The Un:Fairer Sex

The Choir Competition Continues

The moment we have all been waiting for is almost upon us. Well – that is perhaps a rather grand promulgation for what is, essentially, the culmination of a somewhat juvenile practical joke. Hershel – the architect of this connivance – is no doubt watching from the wings with interest. As the Hawkins College Choir emerge from the nave, Head Porter, Professor Duke and I strain to see if any evidence of our stratagem can be observed.

I am somewhat ashamed to say that I am delighted to see that they look rather like I feel – heavily sleep deprived. No doubt the Porter kept them up all night, searching for the non-existent performance enhancing drugs, which, ironically, they look like they could do with right now. And there is definitely a hint of the itching powder in action – agitation and irritation seems to swarm about them like a plague. There are a couple of fat ones at the back that appear unaffected but you can’t have everything, I suppose.

Under ordinary circumstances, I would find the enjoyment of human suffering abhorrent; but these are not ordinary circumstances and I am enjoying myself immensely. Hawkins College – quite apart from being our natural enemy – are unbelievably smug and, let’s be frank, there are worse things than being tired and itchy.

“They look as rough as a bunch of badgers arses,” Head Porter poetically observes.

“What beautiful imagery, Head Porter,” I say. “Tell me – have you thought of becoming a wordsmith?”

“They look worst than ever thought possible by anybody anywhere,” says the Professor. “I bet they have lots of croaks when they look like that, you know. Imagine. We will probably rank higher than Hawkins, for sure.”

“That’s a point, who is judging this thing anyway?” asks Head Porter.

“Actually, I don’t really know,” I reply. “But the University Dean is in attendance, so I’m betting it’s him.”

I nod up towards the gallery where a corpulent elderly gentleman appears to be snoozing gently. However, his cheeks are so stoutly plump that they have almost devoured his eyes entirely so it is impossible to tell for sure. To all intents and purposes, the University Dean is most likely the most powerful man in the University and therefore The City itself. There is a rumoured upper echelon of shadowy figures that dictate from on high and instruct him, but this is unsubstantiated tittle-tattle at best. Where academics are concerned, I am prepared to believe anything.

“Many too bads Mr. Dean isn’t here,” muses Professor Duke. “Then again, though, his ear is dead to music—much like that fellow up there, I’d say.”

The Dean has very little time for the creative arts and famously only owns one solitary record. I, for one, am rather pleased he isn’t here. With all the warrior nun gossip and the dishevelled state of Hawkins Choir would no doubt raise his suspicions. And the state of the choir is rapidly becoming more dishevelled. A couple of the poor buggers – with darkened eyes and sunken cheeks – are frantically clawing at themselves as the itching powder takes hold upon their flesh. It is quite a disconcerting sight, in fact, particularly for those unaware of the cause. There is a shrill cry from somewhere within the gallery –

“Witchcraft! It’s witchcraft I tell you!”

“What do you mean, witchcraft?” comes a plaintive response. “Don’t be daft!”

“I say they are possessed!” Another voice adds to the hysteria and a fevered muttering ripples across The Great Chapel.

As the wretched Hawkins Choir thrash wildly about the chancel, a typically ridiculous response erupts throughout the audience. There are squeals and accusations of all sorts being thrown into the chattering throng and even mentions of sabotage. That, at least, is true.

“I think we should be making a move, chaps,” I suggest to my bewildered companions. “What with all the nun-talk and now this, it’s probably better we make ourselves scarce.”

“If you insist,” says the Professor. “This ugliness could turn into an epic fight, but let’s leave just because.”

Under the cover of panic and confusion, we quietly slip from our pew and out into the lobby of The Great Chapel. This turns out to be the cause of some surprise – in fact, two surprises. The first surprise is that there is someone stood apparently waiting for us. The second surprise is that it is none other than The Master.

The Choir Competition Commences

A weighty hush falls across The Great Chapel as several hundred pairs of ears strain in expectation of what is to come. There is a gentle tap tap from the conductor’s baton, then a soaring cacophony of ethereal voices sails aloft to the very rafters. For a moment I feel my own breath taken with it, such is the vocal beauty of the Wastell College Choir. I know in that instant that our own dear choristers – beautiful of face but less so of voice – could never achieve such euphonious heights. Organ Scholar and Penelope have done a fine job training them, certainly – but they wear their robes by merit of their looks and not their talents. These fellows here are a different breed entirely.

“So, The Master’s Wife didn’t want you to accompany her after all?” I whisper to Head Porter. He shakes his head.

“It’s a funny thing,” he replies “But I hear that The Master has returned unexpectedly from his business trip, so she didn’t need me after all. Thank goodness.”

“Jolly lucky escape, I’d say.”

“Well, quite.”

We settle back into silence and allow ourselves to be bewitched by exquisite choral enchantment. The previous night’s events melt into abeyance and my jangled nerves are soothed by song, so much so that I quite lose myself for a moment. Perhaps more than a moment, as Professor Duke is soon elbowing me in the ribs.

“Don’t you know it’s rude to fall asleep in public?” he says. “Anyway, look – our chaps are going to be on in a minute.”

“Oh! Already?” I wonder if I nodded off briefly. “Wastell College were bloody good, though, weren’t they?”

The Professor huffs a little and fidgets in the pew.

“Well, they have a half decent set of lungs between them, I’ll give them that,” he concedes. “But they are a rare looking bunch, wouldn’t you say?”

I have to admit that I hadn’t formed an opinion either way; the Professor, however, is quite astute about such things. But before I can reply, I spy Organ Scholar emerging from the nave, followed by the glorious looking ensemble that is the Old College Choir. I am somewhat concerned to see Hershel once again among their number, despite the fact he can’t sing. Worse, there is another extra chorister bearing the sumptuous red and gold robes.

“Oh my my!” exclaims the Professor. “Look what we have here! Why, it’s that harridan The Master’s Wife. We can only hope the bop on the nose has improved her vocal talents. The woman has a voice like drains being emptied.”

Oh dear. Despite taking charge of the College Choir (quite forcibly, from what I understand) The Master’s Wife has no musical talent whatsoever. Were it not for her husband being the most important man in College, she would not have got so far as the Chapel doors. It’s a curious thing, the abrupt vanishing of the Music Professor. We never did discover what happened to him.

Even from here I can see the consternation on Organ Scholar’s face. He exudes a wrath that seems most unsuitable for the task in hand and is certainly inappropriate for such an eminent environment. The Choir seem nervous, which is only to be expected. I am feeling a little nervous myself.

“He doesn’t look too happy,” says Head Porter, nodding towards Organ Scholar. “I’ve got a bad feeling, you know.”

“Pah! That’s probably just your breakfast, old boy,” the Professor replies. “I have every faith our chaps will do a stirling job. Maybe. Perhaps. Yes.”

Organ Scholar brings down his baton firmly on the lecturn and assumes the stance of a man who means business. The air is thick with anticipation as he deftly raises his arms and taunts the assembled choristers into rousing chorus. Penelope leads from the heart of the Choir – her strong, confident voice guiding the way for her companions. There is perhaps an uncertainty for half a bar before the boys and girls of Old College find a boldness that is really quite exceptional. They may not have the technical grace and lofty elegance of Wastell, but their performance has a renegade element to it that can only be described as inspiring. Go, Old College!

As the performance reaches a climactic crescendo, Professor Duke leaps to his feet and begins applauding wildly. Head Porter joins him and before I know it, I am also whooping with delight in a manner that is probably most unbecoming.

If this were a great dramatic tale of some importance, literary law would state that the rest of the assembled audience would soon join us in our acclamation with gusto, the likes of which had never been seen. Unfortunately, our story commands no such reverence and we are merely stared at as if we are lunatics. But it has raised a smile amongst the Choir, who beam back at us from the chancel.

We manage to compose ourselves before someone takes it upon themselves to throw us out and prepare for the next performance – our arch rivals, Hawkins College. Now to see if Hershel’s marvellous plan is a resounding success or something far much worse.

Get Me To The Chapel

I am running, running, running… through darkened streets, buildings of improbable proportions looming above me, their windows looking as if they might lean down to devour me at any minute. My chest is heavy with exertion and… body armour. There is a hat upon my head but it certainly isn’t an elegant Porter’s bowler. I cannot tell if I am chasing or being chased, all I know is that if I don’t run faster something terrible will happen. Up ahead I see a familiar figure; even in the anonymous uniform I can see it is Harper. I try to call out to him but no words come… my mouth is open, a silent chasm through which air and sound refuse to pass…

And then I am approaching the car, if the mass of twisted metal can still be called such a thing. The road beneath it is scorched black and the air is thick with the greasy stench of burned rubber and melted steel. There is another smell… one that has remained forever within my nostrils, always just beside the very edge of consciousness. Vicky is with me. I reach out and take her hand as we proceed, shaking, to the driver’s side…

Something heavy and hairy arrives urgently on my chest. My eyes open to the delicate scratch of whiskers on my cheek.

“Meow?”

That is Terry’s hungry voice. My hands find his furry belly and I am indulged the privilege of a brief snuggle, before the increasingly noisy requests for food resume. I wriggle into an upright position, shoving pillows behind my back to support my drowsy and confused self. The clock is telling me it is almost noon. I would call that clock a liar but my churning guts know that it is telling the truth.

Why didn’t my alarm go off?

That’s right. It did go off – at precisely three minutes before I got into bed. I only intended to snatch a couple of hours but my unconscious self clearly had other ideas.

The Choir Competition! I have just an hour to get myself to The Great Chapel in the very heart of The City if I want to witness our triumph over Hawkins College first hand. This, of course, is of no interest whatsoever to Terry, whose only real concern is his empty food bowl. First things first. 

I am slightly dishevelled and completely out of breath but I make it to The Great Chapel with seconds to spare. Professor Duke and Head Porter are waiting for me by the huge, ornate doors. They look a little cross.

“Late as usual!” says the Professor, tapping his watch. “If you were earlier, you wouldn’t be late, you know. It’s that simple. Our little escapades last night made us infamous. Yo.”

“Oh no, that doesn’t sound very good,” I reply. The Professor laughs.

“Well, they haven’t discovered I was the warrior nun yet. Well, that we were. Well, just well. But anyways, everyone’s talking about ‘the warrior nuns’. We’ve got quite a reputation. It’ll be a legend on par with the headless horse thingy in no time, I say. University legends we shall be!”

There might have been a time when I would have been very keen to become a University legend but time and experience has taught me that it is very much wiser to maintain a low profile about such things.

“Bloody ridiculous behaviour,” mutters Head Porter, shaking his head. But I suspect he is simply jealous that his own performance as a debt collecting milkman did not get more recognition. “Come on, we’re going to be late. Let’s get inside.”

The Great Chapel is certainly aptly named. Once through the entrance, a glorious marble aisle sweeps grandly towards the magnificent alter, flanked on either side by row upon row of carved wooden pews, resplendent with elderly stoicism. The place is packed to the very rafters with the great and good of the Collegiate; Fellows and students rub shoulders with the musical elite and I even spot some notable members of the Church amongst the throng. This is quite the illustrious occasion and hardly the place for a College Porter.

The Professor, Head Porter and I slip ourselves into an innocuous pew towards the rear of The Great Chapel. We shall not be afforded the best view in the house but at least we will be nicely out of the way. Besides, it’s a Choir Competition. It’s all about the listening, surely. Professor Duke nudges me awkwardly and nods towards the chancel.

“Now, here cometh the show. Can’t wait.”

From the nave comes an orderly line of noble-looking youths, wearing the regal crimson robes of Wastell College. They quietly take their places as the conductor readies his baton.

“They certainly look like they mean business,” whispers Head Porter.

“They should’ve been visited by the itching powder,” the Professor mutters ruefully.

“Never mind about about Wastell. As long as we beat Hawkins, honour will be satisfied,” I assure them. “Now hush, they’re about to begin.”