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Queen Hilda

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In a small flat on Coptic Street, just across from the British Museum, Hilda and Elsa and their occasional visitors formed their own little Bloomsbury set. It was the perfect spot for them. Classical friezes, said Hilda with only a touch of hypocrisy, were the quietest of neighbors. The Greek restaurant downstairs was less so, but Hilda had no objection to the bouzouki. More importantly, the Greeks had no insurmountable objections to musique concrete reinforcee. And the flat was so close to Covent Garden that Elsa merely had to stroll down the street to rehearsals. She didn't, of course; she took a taxi like everyone else. It was enough to know that the possibility existed, and to sit in one's front room overlooking the tourists as they came and went.

Two weeks ago Elsa had finished a run as Medea in Hilda's opera of the same name. Rather than practicing to excess, which as anyone knew was damaging to the vocal chords, she was spending her days reclining on her favourite chaise longue in the front room with an omnibus edition of E.F. Benson's Mapp and Lucia. It was a remarkably weighty tome but she, with the stature of a Wagnerian soprano, was more than equal to the task. Drinking tea and eating toast that was thickly spread with butter and lime preserves, she chuckled conspiratorially to herself, as if she had a friend seated beside her who was whispering in her ear a selection of the choicest and most cutting gossip from the town of Tilling. Her chuckle gradually spread and, once her powerful diaphragm was engaged, turned into a full belly laugh.

"I can hear you in there!" came Hilda's reproachful voice from the next room, which was her study. "Don't think that I can't!"

Elsa recovered herself, wiping at her eyes and at a splash of tea that she had spilt onto her dressing gown.

"Sorry, Hilda," she called. "It's just that Diva has spent ages cutting out roses from the chintz curtains for her frock, and now Mapp is walking past, and..." Merriment once more threatened to overwhelm her. "And you simply must read it!"

"How about an arpeggio or two?" the disembodied voice suggested, still sounding cross. "A little exercise for the vocal chords?"

Hilda's demonstration was rather husky and she cracked on the top note. Elsa shuddered.

"Saving my voice, Tabby dear!" she shouted at the top of her lungs, then picked up her book again.

Hilda appeared in the doorway. There was a smear of ink across the front of her crisp white shirt, and her wire-rimmed specs were askew at the end of her nose. She sighed deeply.

"Never trusted girls who said they were saving themselves."

"What is it, Tabby?"

"It's this blasted Joan of Arc," Hilda said. "I can't think of a way to make it come right in the end. And Covent Garden will demand their score in November, come hell or high water. I'm that tempted to tell David Webster that he can just stick his grand opera up his arse."

Elsa appeared un-shocked by this display of temper.

"Sit down and have some tea? It's Lady Grey."

Hilda perched herself on the edge of the chaise longue but did not heed Elsa's offer of refreshment. Taking off her reading glasses, she ran a hand through her close-cropped hair. Elsa rubbed sympathetically at her shoulders.

"If you were just content to die tragically like other sopranos," Hilda said, "it would be so much easier to get something on paper."

"One gets so tired of dying tragically," said Elsa, her mouth full of toast. "And you promised me that I should get to live in this one too."

"Live you shall," replied Hilda firmly. "Live you shall, my little cupcake. Just as soon as I can find another tragedy that's tragic the right way round."

Elsa was struck by a sudden thought. Resolutely she put down her teacup.

"Why does it have to be a tragedy?"

"Pardon?"

"Why does it have to be a tragedy, Hilda? Why not a comedy for once?"

"Because," Hilda declared, "the world is not yet ready for Der Rosenkavalier the way that I would write it."

At Glyndebourne the previous summer, Elsa had made quite the impression as the Marschallin. More importantly she had given Hilda ideas. Hilda was still turning over in her mind the question of how one might remove Octavian from the story whilst retaining the climactic romantic trio for three sopranos. It was a difficult nut to crack but she was confident that she would crack it one of these days, with or without the help of her hapless librettist. He, or possibly the librettist before him, had objected that even in the theatre, and even with sopranos at ten to the penny, such things were still quite beyond the pale. Hilda considered this a piffling objection. She pitied him.

"A comedy!" Elsa exclaimed again.

Hilda muttered something that was calming and patronizing in equal measure. Taking up the heavy tome that she had laid on the side table, Elsa thrust it into Hilda's unresisting arms.

"Dear Edward," said Hilda, opening the book up to the title page. "He was so fond of his garden room. And his needlepoint. And Henry James."

"Mapp and Lucia!" added Elsa.

For her this counted as very excited indeed. Hilda was still calmly leafing through the pages.

"I can see that, you silly little dotty," she said absently. "Funny stuff, but not so funny that it's worth interrupting my composing for, what? Jolly queer chap, old E.F. Knew him myself, yknow, back in the day. Always fancied that there was a touch of me in Irene Coles but everyone will tell me that it's Radclyffe Hall really..."

Elsa made one more valiant attempt to win her partner's attention. She placed her hand full across the pages.

"For your opera, Tabby."

Suddenly the idea struck home. Hilda stared at Elsa, then leapt to her feet and dashed into her study. Through the open door Elsa could see her making a clean sweep of the desk, sweeping all her notes and manuscripts off into the bin.

When she reappeared in the doorway, brushing off her hands, she was glowing with fresh inspiration.

"Can't think why it took so long to occur to me!"

Elsa nodded, accepting this without comment.

"And you shall play..."

"...Lucia!" they exclaimed together.

It was the lead role, naturally.

***

Having been once burned with Emily Butter--her grand opera on the life of a Liverpool department store--Hilda had decided that all-female operas were still perhaps a touch daring for the cloistered and tradition-bound audiences of post-war London. Therefore, after ruthlessly eradicating the characters of Major Flint and Captain Puffin from her proposed opera, she called a halt to her campaign. The Padre, though a shadowy figure, was saved. So was Georgie Pillson, Lucia's dearest ally, duet partner, and eventual (though reluctant) intended.

One night while they were lying in bed together, propped up on pillows, sipping tea and discussing--as they always did--the intricate twists and turns of Hilda's composition process over the past twenty-four hours, Elsa decided that it might be time to broach a delicate question.

"Might there be a role for Peter?" she said cautiously.

"Peter Pears?"

"He was just divine in Troilus and Cressida. He does comedy so well."

"He can play Mapp," said Hilda, and laughed in a way that might have been considered unkind.

"Hilda," said Elsa reproachfully.

"Georgie Pillson, then, if you must." It was, naturally, the role that Elsa had had in mind from the start. "But there'll be no Acis-and-Galatea rubbish this time around, mind."

Elsa drew herself up to her full height. "Acis-and-Galatea rubbish... I haven't the slightest idea what you mean, Hilda."

"Oh yes you do, m'girl. Aunt Hilda knows all. You were sighing after him like a, like a... I can't say what."

"Can't you?"

"I can't," said Hilda firmly.

Elsa sighed and, after putting her tea aside, subsided once again to a nearly horizontal position.

"Don't let's go through all this again," she said.

"I couldn't have put it better myself."

There was a silence. Elsa turned her head on the pillow to gaze at her partner.

"Tell me," she said, trying a different tack, "are you planning anything electronic? Any tape loops?"

Hilda's tone was stony. "Haven't made up my mind yet."

"It's just," said Elsa tentatively, "it's just... they're not very easy to sing with, are they?"

"Wouldn't know. That's why I'm the composeress and you're the singer, m'dear."

Elsa nodded resignedly. Being Hilda's muse was not always easy but it was the price one had to pay. Silently she attempted to settle her head on Hilda's unyielding shoulder. After a few moments, as if by instinct, Hilda began to stroke her hair.

"I was just thinking," said Elsa, snuggling a bit closer, "there's not much romance in it, is there?"

Being a leading soprano, Elsa had got used to the idea of her character being adored and desired by all. By this standard Mapp and Lucia left a great deal to be desired.

"There's more to life than romance, y'know."

"Not in opera," Elsa insisted.

"You're a silly little dotty," said Hilda, relenting. "But I do love you."

And she turned out the light.

***

Peter began practicing early in the morning. Ben was still upstairs shaving and Mrs Hudson had just begun preparing breakfast. The clatter of pots and pans made a pleasant accompaniment as he sat down at the piano with Hilda's manuscript vocal score. Was that a bit of marmalade on the corner of page twenty-three? No matter.

He turned straightaway to Georgie's great (and only) solo aria wherein, three-quarters of the way through the opera, he unburdened himself of his great dilemma.

I shall never
Shall I?
Shall I?
I shall never marry

Peter could identify, though he had never had a prospect as imminently in the offing as Georgie had in Lucia. He was very grateful for that small mercy. He began to sing.

"What is that?" said Ben some moments later, appearing still in his flannel pyjamas, bits of tissue stuck to his cheek. "I cut myself shaving."

"I can see that," said Peter. "Mapp and Lucia, of course."

"Of course," Ben echoed dryly.

"Isn't it glorious? Some of the earlier bits I could hardly sing for laughing."

"Glorious is hardly the word I should use." Ben had taken several months to recover from Hilda's visit to the Aldeburgh Festival last summer. "Perhaps laughter is the appropriate response."

"It's a comedy, Bee."

"Very well, Peter. I shall content myself with merely being pleased that you are enjoying it."

It was generosity of a sort. Peter, who did occasionally commission and perform modern pieces not composed by his partner, had become used to Ben's cordial disapproval. At least in this case there was not a piano accompaniment that he had to persuade Ben to perform.

"I shall have to ask Imogen to teach me to knit," said Peter happily, wrapped up in his own concerns.

"Knit?" said Ben in horror.

"Haven't you read the score, pussycat? Or the book? I'm meant to do needlework--Georgie is meant to be doing needlework, that is--but Hilda worried that it wouldn't be visible onstage. So I have to knit instead. Isn't that clever?"

Ben silently wondered whether he would now he required to insert a curtain-dressing scene into his next opera.

"And I should think Imogen knits," Peter continued. "Don't you think? That brown cardigan of hers certainly looks as if it were hand-knit..."

He trailed off as Mrs Hudson entered to call them to breakfast. Quickly they took their seats at the long dining room table. Porridge for Ben and a fry-up for Peter.

"Jolly good," said Peter, sprinkling on a touch more salt.

"Mmmm." Ben preferred his porridge unadulterated.

"And I get to wear a cape," said Peter, his mind still running upon the subject of costuming. "A little cape and Oxford bags. Thirties styles. Brings me right back to my university days; so charming."

"Most undignified," grumbled Ben, face down to his porridge. "I can't see what you see in this sort of thing."

Peter put down his butter knife with a little clatter. "What sort of thing?"

"Pandarus," said Ben.

There was a meaning silence.

"You're just cross whenever I get cast in other people's operas."

There was another meaning silence.

"I just can't see what you saw in the part," said Ben obstinately.

"It was the best part in the opera."

"That isn't saying much."

(Ben had never thought much of William Walton. Troilus and Cressida had, in his opinion, represented a particularly low point.)

"True," Peter offered. "But everyone was in gales of laughter."

"At your expense."

"It wasn't..."

Peter shut his mouth and poured himself more tea. There was no point in arguing further. Ben never would understand the notion of 'camp.' Nor, therefore, could he recognize that Georgie Pillson was a delightful role. There was nothing one could say.

He sighed.

"It's a lovely day, isn't it, Ben? You'll have a glorious walk on the Ness. Please pass the marmalade."

Mollified at last, Ben did so.

***

Peter's knitting lessons progressed with only a little inconvenience. Imogen could indeed knit but she had a tendency to drop stitches whenever she got too excited, so she usually had to put her project aside whenever Ben was in the room. She was more than happy to share her knowledge with Peter, as it gave her an excuse to stay at Crag House in the evening after her copying work was done. They would sit together in front of the fire, each knitting a scarf for Ben, with occasional breaks for instruction and the rescue of wayward stitches.

Imogen was just coming to the end of a tricky row when the telephone in the hall rang. Having made herself at home at Crag House, she put her knitting aside and ran to see who it might be.

"Aldeburgh 743," she said into the receiver, only slightly muffled by the crochet hook between her lips. "Crag House; home of Benjamin Britten; Imogen Holst speaking."

"Imo!" came Hilda's hearty voice at the other end of the line. "So glad you picked up, my girl. Just called to have a chat about m'opera."

Imogen took the crochet hook out of her mouth and tucked it into her hair instead. "I'll put Ben on the line directly."

"No, no, you're just the one I wanted."

"Me?"

Imogen was in the dark. Full of apprehension, she put a hand on the tabletop to steady herself. Hilda's ideas could be rather outre at times.

"You. I want you to conduct."

Imogen's relief was so great that she said "yes" straightaway without pausing to ask herself what Ben might think.

"Yes," she hastily amended, "that is, if you really can't find anyone more..."

"Haven't asked anyone else. Who could be more suited? Thing needs a woman's touch, don't you know."

"Well, I don't…"

"Of course you do!" Hilda boomed. Imogen held the phone a bit away from her ear. Hilda could be rather a force of nature when she got into these moods.

"You're too kind," she said, all in a flutter. "I'll just pass you along to Ben now."

And she put the phone down before Hilda could possibly object. Ben was already lingering in the hall. She fled before any unpleasant questions could be raised.

Ben picked up the phone. "I can't possibly conduct."

"Good to hear it, old cock, because I never dreamt of asking you."

Ben cleared his throat.

"Now then," he said, after a pause, "what was it you wanted to discuss?"

"Not a thing," said Hilda cheerfully. "It was Imogen put you on. Thought you had something to discuss with me."

"I can't imagine what that would have been."

Except that he could imagine. There was something, but how to broach it? He was still in Hilda and Elsa's debt after the Aldeburgh festival and it was not a position that he relished. Would it not be digging himself in deeper to ask? If it had not been out of love, he never would have been able to nerve himself up to do so.

There was another pause.

"Now that you mention it, I was wondering whether you were in need of a young man to fill a part in your, erm, comic opera."

"Young man?" said Hilda doubtfully.

Ben clarified. "Miles."

A gust of laughter came from the telephone.

"Only he has been longing for another operatic role... and as, in a manner of speaking, morally that is, his guardian..." There was a brief spate of mumbling in which could be dimly discerned the idea that Ben felt obligated to look out for his young protege and to offer him any opportunity that might... well, that might bring him out of school and back under Ben's supervision. "...very willing.... and musical, naturally."

Much like Georgie Pillson, Hilda felt that children were, in the main, disagreeably sticky creatures, particularly after tea. But even she was capable of being kind when she chose.

"Naturally," she echoed. "A role as an errand boy, perhaps?"

"Would he have anything in the way of a singing part?"

"Letter for you, Mrs Lucas," squeaked Hilda improvisationally in a voice at least an octave above her usual throaty contralto. "Will that do?"

"Very good, very good. You must send the part to us directly so that he can be rehearsed. And I am in your debt, Hilda."

"Never doubted you were, old boy," came the ready reply. "I shall send the whole great whacking manuscript on to Imo just as soon as Evelyn finishes copying the parts. Not a moment to lose! We'll be cracking on to Covent Garden next month. Just think of it! Toodle-pip."

And she hung up the phone. Confounded, Ben stood on in the front passage, wondering why the score was to be sent to Imogen.

Peter put his head around the sitting-room door.

"Time for a little Mozartino, Ben?"

Ben sighed and followed.

***

When they needed the break from their music, Hilda and Elsa would refresh themselves with a stroll across the street to the British Museum. Its heroic pediment and columns beckoned to them, speaking silently of higher things.

A devotee of the aesthetic theories of Kit Anstruther-Thomson, Elsa fervently believed that gazing upon Greek statues helped to improve her breathing. Hilda merely found them inspirational. Whatever the reason, they would share a pot of tea and scones in the cafe, then sally forth to the galleries.

"If only I could parle Italiano," said Hilda, apropos of nothing, "it would all be much simpler."

Hilda looked back to where Elsa stood rooted in the middle of the marble floor, an army of small schoolchildren flowing around her as she contemplated the X with many a small adjustment of posture.

"Have you lost another librettist?" asked Elsa vaguely.

"Yes, blast it all!"

A little girl with buck teeth, plaits and a straw hat looked up at Hilda with interest before being ushered hurriedly away by her teacher.

"And now we're going to draw the Assyrian lions," came the officious announcement, fading into the distance along with the noise of discontented children.

"You go through more librettists than Ben," said Elsa.

Hilda had, in fact, rarely held onto one single librettist for the whole duration of an opera's composition. A single pencil rarely lasted her for that length of time either, but she did not see this as anything to be unduly concerned over.

"Bugger would keep moving the words about when I wasn't looking. And adding new ones that weren't called for at all!"

Elsa made a sympathetic noise and completed her pose. As they were now alone in the gallery it was far easier to feel unconstrained. She took one last deep breath and tried to add a psychic suggestion of flowing drapery. (In actuality she was wearing a rather snugly fitting tweed suit.)

"So I told him where to get off," Hilda continued smugly. "Evelyn's promised to add in any random bits of twaddle that I might need hereafter."

With a great sigh of satisfaction, Elsa detached herself from her chosen object of contemplation. She linked arms with Hilda and they strolled together into the next gallery.

"It's done my neck and shoulders a world of good," Elsa confided. "Now what was this about Italiano? Surely you've done all of Lucia's bits already?"

Neither of them were what you might call linguists. Hilda had a tendency to throw herself at the meaning and let the syntax take care of itself. Even in German, which they both spoke passably, she lacked the patience to keep her verbs at the end of the sentence where they belonged. As for Elsa, the keenness of her interest in modern (read, English) opera was in direct proportion to her inability to grasp Italian librettos without the most copious of coaching. (And prompting on the night.)

Unlike E. F. Benson's hapless Lucia, whose passion for posing in Italian led her into all sorts of awkward situations, they wisely restricted themselves to English except when the occasion demanded it.

"Oh, bother Lucia's bits," said Hilda dismissively. "Don't need anyone to tell me how to write bad Italian. No, this is for the opera, don't you know."

"For the opera?"

"For the opera. In the opera."

Light finally dawned.

"Ohhh," said Elsa. "Olga Bracely's opera. You're writing it in?"

One of the high points in Georgie Pillson's blameless existence was his friendship with the opera singer Olga Bracely, who during the course of the books starred as Lucretia in a modern adaptation of the story. Unfortunately for Lucia, the opera concerned was in Italian and so (predictably) was the composer. Thus humor ensued.

"I am indeed writing it in," Hilda confirmed. The ghost of a smile crossed her face, as if she were a schoolgirl planning some mischief. "And won't Ben be foxed when he hears what I've written."

"Oh, Tabby, do tell."

It was just what Hilda had been waiting for. Stopping dead between the winged Assyrian beasts and the sketching schoolchildren--it was the sort of thing that deserved an audience--she dramatically declaimed:

"The oatmeal slippers of sleep creep through the city..."

Elsa clutched at Hilda's arm and bent double with a shriek of fortissimo laughter. It was one of the most notorious lines from that most notorious of librettos, which Ronald Duncan had written for Ben's Rape of Lucretia.

"Only in Italian, mind you," added Hilda. "With a few little flourishes and tame discords to set the thing off."

"You wouldn't!" Elsa exclaimed.

"I most certainly would. Teach the music establishment a lesson. Object lesson in what happens when you don't keep your librettist well in hand."

"Oh, Hilda, what would opera do without you?"

Hilda glowed with the joy of genius confirmed. "Can't think what, Elsa, can't think. And even if they learn nothing, it'll be a jolly good rag."

Once more they were approached by the little girl who had been gazing at Hilda in the Greek gallery. She now had a smudge of charcoal pencil on her cheek.

"Autograph?" said Hilda. "Naturally. Don't be shy. Always happy to oblige."

Seizing the girl's sketch pad, she boldly signed her name and scribbled a fragment of music for which she had been unable to find a better home.

"Thank you, miss," the girl replied politely. She hesitated. "Only, we were wondering if you could move over a bit? You're standing in front of the lions."

"Naturally, naturally," said Hilda again. "Can't get in the way of the lions. Whacking great lions with whacking great beards they are too. Never drew anything like that back at CLC."

And she moved aside.

"Come along, Elsa, shall we go to that spaghetti place on Southampton Row? I'm sure one of the waiters will be able to translate my oatmeal slippers for me."

***

After a difficult day wrangling with his publishers in London, Ben finally arrived at Covent Garden to look in at one of the rehearsals of Mapp and Lucia. It was not how he would have chosen to spend his time, but he was certain that without firm supervision at the end of the day, Peter would be in danger of missing the train back to Aldeburgh. Peter had missed so many trains before. It was one of his talents.

In the foyer of the opera house Ben found Joan Cross, the leading lady of so many Britten operas, costumed in Miss Mapp's flowered chintz frock. She looked rather discontented.

"How is it?" he asked.

"It's Lady Billows all over again," she said sadly.

There was not much that one could say to that. Ben nodded and made his way into the theatre.

The orchestral rehearsal was in full swing. Imogen was in the pit. Hilda was supervising from a seat in the front row. (Ben took a seat beside her.) Elsa was onstage as Lucia, along with a young woman portraying Irene Coles, who wore knickerbockers and a bow tie that was rakishly askew. The latter was singing passionately about what a splendid mayor Lucia would make, but more seemed to be at issue than that. Promising to consider the idea, Lucia demurred from the rest of the proposition and extricated herself.

"You there!" shouted Hilda at the hapless young alto playing Irene. "More swagger! More swagger!"

More swagger was duly produced.

Ben got out a small notepad and began jotting down ideas for his Life of Christ.

He was just in the middle of a touching fugue on the subject of "suffer the little children to come unto me" when Imogen called a fifteen minute break. Hilda turned to Ben and slapped him soundly on the back.

"Never thought you'd come," she said.

"I thought I would look in. Peter has been able to talk of nothing but Mapp and Lucia."

Hilda shook her head. "It's Lucia and Mapp, actually."

"Is it?"

"Don't know why old E. F. ever had it the other way round. Anyone can see that Lucia comes off on top."

It prompted images that Ben would rather not have considered. He did, however, understand the desire to give one's partner star billing, which he assumed was at the root of the issue. Besides, something else was preying upon his mind.

"Irene doesn't fall in love with Lucia in the book," he said.

"Of course she does!" said Hilda. "Have you read the book, old cock?"

"Perhaps it was a different edition," said Ben.

"Perhaps it was."

***

Meanwhile Elsa had gone backstage to join Peter, who was still occupied with his knitting. The house lights were low and he was bent over his needles, brow furrowed with concentration. His hands seemed just a little too big for them.

Elsa settled herself in the rather battered old chair by his side. It squeaked slightly as she positioned herself between its arms.

"Aren't you done with that yet?"

"Still have half a ball of wool to go," he muttered, intent on his work.

In introducing Peter to knitting, Hilda had unwittingly created a monster. The scarf on which he had been dutifully working since rehearsals began was now getting on for seven feet long. It was a lumpy, curling, ungainly monster that would, if Ben wore it, surely make him look as if he were being eaten alive by a tweedy, green boa constrictor. But every stitch of it was knit with love.

(Typically, Peter did not know when enough was enough.)

"Our scene went very well," said Elsa, referring to the one where Lucia and Georgie finally agreed to change their single state for a married one. "I thought it was very moving."

"It was indeed. I daresay if a woman had ever made me such a gallant offer, I might have..."

"Would you really?" Elsa replied, leaning a touch closer.

"...then again, I might not have."

Elsa deflated slightly. She pretended that she had just been straightening the folds of her long skirt.

"But I should have considered it," Peter added consolingly.

"Had you never thought of marrying for companionship?"

"I have companionship."

"Well, yes."

Ben was discussing a fine point of staging with Hilda. His raised voice was clearly audible. In fact he seemed to be on the verge of a harangue. Imogen waved her hand from the pit and emitted a faint halloo.

Peter seemed to be getting his thoughts in order.

"I suppose I might," he said finally. "In extremis. Ben seems to think that the part would fall to me, if it came to that."

"Imogen would marry him in a heartbeat."

"I believe he's only too aware of the fact."

Imogen vaulted out of the pit, gracefully avoiding being tripped by her skirt, and went immediately to Ben's side. Hilda looked deeply unhappy and interposed herself between them. The tripartite negotiations continued.

"Had you thought of it?" Peter asked. "Companionship, I mean."

Elsa laughed. "Men don't seem so interested in companionship."

"I'm sure that's not true," said Peter, sounding somewhat miffed.

"Aside from Evelyn, that is, but he already lives with us. T'would make things rather complicated. I've always suspected Hilda of wanting a harem."

Peter was struggling with a knot in his yarn. He chuckled.

"Come out for a drink after rehearsal sometime," he said, "and we'll raise a glass to in extremis. May it never occur."

"May it never occur," Elsa echoed.

Peter frowned. "Do you know anything about slipping stitches?"

***

Scene after scene unfolded. Ben gave up the 19.14 train back to Aldeburgh train as a lost cause. Finally he took off his watch and, after tapping it lightly to make sure it had not stopped, put it into his pocket. Mercifully the final scene came at last, after an extended break during which most of the orchestra seemed to have snuck out for a quick half.

Onstage, a floor of gently waving billows surrounded the upended table upon which Lucia and Mapp were to drift out to sea in the climactic flooding scene, after Mapp's failed attempt to steal Lucia's recipe for 'lobster a la Riseholme.' Through the billows wandered Elsa, resplendent in Lucia's mayoral chains of office. She climbed cautiously onto the table, which seemed none too stable.

"Weia! Waga!" she experimentally sang, wobbling a little. Her voice wobbled too. She cleared her throat. "Wagala weia! Wallala weiala weia!"

"Elsa!" shouted Hilda. "What did I tell you? How many times? No Wagner!"

"Just warming up, Tabby."

Elsa reached out a hand to help Joan Cross onto the table. They wobbled together. Ben covered his mouth with his hand.

Imogen tapped her baton on her music stand. "Now, let's make it a real storm, shall we?"

And so they embarked upon Lucia and Mapp's final voyage.

"I'll tell you a secret," sang Lucia. "My lobster Riseholme takes double cream."

"I'll tell you a secret," sang Mapp. "I found it out already."

In the lower strings, whipped into a passion by Imogen's conducting, the storm continued to howl. Onstage the two grand dames of Tilling clung together in the midst of the whirlwind.

"I'll tell you a secret," they sang in perfect harmonies. "I'm really quite fond of you."

And finally the storm began to clear. Stage lights turned the backdrop from dark grey to a pale lilac that slowly blushed to red.

"What care we for recipes? What care we for Tilling? Don't let's ever go back."

And as Lucia and Mapp sailed off into the sunset together, the curtain fell.

***

As the house lights came up there was a faint scattering of applause. Very little of it came from Ben's party, which was already engaged in further planning.

"Can we have dinner first?" Miles was asking. "Somewhere nice?"

Ben sighed. "We've missed our train already."

"I did tell you it would run long," said Peter.

"I suppose it can't be helped. Dinner it is."

"Hurrah," said Miles.

Hilda came sweeping over to meet them as they rose from their seats. She had tears of joy in her eyes.

"Now that's what I call an opera," she said proudly. "If I do say so m'self."

***