MUSICAL MILKMAN

mrjacksonw draft  6 iv 2016

 

inside front cover

It is during the creation process of a new human being that something goes wrong.  In desperate  efforts to put to rights what could be a disastrous life for the unfortunate subject  the measures  taken result in an unlikely  outcome.

As it turns out, as the life of the mortal victim proceeds,  he finds, by-and-by,  that his one handicap is offset by gifts of great value. Thus, the story takes the hero, a humble milkman from a life of poverty towards hopes of ascending to something approaching paradise on earth.

However, behind this story is a second sub-plot, which plays lightheartedly on scenes in both the mortal and the celestial world. Here, the application of moral principles  play an unintended role.

And, incidentally, the sub-plot portrays an entirely original version of the immortal world. The celestial sphere as shown contrast markedly from the conventional. . Sunlit uplands above the clouds where  golden harps grace the scene are replaced by scenes of  rusty Nissan huts, with weeds growing round the edges.

As for characters, one, an angel  is nicknamed Inky, because his fingers are permanently stained black, in fact with China ink. Inky does creation, working at an old-style drawing board.

The final end has to come as a surprise, even if, on reflection, it turns out to be inevitable.

 

Note on front cover: the musical notes are taken from « Piangi fanciulla » (cry young girl, cry)

from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, Rigoletto.

 

 

 

 

 

ISBN 9789491312007

copyright reserved to author ©

 

MUSICAL MILKMAN

 

Back in the days before universal health care, if you were born with a deformity, even one that could be rectified with a little surgery, and if your parents were not rich, you could easily be stuck with that impairment for the rest of your life.

That was the fate of an unfortunate boy who came into this world a year or two after the end of World War I. The son of a farm worker, Jack Jackson, was born in a village far enough North West of London to be a truly rural area.

Poor Jack’s affliction was a hare lip about as grotesque as this malformation can be. The split reached to hardly a hair’s breadth from his right nostril. The fleshy upper lip either side of the cut hung loosely, and moved independently while he spoke.

You would think that during his boyhood years other children would mock poor Jack cruelly — and, indeed, they did sometimes. But persecution was surprisingly rare because of another of his attributes. As a result of this, the ill-fated Jack, was spared most of the expected torment of his peers as he grew up.

His fortunate escape can be attributed to his exceptionally pleasant character. He was easy-going and jovial.  People could not help liking him. He also had another distinctive gift, but we’ll come to that later.

The centre of Jack’s village, Chalfont St Giles, had a village green, a pond, the “Merlin’s Cave” pub (named after the Celtic deity, or sorcerer), a flint-built church, several shops, and a blacksmith who shod local horses. It was set in a steep sided valley, through which ran the Misbourne chalk stream, proudly described by locals as a “river”.

Not far up one of the hills leading from the village green, is a cottage in which the puritan writer, John Milton, wrote in blank verse on a Faustian theme. He is known for his Paradise Lost, and its Utopian sequel, Paradise Regained. The philosophical poet himself would be at sympathy with your imagination if you would let it rise high above the village.

Here, high above the clouds, you could find yourself in quite another world. Let yourself wander, and you might come across the local Creation Centre. This is the celestial drafting office where new human beings, in fact all living beings, even insects, are given “form”. This readies them for entry as new life in the world of mortals below.

Perhaps surprisingly, the building itself is decidedly banal. It comprises a Nissan hut- type structure. It has a corrugated steel shell set as an elongated dome. It is set on a concrete base. Most of the tar protection covering the steel roof and walls has been weathered away, leaving a finish of plain rust. The entrance end is fabricated in slatted planking, painted, but the paint has faded in the high altitude sunlight, and is peeling off in places. Weeds grow around the footings. The structure is the entire opposite of heavenly objects as traditionally pictured, all golden and beautiful.

A sign on the door says “CCC – Celestial Creation Centre”. Open it and go inside, and the ambiance is much the same. Covering the floor is linoleum, coloured mid brown, resembling that of milk chocolate. Utilitarian, yes, but at least it is clean, waxed and polished.

Logic falls into place as you inspect the principal item of furniture, a standard draftsman’s drawing board. It is equipped with a slope adjustment mechanism, the usual T- square, and a tray, for pencils, pens, stencils, and other accessories. The whole apparatus is constructed, in the old style, of wood and metal. Even the set-square is wood.

Most of the wooden surfaces are splashed with Indian ink. There is a stool, so that the celestial draftsman does not always have to work standing up. There are large blocks of shallow drawers, for blueprint copies of plans. On a wall hangs a large reproduction of Charles Darwin, with his beard, and wearing his black jacket. On a hook near the door is a pair of golden wings.

Wipe yourself a hole in the fog of one of the windows and peer across the landscape above the clouds. You’ll see other sheds, including one labelled Elementary Flying Training. Here young apprentice angels are taught the principles of flight. Perhaps in the distance you’ll see a larger structure, “The Last Judgment”, with ladders leading up from it, and an ominously dark space below.

Back to the drafting office, and it’s the turn for the crafting of the humble Jack Jackson.  But the chief draftsman is away somewhere, so the task falls to a junior assistant. He does his best, but his inexperience causes him to fumble. There is something of a botch up.

Then, in walks the boss. The drawing office head is a modestly dressed figure himself, and in character is also entirely unpretentious. His professional trademark is carried on his fingers, which are stained black with ink. His colleagues call him “Inky”. Normally mildly spoken, on this occasion a shock to his system has him yelling.

“What have you done!” exclaims Inky. “That will give the poor soul a deplorable deformity”. He waves his arms in anguish at the junior. “Perhaps it’s not too late — I’ll dash over to “Process” and see if anything can be done”.

He has no time to fix on his wings, so he strides lightly across the cloud top, flings open the shed door and dashes in. “Where’s the poor Jackson creation? Over there? Not too late? Not absolutely?”

The design office chief refuses to give up. He grabs a ladle, scoops into the nearest barrel of goo. He rushes to dollop out a measure into the mix being processed. There is just time for another dose, a generous one, this time from the next barrel.

He had luck in the choice of barrels, each of which, incidentally, takes the form of a 45 gallon steel oil drum. One contained « musical ability”, and the second “good nature”.  It was just as well that in his haste he did not pick on “malicious spirit”.

The second dollop gives Jack an innate gift for music. However, in his humble circumstances, it laid largely dormant. To tell the truth, you could say it remained completely hidden. During the 1930s and 40s, under-privileged families, had other priorities. These centered on basic survival. Piano lessons for their children with the private teacher down the road were quite out of their reach.

Even normal education got scant attention. With the need to bring money into the family, Jack left school as soon as he legally could, at 14. He considered himself fortunate to find paid work. This was as a milkman’s assistant.

It became clear to his employers that he could be trusted to handle money. Hence, it did not take him too long to be given his own horse-drawn milk float. Along with that came a blue apron with white stripes. The « uniform » also equipped him with a hefty leather wallet held on a strap for the money due from householders.

Physically, he fitted the mundane scene well. Apart from his upper lip, he was of nondescript appearance. He had grown to medium height and light build. He had dark hair, with a tendency to recede on the temples. Strong legs helped him to stride briskly, even when loaded down with a crate of full of “pintas”, pint bottles of milk.

However, on the music front, eventually good fortune came his way. One of his customers, like most of the others, had taken a liking to the cheery young delivery man. She had bought a new, electric-driven gramophone. As Jack stood on her back doorstep, the housewife said, “It seems a shame to throw away our old hand wound machine: Master Jackson, I wonder if you’d like to take it off our hands?”

So he did. The gramophone consisted of a wooden box, with a turn-table on the top, and a large horn to transmit the sound. There was a winding handle, and an adjustment lever to control the turning speed.

Mr Jackson was also presented with a set of 78 rpm records, made of (in those pre-vinyl) days, brittle shellac, which had become somewhat scratched.   The music was not of his choosing, but he was grateful just the same.  Back at home, he played the records, clicks and hisses and all, again and again and again.

It was in this way that the young milkman became well acquainted with “25 best-known arias from 19th century Italian operas.”  He found himself many an evening happily immersed in the works of composers, unknown to him, such as Puccini, Verdi, Rossini, and Donizetti. The more Jack listened, the more he wanted to hear them. He was becoming a fanatic. The melodies were seeping into his very existence.

One was “Libiamo”, from Giuseppe Verdi’s famous opera, La Traviata, the melody of which almost had him in emotional tears.. Then there was another heartbreaking cry of anguish “Ridate a me la figlia”, (bring back to me my daughter) from the same composer’s Rigoletto. That is when the tragically misshapen court jester cries out for the return of the jewel of his life, his lovely daughter, Gilda, stolen from him.

As a result, step by step, Jack The-Hare-Lip was becoming a musical addict. Typically, one evening there was a knock at the front door of his parents’ sparse cottage. “Hey Jack”, the caller asked, “why not come on down to the Merlin’s Cave for a pint of beer, or two?”

“All right”, but just let me hear this tune through”, he found himself answering. In other words, the music was taking a stronger hold of him than beer! And time out with friends.

Each morning, on his milk round, the tunes, a dozen or more, would carry on ringing round his head. Soon he was whistling them. At first it was with difficulty.  But he improved over time. His lips, deformed as they were, took on their new role. Control improved. His outputs took on a genuine style.

In due course, he was whistling as he got his horse out of the stable early in the morning, whistling as he loaded up the milk, and whistling as he took the milk up the steep hill out of the village to his milk round in the next village.

He continued as he was swinging up peoples’ garden paths to collect the empty milk bottles and deliver full ones. He was applying as much power and talent as could be had from the only “instrument” he had at his disposal. The melody would rise like a lark, higher and higher, then swoop, sometimes warbling delightfully on its way down.

Amazing as it may seem, his art bore all the intellectual power of the professional musician. His lips, tongue, and mouth had formed themselves into a finely developed musical instrument. More to the point, his mind was able to apply precise tone, volume, pitch and timing.

The carrying power of the joyous harmonies was outstanding. Its full glory would penetrate  across roads and gardens. It would reach the highest branches of trees. It would be nice to think that, when Jack was due to arrive, song thrushes, larks, linnets, nightingales, and even crows, would all line up on a branch together to admire the music.

Of course that would be taking conjecture too far.  However, there was a dog that would sometimes bound along with him, attempting to sing-along with the milkman, but doing no better than coming out with a series of excruciating yelps.

Housewife customers noticed the musical talent too. So would passers-by. Even, down in the dark, smoky bar of the Merlin’s Cave public house in an evening, villagers would call on him, “Jack, let’s have one of your tunes”.  They were even known to break into applause. They would treat him to beer.

Meanwhile, up above the clouds, in the land of immortality, there was another development. It concerned an angel with time on her hands and a burning wish to perform virtuous deeds. Angels are like that, but this one was keener than most. In her mortal days, blond and slightly plump, Miss Goodheart had been a social worker.

And she lived up to her name. Wherever she saw cases of unfairness, injustice, or a need to put wrong things right, Miss Goodheart would leap to the rescue. She was ever unflinching in her moves to cure ills, stamp out tragedies, bring sympathy and comfort to the suffering, and so on. What is more, she was not only kindness itself, but likeable to an extreme. Miss Goodheart was a living image of the proverbial guardian angel.

Hence, it is no surprise that, when she died, she became one. Like it or not, that sort often does. In her case, when it came to her final judgment session, Miss Goodheart amazed her adjudicators. They had not in eons seen anything like her from the tawdry world below. She passed with flying colours everything they could throw at her. Quickly, they tossed over to the acolyte a pair of golden wings. The gold went well with her hair!

Angel Goodheart wasted no time in looking for good to do. As it happened, the first object of her potential beneficence was the baby Jackson with his deformed upper lip. In fact, she was only minutes too late on the scene when the celestial draftsman had tried to save the day in the Processing Shed.

“That poor, poor chap! It can’t be too late! It mustn’t be too late”, she told Inky. “There must be something we can do. Think of the suffering the poor boy will endure as other children make fun of him. Inky, Inky, please, we must put a stop to this tragedy.”

“Terribly sorry, but if it’s done, it’s done. It can’t be helped now, and I can tell you that I’ve seen plenty worse, much worse indeed”.

“But, as an angel, don’t I have empowerment for miracles?”

“Yes, you do!” answered Inky. “But I strongly advise you NOT to do any such thing. When you’ve been an angel for longer than a day or two you’ll begin to understand why. Just think! You can take a good thing too far. For example, what do you think would happen if well-meaning angels like you started to abolish death?  I suggest that you put to one side any miraculous cure to Jack Jackson’s ugly face”.

The draftsman explained that the Jackson boy’s mortal life, as set in a callous and mean world, would be of “limited time … could be extremely limited”. However, his life-ever-after could well suffer if poisoned by what some would call ‘magic potions’”.

The angel bit her lip. Privately she thought that the disapproval of the miracle idea sounded completely unsound. But she decided to bide her time. “If I do go ahead with a miracle, it does not have to be immediately”. The freshly endorsed angel also wondered what any time delay would be. That is, what would be the time between putting the miracle into process, and the moment that it came into effect?

Meanwhile, back in the Merlin’s Cave, a friend was putting an idea in Jack Jackson’s head. “We take you to London, set you up, and have you whistling in a street where people will reward you generously for your flair », he suggested.

And so it happened that the milkman took the train to London and found himself standing on a soap box in an ancient thoroughfare, Old Pye Street. No doubt laid down before the area became urbanized, the street winds its way round former fields, west to east across Pimlico, towards Westminster Abbey, and Parliament Square.

Jack’s tunes would resonate across a street market, but left little impression on most locals, many from charity built Peabody flats. However, indifference was not entirely the case.  Sometimes better class tourists, or educated inhabitants from close-by but prosperous streets, would stop and listen in amazement. Nine-sided three-penny “bits” in slid brass would occasionally be dropped into the cup at his feet. On a good day he could nearly recoup the cost of his train fare.

Friends suggested a better pitch. He crossed the Thames, on Hungerford footbridge, alongside the railway bridge, to the south embankment near a new blockhouse-type construction. His move was well advised. The concrete building was the new Festival Hall music complex. It attracted musical aficionados. Some gathered to listen to Jack. They would set aside any musical snobbery in the wonder at the gift. Jack’s spirit glowed inside him at the appreciation of his art.

One admirer, who had also crossed the Thames from southwards by Hungerford Bridge, had walked east from Fleet Street and its continuation, the Strand. He was killing time waiting for a train due later at Waterloo Station. An opera fan himself, the man who was enchanted by the melodies floating on the air. He happened to be the music columnist on The Daily Telegraph.

The next day, during a break from work, he met a colleague in a public house adjacent to his newspaper’s building, then at 85 Fleet Street. The meeting point was the ancient “Ye Olde” Cheshire Cheese, with its ancient beams, low ceilings, and connections with the Dr Johnson, of dictionary fame in the eighteenth century.

In those days, pubs in the Fleet Street area served as much more than drinking centres. They were the meeting places where journalists on national newspapers would swap ideas, and plan articles that might be read by millions across the country.

Anyway, the columnist told a colleague about his enchanting experience south of the river. “That humble-looking man does not just know his operatic arias. He is a master musician. With nothing more than a mouth as his instrument, he can actually add “tremolo” and “vibrato” to his notes. What I mean is that he can actually wobble a note up and down. I suppose he must be able to vibrate his tongue somehow.”

e He “He also seems to be able to control the harmonics”, the expert went on, “These are notes above the principal note that you get from all instruments, except the tuning fork, from which the note is ‘pure’. Technically, what the man has mastered is called ‘flageolet’. But, how it can be done with whistling is a mystery to me. It’s incredible, incredible”, he enthused.

The news spread. First in line for the contagion was a section editor on The Daily Express, the popular daily newspaper housed close to The Daily Telegraph, in one of London’s most striking examples of 1930s architecture. It is an art deco building clad in black glass. Then newsmen from other newspapers came into the picture.

Imagine the scene a few days later. There was Jack, standing on a plinth on the south bank of the Thames, on a spot that looked north across the river to Charing Cross Station. The setting could not have been better. It was calm. The sun shone warmly.

In front of Jack was a small crowd. There in the audience were supporters from Chalfont St Giles, who mingled with curious passersby. Among them was that expectant knot of national newspaper journalists. Strangely, there was a feeling that there was something bizarre hovering in the air.

Along with the newspaper men, there was an outside television camera, rare in those days. It had crossed the river, from the BBC’s Bush House, at the southern end of Aldwych.

To Jack, the seriousness of the scene was obvious. He was conscious of the camera. He could feel a kind of excited tension in the air. And his next song was? “What do you think you’ll get from a whistling milkman?” Jack asked the gathering .

Figaro-qui, Figaro-qua  …  from the Barber of Seville? Rossini is a maestro. And there’s nothing wrong with the fun of light opera”, he continued.

“But, like it or not, this morning your whistling milkman is going to have a go at the famous Casta Diva, from Norma. This work is based on an old Celtic religion. Think of Druids.”

To that, the music columnist muttered, “We’ll see, but that long and elegant melody by Vicenzo Bellini requires ‘legato’, a continuous sound, without breaks. It’s one breath stuff. It’s a tough choice. Mastering it helped to make the famous opera soprano, Maria, Callas famous.”

Jack pulled air into his lungs. This would be it. He would arrive. The obscure milkman from the lowest of backgrounds, and suffering a tragic deformity, would make it. His talent would be appreciated, not just by friends and acquaintances, but by the whole nation.

Then Jack felt a kind of tingling. It was a tingling in his body. In his face. It was also a tingling in his upper lip. He put his hand to his mouth. Something was happening, something like a kind of transformation.  He felt different. Very different.  It was impossible. How could his face have changed? How could his lip have been cured?  It  couldn’t have.  Evidently, the thrill of the moment was making him imagine things.

And there was work to do. The crowd had to hear his best efforts. Jack was aware that he had to perform to his very highest standards. He filled his lungs. And what came out? Nothing! Jack struggled. He writhed in his efforts. He agonized. Again and again. Only the sound of air moving across teeth. Dead! Lifeless! Pathetic! No musical note whatever. Someone in the crowd sniggered.

As far as whistling was concerned, Jack was henceforth mute. His music days were done. So, back to the milk round it was. A miracle indeed! A cured hare lip. Hooray! But from then on, Jack Jackson was condemned to obscurity, his genius snuffed out. The bright promise of only a minute before had been struck down.

An outlook of sad drabness suddenly eclipsed a prospect of opportunities to display genuine talent, together with any justifiable reward. What a come-down! An opportunity of generations ripped away!

At that moment, a dark cloud obscured the sun. It got colder. Some drops of water fell from the sky. Large and splashy. Bigger than normal raindrops. They rolled down peoples’ faces. “Hey”, cried out someone, “This rain’s salty, it tastes of salt!”

“How can we have rain that tastes of salt?” asked another. eyHey

It was as if it were raining tears … tears from some being, a being weeping.

Tears falling from the sky!

Impossible?   Certainly i-m-p-o-s-s-i-b-l-e!

 

 

 

                                          

Tears such as angels weep, burst forth.

John Milton