“Choir Masters at Bratislava”, excerpt from Facing the Music
by Patrick Henry
From leaving Split in Croatia, I paused at a small rail station in Slovenia and asked the office for times to Vienna or Bratislava, either soon reached from here. The clerk checked matters on the phone. Where I waited, a shadow fell over the hallway.
“Victor, I am the supervisor for your arrangements. Why rush back to Vienna? Bratislava is a nice town: history, culture, drinks and girls, even. All cost money.”
The voice said. The figure, indistinct in black coat and hat. An envelope was given.
“You did fairly well in Budapest and onwards, to Split. The route continues yet.”
If he did not work for railroad companies, he could railroad anyone at the flick of a hat. So I booked a seat for Bratislava. Zeno, I’d call him, slunk off in the shadows.
An international choir festival held today in this city: I took interest in the judges one row ahead of me: the amateur foreign outsider in this sparse audience. Mostly supporters of each choir. Judges conferred in urgent low voices, mostly German. Young singers, training and travelling long and hard, from Moscow, Helsinki, all over. Around twenty-four in each group. All deserved a hundred per cent, in my book: hating the judges who might mark them down. Pieces from Bruckner, Schubert, Verdi, Wagner, thrilled the hall.
Interval time; I lunched on a café terrace in the main square. This small city: a microcosm of civilized Europe, crowned by that choral competition. A man, passing, spoke maybe Slavonic: then German. Finding myself English: he remarked:
“Extraordinary. Your nation has no choirs here, but you are a judge. May I join you?” His glass of wine: brought to my table. I was no judge, either, I explained.
“Pity that Britain is not represented, but not surprising.” I added. Had we no voices, or taste for great music, he wondered. Yes, but choirs prefer church pieces, or by local. composers: Elgar, Parry, Sullivan. Not to cross the vast continent, and compete.
“Then you are adventurous, right here, sat next to the judges. Most audiences would not dare approach such an elite body. Having my daughter, here, a chorister, I can not overhear juries.”
Knowing few languages: neither could I. But wished his daughter’s choir, good luck.
“Luck is not enough.” Was I going back to my same place? He went on. Now I thought it best not to do so. We could have been seen talking. He, an involved party. We both looked round the square. No one like the Grey Eyed Men or the Carpetbaggers, seemed evident. But this man oozed intrigue, if only fixing a choir competition. Vienna, few kilometres from here: he might know Waldemar. I displayed the opera book.
“Your guide to following Opera round Europe? We are only your poor relations. Choral groups.. You become acquainted with deep matters.” He said. ‘Acquainted’ sounded a term of undercover significance. I said, it was good to be ‘acquainted’ with his choral involvement. I looked forward to his daughter’s group, soon going on.
“Do go back to your same seat. Did you see a small grey-haired man with thick-rimmed glasses and blue suit? Yes? Anything he says, note down the words, especially when my group perform. I will see you later.” The Choir Man said.
My face must suggest one approachable for a deal. Criminal involvement is a bad habit. No need to enter this kind of racket. But the fascination felt hard to resist. Now I was back in the row behind judges, ready to grasp evidence. Hooked into intrigue.
Snatches of Verdi, Monteverdi, Faure: even more thrilling, voiced by vivacious young ladies: added to ferment in my mind, of more scores to come, along the sinister side.
Evening cool now. Back at the café, I sat inside. The Choir Man hovered near terrace tables: tense, seeing no one there. Tempted to let him dangle, or be given the slip; I had bigger fish to fry, than connive in unfair pressure at a choir contest. Would it stop there? Could he be in Waldemar’s network? A petty racketeer? I had no idea. Any more than knowing about choral music, I liked, deeply. No idea of who should win today’s contest. All sounding superb.
Outside, the Choir Man started to go away. From the doorway, I called out. He turned, his grim face suddenly beaming, and came inside, ordering drinks. I slid a sheet of paper across the table. Intelligence gleaned from observing that judge in question. Mostly half-guesses: but Choir Man seemed delighted. What were my plans? Vienna only an hour from here by train, I would head there again.
“If you have a day or two to spare. Please visit The Tatra.” He suggested. This sounded like a Balkans Guru, or a partisan gang, lurking in the interior.
“They are a hidden, remote, brooding sort of gathering. Your imagination about it is a sign you are the man to go there. The Tatra Mountains form the border north of here, between Slovakia and Poland.” He said. “My car is parked round the corner. How soon can you be ready to go?” I drained my beer stein and gestured at its emptiness.
Pity there being no time to have another, on his expenses, but plenty of all that might lie ahead in The Tatra: a taste for that name hitting me fast as the flavour of the beer.
“Will choral competition be there, for me to give a hand.” I asked, as the car started.
“Music entertainment will occur. Your work will be more verbal.” He said. I felt thrilled: to ride into unknown countryside. And encounter yet another complete crook.
Evening, we reached the town of Runbomzerok and booked into a ski-lodge type hostel. He asked if I had ever used skis. His name Anton, but would always be Choir Man, to me. Once in Norway, I tried to ski on nursery slopes, while local infants sped down mountains. I knew I’d never compose like Grieg, write like Ibsen, paint like Munch, or slalom expertly. Taking a dry, sceptical view: everywhere. Of Waldemar’s network, or Choir Man’s plans: if such are connected. He said to ski would be an advantage tomorrow, but manageable without that. We would cross mountaintop snow, into Poland, meeting new friends. Good ones, I hoped, no Grey Eyed sorts again. These would prove much nicer, but Russian, also, to the core.
Choir Man had left his Mercedes in the hostel garage. Taxi to the mountains, brought us to a cable car; among two dozen excited young skiers. We also carried skis, more as a sign of belonging here, than intent of use. Our real purpose still hidden as rock under snow: I was working for another damned spy. On what? That Need-to-Know, principle: ever my lot. To learn nothing until nearly too late.
While I stumbled through deep snow near the summit, Choir Man slid alongside. The young skiers headed another way, towards challenging slopes back down to their Slovakia homeland. The border with Poland lay close, right under our feet, in deep snow. No wires or markers present, I observed. He said:
“We are now in Poland. Keep going.” Is that allowed, I wondered.
“Getting cold feet, on a risky mission? But we are just naïve tourists straying a bit, if anyone notices and asks questions.” He said. “They reckon to observe from towers near those trees, but they do not bother always, these days.” Times had changed from this being the frontier between Tito’s Yugoslavia and Brezhnev’s Soviet Empire, whose Iron Curtain had covered Poland then. Two huge Socialist State conglomerates, opposed to The West, yet not always in agreement over world affairs, themselves. But since Tito’s demise, and Gorbachev’s Glasnost process of thawed control, around 1990, matters were loosened. Poland free of Russia, at last; and Slovakia leaving the Yugoslav alliance: both joining the West-led European Union. Fine, but what had this to do with Choir Man and myself sneaking illegally from one of these lands to another? Free passage was easy for most. Tourists and traders of the West, especially. But movement across Eastern Europe remained a challenging hazard for people, such as those Eveline knew. Choir Man had agendas reflecting all that. Waldemar’s aims, stayed equally unclear. So did any sense to my own recruitment.
Over the summit, we mingled with new groups, who spilled off ski lifts: hauled up slopes on the Polish side. Figures slalomed back down a few stretches, or slid down all the way to the town of Zacopane. We went there by cable car. Then, at the lowest slopes, horse sledge taxi. Easier, now, downwards, but hard work uphill, when snow covering wore away on well-used roads. The stocky rough-coated animals, matched by their drivers, who wore sheepskins and ear-length caps, proud as warriors from the Steppes. These Mountain Men were a special tribe dating back centuries, working this job throughout regimes ruling this region. In climes reckoned to have freedom these days, we acted like secret agents. A long-held profession. For those caught now, what penalties were risked? Imprisonment. Salt-mines. The Gulags?
For now, times looked nicer. In a restaurant set in a ski-lodge manner, I ate a dish called pig’s knuckle, in fact the ankle of such, stuffed with herbs and spices. At the next table, equally delightful, three young ladies exhibited eyes and voices, sparkling as the snow on trees and paths outside. Their words, not Polish, but Russian.
The Choir Man muttered this fact, then spoke across to them in their own language. I said in English, that I was not able to speak such languages. They said:
“We speak a little of yours. We will help you. It is good finding an Englishman here.”
I murmured to Choir Man, what a coincidence, to find three female Russians in here.
He raised eyebrows and nodded slowly, ironically. It was no coincidence.
“You do not eat all of the pig in your country, the way we do.” One lady said. I explained that England had done so, times past, and still now, in Northern areas. But otherwise, offal was unpopular in most of Britain and America. Not in my case.
“So you came to Poland and other East Europe places, to escape your boring home, and devour all these pleasures forbidden there.” She said: a tempting portion on her fork. This was Irina: the others: Olga and Nina. Choir Man introduced himself as Anton. Could they know of him, already? Maybe they were all well ahead of me.
We all walked through the town centre, full for celebrating a festive weekend. At The Swing Bar, we took drinks at the counter, which featured chairs suspended on ropes, like children’s swings. Anton, and his ladies, lulled together, dreamily.
“Victor is not swinging freely.” Olga said. There were no more swing seats, I replied.
“Victor is English. Firm on the ground. Goes in for no wild moments.” Anton said.
“I will give you my swing, Victor. You can soar like a bird, take forbidden pleasure.”
Irina offered.. I said someone had to watch his step and not plunge in rashly.
“He is the minder for you, Anton. Not to go astray. Keep on track.” Nina laughed.
I shrugged and smiled, wishing I knew what I was really here to do. Best stay calm,
We moved on to a large bar, oddly-named, Appendix. Maybe a guide to every type. A Folk Blues guitarist sang on stage. He took a break: I praised the act: saying I was from England. Back on stage, he sang a piece, adapted to play for an Englishman here.
“I am an Englishman in Zacopane”. Went the chorus of the improvised lyrics.
“Now you are famous already, on your first visit to Poland, The Tatra and Zacopane” Irina said. I did not mention my previous incursion, at Cracow; and the Carpetbaggers incident. Only Waldemar knew how that turned out. Did he know of Anton, Irina and friends? The Blues Man concluded his tribute to myself. A plain Englishman be-witched by strange language and the mountain air. Things felt heady, especially being near Irina. She went with her friends, to toilet areas. I ordered another, stronger beer.
“Irina and you seem very drawn together.” Anton said. “Good. Because tomorrow you are going to marry her.” I gulped my strong ale. “Been married before?” He went on. Officially: never. But several times, had lived with a woman a few years; or weeks.
“From those English ladies this would be a very different experience.” Anton said.
The others had been nothing of the kind. Danish, French, Yugoslav, American. Australian. English females hardly excited me: making good managers, botanists or princesses, maybe. No sort of companion that suited my outlook.
“You are a strange sort, Victor. That’s why you are here, working for me.” He said.
“Strange jobs you line up” I said. With the ladies, we went off to night lodgings.
Another ski lodge-style hostel, now on this side of Tatra mountains, drew one wondering if we would cross them again: the frontier out of Poland. If almost married to Irina, would we be sharing a room here tonight? Choir Man shook his head. And corrected on another point. We would not go through the snowline of Tatra mountains. If so, where the need to marry Irina, to cross frontiers, if the strayed skiers plan worked again? It would not. A different route lay ahead. In our room now, he passed me a document. Dark red, the cover. A British passport. Inside, a photo of myself, and one of Irina. Now I was Geoffrey Adams, with a wife called Penelope. How had they taken my picture? During the choir competition at Bratislava, by someone on hand. His daughter the chorister, I guessed.
He said: “I have no daughter, Victor. Not in a choir at Bratislava, or from any city”
So the ruse to win the contest by conspiracy with the judges? All non-existent?
“Not at all, Victor. It happened. To test your mettle for larger matters, here, now.”
Also, a real attempt to manoeuvre that result, seeing it could be done, and putting those judges involved, into our debt, for future plans. In the rush to leave there, I had not learned of that result. Who came first? Did that matter?
Choir Man replied: “Vienna, of course. It did matter, and I do not lose, ever, Victor. Remember that.”
Choir Man was now in bed; wearing earphones to hear Rock music, which leaked out sound into the room, I complained about. He said it was turned low, and no trouble.
I said I cannot bear Rock music at all, and could not relax or sleep anywhere near it.
Was he getting a rest from the classical choir music he usually followed? He said: “Can’t stand that stuff. I like this. Pink Floyd. So must you, Victor. If you are with it. Your love of Opera? All that is just a device. Nobody modern likes that any more.”
“Pink Floyd? Another illiterate name for those who pursue unmusical nonsense. I’ll go on the balcony, to clear the air.” I resolved.
In the cool of the moonlight, I saw a shadow fall from the doorway out of the passage within. It came from the figure of Irina, standing there in a long purple night robe, looking a heroine from Pushkin, Tchaikovsky, Borodin.
She said: “I came out here, because Olga and Nina are hearing music I don’t like”.
“Were they listening to Pink Floyd?” I asked. Strange coincidence ever likely, here.
“Who the hell knows or cares?” She said. “Classical only, I like.” We seemed in tune.
She knew we are to be married tomorrow? I asked nervously
“It is set by Anton’s masters, Victor.” She said. I showed her the passport with our photos. A perfect match, a long happy lifetime, perhaps? Irina said:
“We will all be happy if it works so long as needed: a few days or hours.”
I would remember her always, and dream of what might have been. Often, the story.
“We could go into there, now.” I said. A lounge with a large settee. No one around.
So we seized our chance, to seal the union. So brief: but maybe worth years of duty, that wedlock could mean.
“I hear that you prefer the classics and no Pop music at all.” Olga said as we all ate breakfast. Someone had been talking. Irina in her sleep? Or boasting, on waking?
“Yes. German or Austrian. But Russian performers appeal to me, also,” I explained. The girls laughed, melodiously. Nina said she could believe this.
Olga said: “Irina plays piano, Victor. You should get together.” She knew we had.
I said: “Once in England, I met a Russian lady pianist: playing Scriabin, Balakirev and Rachmaninov.” Irina’s eyes stared into mine; dancing as those notes once had done.
We drove to the Austrian border in a hire car, for a passport check. Anton had Olga, as his wife, and Nina, his daughter. Fresh-faced, five years younger than her friends, she could pass for this. All now moved into The West. To feel more free? Though, East Europe was in the EU now, and Red Russia had supposedly thawed: But barriers and snows still need be crossed.
Dropped from the car at a rail station, again, I received an envelope from Anton: on giving back the bogus passport, needed no more. But Irina, I did. Small hope, there.
“Do you know Waldemar in Vienna?” I asked. “Well connected to Opera” Anton said he was only a plain Choir Man organiser. Pink Floyd, his real choice, Remember?
Maybe another cover. Who knows with these Anton figures? The Irina case, I might learn about in Vienna. Added to that package from Zeno, this envelope from Anton, held enough Euros to buy plenty of drinks. Seats at the Opera, also, lined up ahead.
Patrick Henry was born in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, in 1938.
His maternal grandfather, Company Sergeant Major Will Birt, East Yorkshire Regiment, died at Abbeville from wounds sustained in the Second Battle of The Somme, 1918. His father, Private James Henry, Durham Light Infantry, survived the Battle of Loos, 1915, and then served in the Royal Navy Minesweepers, 1916-18. And then served in The Inniskillen Dragoons in Punjab, India. 1919-26. And then served in the RAF in Britain and Africa, 1939-45.
Patrick Henry served in the RAF in the Cyprus Emergency Campaign, 1957-59, and was awarded the General Service Medal, Cyprus. He has published poems in magazines, pamphlets and websites, in Yorkshire, Manchester, Cornwall, Cambridge (England), Cambridge, (Massachusetts), Paris, and New York. He has performed poetry reading tours throughout Britain, and in Ireland, Paris, New York City, New York State and Australia. In 1995 he visited the Anzac Cemetery at Gallipoli, Turkey. In the years 2000-2003, he attended Anzac Day tributes at the Australian towns of Broken Hill, Alice Springs, and Whyalla. He publishes travel essays in the New York website: nycBigCityLit.com He now lives in Scarborough, again.