Valley of Decision, page 1
About the Book
About the Author
Also by Stanley Middleton
About the Book
Mary and David Blackwell are content in their marriage but when Mary, a talented opera singer, is offered the chance to sing in America, everything changes. David, a music teacher and amateur cellist, is left behind in England and, when he suddenly stops hearing from her, he must decide how to carry on and what to do.
About the Author
Stanley Middleton was born in Bulwell, Nottinghamshire in 1919. He published his first novel, A Short Answer, in 1958 and went on to publish 45 novels in a career spanning fifty years. He was joint winner of the Booker Prize in 1974 with Holiday. Stanley Middleton died in July 2009.
Also by Stanley Middleton
A Short Answer
A Serious Woman
The Just Exchange
Him They Compelled
Terms Of Reference
The Golden Evening
Wages Of Virtue
Apple Of The Eye
A Man Made Of Smoke
Ends And Means
In A Strange Lane
The Other Side
Entry Into Jerusalem
Valley of Decision
For Chloe, Caroline, Matthew and Elizabeth,
Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision.
Joel, 3, 14
VOICES TRICKLED INSISTENT but subdued in the open air. Lights from the portico and lines of windows of the great house touched, yellowed the foliage of lime trees, full-leaved still in October. In the distance of the park mist clung a yard deep to the ground, unmoving, thick as bonfire smoke.
On the drive a small bus, J. Salmon, Luxury Coaches, Beechnall, and a van nearly as large were parked. The footsteps of the players crunched satisfyingly on the gravel towards these.
‘Not so cold as I thought it would be.’
‘You’ll cool off.’
‘Aren’t you waiting for Mary, then?’
‘No. She’ll come back by car, and I’ll have the kettle on. I hope.’
They filed towards the van to hand over their instruments, three cellos and a double bass; a shadowy scarfed figure received them, stacked them into a flimsy, prepared framework; the upper strings had carried their cases with them to the bus.
‘That’s it, then.’ The van doors slammed.
David Blackwall made for the bus, took a seat to himself, opened his overcoat, stretched his legs. He could not maintain the position for long, sat, scrubbed at the misted windows. Car lights streamed and flashed; engines crashed into noise.
‘That’s all of us, is it?’
The driver, not waiting for an answer, switched on with violence, dimming the coach lights. They left with a jerk; one minute under the superior glow of Rathe Hall, the next they were lurching through the blacknesses of the park, ground fog, trees, in an avenue under a cheesy slice of moon.
Seven musicians made their way back towards life. Three discussed football without animation, the rest held themselves in uncompanionable silence, dark, jerking figures, yawning.
David Blackwall pulled his coat round him again, buttoned it, straightened the tails, stared out. They had passed the lodge, the wrought-iron gates which were fastened back, and now bumped through a village, its one street incongruously garish under a short stretch of sodium lights.
‘Remember me, but, ah, forget my fate.’
Blackwall smiled, removed a glove to wipe his dry lips with the back of his hand, re-dressed himself. Now they smoothly took the approach road to the motorway, headed south among darkness and headlights.
They were later than expected, at nearly half past eleven. Dido and Aeneas due to start at 9.30 had not begun until after ten and then to an audience garrulous with wine or groping their way in from the lavatories. Blackwall felt no affection for these people who had bought their way into Rathe Hall for a charity performance, had eaten and drunk and been seen, had sat down in snobbery to Purcell. They would have taken more of their money’s worth humming to a selection of Chu Chin Chow or Oklahoma.
‘You don’t look pleased.’ His neighbour, Guy Foulds, turned from the seat in front.
‘I was never tired at your age.’ Foulds tucked his thick white wavy hair into the corner between window and seat, closing his eyes, expelling breath as one justified.
The driver belted along the motorway so that the whole bus shook and rattled, precluding consecutive thought. Blackwall was content at this rolling in his seat, not unprepared to end up in the gangway; the roughness of the bus lulled and symbolized his anger. Once they left the motorway the driver proceeded no more decorously, rounding corners with careless skill, raspingly determined to smash into the headlights of oncoming cars. Blackwall was amazed, as usual, at the number of vehicles on the road at this time of night.
‘Right, David. Here y’are. Station Road. Home.’
Blackwall stood. In spite of the bus’s headlong career, the instrument van had already arrived, back doors gaping.
‘There she is.’
The cello was handed down. The bus rattled off; Victor Houghton, next away, would have to wait, though not long, for his case. David Blackwall picked up his Amati, the most valuable object in the street, and let himself into the house.
By the time his wife arrived David had switched on the electric blankets, made coffee and toast, had poached an egg and had just opened yesterday morning’s newspaper by one bar of the electric fire.
Mary slipped off her rain mac, looking as tired as he felt. He sprang up, buttered her bread, crowned it with the egg, placed it in front of her as she sat stiffly at the end of the table. She held her face cupped in her hands; he kissed the top of her head, and she uncovered to smile up at him. Her skin was sallow in this light, and traces of make-up remained in the roots of her hair above the forehead.
‘Is the water hot?’ she asked, when she had thanked him, picked up her knife and fork.
‘I’ll turn it on.’
‘No. Don’t bother. I’ll wash my hair in the morning.’
She was beautiful as she ate, in spite of fatigue and the banality of cutting and chewing; but quite different from the dazzling creature on the stage two hours earlier. She had played Belinda, with her hair piled, pleated white garments catching, outlining in light the shape of her legs as she moved. Her arms had been bare; these hands deliberately expressive.
‘Thy hand, Belinda, darkness shades me. On thy bosom I would rest.’ Dido’s huge eyes, black as cherries, had flashed; the imperious breasts had heaved under royal purple. ‘More I would but death invades me. Death is now a welcome guest.’ And already the vibrato was moving in Blackwall’s fingers to introduce the ground bass of Purcell’s chacony, to clear the wine fumes, to announce heavenly seriousn
‘Are the beds on?’ she asked, mouth full.
She nodded, a prosaic gesture, not to be compared with the statuesque clarity of her persona on stage, but cheering. She acknowledged her husband’s efficiency.
‘It went well,’ he told her.
‘Once we started.’
‘Yes. They took some prising from the gin bottles.’
‘We’d be there still. Alfred was complaining. He said he’ll speak to Tait or Sir Edward.’
Tonight, Wednesday, was the first performance; they had two more, on Friday and Saturday.
‘It was crowded,’ she said, finishing her egg.
She shook her head. ‘It’ll do for the birds.’
He cleared her plate, taking it out to the kitchen, brought in the breakfast dishes, laid the spoons and knives.
‘I’m knackered,’ she said.
‘You get to bed. It needs Samson to hold Fat Liza up for long.’ He staggered through a brief, exaggerated caricature of Belinda supporting the expiring Dido.
‘She was marvellous, though.’ Mary stood, as if uncertain which way to turn.
‘I’ll give you that,’ he admitted.
Mary extended her hand. He took it, pulled her to him, kissed her full on the mouth, but gently.
‘Five and twenty to bloody one,’ he said.
‘No. I’ll just straighten up. Won’t take a minute. I’ll be glad in the morning.’
She allowed it, drifted away towards the stairs. He bustled, removing crumbs from the tablecloth, checking window fastenings and locks. Satisfied he removed plugs from sockets, made for the bathroom where Mary had left the light on, whether by deliberation or not he did not know, to scrub his teeth.
His wife loved his teeth-cleaning, with mockery. ‘It’s a military operation,’ she had said. ‘It’s more thorough than Mr Gladstone’s mastication. It’s a thirty-year war.’ He admitted the truth of her exaggeration, carefully scouring his mouth with the brush, not once, but twice.
‘Why don’t you buy yourself an electric brush?’ she had asked often enough.
‘And let my right hand forget its cunning.’
Mary cleaned her teeth left-handed, quickly and lightly. They had been married now for just over twelve months and could still be surprised, delighted, caught up with some everyday action in the partner.
They had met at the Royal College where he had done a year with his cello after completing a history degree, and much music, at Cambridge. She had been in her second year, a talented student, but already certain that she would not make her career in singing, an amateur, an outsider. Her teacher praised her; she won a prize; she was outstandingly good at her second subject, the piano, but she seemed to stand apart, to lack large ambition. This is a dead end, she appeared to pronounce, attractive, glittering, but a corpse.
When David came back to his home town to teach music and history at the grammar school, Mary spent a last year at the college, which she completed with plaudits. They had written twice a week, and met as often as possible during the year of separation, but when he proposed marriage she had informed him that she had joined a small new touring company and was committed for at least twelve months. He was surprised, slightly fearful, as if all her impudences at the expense of a career in singing had been forgotten once an opportunity had presented itself.
‘It’s what I’ve been trained for.’
‘But you always said . . .’
‘I know, I know. That was no reason for you to believe me, was it, now?’ She sounded affectionate. She loved him. She had said so.
They did not argue at length, but he continued to propose, by post during an extended tour of north Germany. It was thus by letter that he was accepted, while she similarly instructed him later to make arrangements for the wedding at a register office in London. He taught his classes the day before; she sang that Friday in Cosi in Paddington; they were man and wife by 11 a.m. and she was back in the theatre that evening. They spent Sunday together in a borrowed flat though he had to set off in the early hours to teach first period Monday. She came to the Midlands for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, but left on that day for the first stage of another tour of Germany. It had all been haphazard, ill-arranged. He remembered coming back home on Friday afternoon, no schoolmaster is quite sane at that time, to the room they had shared in his parents’ house. Nothing reminded him of her: no perfume, no discarded garment, only a row of untenanted coat hangers in the wardrobe. Mary and his mother, he imagined them at it, had cleared the place between them so that it stood now in unusual tidiness, bed squared, carpets hoovered, aerosol in the high cornices ready for the onset of his bachelor squalor.
The first six months of their marriage were spent with only occasional meeting and frequent letters; he arranged his Easter vacation in Hamburg where the company performed The Turn of the Screw; this period now seemed a happy chaotic time, with the chatter of pedestrians in a German they could not exactly make out matching their pleasure, their body contacts, their delightful recognition of love. They acted like children, without responsibility except towards each other and in physical discovery. The dark world of houses and factories, of ships and container lorries blossomed, put out a new leaf, a greenness, a promise of fulfilment; sunlight shaped shadows, shifted cameos, warmed naked skin. Sparrows crowded the parks.
‘They sing just like our birds,’ he said.
‘What do you expect?’ She was pleased with him. ‘German?’
‘Wagner.’ He stuck his chin into his collar and mimed a Heldentenor in full crow.
‘Virginia Woolf’s birds spoke Greek when she was mad.’
‘How d’you know that?’
‘I read it. I’ve plenty of time for reading.’
‘Is that what the rest of them do?’
‘Some.’ Her voice rose, reflecting morning joy, the brightness of sky, the presence of a husband. ‘Some not.’ Truth prevailed, happily.
It was, oddly, from his father that he had learned the direction his wife’s career was next to take. Horace Blackwall, not much of a talker at breakfast, a heavy-breathing reader of the Daily Telegraph, had lowered his paper that morning to announce, clearing the frog from his throat, that he had spoken to Mary and had offered her at any time she decided to leave opera a position in his firm’s accounts department. David was surprised; his father, he knew, approved of the girl, courted her even in his dry, moustache-chewing fashion, would be only too glad to have her settled in with the family, but Mary herself said nothing to him.
‘You mean you’re holding a post open for her?’ He liked to keep his father up to the mark.
‘You could say so.’ A shaking of creases out of the newspaper.
‘And when will this start?’
‘I should be asking you that.’ His father frowned, clamping his lips, condemning the noncommunicative lives of young people. ‘As far as I could ascertain,’ his father loved on occasion such formality of lexis, ‘she has not made up her mind. She is enjoying herself, and,’ the copula heavily thumped, ‘she doesn’t feel it’s too unfair on you yet. But we discussed the possibility.’ The Telegraph was closed, with a brisk solemnity that still gave time for further comment, but as none was forthcoming, the old man coughed, brushing imaginary crumbs from his waistcoat, and attended by his wife made for bedroom, bathroom, hall closet and garage, all within five minutes, to join the crawl of traffic into town.
His father was shrewd; grandfather and great-uncle had hauled themselves by prodigious labour out of the working class into the ownership of two large furniture shops, a small factory and some scattered property acquired at knock-down prices during two wars. When Horace returned from the army in 1947, the uncle, David Daniel Blackwell, had died a bachelor, leaving his considerable estate between his younger brother and his nephew, Horace. The young captain, twenty-three years old but already confident, had taken the opportunity
There was, however, no ostentation about him. He continued to live in the large, stone villa he had bought in 1954 on his marriage to Joan Blake. He had spent money on improvements, had added to the already considerable grounds by judicious purchase, but had not moved out to the manors, houses, or old vicarages in the villages, the modern ranch styles with swimming pools and treble garages that people of not half his means had acquired. He gave moderately to charity, took no part in local or national politics, held no office in golf clubs, churches or societies, was reticent about his family affairs, sparing of advice, but considerably respected and feared. Those whom he employed were expected to work. He had experienced trouble with the unions, but paid well enough, and had sufficient shrewdness not to be intimidated. He could not be called well liked, but neither he nor his opponents saw much sense in popularity. He had lived in a period when expansion and success had been possible, and he had made the most of it.
By mentioning the possibility of Mary’s joining the firm, Horace Blackwall had surprised his son. David, intrigued, slightly annoyed, had questioned his father the same evening and had been told that Mary had a good A-level in mathematics.
‘I didn’t know that,’ the son confessed.
‘No.’ Irony of disbelief. ‘You perhaps didn’t need such information about a prospective partner in marriage.’ The father slightly adjusted his dentures and, smiling, left David to think about the saw.
One never knew exactly how one stood with the senior Blackwall.
He had been pleased that his son had done well at school, and delighted by his scholarship to Cambridge. His wife had been responsible for his musical upbringing; her family, the Blakes, were accomplished amateurs, but Horace had attended the boy’s performances when business commitments allowed, congratulated him, made odd, old-fashioned comments. When David had suggested first a year at the Royal College after university and then a job as a schoolmaster, his father had not demurred, to his son’s surprise.