Requiem for a Songbird

This was my entry for a recent Big Finish short story open submissions competition. The brief – “Doctor Who changed my life”.

It was the hardest entrance he’d ever have to do. Walking into the room, confronted by people who were there to celebrate his wife’s death. How could he face them?

Gilbert looked at their faces, full of sympathy for him. No, not sympathy, pity. They were there out of courtesy, friends of the new nightclub owner. Mickey Hamilton. Word was he was the new gangster around these parts. Gilbert sighed — if it were any other day than today, he’d have squared up to him. Told him exactly how the drugs and the dirty money were changing places like this.

On any day but today. Today was different.

He looked up at the bare stage. Just hours before, she’d been there. So unlike her, saying nothing – singing nothing. Just lying, face up, in a wooden casket as the few people he knew, and the masses he didn’t, said their respects before they headed to the cemetery. Those last couple of hours didn’t seem real, because it was here, in the Gaslight club, where he met, fell in love with – not just that, shared his life with – Lizzie, his wife.

She was Dilys Clitheroe when they first met. The stage name Elizabeth Nightingale had been her agent’s idea, she said. More classy for the jazz folks they got in the Gaslight back then. He liked it, and from that point on refused to call her by any other name. She would sit at the top stool at the bar, watching him as he took the eight-until-half-ten slot. Gil “The Gills” Gibson, London’s most celebrated cornet player. As he blew his horn to the darkened crowd, he could always see her there, illuminated by the faint glow of the lights behind the bar. Then they’d swap places, and he’d sip at his double Teachers and puff away at numerous Strands until her set was over. Come midnight, they’d swap back until they walked each other home come 2a.m.

Their regular routine lasted eight years, until the day when Gilbert told Dilys he was taking her down to the town hall to change her name by deed poll once and for all. Once she got down there, of course, she found he had a different change of name in mind – to his own.

They married as soon as they could, but she always remained his little nightingale. Together, the partnership of her distinctive voice and his unique cornet playing, never on stage together but inseparable nevertheless, made the Gaslight a jazz venue of unique renown.

And so they continued in their happy routine. He would play his cornet until two in the morning from Tuesday ’til Thursday; Lizzie Nightingale would fill in for an hour and a half, always refusing to perform with him in public, but singing her heart out on her own at weekends.

And then, some twenty three years later, their world fell apart.

Lizzie’s persistent bronchial cough was rediagnosed as lung cancer. Gil and his thirty-a-day habit gave up his regular slot at the Gaslight in favour of a permanent, cigarette-free vigil at his wife’s bedside. Lizzie, who had never smoked in her life, wasted away in front of him. All the radiotherapy seemed to do was attack the fighting spirit, the humanity left within her, until all that was left was a festering, growing ball of malignancy.

Before the following January was out, Gil “The Gills” Gibson, greatest cornet player that the London jazz scene had ever known, was without his muse. Mickey Hamilton had insisted on a big do after the interment. And, while Gil knew so very few of the people in attendance, it felt somehow satisfying that they were there at all.

And yet, he still withdrew from them. Gradually, he found his way to the familiar bar stool, the one he would sip his Teachers from while he watched her, heard her, sing his favourite songs. He sat, and he remembered.

His reverie was broken by the incredulous harrumphing of the barman, as he served a Diet Coke to a small young woman who seemed to have taken offence at something he’d said (not, Gilbert admitted to himself, a particularly unusual occurrence). The badge-laden bomber jacket stood out amidst the sober apparel around him.

She caught him looking in her direction, and blushed. “I’m sorry,” she said. “The Professor and I, we were – well, we wanted to hear Lizzie Nightingale live, but we… I guess we missed her.”

Catching his rueful smile, she continued. “I mean, he’s talked about her all the time. Told me how she is – sorry, was – a fantastic singer. A remarkable voice.”

Gil gave a wistful sigh. “Oh, that she was,” he said. “I mean, any old sod like me can blow an old horn. But the human voice… That takes real class. You can’t fake that. And hers… hers was the best.”

The girl’s face broke into a warm, conciliatory smile. “I’d like to hear it some day.”

“I’m sure you would,” Gilbert replied. “And you know, I’d give anything to have been on that stage with her, just once. But we’re both losers, aren’t we. She never did record anything. And then, of course, the ca…”

She could see him choke back the word; it was if it had been excised from the dictionary just for today. “Lizzie’s ‘illness'”, he continued, “put paid to any of that.”

He drifted back into silence then, as did the strange girl next to him.

One by one, mourners approached to pay their respects, their platitudes never rising above the inoffensive flannel one expects to hear at a funeral service. What a shame she’s left us, they said. None of us know when our time is up, do we?

Gilbert just nodded, shook their hands and waited for them to head towards the sandwiches. The girl remained beside him, uncomfortably perched on one of the bar stools, while a much older man she clearly knew approached.

“I…”, he started.

“She…”, he continued.

And then he decided not to try finishing that sentence. Just placed a comforting hand on Gilbert’s arm, and looked straight into his eyes with his own grey, drooping, incosolable gaze. I too have known death, the look told him. I know how it hurts.

That look meant more to Gilbert then than any of the verbal comments he received that night. He felt his knees buckle. In an instant the girl was at his side, steadying him. He was as surprised as she was when he flung his arms around her, buried his face into the horrible plastic of her jacket shoulder and started to sob.

Gil didn’t know how long he stayed like that, staining her coat with tears. He dimly remembered her helping him onto his bar stool, ensuring he took a good swig of whisky and wasn’t, as she put it, “about to go off on one again.” Then the strange girl tugged at her companion’s coat sleeves, whispering, “Professor, I’ve got an idea.”

As other mourners started to surround him, including Mickey Hamilton – why did funereal condolences seem so hollow from someone with such bloody hands? – the strange couple slinked away. They had all the stealth of people who were doing their best not to be noticed leaving a room, but were failing miserably.

Somewhere in the distance, Gilbert heard a faint, mechanical wheezing, like an asthmatic toilet cistern that refused to flush. Very odd. He’d have to have a word with Mickey about the plumbing later.

And then he was hit with something – a dim, distant memory. Except it couldn’t have been them, they must have just had similar clothing. He remembered looking out from the stage, seeing his beloved talking to a strange little man and a girl in a bomber jacket.

How odd. He knew that memory must be years old, but at the same time it felt new somehow. Freshly formed.

Trying to reconcile the disparity in his mind was giving him a headache by the time he heard that strange rasping sound again. Looking round, he saw the odd pair – what had she called him, the Professor, was it? – creeping back into the room. But what was he carrying? It looked like… no, it couldn’t be. Why on earth…?

Everyone else was still consumed by their own conversations by the time the Professor has started up the old record player, and lowered the needle onto the spinning surface of the old 78. One by one, the other voices stopped, as the dust crackles gave way to a haunting mezzo-soprano.

The other mourners were unsure: after all, she’d never recorded a note, everyone knew that. Nevertheless, Gilbert could tell beyond all doubt that this was his Lizzie Nightingale, singing a haunting rendition of Someone To Watch Over Me. An East End lass with a voice just like Dinah Washington’s. He knew, despite it being completely impossible, posterity had recorded that one aspect that the cancer had been the first to take away.

The club was silent as the record finished. Nobody moved. A couple of people made as if to start clapping, but hesitated, not wanting to disrupt the silence. Then slowly, Gilbert took the stage, re-cued the record, and improvised a stirring counter-harmony on his cornet.

Husband and wife together held a silent audience enraptured. Over at the bar stool the couple had shared for so many years, he saw the Professor put an arm around his friend’s shoulders, as she turned away to hide her gentle tears.

And then, it was over. As he held the final note, every one in the club could sense that Gil “The Gills” Gibson had played his last. There was a hush, that unique type of anticipatory silence that nobody wants to break. Then slowly, Mickey Hamilton stepped forward, his face wet with tears, bringing his enormous, calloused hands together again and again. The booming resonance of his handclaps encouraged others to follow suit, until the whole room was alive in deafening appreciation.

Gilbert knew, as he took his bow, that the applause he heard was for his beloved wife as much as for him. And even in death, this single piece of vinyl, which in some way had never existed until this moment, would keep her alive for him.

As he straightened up, Gilbert looked around for the strange Professor and his oddly-dressed friend. Somehow, he knew that the wheezing sound in the distance meant that they were already on their way.

Author: Scott Matthewman

Formerly Online Editor and Digital Project Manager for The Stage, creator of the award-winning The Gay Vote politics blog, now a full-time software developer specialising in Ruby, Objective-C and Swift, as well as a part-time critic for Musical Theatre Review, The Reviews Hub and others.