When we sing 'The Shepherd's Farewell' from Berlioz' 'The Childhood of Christ', we think privately of our own children leaving us: 'God go with you, God protect you, guide you safely through the wild.' We hope that if we can sing right through to the end without crying, the music will act as a blessing.
-- Helen Garner, 'A Scrapbook, An Album'
I'm early, because I've magically found a parking space in the middle of the CBD on a Friday night in mid-December, but when I walk into the church I see that M's mother, father, grandma, auntie and auntie's partner are all already there. They shove up to make room for me.
In the late 1970s M's mother D and I shared a house when we were studying. On Christmas Eve 1987, when M was three months old, D left her with me while she went and did a bit of emergency family lawyering, of the kind that habtually arises at Christmas. When M got restless, I rocked her and sang carols.
It must have been early in 1999 that we established the habit of meeting regularly for coffee on Saturday mornings. M at eleven would come too, bringing her Harry Potter books and reading while we talked. One morning, when she was about thirteen, she arrived without a book, and never brought one again. Now she's a seasoned 20-year-old Aerospace Engineering student singing with the Adelaide University Choral Society, whose Christmas concert we have come to hear.
D opens her program and holds it so I can see it, and I see there are two items with soloists. D points to the Coventry Carol -- 'Lully lulla, thou little tiny child' -- under which it says 'Soprano: M.B.' My stomach lurches in sympathetic alarm -- not for M, but for D. Watching one's child perform on stage -- no, no, let me not get into it. D leans over and whispers: 'And she's got the world's worst cold.'
Fortunately it's quite early in the program. Kenneth Leighton's soprano solo for this carol is very high and bloody hard, but, through her cold (and it is indeed a monster, as I observe afterwards), M produces every one of the clear, ringing, bell-like notes. You can see that it's an act of will, but all is exactly as it's supposed to be. At the end, D leans over and whispers 'My little tiny child has lived through it!'
They sing 'In the Bleak Mid-Winter' and I am reminded of the years when I was knee-deep in the huge, wild ocean of nineteenth-century scholarship and reading a lot of Christina Rossetti, a poet at once medieval-sounding and weirdly modern.
In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter
They sing 'The Shepherd's Farewell' and I think of Helen Garner and her sisters thinking of their children, trying not to cry. I remember a story she told once of trying so hard not to cry while watching a children's concert that her nose began to bleed.
Tonight we get to join in with some of the carols. D and I sang together all the time when we shared a house. She'd sung competitively in her convent choir; she was the person you could hear, in university revues, anchoring all the full-cast production numbers. Singing beside her now I don't think her voice has changed, though she says it has. I know mine has: after four years of singing in a choir here, my voice is much more reliable than it used to be. But I left the choir a couple of years ago, and I'd forgotten how exhilarating it is, having a sing.
On the way home, feeling elevated, I drive past a boy dancing about at the side of the road. He is clearly affected by some mind-altering substance. It's not alcohol; he's far too co-ordinated and graceful. He's about M's age, handsome and dark, wearing jeans and a black singlet and waving his white shirt in operatic flourishes at passing cars, as though playing matador to the oncoming traffic's bull. Cars thunder past, missing him by inches. Behind him the West Parklands loom darkly. Neither God nor anyone else, it seems, is guiding him safely through the wild.