Prohibited Arias

When Andrea's husband started to hear them sing, he began to wonder if he remained in the real world or had joined that of the demented. Until his musical epiphany told him some things he might never have guessed.

That morning, I woke early. Next to me Andrea was semi-naked and asleep. I got up and showered, then ate a swift, solitary breakfast. By the time I had finished, my wife had woken up and I brought her a mug of coffee. She thanked me and leant on one elbow while she sipped the hot drink, watching me as I dressed.

“I’ve made a list of things you need to do today,” she said. “It’s on the kitchen table.”

I looked at her as though I were seeing her for the first time. A breast was squashed into an unflattering shape because of her position, her hair was tangled and untidy and a long, vivid sleep-line creased her cheek. She wore the careless deshabille of long-standing familiarity. But really – who was she? Sometimes I experienced this illusion that I was cohabiting with a beautiful, desirable stranger. I wondered whether stale intimacy, while sapping a deeper affinity, could at the same time increase desire.

“I know. I’ve already got it.”

I patted the breast pocket of my jacket.

“I’ll be back to help with lunch.”

She nodded and made a small noise of affection as I gave her a goodbye peck on the cheek. The ritual kiss, the communication by written list, the carnal closeness of this stranger in my bed, all added to a disconnection and an alienation that seemed quite unfair. This resentment stayed with me as I set off down the road into town, then gently evaporated as I turned into the town’s centre. The holiday season was over. There were fewer people around, the voices I heard were local and the shops no longer profiting from tourist tat.

We had moved here from London a year ago. By my early fifties, I had made enough money to retire. It was my decision to move out of the city. Andrea had acquiesced, uncharacteristically, with less resistance than usual. The choice of this seaside resort, however, was hers. I was beginning to regret the move. The Cornish sea air was invigorating and the walks along the coastline revealed a littoral of extraordinary, wild beauty. Occasionally we would drive to Rick Stein’s restaurant and have a good lunch. We could afford it. But I failed to see the charm of this small town in the way that she obviously could. The people were friendly enough but we were still outsiders, accorded much the same status as the holidaymakers that packed the streets in the summer. The town lacked any sort of architectural cohesion. A group of sedate Victorian guesthouses, complete with turrets, gabled Edwardian hotels and the odd 1930s art deco boarding house sat bunched uncomfortably together above its broad sandy beach like a clutch of disapproving spinsters. In the steep main thoroughfares, the only graceful facades were destroyed by garish signage. I passed a triangle of bright green grass at the base of the two main shopping streets. Beneath some yucca trees sat a fake wellhead with a little shingled roof and a sign that said ‘Wishing Well – proceeds go to Local Rotary Charities’. It was the nearest the town came to having any sort of landmark.

The first name on Andrea’s neat handwritten list was that of my doctor. But when I reached the surgery, I found that a locum I’d never met had temporarily replaced my usual, crusty, beetle-browed GP. Dr. Alison Rose was a handsome woman in her late thirties with a low, musical voice. She wore her dark hair short, a navy blue cardigan and sensible flats. I found her attractive. No, I caught myself thinking, you’re not just attractive, I find you desirable.

Recently, sexual desire hadn’t bothered me much. When occasionally it did, it induced a reluctant admission that the sporadic sex I had with Andrea, my beautiful, disconnected list-maker, would never improve or become more frequent. Then I would think of Betjeman’s old-age pronouncement of regret about not having had as much sex as he would have liked.

Doctor and patient made small talk. Like me she was from outside Cornwall and had moved west two years ago. “Yes,” I said, “but what do you actually do here?” Her initial reply was a brittle smile and a slight shrug. Then she said, “Not a lot.” We touched lightly on local places and events. We soon established a commonality of tastes in walks and pubs and I found myself speculating inappropriately about what lay under her sensible clothes and, in the absence of a wedding ring, whether she was seeing anybody.

“I can see from Dr. Morrison’s notes that your sprain should be OK by now. It’s the right one, isn’t it? Let’s have a look, shall we?” and she reached out and took my hand.

What followed was utterly bizarre, and yet throughout it I felt nothing unusual, all my physical senses and faculties were functioning perfectly well. I could have got up and left the room at any time.

But I didn’t.

As she took my hand I glanced up and looked into Dr Alison Rose’s sad grey eyes and immediately she started to sing. I think she had a rather wonderful voice, the sort, I believe, that might belong to a ‘rich coloratura soprano’, although I’m the first to admit, my knowledge of opera is limited. The first, absurd, thought that entered my head was that this was some sort of new therapy. That evaporated quickly. As I listened, I recognised the aria from La Bohème, where Mimi sings to Ronaldo Mi chiamano Mimi… Except that Dr Rose was singing in English. To begin with, I could only make out individual words but very quickly my ear became completely attuned to what she sang, and what I heard was utterly compelling. I can only paraphrase it now, but it went something like this:

You look like a civilised person, a decent man. Not like the lying bastard who strung me along all these years. Now he’s in New York and I’m here in this godforsaken place. The fucker left without even saying goodbye. Look at your hand, it’s so elegant, so finely boned. If only its fingers could cup my aching breast, could delicately enchant and revive my poor, deprived cunt.

It seemed that I was having a psychotic episode. Try as I might, I simply can’t recall if there was any musical accompaniment, but throughout her song she held my gaze and I hers and I remember thinking that a doctor’s surgery was as good a place as any to lose one’s mind. And then she was talking normally again, asking me if I had had any recurrence of the pain.

“Does it hurt when I do this?” and she gave me that brittle smile, and my fourth metacarpal a sharp little squeeze.

*  *  *

It was ten o’clock. My next appointment was at Mario’s, the town’s unisex hairdressing salon. I didn’t feel particularly comfortable surrounded by women in various stages of wash, tint, cut or dry, and it was the retiree’s fate that I was the only man having his hair cut that morning. My regular barber Dan, usually so convincingly gay (in both senses of the word), looked depressed today. No sooner than I was seated with a cape tucked around me, I felt Dan’s hand at the back of my neck. “Seems like it’s grown a bit since the last time,” was all he said.

Our eyes met in the mirror and he smiled at me.

Dan started to sing. This time, other than Dan’s strong West Country burr, no liberties had been taken with South Pacific’s libretto.

I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair,
I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair,
I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair,
And send him on his way.

I’m gonna wave that man right outta my arms,

And here, to my increasing stupefaction, the female customers joined in:

I’m gonna wave that man right outta my arms,
I’m gonna wave that man right outta my arms,
And send him on his way.

Don’t try to patch it up
Tear it up, tear it up!
Wash him out, dry him out,
Push him out, fly him out,
Cancel him and let him go!


Yea, sister!


I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair,
I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair,
I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair,
And send him on his way.

I was too shaken to react in any sane sort of way. I just sat there and took it. What could I have done? Dan singing, the customers backing him up, and anyway, it all ended with the last chorus. Surreptitiously, I looked around. Normality reigned once more.

*  *  *

At the dry cleaners (next on the list) there was only one bored, lumpen, teenaged girl behind the counter. I was careful not to touch her hand or look her in the eye, but as she brought my wife’s suit to the counter, it slipped out of her grasp and my reaction was to catch it before it hit the floor. In doing so, my wrist touched her hand and she looked up at me gratefully. Then she sang from Handel’s Rinaldo: Lascia ch’io pianga mia cruda sorte. Her voice was exceptional, beautiful, soaring and swooping like a swift through warm evening air. Except the words. The words were… well, different.

I’m so horny, I could shag a pony
My bloke’s left me and I hate this job
I would even screw an old geezer like you, only
You’d have to be rich and not a total slob.

Well, it was about suffering, chains and liberty, I suppose, but probably not quite as the average opera fan would like to hear them described.

When I got home, I wanted to tell Andrea. But how? How could I possibly convey the weirdness of my morning? In any case, Andrea looked so preoccupied. As we stood side by side at the slate-topped island hob preparing lunch she reached out and almost tenderly put her hand over mine. It was a comforting gesture and I was rather moved by it. She had sensed my disquiet and…

But no. To my horror, the small room filled with the swell of a full orchestra. I recognised the introduction to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Andrea, my dear, tone-deaf Andrea, fixed me with a glittering, triumphant stare, took a deep breath, then her mouth opened and the words came tumbling out in perfect, glorious pitch:

Oh joyful day, our last together
Tomorrow I am out of here
I’m leaving you for Marietta
We’ll have all our lives to share
We’ve been lovers since college
And our sex life is still great
All our friends will soon acknowledge
In her I’ve found my perfect mate. 

The sheer banality of the words was in stark contrast to the sublime, almost transcendental, quality of the music. But then I wondered if Schiller’s lofty lyrics, embracing, as they did, all the ideals of the Enlightenment and Romanticism, had ever sounded all that good, either. To my ear they had always seemed orotund and ridiculous. But so what? Perhaps I was just pissed off. Andrea was leaving me (for a woman no less!) but appeared to be quite unaware that I was privy to her innermost thoughts, courtesy of Ludwig. As things returned to normal, Andrea glanced sideways at me with concern and asked if I was feeling all right.

“You look a bit pale, darling.”

“Really? Well, now you mention it, I do feel a little odd. I think I’ll just go and call and make another appointment with Doctor Rose. Maybe she missed something this morning. Maybe we both did.”