Sammy Wilson gazed at the notice board in the dilapidated church hall and wondered what had possessed him to take up recorder playing in his late seventies. As a young school teacher many years ago, he had learned the rudiments, and the past six weeks with a beginners' class at the adult education centre had helped a little--but this!
He read the notice again. "The Cumbrian Society of Recorder Players... Annual Workshop." He'd committed himself to four full sessions, each an hour, which, with coffee breaks and lunch, would last the whole day. And to make things more complicated, there was a choice of three programmes at each session. AND he'd paid for the privilege, AND travelled twenty miles into the bargain!
All around him seemingly self-assured musicians of all ages were discussing the various choices in knowledgeable terms and he eavesdropped desperately. Then a horsey lady, wearing well-cut tweeds and sensible brogues, unwittingly came to his rescue. In a piercing cut-glass voice she neighed, "I see Cloda Sellars is doing Caroubel's Gavottes this year. Far too elementary for my taste. I want something more challenging. I think I'll tackle Gibbon's Fantasia III with Dr. Ellis."
"Gavottes! That's for me," murmured Sammy with a sigh of relief, and looked at the programme again. There it was. "Cloda Sellars. Seven Gavottes by Francisque Caroubel. Venue: Upper Room."
Picking up his battered blue attaché case, he made his way to the narrow staircase and finally found himself in a poky little attic with flaking whitewashed walls and exposed roof beams. Some well-meaning but incompetent artist had decorated the walls with atrocious paintings of the adjoining church; the whole effect was rather depressing. To make things worse, it was icy cold and the one-bar electric fire in the corner was totally inadequate.
Sammy looked around at the others who had made the perilous climb. Perhaps they weren't all so self-assured. He counted sixteen. There was a general hubbub as music stands were assembled and recorders of all shapes and sizes made their appearance: descants, trebles, tenors, and basses. And then Cloda came: a rather attractive middle-aged lady with bobbed iron-grey hair, her spectacles hanging from a loop round her neck. She looked very efficient indeed. "Splendid!" she cried. "I didn't expect so many. How we're all going to fit in, I don't know."
By this time Sammy had commandeered a chair and positioned it as near to the top of the stairs as possible. If things became too hairy, he could make a strategic retreat. He set up his music stand, and sat toying with his plastic descant recorder, waiting fearfully for the music to be distributed. One thing about it, he thought. Gavotte music should be slow....
Cloda clapped her hands with organising enthusiasm. "Come along now," she trilled. "All settle down. How let me see. Mmmm.... yes. You know, we've enough for two choirs. That's splendid." (Everything was splendid for Cloda). "We'll have the first descants over there, with the trebles, tenors and basses and then the second choir...."
Sammy found himself caught up in the general re-arrangements, and his panic increased as he was gradually manoeuvred farther away from the stair head.
Cloda was in her element, "Four descants! Splendid! We can have two in each chair. Move round a bit, basses. Give the tenors more room."
Sammy looked on aghast. Not only was he now at the far end of the little attic, but enthusiastic Cloda had blocked off the stair head with a barrier of basses! Sammy had no means of retreat! He was stuck for the session!
As the music was handed round, Sammy worked things out. Two choirs. Four descants. Two descants to each choir. He was in the first choir. With one companion. One companion? God! He was virtually on his own!
The music was plonked in front of him and Sammy gave a mental gasp. All black notes, and high ones at that. Quavers and semi-quavers by the dozen. Old Caroubel had gone to town with the time changes, and there were numerous repeats. But to crown it all, the descants had four beats rest before coming in. And Sammy was expected to sight-read the whole lot! Ah, well... at least he would have a companion to help out.
By now everyone had settled down, a neat circle of chairs filled with eager musicians. Sammy glanced to his right, looking for the other descant, his prop in the ordeal to come.
My God! IT WAS A LITTLE GIRL!
There she sat, in a fetching powder-blue tracksuit and white bumpers with enormous tongues. She couldn't have been more than eight years old. She caught Sammy's panic-stricken glance, tilted her little blonde head, and smiled up at him angelically.
But Cloda was ready to begin. She brought the ensemble to attention and her hand came down for the first beat. Sammy started to count. ONE two three four, TWO two three four, THREE two three four, FOUR two three four... and then he was in. By dint of intense concentration and a determination to help the little girl out, he found he was able to manage after a fashion. True, there was the odd missed note and suspect timing, but he was coping. However, each time he made a mistake he sensed his little companion glancing at him.
And then the truth dawned on him. She was playing perfectly. The notes came sweet and true, soaring above the lower instruments, giving them the lead and allowing the harmonies to show through. After a few disconcerting moments, Sammy relaxed and started to enjoy himself.
So... a few missed notes, but what matter? He'd never played so well!
After it was all over, Sammy turned to the little girl. "Well, well," he said. "That was lovely. You play a lot better than I do. What's your name?"
Sammy learned that his new musical friend was called Penny and that she came - to quote her own self-possessed words - from a musical family. Mummy was a first violin with the Lakeland Sinfonia, and Penny's four-year-old sister had already started to learn the descant recorder. "She's not quite as good as me yet, though." It transpired that Penny's mum had dropped her off for the morning while she went shopping in Kendal.
Soon Sammy and Penny were firm friends, and he enjoyed listening to her precocious chatter during the first break.
After coffee, Sammy studied the notice board once mare. Decisions, decisions! Where to go for the second session? Certainly not the upper room. He needed a way of escape. Was it to be Haydn's Divertimentos, or perhaps Byrd's Fantasy Sextet? He simply hadn't a clue.
Suddenly Penny was standing beside him. "I'm going to stay in the main room, I think," the little girl whispered. "Mr. Chisholm is going to conduct some Easter music. Look, there it is on the board. It should be quite easy for us."
Sammy really appreciated the "for us" part. A budding diplomat!
And then a small, warm, self-possessed hand slipped into his own. "Mr. Wilson," Penny said, "Would you like me to sit with you again and then we can help each other out?"
Ron is 80 years old and served with the British Army in India (and Ceylon) during World War II. He retired from the teaching profession in 1985 and, following his wife's death shortly afterwards, took up creative writing as a hobby. Since then he has had short stories and poetry published and broadcast. The North West Network of the B.B.C has broadcast seventeen of his stories.