'I think therefore I am.'  Descartes            'I AM THAT I AM.'  Exodus.3.        'I am what I am.'  La Cage aux Folles

21 December 2010

Short Story 'Joseph's Voice'

This is one of my short stories. Perhaps it needs improvement and editing but I print it as written some years ago

An Appendix to my novel   

Which can be found on a page to the left here (all 114,517 words of it)


One week to go and he was terrified. His mother knew it was a wonderful idea and for years he had wanted, with a passion, to get himself accepted into that choir, but the fear of the audition would have turned him white if he was not already one of the most delicately pale little boys in the district.
Joseph was a skinny lad. He was only ten years old but, as everyone said, in his red and white robes of the parish choir he looked like an angel. Most of the boys were sweet innocents in their cassocks except the rough and red haired Luke whom everyone called Potato Head. They might all be devils at school, trainee thugs on the football field and always in trouble for smoking or mainly coughing behind the toilet block, but, on a Sunday, put them in a long androgynous costume, hands clasped together, eyes downcast, and the congregation saw them as a pure and sexless collection of creatures, all together different to the rabble of boys who terrorised their school and parents the other days of the week.

Not every lad was such a fake. Joseph in particular did try and be a good boy. Being in church made him feel so holy. It was another world, like living in a fairy tale. Every time he went to the big cathedral in the city, he stepped into the coloured pages of a storybook. The stone walls, incense and candles blazing in the muted light of the long aisles and transepts focused so dramatically on the high alter were as exciting as being carried into an ancient castle, full of secrets and mystery. You had to be a special boy to be able to feel at home there, to be accepted, and to belong, so he had to play the game. He must obey the rules. He and God knew the 'saint in waiting' was trying, and so did his Grandmother. Every time he was faced with a challenge, a goal, a desire, he found the rules and once he knew them he could do nothing but be consistent with them, and to him. Throughout life, for him, everything was thought through seriously, and everything had to be correct. He was a simple and single-minded boy who tried to remain that way, and probably, because of his obsession with keeping faith, he experienced no more than four major turns in his path through life. To some, that many intense twists may be considerable, but in the times and the events he lived through, it is surprising he limited his decisions and motivations to no more. His story hinges on the cornerstones of the choir, the priesthood, the boy Sunny, and his voice.

From the day of his birth until the day of the audition he had travelled, as most fortunate children, in the one direction, under the guidance of his elders. They instructed, by word and example, and he obeyed. There was nothing more obvious. It was a law of nature. Why step outside those bounds? He had no reason to even consider it.

To an ordinary boy, singing in church would have been something special, but not normally such an overwhelming experience, as it was for young Joseph. It was the most extraordinary step, as it turned out, that he had ever taken in his short years.

From the days before he could talk his mother and his grandmother instilled in him the love of being good. He was hugged and flattered for being the apple of their eye. They were an average but nice family, however they were also not averse to trying a bit of blackmail to make sure he behaved himself. Grandmother was often subtle in telling stories that wove bits of imaginative Irish folklore into her own perceptions of child rearing. Very early in the piece, he was terrified that Leprechauns would steal him if he misbehaved. Such was her influence that he could not bear the thought and fear of being bad, so he had no choice but to grow to love being good. There was also a particular event that influenced this developing sweet nature.

On his fifth birthday he ate so much, played so hard and got so excited that he lost control, sweated a lot and with a little spoilt stubbornness he would not come in from the rain when the day clouded over. He caught a cold, but never being a strong child this eventually turned into pneumonia. He became so ill that he could have died. He managed to struggle through, but in his bed he had the chance to contemplate death. He thought of God and hell and he was left much weakened by the experience. He did not wish to burn in the flames with the wicked. He had to love God. Everyone was after him, little green men in the forest, God and the Devil. He was definitely never going to do anything wrong. If he failed once, someone was sure to whisk him away. It was merely his own survival, so to practice the arts of self-preservation, both physical and spiritual, from such a young age, became a habit. It was easy to stay out of trouble. To him it grew to be natural.

He began school, made his first communion and became an alter-boy. He also joined the school choir and the parish choir. He loved to sing and from his frail body and troubled lungs came the most beautiful gentle voice. To build up his lungs he would walk for miles, often into the hills with Potato Head, sometimes with his sister, but mostly by himself when he could contemplate the lives of saints and singers. His teachers and his priest suggested he should try and get into the big choir at the cathedral. He would have to be even more responsible. If he got in, he would have so much more practice to do and he would have to ride his bike a lot further to rehearsals and to mass. Mother, Grandmother and young Joseph agreed to give it a try. For seven days he prayed that he would be accepted, he practiced at home, at church, in the fields, and he worked himself up until he trembled at the noble thought of letting his voice fly in the high vaulted ceilings, until heaven itself would no doubt stop and listen.

No one noticed his disappointment when he arrived to discover that the audition was being conducted in the practice hall beside the Archbishops residence, and not in the cathedral itself, but that was soon forgotten when he was accepted. He was in the choir, and from now on, like an adult, he would have to go to mass on Sundays by himself. As much as his family wanted to go with him, they had far too much to do, and in addition to that they could not possibly afford to all travel into the city every Sunday just to hear him sing. Of course they would be with him the first time, and on special occasions, but by and large he was on his own now. He had an important position in the city, he could even say, in the whole country. As a top chorister he had been given many responsibilities. He wondered seriously about how grown up he should be to take on such a roll.

Yes he did have more than a grandmother and mother. His elder sister was a horse rider and wanted to work in a stable, his two younger brothers were strong little urchins whose grubby faces had been recently dragged unwillingly and yelling into school life and his father was a bus driver. They all worked hard around the cottage, were very poor and by tradition, were very devout Catholics. Close, supportive and traditional, but it was the senior women of the family who had all the control and influence on the gentle little boy with the voice and face of an angel.

Immediately he began rehearsals with the choir on every alternate evening, and by the next Sunday the whole family left home early to head into town. They did not go there often and knew none of the congregation. In their parish they were friends with everyone and the early Sunday morning chat in the church grounds had been a ritual carried on for decades. They were so early that the previous service had not yet finished, but the lad had to be there for a final practice and to find a new outfit from the rows of second hand cassocks hanging from a rod against the wall in the old stone hall. He should have arranged this during the week, but he had been in a daze and could almost have forgotten even where he lived in the excitement of that first preparatory week.

At five to ten the great bells in the adjoining tower began to peel and the tallest boy in the most impressive cassock, lifted the golden cross on its six foot gleaming brass rod, and two by two the boys flowing in lace and innocence left the hall in slow and solemn procession. Behind the boys came the men of the choir, and behind them the conductor clutching his green leather bound volume of sheet music. The organist had already taken his place submerged behind a wall of pipes, and had been playing several very soft and sacred solo pieces while the pews filled with families from across the town. This was his favourite time. He would start off with some Bach, Bird, or mundane Vatican approved hymns before the service, but his favourite time was after the choir had left at the end of the mass, when he could often give an impromptu concert of more grand and impressive pieces that showed off his real talent. Many would wait behind to hear the virtuoso display. Most were not religious tunes, but as he no longer felt the need to inspire the congregation to thoughts spiritual. He could raise the roof and impress his audience with the great classics.

The music droned on, but when the boys had finally shuffled their way through the great wooden door and up the creaky narrow staircase to the loft, a small bell rang from the sacristy, the organ finally burst into life and to the sound of a thunderous chord voices rose triumphantly in the entrance hymn as the celebrant and his entourage of alter boys made their way in procession down the red carpet of the central aisle. Through the brass gates of the sanctuary they mounted the marble steps and knelt in front of the high alter ablaze with candles reaching high above the white starched cloths embroidered with crosses of gold thread. While Joseph, oblivious to the sound of those around him sang with all his heart, the priest rose, and between the flowers, the chalice and symbols of this supper of death and life were spread over the cold stone in which had been embedded the relic of one of the saints of Christendom.
This was no ordinary parish, this was pageantry on a grand scale and the boy was as close to heaven as he had ever felt in his life. He left the town that day with a determination to say more rosaries than he had done so far, and is better than anyone would expect. This was the life for him. The church, the music, the pomp, and you can not get any higher and more important than working with God. Yes, he was going to be a saint. He had made up his mind. Of course it did not hurt that he sat high in the choir loft looking down on not only the worshippers below, but also the priest and all the players of the drama. Indeed he felt important.

From that day on his health was no longer a worry, and his voice grew more beautiful with each song of praise he learned. It was but a short time before he was recognised as producing one of the loveliest and most inspiring sounds of any boy the cathedral had remembered. He became a soloist and not long after that, fate smiled on him. The Pope died.

To pray for the soul of the dead Pontiff the Archbishop and all the hierarchy of the church would celebrate a Solemn High Pontifical Requiem Mass. This sounded about as big as you could get. The Everest of religious theatrics. The Cathedral would be crammed with political dignitaries, knighted celebrities and representatives of every parish and organisation in the district, and Joseph would be the star whose solo voice would float from above and make holy this most important of grand occasions. He would have to be especially brilliant and especially pure to be worthy of sending praise to God for the redemption of the Holy Father.

He felt a glow as he prayed on his knees at night and he even tried to fast a little. He had read about saints fasting but he got so hungry that this trial had to be rationalised away very quickly. His brothers teased him and his sister was fed up with his goody goody attitude around the house, but his mother would never criticise the child she had almost lost through illness. He was too precious and how could you scold a boy who was so earnestly trying to be good.

Papal funerals and memorial services did not happen overnight, so there was plenty of time to rehearse and select the best music they could learn. The majority of the service would be in Gregorian Chant, as befitted the solemn homage to the dead, but several select items were chosen to add majesty to match the grandeur of the Pope's status. The midweek service brought thousands to the cathedral and only invited guests were allowed into the church. Police barricades were erected from the front door to the footpath and along the street where a huge crowd were crammed together to listen to the proceedings broadcast over their silent heads by loud speakers booming in every direction.

The service was wonderful and when the choir sang the Miserere during the communion, an unbelievable hush descended over everyone within and outside the stone walls. Joseph's voice soared in such perfection as the unearthly sound tripped from note to note like the soft touch of an organ key. Many within the church remained on their knees in a trancelike state that in years past might have led to claims of levitation, so affecting was the repetition of the boy's refrain. When the last sounds of the male chorus faded away there was no movement for several long and still moments. Eventually the Archbishop coughed and could be heard to mumble " well!" as he regained his composure, slowly lifted himself to his feet and visibly unsettled he brought the mass to a close. This was indeed Joseph's triumph.

He was definitely the star singer and as he grew older his voice held on for many years. Jealously some of the boys gossiped that his mother had cut off his balls while he slept so that he would never lose his exceptional talent, but Joseph only laughed when such stories filtered their way back to him. He was too nice to take offence, and he had by now decided that he would become a priest. It was the only path open to a lad with such a commitment to God and being good.

He knew he had not lost his balls because puberty had at last arrived and hair, small and pale at first was beginning to spring out of his snow-white skin. This attracted some attention and the occasional poking around near such sensitive spots when he was alone soon taught him how to get an erection. He heard the others tittering about those games, and no sooner had the discovery been made than he realised that this sin was what the teachers had been vaguely talking about. The very night he had experienced his first accidental orgasm, he vowed not to touch himself again, and he was now one step further along the road to the celibate life of a priest and thus sainthood. Matching this purity, his voice avoided the awkward time of change. He slipped straight from the beautiful sound of a soprano to the gentle lyric lightness of an unusually high tenor. Placed somewhere between falsetto and a counter-tenor, a natural sound soon emanated from his slim frame that had the clarity of his early talent and the smoothness of a stringed instrument. He could almost have been a castrato, but he, and perhaps only he, knew better.

In the last year of school his father died. The younger boys were very upset. He had been their friend. They played rugby in the park when he had days off, they slapped people on the back, just like he did, and one day soon they would be able to go down the ‘local’ every Saturday night, just like he did. The elder sister had run off with her boyfriend and the family no longer spoke of her, but Joseph was certain she would have been sad if she ever found out. He on the other hand was more worried about his mother, whom he loved more than his father, with whom he had grown to have little in common. How was his mother to survive? How would she feed her family? He thought he should leave school and get a job, but his calling to serve the church was too strong and he could not give this up even for his family, and anyway as soon as he went to the seminary, she would only have the two young ones to look after. She immediately got a job working behind the bar at the ‘local’ that had for so long annoyed her as being such a magnet for her husband. His grandmother had moved in and she was able to help out as well.

For two years he studied and prayed at the Irish seminary. He had arrived at the gates one day with his entire wardrobe in his cardboard suitcase, a little money in his pocket, left over from the funds given him by the cathedral to cover whatever expenses he may have getting himself equipped and transported to his new home. He gave most of it to his mother, brought nothing and hitched to the distant house of the order of Christ's brothers. With a deep breath the choir star stepped through the iron gates and left his past life behind. Into anonymity and clothed in humility he was at last to serve his God. The days of childhood when he wanted to be a saint had passed. With maturity he faced the reality of long weeks and possibly years of struggle. He was aware that fears and doubts, temptations and yearnings would be sent by the devil to confuse and undermine his determination, but he felt he was prepared to fight whatever stood in the way to oppose his ordained path.

Once he had sat through endless interviews and selection panels he had come with no more than what he stood with and a letter of reference from the Archbishop that recommended they not neglect his voice when his training began. His Grace assured them that it would and should be an asset to the church. They failed to take up this offer, so Joseph settled into study and meditation. Occasionally he was allowed to sing, but that was only with all the other novices when they learned the passages of the sung mass. His teachers saw it as their duty to crush any pride that may be lurking beneath his pious demeanour. Some of those old fossils, bitter at the loss of their own fulfilment, called God to their side to back them up in their spite. There was a certain medieval attitude prevailing that suppressed joy and accentuated the supposed temptations of the devil. Lonely old men who saw pain and punishment as God's will and if He decided not to cause misery and give each novice a cross to bear they were certainly going to make up for His oversight.

Joseph thought that Christ taught that life was wonderful and beautiful, and only meant that if circumstances dealt you a burden than you were to accept it and do your best. He failed to see that it was necessary to go building crosses where none existed. Christ did not ask to be crucified, in fact he begged to be relieved of such pain, but some of the old Irish men still held on to primitive misrepresentations that the church had failed to stamp out, in spite of the rethink of the great Council of Bishops that had just finished. The lad accepted his position but when the opportunity arose that allowed him to transfer to the monastery in Italy he did so without hesitation. He was seen to be having difficulties and it was suggested that he perhaps might like time off to decide if his vocation was genuine. A year or so away from study and contemplation at a distant family of brothers might help, so he set off for a small retreat hidden away just out side of Rome where the old Abbot was happy to receive him and was certainly overjoyed to have a voice that would inspire the little gathering and their guests as they lived simply in praise of their Saviour.

Ireland had not turned out to be as glorious as he had expected, no pomp, no beauty, only hard work, but here in Italy the monastery life was simple, but the estate on which it sat was so lovely and often they would travel into Rome where Christendom had some of its greater monuments, biggest ceremonies and all the colour that had inspired him as a child. He was happy here and every Sunday he would sing in the Chapel when it was packed with people from the district and many visitors who passed through. Tourists of all ages were welcome and often, young people sought shelter for an evening or two as the hitched their way around Italy on their Grand Tour of discovery. All were made welcome.

The weather was so much warmer here as well and although they had always to wear their long brown robes the place was fairly informal and on the hotter days he felt relaxed enough to wear nothing under his robe. He could hitch his skirt up into his belt and run across the fields during the middle of the day after his chores were finished. Occasionally he would take off his robe and sit in the sunshine briefly but it sometimes worried him and the privacy for such freedom was not always available to the community. It was during his time back in Ireland and the lonely unhappy days when he wondered if he had made the correct decision, that he began to masturbate. He argued with himself, but soon rationalised the strict teachings of the church with the obvious innocence of doing something that was apparently natural, common, and did no harm to anyone. He felt that it was something which probably everyone did but, hypocrites all, insisted that no one else should do, and lied about their own apparent failings.

The only difficulty he was left with when he accepted that what he did was not evil in the eyes of God was that it often required some fantasy to think on when arousing his pleasure. Obviously to think of a naked woman would be a carnal sin, just looking at his own body was okay at times, but without realising where his mind had wandered he often found himself bring up visions of some boy who had recently visited for lunch. Often they arrived in shorts and singlets with a knapsack on their back and if there was a group they would probably end up sitting or playing with a ball on the grass outside, or they might peel off their shirts and go for a walk to the orchard. Some of them were so beautiful. He never imagined having sex with them, nor did the desire occur to him, so he felt secure with this occasional appreciation of their healthy suntans and lovely arms and legs, if they popped into his dreams. This did not happen often because his thoughts were mainly on what he should do about his love of the church and still he wanted to be a good boy.

Soon after they had all sat down for breakfast on morning a lovely boy about five foot six walked in the dining hall and was introduced as Sunny. The Abbot suggested that Joseph should show him around later that morning. The boy was apparently going to stay with them for a while. He was a bit of a mystery kid and said very little initially but over the next few weeks they became good friends and at the suggestion of the old Abbot they spent a lot of time together. There was something sad about the boy but he had so much life in him and he was so tactile that they became intimate and free with each other. Not since Potato Head had Joseph spent so much time with another boy, and this one was so pretty and interesting. Joseph found himself thinking about the boy more and more and his nights became restless as he tried to fathom out the secret of this little one who was changing by the day and becoming more mysterious every time they met. They talked of many things and the novice became attached to his new friend and this grew to obsession, as he watched the boy sneak out of his cell at night and walk and dance around the pond and nearby hills. Joseph had taken to following him at a distance, especially after the day away in the hills, when the boy had taken off his clothes and tried to fondle the novice after bursting into tears. Temptation had found its way into his being, as his devotion grew. He was in great spiritual trouble, but the Abbot, his confessor could give him no comfort. The situation eventually undermined his faith in the church and his love for the boy became paramount. He had not expected this to happen to him and he had made no preparation for such an event, but without warning he had gained a faith in the life of this young boy that outweighed anything his life had prepared for him. When it came to a climax, the boy suddenly disappeared and Joseph plunged into desolation. This stranger who had entered his life was one of the true treasures of the earth and so full of the love that was what the novice had always sought. The loss was more than he could handle and he soon left the comfort of his church in search of his boy. The circumstances were extraordinary and when he and some others who had come under the boy's spell eventually found their missing icon; they set off on a whirlwind of events that shocked the world. It was a time in Joseph's life that he can now scarce recall without doubts as to its reality. Sometimes he has tried to talk about those days but apart from his eventual friend Hans, no one could possibly imagine the impact that small boy had on him.

Throughout that time when the band of players burst upon the unwary world, Joseph became their main singer. Not in the normal sense of a stage performer but his haunting voice was used as part of the events they created, as naively, they set about changing the world in those heady days in the late sixties and early seventies. Too much happened in that time. He and his boy Sunny became lovers, but nothing was exclusive of the others in the group and the celibate soon found himself sleeping with a group of seven. It is possibly too strange to explain just how these events came about but as unbelievable as it sounds the young Irish lad so changed his personality and future that it just has to be accepted.

As in all things human the time of this mystery ended.    ©1995

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