Tuesday, 25 December 2012

The Harpcottle Carol

Years before there had been a group of carol singers in Harpcottle. They were students. As is the way with students they had made their way not from one house to another but from one public house to another. By the time they reached the last hostelry they were not really able to sing at all and they had been sent on their way across the road and along the river.

Of course one of them had fallen in. The others had rescued him. Nobody had drowned or died of pneumonia and it was generally considered they had been "lucky". It was not until the next day that anyone realised that the Harpcottle Carol had been lost, probably in the icy water of the Harpcottle River.

Ever since then people had searched for the carol but nobody had found it. The whole tune had simply disappeared. The old people remembered it existed but they did not remember the tune. The young people thought it was just the imaginings of the old people until....

It was Mouse who found the little music note just outside the cat flap. It was there when he went out into the first thin sliver of daylight. He knew instantly what it was. He had seen one before. The family of robins who lived in the Harpcottle Oak had told him what the first one was. That note had been bright and shiny like a newly whitewashed cottage with a black door. This one was different. It was lying on the step, barely there at all. Mouse could not do anything to help except wait for Lizzie to notice it. She might not notice it of course and, even if she did, she might not know what it was but Lizzie knew about music so Mouse was hopeful.

Mouse thought of a picture of Lizzie. He thought of a picture of Lizzie picking the note up. He thought of a picture of Lizzie singing to the note. It was very cold sitting on the back door step but he waited. Cats are patient.

At last he heard Lizzie in the kitchen and started making small, distressed mewling sounds. They had to be loud enough for Lizzie to hear and quiet enough not to distress the little note.

"Mouse! You silly cat! For goodness' sake, come back inside!"

Lizzie tried to open the back door to pick Mouse up. He just sat firmly in place and refused to move. All the while he kept mewling softly and anxiously as he looked down at his left paw.

No cat sits outside in the snow when they can be inside in the warm Lizzie thought to herself. Mouse had not even had his breakfast! By then her heart was beating a little too rapidly to feel comfortable. Surely Mouse could not be ill or injured?

Still in just her blue checked pyjamas, Lizzie let herself out the front door of the cottage and rushed as fast as the snow allowed around to the back door. Perhaps, she thought to herself, I can pick Mouse up that way or shoo him inside.

He was still waiting there and, if a cat could look relieved, Lizzie thought Mouse did. She stopped. She did not want to swoop on him if he was injured. She did not want to send him skittering across the garden. It was too cold for that. Lizzie thought it would snow soon.

Lizzie approached cautiously. Mouse looked down at his left paw again.

Lizzie looked carefully. There did not seem to be anything wrong with his paw. He appeared to be resting on it normally. She bent down to pick him up and, just as she did, the first faint gleam of sunshine reached the top step.

That was when she saw the little note of music. At first she did not believe it. There was a note of music, an actual note of music, leaning against Mouse's left paw?

It was a pale, almost translucent, pearl grey colour and, although faded, it seemed to be in the shape of a minim.

Lizzie stared at it. She had never seen anything quite like it before. She was not even sure what it was, just that the idea of "note" had come into her head. Mouse clearly knew it was something in need of help. All Lizzie could think was that they all needed get inside as quickly as possible.

"So that's why you were waiting - but how will I get it inside?"

Lizzie had no idea. She was sure it would just break if she tried to pick it up. Mouse did not shift, apart from a slight twitch of his whiskers.

It was so cold LIzzie's ears stung and her nose wanted to drip - if it did not ice up first. Her usually warm pyjamas felt like a sheet of ice across her back.

The little note of music had not moved. She was not sure it was even alive. Losing even a single note of music would be a dreadful thing! Mouse twitched one whisker in an encouraging sort of way. For some reason that made Lizzie think of sneezing and sneezing made her think of a paper tissue. She pulled the clean one from her pyjama pocket and knelt down.

The step felt colder than Artic ice. Lizzie thought she would have frostbite at very least. All this for a single note of music? She must be very foolish indeed.

She put the paper tissue on the palm of her hand and then, holding it level with the step, she very, very cautiously turned the note of music on its side. It fell slowly and softly onto the paper tissue. Lizzie wondered if she was imagining it or whether she heard the faintest of faint musical sighs.

"Trying to save yourself you poor little thing," Lizzie murmured.

It weighed so little she could not feel it.

Mouse gave an anxious miaou and rushed through the cat flap. Lizzie followed through the door and took the note of music into the kitchen.

"What do I do next?" she asked Mouse. He was shivering violently now. Lizzie hoped he would not be ill, "I'll get you some warm milk just as soon as I have done something with this."

Mouse just looked at her. He knew just what had to be done next but humans simply do not understand Feline. There was just one more thing Mouse could do right then. Mouse thought of a picture of Tom.

Tom, who was first harpist in the world renowned Harpcottle Orchestra, was still asleep. The Harpcottle Orchestra had been playing at the Royal Albert Hall the night before and they had been home very late.

Mouse thought of a picture of Tom getting out of bed, of Tom coming into the kitchen. He ran into Tom's room and pulled at the bedclothes.

"Oh go away Mouse!" Tom tried to turn over and pull the bedclothes up again.

No, it was too important for that. Mouse jumped up and pushed him.

"Go and ask Lizzie..."

Mouse sat on the pillow and licked Tom's ear. Tom sat up. He was really very fond of Mouse. Mouse did not usually do anything like this.

"Are you trying to tell me something?"

Mouse flicked his tail briskly, jumped from the bed and looked back at Tom. Tom sighed and got out of bed. It was much too early! Something must be wrong.


Lizzie did not answer. She was still wondering what to do next. How do you save a little note of music which is almost not there at all?

Tom could not hear Lizzie in the kitchen. Had she gone outside and fallen in the snow? Was that what Mouse had been trying to tell him? He rushed out. No, there she was.

"I thought you must have...where did you get that?" he asked. The little note of music was lying on the bench, as close to the Aga as Lizzie had dared to put it. It was still barely there. Lizzie was looking as if she might cry.

"It was outside. Mouse was trying to keep it warm...I don't know what to do next..." Lizzie sounded as if she might cry too.

Tom looked at it. He was not properly awake. He wanted a cup of tea, well several cups of tea. He did not think you could feed tea to the thing Mouse and Lizzie had found.

"I think it's a note of music," Lizzie said.

"A note of music? Of course it's a note of music! It's a minim!" Tom was suddenly wide awake. Notes of music were a huge responsibility. Tom had to look after thousands of them every day.

He sang a middle C very softly. The little thing quivered very slightly, so slightly they were not sure whether it moved or note.

"You try too," Tom said.

They both sang a Middle C very softly. Yes, the little thing definitely quivered. It was alive.

"It needs to be fed music," Tom told Lizzie.

He turned on the radio but Lizzie hastily told him to turn it off again. The little thing had tried to scrunch itself up. Somehow Lizzie knew the radio was not right.

"Maybe it needs something else as well," Tom said. He went off to think about it while he put something more than his pyjamas on.

Lizzie sang Middle C again. Mouse twitched his whiskers approvingly but Lizzie did not notice. She could not see any difference this time. She hoped they had not killed it by turning the radio on. Perhaps the little thing had just gone to sleep?

Mouse ate breakfast. Tom and Lizzie ate breakfast. Every so often Mouse broke off to offer a little purr of encouragement to the minim. Tom and Lizze each tried singing Middle C in between bites of toast.

All during the day, while Tom was at orchestra practice and she was planning the orchestra's trip to Mongolia, Lizzie watched the little note of music. Sometimes it seemed to move a little - or was it just her imagination?

She did not know. She sang Middle C sometimes. She tried Bach and Mozart and the Beatles (but softly). The little note barely stirred. The Maranoa Lullaby (which Tom had brought back from Australia) seemed to soothe it and so did the Schubert Lullaby. It jiggled a little to Boccherini and Vivaldi. She tried humming a theme from Telemann's Water Music but that obviously upset the little note - so much so that Lizzie thought she had almost killed it again and was in tears herself.

Mouse tried to help by sitting there and purring to the little note. He purred so much his throat hurt.

Lizzie went back to lullabies and nursery rhymes. Perhaps it was just a baby?

She tried a High Andean folk song and a string of German, French and Italian folksongs. When Tom came home he brought his folk harp into the kitchen and played tunes by O'Carolan and some Gaelic lullabies. The little note slept, twitching slightly as if it was dreaming.

"It looks a little bit stronger," Tom said with relief.

This went on all week and Lizzie saw that the little note really was stronger. She talked to it and, when she could talk and sing no longer, she played Handel (but not his Water Music because that upset it too), Charpentier, more Mozart, all the Beethoven apart from the Requiem, folk songs from Africa and Russia, Wales and Samoa.

Tom kept disappearing all through the week. Mouse kept disappearing too. Lizzie wondered what was wrong with them. The weather was not really bad but it was not good either. Tom looked exhausted. Mouse would come back looking almost too tired to eat his favourite fresh fish. At night he would not sleep on the end of Lizzie's bed or on the end of Tom's bed. He just curled up next to the little note.

On the Saturday afternoon before Christmas the Harpcottle Orchestra was performing in the main shopping mall. Lizzie was singing in the choir.

(Mouse was staying home. He hated the shopping mall at any time and it was always worse at Christmas.)

"You can look after the minim Mouse," Lizzie told him.

Perhaps. I might, Mouse thought to himself, just have a cat-nap. The minim could look after itself. Mouse knew what was going to happen.

The area around the big Christmas tree in the atrium of the mall was always busy and nobody took much notice when Tom set his harp up by the tree. Nobody took much notice of the double bass player either.

Tom played a few notes, adjusted one string and then played a rippling wave of notes. The double bass player brushed some more notes carefully into the air and then there was the sound of flutes, of violins, violas, cellos, clarinets, oboes, the French horns and trumpets, blowing and brushing their notes into the air. A cloth was whisked off the percussion instruments and those players took up their place. Their notes bounced up and down as if on a trampoline.

The orchestra's conductor walked out from the bookshop and looked around. All the orchestra seemed to be in place.  People were beginning to notice. The conductor raised his baton and then brought it down in one gentle, graceful swoop gathering all the notes, scattering and catching them again.

People stopped. A crying baby quietened. An arguing couple shrugged and turned to look. Small children wriggled out of the grasp of their parents and went to stand by Tom and the double bass player. Three more young children stopped and then stood ready to "conduct".

Lizzie and her friend Anne had been sitting at the Harpcottle Cafe. Now they rose and, along with the other members of the choir, began to sing.

More people stopped. The orchestra went from one joyful piece to another, the opening of Bach's Christmas Oratorio, Handel's Hallelujah Chorus, Lizzie sang her Mozart solo.

It was as they finished that Lizzie noticed something poking out of Tom's pocket. She was not quite sure at first but then it moved a little further. The orchestra was playing the final notes of Beethoven's great Ode to Joy.

And Lizzie knew it was an even greater Ode to Joy than ever before. She knew what Tom and Mouse had been doing. They must have walked down every street in Harpcottle, right along the Harpcottle River, around Harpcottle Bay and anywhere else they could think of. They had found all the other lost notes of the Harpcottle Carol. She was sure she was right. Yes!

The little note was definitely there. It climbed up Tom's shirt and on to his shoulder. It seemed to be looking around. Lizzie looked around too. There was another little note, and another, and another. They were climbing from pockets, hats, collars, from under a scarf and along a red ribbon. There was an entire row of them now jigging around the children who were pretending to conduct.

She looked at Tom. He was smiling. She did not know how he had done it.

The orchestra had stopped. There was a roar of applause but the conductor held up his hand for silence.

"Our harpist Tom has been very busy. The very oldest of you will remember this."

Tom played the rippling notes on his harp and then picked out a tune. There was a gasp from somewhere and then, somewhere at the side, Henry Cottleton aged 103, began to sing. His voice was barely there.

"It's the Harpcottle Carol!" someone whispered.

"The Harpcottle Carol....the Harpcottle Carol..." Right around the mall the words echoed softly.

"Help him someone!" another voice said softly.

This time some members of the orchestra joined in. The choir hummed the tune in the second verse. The old people sang the half-remembered words. The television crew hidden on the upper level ignored the warning from their producer that they would be late for the evening carol service in the cathedral. They recorded it all. A young court reported took down the words and transcribed them and then rushed into the advertising room and threw them up onto the advertising screen so everyone could read them.

They sang it again - and again. The children danced to it. The little notes jigged. Lizzie was sure the little minim was grinning.

But, she was not sure anyone else except Tom, herself and Mouse could see it.


Anonymous said...

What a lovely tale. Is it yours?

Anonymous said...

Oh dear. That sounded like I'm accusing you of plagiarism. NOT what I meant. And now I cannot seem to ask any other way. I hope you understand what I'm trying to ask because I love the story.

Frances said...

Absolutely enchanting, Cat; and yes, I think that it is yours.

virtualquilter said...

Thank you! Lovely story!

Miriam said...

A beautiful story!

jeanfromcornwall said...

Thank you. That was a lovely Christmas present.

Ruth in Ottawa said...

Wonderful! Merry Christmas, Cat!

catdownunder said...

Thankyou everyone. Yes it is mine. Tom and Lizzie and Mouse also appear in "And the first note sang" (100 stories for Haiti) and "Leaf Music" (which you can find much earlier in the blog).
If you have not met them before Tom and Lizzie are brother and sister and Mouse is, of course, their cat.

Jan said...

How beautiful. Thank you.