It’s Christmas Eve and the day of my last concert. For six years I’ve been a chorister in the Choir of King’s College, and last autumn the director, Mr. Callaway, said my voice was soon to break. I sit on a chair in the kitchen as Mother knots the open ends of a plastic sack like apron strings behind my neck. Usually she works doubles at the depot cleaning Cambridge’s busses to help pay for my lessons and tours, but today she will hear me sing for the first time.
“Please, Mum,” I say. “Let me get a haircut from James downtown like the other boys. He gives them lollies and makes me laugh when I walk by on the way to practice. He makes funny faces in the window.”
“He’ll gyp you for ten pounds,” she says.
She uses red-handled, dull scissors that rip my hairs.
“You could get holiday bonus working today, yah?”
“Not to miss my lad’s last concert. Five years I’ve worked holiday.”
Mother doesn’t drive the busses and earn more money because she thinks power lines are poisonous. I’ve told her that nobody dies from the power lines unless they get on a ladder and stick out their tongues. She believes the rubbish cans on the tops of poles hold all of the poison and that that’s what killed Grandmum. For a bit I thought Mother was right. At night I would tighten my muscles and hum loudly to drown the constant noise outside my window. Grandmum died before Mother was accepted for government housing where there are only gaslights and Mother hasn’t been near city centre since. I still cringe when I hear buzzing because I think it’s the last sound before death. Bzzzz—. I told Mother I’d never let the power lines kill her, because then what would I do? She said matter-of-factly that Mr. Callaway would see to my needs, as if they’d somehow discussed it without having met.
Mother shaves my neck with a straight edge. First it hurts and then my whole body tingles. I say, “You shouldn’t come because it’ll make me nervous you in the crowd. Go on to work and listen hard and after the bells you’ll know I’m singing for you.”
Grandmum moved in with us the winter her cough got bad. Each day on my way home from school I stopped at Mr. Harstad’s Shoppe to buy fags for Mother and butterscotches for Grandmum. She took me to church every Sunday while Mother worked, and just as the service began, we’d both place a candy on the backs of our tongues. I know it’s what saved her throat that last year; never once did she cough in church. During hymns, I closed my eyes and mouthed words pretending I had Grandmum’s pretty voice. I stole her voice until the Sunday she died. “You have to float your words even when you pray,” she whispered as I bowed my head to ask God to keep her alive. “Heaven only hears song.”
The blow dry is as warm as Mr. Callaway’s breath but sounds like a broken Hoover. I take the scissors back to the water closet and then put on my best shirt while Mother smokes outside. I only get mad at her when she smokes inside because fags make me cough and make my voice sound like compacting rubbish. I tell her to blow it out the window, get that haze away from my lungs and my larynx because that’s what Mr. Callaway says makes me the most beautiful boy of all. He stands behind me and straightens my spine with his right arm, his hand slides across my shoulder blades and then he palms the back of my neck. I raise my chin toward the stained glass birds fly past. Purify airflow, he says, tugging my hair. Pitch perfect.
When Mother comes back inside she is crying and I tell her not to cry because then I will cry. She presses twice on her inhaler and swallows fresh air.
“These are happy tears,” she says.
I wait until she’s finished coughing to speak. I worry she’ll ruin my last concert.
“You don’t have to go,” I say. “You can listen on Radio 4 tomorrow like always.”
“I just close my eyes when we get there, Duncan. I pretend I’m blind and you hold my hand and walk me to the gates.”
We take the 6 bus since it’s a frost outside. I wrap a scarf around my neck and mouth to save my throat from getting wretched like Mother’s. Mr. Petty doesn’t collect our fare. He shakes my shoulder and says, “Knock em dead, lad.” We sit in the far back behind a woman and her baby who screams like peafowl the whole ride. On Milton Road we pass the arcade where I see Manny standing outside kissing a girl. Manny’s in the eighth level and was the senior countertenor before Mr. Callaway said he had to sing with the old people. Mr. Callaway also told him the best boys hadn’t a peter. He said we were precious boys but not like they used to be. The most precious boys took one bloody bath before their voices broke. Then they were rich and sang in choir forever.
I like riding the bus with Mother because she tells me every item she’s ever found cleaning the bus we’re on. If I get her talking she keeps her eyes open and doesn’t worry about the power lines. The 6 is where she gets most of my clothes and school supplies. She spreads her fingers on my lap to show a ruby ring she found.
“Last week,” she says quietly. “Right where you’re sitting.” She pokes my stomach. “Right under your bum.”
We laugh. She reaches into her tote and pulls out a butterscotch candy.
“My last one,” she says.
I bite the candy and rewrap the other half. I squirm, pretend my knickers are in a bunch and, when Mother isn’t looking, push the wrapped piece into the crack of the seat. I want her to find it later and moisten her dirty throat while she works. The half-butterscotch in my mouth thickens my spit.
Mother holds my mitten hand and we walk slowly toward the chapel. I tell her when to watch her step. Birds dot the power lines, like sixteenth notes. When I first started choir and she wouldn’t come listen, I told her the birds liked the black staffs and that the birds never died. If there were no staffs in the sky then there would be no bird choir and then what if they couldn’t sing, Mum, then what? Hundreds of people wrap a near circle around the church and my stomach quivers a bit. The doors aren’t to open for another three hours.
“What’s the matter?” she says.
“It’s not fair. Thom and Barry are older than me and they don’t have to stop singing.”
“Their time will come,” she says. “We’ve talked about this. You don’t have to quit singing just because your voice is changing.”
“But my voice hasn’t cracked for two months. I swear to you. Maybe it’s done changing, Mum. You think it’s done?”
She doesn’t speak again until we’re at the back of the queue and I let go of her hand. “Sing your best, Dunky. I love you.”
“Don’t cough, because then I can’t concentrate on Mr. Callaway’s hands.” His hands are big and soft and flutter in the air like pregnant nightingales.
She reaches deep into her tote. “Lookie here,” she says, holding a half-wrapped candy. “You’ll never guess where I found it.”
Mr. Callaway studies sheet music at his desk like he’s reading scripture. A horseshoe of black hair cups his bald spot and the soft lamplight shines auburn onto his scalp and thick knuckles. Beside my robe closet, Thom and Barry are naked and whispering.
“James cut my hair today,” I say to the boys. “And my mum’s here to watch.”
“We don’t go to James anymore,” Thom says. “Don’t you know he’s a pervy?” They snicker and nudge. “Did you wank him for a free cut?”
“Piss off,” I say. “I was lying anyhow. My mother did it.”
I turn around and undress, focus on the songs. I won’t miss being teased. I’m the only boy who doesn’t go to King’s prep and live in the flats behind the chapel. Manny used to stick up for me before he left because he didn’t go to the prep either, but the boys looked up to him because he had such a brilliant voice. And nobody dared make fun of me when Jicky was around. Jicky was my dad for a bit. I’ve had a lot of Dads, but Jicky was the most like other boys’ dads. He was huge and shaved his head so he looked scarier than he really was. Sometimes I’d find him in front of the telly wearing nothing but knickers, singing and dancing to American videos. He had the deepest voice I’ve ever heard but it wasn’t good for song. He was a bodyguard for Queen Mother so he was strong and made a decent living. Once, when Queen Mother came to our Christmas Festival, Jicky sat beside her in the front row and he pointed me out and then they both raised a hand. I raised mine to wave back and Mr. Callaway thought I’d made a mistake because that’s how we correct ourselves in practice.
I open my robe closet and listen as the boys discuss holiday. I still wear the red and cream robe Jicky bought for me and I think about him every time I dress for a concert. Nobody says a word about it being my last festival. Instead they chat about flying to Spain or to the States for holiday and they congratulate Thom on his CD to come out next month. He’s the most famous of us all and also the rowdiest. Younger boys practice scales in front of full-length mirrors but I softly hum to save my singing for the first note.
My robe closet is empty. I stick my head inside just to make sure, feel around the wood walls.
“Fuck all,” I say. “Where’s my robe?”
I pinch Thom’s nipple and twist hard until he slaps my cheek.
“Let off. It’s not me,” Thom says.
I let go of his skin. He’s always the one causing a stir nobody second-guesses. “I’ll kick your arse if you lied to me.”
“I swear on my mother’s grave,” Thom says.
Mr. Callaway looks up from his desk with raised brows like slurs.
“How’s my finest lad?”
“Sir, my robe’s missing.”
Mr. Callaway removes his specs and sets them on top of the sheet music. He’s studying the sixth carol. He leans back in his chair.
“I haven’t got your robe,” he says. “You’re certain it’s not a mistake?”
“Thom swore it’s not a prank, sir.”
“You’ve not taken it home, have you?”
I’ve never taken my robe home. I grind my teeth. The room is quiet and I know the boys are all staring. I shake my head.
“But sir, my mother’s here today. I have to sing.”
“Frog got your throat?”
My face warms. I think I’ve sung my last song without having known. I swallow the thin butterscotch and concentrate on Grandmum inside my chest. Let me sing. “No sir. I’m sorry it’s from the frost. Might I borrow a scholar’s robe?”
He puts his hand on my shoulder. “You’ll be in the mixed choir soon enough.” His hand slides down my spine and pats the center of my back four times, then falls to my waist. The fingertips that pull my voice out onstage make me tingle the same as when Mum shaves my neck.
“I won’t sing with the missis,” I say. “This is my choir.”
“Thom did it,” Barry says from behind me. “He threw Dunc’s robe in the Cambs last night on our way home from rehearsal. I saw it.”
Mr. Callaway calls Thom to his desk while the rest of us huddle behind a closet door to eavesdrop. Barry whispers to me that he tried to fish out my robe with a punting stick but that he couldn’t reach far enough. I thank him quietly. Mr. Callaway escorts Thom to his robe closet so we scatter and pretend not to have listened. Thom holds out his robe.
“Here,” he says to me. “Take it.”
Mr. Callaway nods.
“Best not miss a note,” Thom says, and then he dresses and leaves.
“That puts us less a countertenor,” Mr. Callaway says. “Thom was to sing the processional solo and you’re the only other senior chorister. Have you the range today?”
“Oh yessir. Without a doubt, sir. I’ll give you my highest note.”
“Scale to high E,” Mr. Callaway says and levels his right hand before my eyes.
My voice follows his hand a half-step at a time until it is above both of our heads. When I lift my chin the cut hairs on my neck itch. Mr. Callaway loops his wrist and presses his fingertips to his thumb. I close my eyes and hold a high E fermata, twelve-counts past Mr. Callaway’s command, and when I re-open them he is gone.
I take thirty-three steps through the corridor to my singing post. The chapel is so full ushers make people stand in the side aisles. BBC workers hold up fuzzy microphones like Mother’s feather duster to catch our concert for the world. I stand in the second of three rows. I can’t see Mother and I’m not sure I want to. I think she’s in the back left near the doors where I told her sound is purest, just before it escapes to heaven.
The organ softens and the crowd quiets as Mr. Callaway enters the chapel. All rise. With a slight nod he acknowledges Pastor Setchell and the congregation in the Ante-chapel, and then he stands before us. There is not one crease on either side of his smart black suit. He offers an open palm in my direction and I take four steps forward.
I look up to the stained glass Grandmum told me was removed during the war to save from bombs that never fell. Each piece of glass was numbered and then buried deep underground until the war ended. Mr. Callaway says to sing to the fan vault ceiling but I prefer the glass. My favorite is a piece of sky to the right of Mary’s head because depending on the time of the day, it can be turquoise or purple or even blue topaz, and in the late sunlight I see birds hover to collect my sound and then fly away. I think my piece was numbered nineteen hundred and eighteen because that’s the year Grandmum was born and the year of the first Christmas Festival. I think the glass hears every sound I ever make in the chapel, just before Grandmum in heaven, so I’ve been careful never to curse or to cough because that would scratch the glass and make it smudgy like bus windows after rain.
Mr. Callaway raises his arms. I take a deep breath, lift my chin, and oval my lips.
Once in Royal David’s City
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her baby
In a manger for his bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little child.
My solo floats to heaven. Mr. Callaway gives me a wink. I return to my post and continue with the choir. Barry pokes my thigh twice with his thumb to signal I’ve done well. The festival has begun.
Midway through the program, as always, Mr. Callaway turns to the congregation and reads the Fifth Lesson. I hope Mother hears the nine lessons and not just the carols. I’ve memorized each lesson but since Mother hasn’t been to church for such a time I think she’ll have trouble understanding. And the angel departed from her. Like most of the visitors, she’s here for the music and to see me, but they don’t understand that the music doesn’t mean anything without the lessons.
Thirty minutes later my last concert nears its end. The Provost reads the Ninth Lesson and then everyone joins in singing, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. Throughout the entire hymn I pray for an encore, but when my lips shut there is no applause like an international audience, only Thanks be to God. I take one long look at the crowd, clench my jaw tight, pivot, and count to thirty-three.
Mr. Callaway weeps at his desk. I’ve never seen a grown bloke cry.
“Something the matter, sir?” I say.
“Promise to come back,” he says. “You’re one of the finest.”
“May I really?”
“The transition to mixed choir can be quite difficult. I’ll help you.” He shoos me away with his hand. “Now carry on. Give a Merry Christmas to your Mother.”
After an hour, the congratulations are over and I quit posing for photographs with strangers. I find Mother outside smoking. She smiles and gives me a hug. “Just brilliant.” I don’t say a word about the robe. Before I guide her back to the bus stop, I give her a show of the chapel and we sit on a pew halfway back. The altar is tiny from here and the stained glass backwards. I pray that she had a good seat next to a person who didn’t fidget. I ask that she could see me clearly and that she liked the nine carols. I thank God for my perfect pitch. I think Christmas makes her sort of sad what with no presents and all so I tell God to be sure to give her a good find on the bus. I’ll never curse or lie again and I’ll never be mean to anyone if you just please keep my voice high forever.
Mother fixes supper while I wash up. I like to take baths before her because when she washes first the water is dirty and full of hair. I sing two octaves high and flick water with my toes. I find a hair in my pit and yank it but it doesn’t come out. Don’t scream. I quick drip across the floor and grab the scissors. Squeeze hard. I snip the hair off and then step back into the tub to shampoo my hair. When Jicky was my dad he’d let me stand on a stool and rub shaving foam onto his head. I’d wipe extra foam all over my face and slide it off with the end of my toothbrush as the mirror fogged our reflections. He joked that all of the hair from his head had fallen to his chest, but now I know that it’s just what happens when you’re no longer a boy.
It’s no longer a joke, either.
Underwater the scissors work better. I slice water with my right hand, hold my peter with my left hand. When most birds lose their feathers, they drop in pairs, rarely a single feather, because that throws off their balance. It happens gradually, those pairs of feathers being plucked, swinging downward to our feet. The new feathers grow back more colorful, and stronger, too, I suppose, like Manny, like Jicky. Certain other birds, waterfowl mostly – duck, duck, goose – lose their feathers all at once, and for a time afterwards they are unable to fly.
Mum won’t have to work. I will be rich and sing high forever. I open the scissors wide and squeeze them tight around my nuts. It hurts so bad I scream ugly like sick crows. Blood fogs the water. I throw the scissors at the wall and grab myself with both hands. I’m one of the finest.
“What’s the racket?” Mother calls.
I cup bloody suds out of the tub and into the sink. It hurts more out of the water. I squeeze shampoo into the tub and slosh it around to cover up the pink spots so Mother won’t wonder when she bathes. There’s no gauze in the cupboard. I wash the scissors in the sink. I hope I squeezed hard enough as I reach down to check myself again.
“Dunky?” Mother taps on the door. “Supper’s ready.”
“Don’t come in. I’m in the buff.”
She opens the door. I bend over and cover myself.
“What’s this mess?” she says, pointing to the wet floor.
“It’s nothing, Mum. I forgot my towel. Just leave.”
“Why are you hiding yourself?” she says. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
I drop my hands, curl on the floor.
“For fuck’s sake, Dunky. You all right?”
“It hurts, Mumma. Get it off.”
She rings an ambulance and then wets a towel and gently wipes me. She smoothes butterfly tape under my balls. I lay in her arms on the bathroom floor. First she blames herself and then she curses God. I think I might die but I tell her, “It’s all right. My voice won’t drop now. Just one bloody bath, you see?” As we wait for the loudening sirens, she strokes my hair and whisper-sings Silent Night.
Mother doesn’t eat any ham when we return home from the hospital. My waist is covered with a giant diaper and Mother has stacked two pillows on a chair for extra cushion. I still have my nuts and every move I make hurts, but I know if I grimace, Mother won’t let me go back to choir. I eat peas first and save the ham for last. The only sound comes from my chewing and from Mother’s sizzling fag. She holds it under the table and blows smoke away from my plate.
“Mr. Callaway wishes you a Merry Christmas,” I say.
“To hell,” she says.
I scrub my plate clean and then go to bed.
I lie on my back on top of the covers and listen to radiator clicks and Mother’s hacks. If I could send my voice straight from my belly to your head I would, but I have to guard my pipes so that nothing weighs them down and my sound stays perfect. My body is Queen Mother and I’m Jicky protecting her. My pillow is Mr. Callaway’s palm. I recite the Ninth Lesson throughout the night, believing I’m a successful castrato. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. Finally I fall asleep and can’t control the words anymore. They come out like spitfire. I don’t want to sing with the ladies and I can’t recreate the voice Mr. Callaway told me made me his most precious. It’s deceptive cadence. I try again, harder, to save my boy voice forever and this time it’s easy and my parts fall quickly to the floor. Grandmum’s waving me closer, calling my name, and when we finally hug and I whisper I love you, she shakes her head and points to her ear like she doesn’t understand, because Heaven only hears song. Then it’s Mother shaking her head blowing smoke in my face, saying she’s through with my singing.
Now I walk across the Commons each night as the bells toll and creep through Cambridge’s alleyways. I crack the church door and slide into a back pew next to the same old man with a full beard and hair in his ears. When Mr. Callaway raises his arms I ask the old man which hymn to sing. He shushes me. We slip out our tongues to swallow Evensong.