite exciting but soon the limitations became all too obvious. We could individually hear the MD.s comments and his piano, but he could not hear us and we could not hear each other. After about six weeks it became tedious, and then pointless as we tried and failed to learn some new pieces. The choir concert schedule was first put on hold and then abandoned altogether.

Lockdown lasted until the end of July and Eric and I at last had what should have been a rapturous reunion. But we were both feeling so beaten down by the previous months that we fell to bickering. Mum and Dad went away for a long weekend and left the house to us. This was better as we could start to readjust and talk through our feelings. He had been planning a gap year to include some travelling before he went on to read economics at university. Now he hoped to go straight to university since all the places he wanted to travel to were off limits 'due to the Covid'. How I hated that phrase. I was going in to the lower Sixth but it looked as though that would continue to be done online and the GCSEs that I worked so hard for were awarded on my teacher's assessment, as if I was irrelevant as a person.

Eric and I both understood that we were looking at a new employment landscape, one that no-one was prepared for or knew how to navigate. Would there be any jobs left, let alone ones we were qualified for? I did manage to secure a Modern Apprenticeship to be taken up when I completed my A levels, but none of us had any idea when that might be or even if the engineering company would still be trading.

The horrible atmosphere continued to fray our relationship and we spent more time arguing than loving. My parents, and his, did their best to help but they had problems of their own. Gradually it became inconvenient for Eric and me to find time to meet and we drifted apart. I still had his contact details but nothing to contact him about. We had not been together long enough to be able to forge a strong stable bond that could withstand what this new world was chucking at us.

Eventually in early summer 2021 a message from the committee announced that the choir would be reforming for rehearsals. Concerts were a long way down the line and we would have to observe the awful social distancing but at least we could meet. The bar would be shut and we would practice outdoors on the cricket pitch. I was delighted to go along and it worked, in a sort-of way. Singing outdoors is a long way from the resonance of a tuned building that you get when singing indoors.

Some members asked me about Eric and I said he had moved away. In a sense he had. During the lockdowns a choir member had died and two were still seriously ill and would not be returning, and a further three older members had decided to retire. We needed some new blood to revive the energy of the choir, so there was going to be an open evening in three weeks time.

We turned up as usual. One of our members had taken to bringing a supply of beer and set up an informal bar. We all had a drink, no-one worried about my age. We warmed up. And the MD introduced us to a new prospective member. It was a boy who had been a year below me at school, and if he joined the choir he would be in the bass section.

The clouds might be lifting after all.

I came across the t-shirt the other day. It had got shoved to the back of a drawer. I don't suppose I'll wear it again, but to get rid of it would be so final.

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