Do you got it?
Just over two years ago, things weren’t going so well. My mother-in-law was dying at the southern end of the country, my dad was doing his best to die at the other end and the four kids and I were living in our car, from a base half-way between. It’s not an uncommon story, most people go through something similar, and as my husband always says, if you’re burying your parents in your forties, you have a lot to be grateful for.
Nonetheless, it wasn’t an easy period of my life and I suddenly realised that I had neither the money, the time, nor the inclination for a proper mid-life crisis. I did feel a bit cheated. I couldn’t afford the sports-car (or its female equivalent, whatever that is.) I’d no interest in interior design, or amassing a shoe collection, and that seemed to leave me with only one remaining option: time for a steamy affair with a younger man.
A few minutes’ thought revealed the flaw in this plan; no babysitter, no privacy, no inclination to listen to a twenty-year old talking about the meaning of life and his existential woe, and no energy for showing-off sex. Because, let’s face it, that’s what affairs are for, for saying look at me, I still got it. I wasn’t at all sure that I did still got it. What to do?
Two weeks later, I stood in a warm, comfortable, private room and shook. The pulse in my carotid artery banged so hard that I feared a secret, unsuspected aneurism might break, flooring me where I stood. My guts churned like a hot, steamy dishrag wrung in the strong fingers of a Victorian housemaid. My breath was ragged, and failed to carry me through to the end of the shortest of sentences.
Yes, I was going to do it.
My face took on the shifty, apologetic cast of an Irish person from the wrong sort of family who is, inadvisably, about to open her mouth and sing. I gasped my way through: “Midnight…. not a sound from the pavement….I was beautiful then…let the memory live again…” I tailed off. Ghastly. How appropriate that the teacher should have chosen a song from Cats to get me started. Indeed, I did sound like the kind of creature one would rise from a sickbed to throw an old boot at. Maybe the affair with the callow youth had been a better idea.
Promising that within six weeks, he would tell me to quit, if appropriate, the wonderful Brendan Hartnett took me into his school of singing. I drove home, shaking, with a sheaf of sheet music which I hid inside a veterinary magazine and ignored. My little secret.
My English, American and Australian readers (hi there!) might be wondering what the hell all the fuss is about. And the answer is simple: national identity. The Irish countryside is full of music. Even as the rural pub declines, the music continues to grow. There are very few countries in the world where a total stranger can walk into a bar carrying a violin case, raise an eyebrow at the barman for permission, and then set into an impromptu performance. It’s terribly inhibiting. Every small town has its musical families, its von Trapps. Their babies use bodhrán drumsticks as soothers, clap along to Mammy and Daddy as they pound out jigs and reels or pavannes and études. Sixteen year old girls are fully qualified piano teachers; classmates in school are writing their own songs and directing musical societies. My husband has learned, mastered and discarded five or six instruments, quite matter-of-factly we all acknowledge that he is the musical one in the family.
The function of the McAlinden family has always been merely to listen, and to listen gratefully. It’s been a self-fulfilling prophecy. I was honoured to be third-farmers-daughter-from-the-left in Oklahoma! I was delighted to act as stage-manager of Metamorphosis drama group in Armagh, I sold tickets at the door of Dram-Soc in University College Dublin. It never, ever occurred to me to audition…“Oh, I haven’t a note in my head…Oh, I couldn’t sing to save my life…”
Sez who? Well says my Mum for example, my sisters, anyone who ever expressed an opinion on the family’s various talents told us we couldn’t sing, and why bother trying, when all we had to do was listen to the talented, the God-given, the gifted?
Last Saturday I raced through bedtime, abandoned the children in the care of a wonderful young lady called Nicole and rushed out to the car in a floor-length evening dress. Half a glass of Sancerre served instead of the hour of vocal warm-up I had skipped, and soon I stood alone onstage and gave a decent account of myself with Schumann’s Die Lotosblume, a story of fear, and yearning and the pain of love. My heartbeat quickened pleasurably, my breath was slow and long, I didn’t fall off my stilettos and I sang as though I had every note ever written at my disposal.
Just after Christmas I’ll sing it again for the examiners of the Royal Irish Academy of Music, having sailed through Grade five last year. Not bad for a latecomer to the stage.
Young men of Newbridge, it is safe to leave home, I have found my late love. Look at me, I sing, much to my surprise. I have it.