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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


The Bejewelled Newt (II)
Text and drawings by Nelen

he music master was planning a Christmas concert for all the birds of the air, as well his protégé, the shy and strangely bejewelled newt. For her, he had picked out a couple of pieces in a low tessitura in the hope that she would feel at ease. “But you’re going to have to project your voice,” he said. “The audience simply won’t be able to hear you if you sing in your underwater way.”

Newt and master began their rehearsals.

“Fa, la, la, la, fa, la, la, la, fa, la, la, la, la.”

“Louder!” cried the music master.

“Fa, la, la, la, fa, la, la, la.”

“Off key!” he shrieked, stamping his feet.

“La?” offered the newt again.

“Off key, how many times do I have to tell you?”

“La??,” repeated the newt, even further off key.

What had been a note accidentally off key became a note permanently off key. The falseness and the fear were thoroughly drummed in.

“Perhaps you should try my approach,” commented a crow flying past.

“I am in charge. Just listen to me,” hissed the music master.

“Well just be kind to me,” begged the newt.

“I am kind but I cannot allow you to sing off key,” he softened. “You see, in music every note counts and must be taken with the utmost care.”

When it came to the dress rehearsal, the newt was nearly paralysed with self-consciousness. The birds of the air all trilled their parts, the music master flirted with them shamelessly and the newt quietly waited her turn. She sang last and badly, as usual. The music master poked her in the stomach.

“If I am so terrible, why don’t you just take me off the programme and I will sit in the audience?” said the newt.

But the music master insisted: “If you quit, I quit too.”

Afterwards, the newt was surprised to overhear one of the common song thrushes admit she was afraid of the amphibian.

“That newt is so clever,” said the thrush. “And she holds herself like a queen.” Oh, if only the thrush knew how much the newt feared her!

The nightingale had flounced out of the rehearsal because the Singapore parrot had been called to screech before her. Losing patience, the music master decided to gather everyone together and explain again the reason why they were holding the concert.

“Look, this is to be a Christmas concert for the pure joy of music-making,” he said. “It does not matter whether you are a star or an amateur or a student. We are all bringing our gifts to the Christ-Child at Bethlehem.”

The newt felt reassured after that; she trusted that her underwater voice and subtly-glinting jewels would be acceptable at the Manger.

Her confidence rose when her country cousin sewed for her a gorgeous new stage dress in dignified black, shot through with starlight. Her old husband the woodcutter, who had re-married, heard about the Christmas concert and gave his former wife a huge diamond to wear at her throat.

“No hard feelings and good luck,” he said.

The night of the concert arrived. The hall was packed. The newt was extremely nervous; she felt as if she were going to her own execution. If she was going to her death, to the weighing of hearts, then she knew there was only one way to go:

“What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would give a lamb,
If I were a wise man, I would do my part,
But what can I give Him? Only my heart.”

She waited in the wings while the Singapore parrot and the two thrushes performed. One of the thrushes in particular acquitted herself surprisingly well. Then it was the newt’s turn to sing her first aria. Her voice cracked on the opening note but she did not flee the stage; she ploughed on, trying to reproduce the techniques she had been taught. The audience clapped and she went off, feeling encouraged.

In the dressing room, where the American reed warbler was warming up for her duet with the nightingale, the tsarina of the birds of suddenly snapped: “That’s no way to interpret Schubert!” It turned out that sweet-trilling nightingale was quite a bitch.

On stage, the music master was filling a gap in the vocal programme with his solo rendering of a Bach prelude. He played so exquisitely that there was not a dry eye in the house. Here was a hint of another path he might have followed had he not devoted his life to directing the performances of others.

Then it was time for the newt to return for her second aria. She felt more confident as she sang this time and she received four bouquets from the audience.

“Well thank you, newt,” announced the music master. “As you have all just heard, she is only an amateur from a provincial pond but she did her best. And now for the Nightingale of Berkeley Square…”

Until that moment, the audience had seen the bejewelled newt through their own eyes. Some may have liked her and others not; it was a free country. But now they all saw her through the music master’s eyes; she saw herself through the mirror of his critical eyes.

After the concert, the master congratulated all the participants but to his own newt he said in an aside, “Well, you let yourself down.” Into her open heart, he dropped this globule of poison. He knew everything about sound but nothing about the timing and choice of words.

He walked her home because she had an armful of roses to carry as well as the suitcase containing her costume. Once they were indoors, she rounded on him:

“How dare you judge me? You would apologise for me at the Throne of God!”

She broke into floods of tears.

“You’re not a singer and you never were,” he said quietly.

“In that case, you’re not a teacher and you never were,” she yelled.

She began to thump him with a pillow and only stopped when she saw there were tears in his eyes too. They were exhausted, both of them.

The next day, he apologised.

“Sorry, I am a dumb brick. You know words are not my strong point…”

She forgave him, of course. She bought him carnations to honour his efforts.

They had both tried their hardest, too hard, perhaps, for the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It was not up to them to judge themselves; all that was required was that they should be themselves.

The newt went and ran a hot bath for herself, with calming waterweed aroma. And as the steam rose, her true voice returned, lovelier than ever. She began to sing a variation on one of her old pond songs, “strangely beautiful, most beautiful, strange…”

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