The Singer and His Song

Posted on: November 20, 2011
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By Michael Shafto
 
 
 

He could sing a little, that kid – he certainly could. In a strange way he was also very brave. He was two bricks and a tickey high with sandy hair, a tiny snub nose, vivid green eyes, and elbows and knees that stood out in his skinny arms and legs like the joints of a comic-book robot man.
 
It all began some twenty years ago, one evening in the dormitory of a posh Jo’burg school. The dormitory had eighteen beds, nine on each side of its main walls. There were doors at both ends. The door at the top end led to a short flight of steps that gave onto the changeroom and showers on a level below. The other led to a similar flight that rose to Matron’s quarters.
 
Small kids, all boys aged six and seven, slept there and were Matron’s responsibility. She had to see that they brushed their teeth, put on their pajamas, said their prayers and got into bed. No nonsense. This was 7pm. Lights out in half an hour. The rest of the prep school was still very much alive. These older boys would be methodically going about their homework in a classroom downstairs, working on it for class the following day.
 
At 7:30, Matron, a gentle Scottish spinster with a sad face, would put out the lights. “Night, boys,” she’d call out softly, to which they’d respond, “Night, Matron!” in squeaky, piping voices.
 
It was what to do with the kids in that empty half-hour that was Matron’s problem. They were too young to read proper books and comics were strictly forbidden. Solving the problem was what had led, years earlier, to Miss MacPherson – no one knew her by any other name – coming up with the idea of a talent contest. With eighteen boys the contest would keep them occupied for several months, she thought, and so it proved – at least until little Jim Dickenson came on the scene.
 
After that, all the kids wanted to hear was Jimmy’s melodious voice and the songs he sang. Listening to him was so satisfying you even forgot, for the moment, his gammy left leg that dragged behind him as he walked. The kids at first had called him “Hop-along”, but that stopped once they heard him sing. He was their own private entertainer, and there wasn’t a song he didn’t know – though he refused point blank to sing rock ‘n roll.
 
His dad, who had died the previous year in a motor accident, admired the “great singers”, Jim said. Most of the songs he sang, standing on the end of his bed as though it were a stage, were from the 50’s and 60’s. Some even earlier. The “great singers”, according to Jim’s dad, were men with “real voices”, like Crosby, Frank Sinatra and the like. At first the kids just gawked. They’d never even heard of these guys.
 
When he said he hated rock ‘n roll and those who made these CDs weren’t singers – “all they do is scream” – the kids had muttered among themselves; one or two even jeered.
 
But then he started to sing: Danny Boy, Night and Day and The Sunny Side of the Street and the kids went wild. After that every Wednesday became “Jimmy’s Night”. Matron, in her chair in the aisle between the beds, enjoyed these performances as much as anyone – specially when, towards the end of the year, he sang Silent Night, White Christmas and O, Come all Ye Faithful.
 
That’s what made Matron invite the choir master, Grahame Elliott, the following Wednesday. On Matron’s request, Jim did all the carols again, and ended the performance with a touching rendition of Ol’ Man River, spreading his arms wide as he finished with an elongated “a-aa- long.”
 
“What d’you think, Mr Elliott?” Matron whispered. They were old friends. The choir master was also the housemaster of the Prep school, with quarters that overlooked the junior school quadrangle.
 
“Well,” he said, doing his best to mask an approving smile, “not bad. Not bad at all.”
 
“D’you think he’d do for the choir?’
 
“Who knows,” said Mr Elliott, enigmatically.
 
It wasn’t long before Jim got the call, an invitation to join the main choir that included the whole school, from the trebles and altos of the young boys to the tenors and basses of the sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds in the upper classes of the college.
 
This should have been a happy time for Jimmy. Indeed, at first it was – even though Mr Elliott brought him along slowly, not allowing him to get ahead of himself. All the younger boys had voices of varying degrees of excellence. The best of them was a burly lad named David Kinghorn, a boy three years Jim’s senior. The older boy was eleven to Jimmy’s seven.
 
For the juniors there was an annual competition. The best boy singer was awarded a floating trophy, the School Vocals Cup, and it had gone without question to young Kinghorn, also an outstanding athlete and soccer star, three years running.
 
Soon it became little Jim’s ambition to win the cup. He believed he had the ability to pull it off, and David – or “King” as he was known to his cronies – was aware of the threat the younger boy posed, specially now that his own voice was starting to change.
 
Where at first there had been a burgeoning friendship between the two, the older boy started to feel the strain as his final year in the Prep began to draw to its close. That year the winner would not only be awarded the floating trophy, but would be invited to sing at a special service in honor of former president, Nelson Mandela, at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Cape Town.
 
As the strain began to tell, David Kinghorn started to bait the younger boy, whom he now saw as a serious rival. “Hey, Hoppy,” he called out one afternoon in the changeroom, as Jimmy walked by. Kinghorn was a monitor. Each monitor had his own private cupboard in the changeroom , and he was sitting beside it, lacing his boots for soccer practice. “Whyn’t you try a man’s game, hey? Like soccer.”
 
Jim just smiled. He was about to change into his swimming trunks. He was doing special exercises in the pool to strengthen his bad leg. He was becoming quite a strong swimmer. “I wish I could.”
 
“At least you could give it a try.”
 

“You know I can’t. That’s why I’m doing swimming.”
 
“Argh, swimming’s for sissies.”
 
Jim’s face reddened. “No, it isn’t! There’re many great swimmers, and they – they’re world famous for their ability.”
 
“Who f’rinstance?”
 
“America’s Mark Spitz,” Jim blurted. “There was a time he held every record there was. Won Olympic gold medals for every event he entered.”
 
“So, you reckon you can be him?”
 
“No, I don’t. I’m just saying…”
 
“Swimmers are drips – pansies, man!” Kinghorn sneered. “Haven’t got a clue what it takes to be a real man.”
 
“What about Johnny Weissmuller, then?”
 
“Johnny who?”
 
“Weissmuller. He used to play Tarzan in the movies.”
 
Kinghorn broke into raucous laughter, as did several of his cronies, hangers-on, sitting on nearby benches. He held out a hand grandly.
 
“Now he wants to be a movie star! Think you could be one with that ugly shriveled pin of yours? Oh my, I can just see it. Metro Goldwyn Meyer presents James ‘Hop-along’ Dickenson in Spastic in the Jungle, the latest Tarzan epic, in the great tradition of Johnny Whatyoumacallit! Boy, what a great poster that’d make!”
 
As he left the changeroom, he deliberately bumped the smaller boy with his shoulder. He pulled a nasty face. “By the way, squirt, don’t think you can steal the Vocals Cup from me anytime soon. With that pathetic little voice of yours, you don’t stand a chance! Not a hope in hell!”
 
Little Jim felt badly bruised. He’d always admired David Kinghorn’s singing ability; had never envied him, however. But now he began to work harder than ever on his voice, particularly in the carols the choir was due to sing at the school’s annual Christmas service.
 
The School Vocals Cup was a stunning creation. Made of gold and silver, it was valuable, too. Jug-eared, the wide bowl of its upper body was held aloft by four expanding bars of silver which rose from a solid ebony base upon which were small shields with the names of winners going back many years. The last of these shields, three years running, bore the name, D.W. Kinghorn. What made the cup extra-special was the likeness, wrought in gold, on the front of the cup, showing the great Italian tenor, Enrico Caruso, in typical pose – head flung back, eyes almost closed, his mouth passionately wide in song. It was said to be a cup the choir master had won at musical college in Birmingham, England, which he’d donated to the school, calling it simply the “School Vocals Cup”. The school’s junior choristers sang for It for all they were worth each year but for years now most, with the exception of young Dickenson, had resigned themselves to bowing the knee to “King Dave”, as some of his acolytes had taken to calling him.
 
As the final term drew to its close, the competition between Kinghorn and little Jim grew fiercely close. Though the choir master had the casting vote, the staff as a whole voted on the award. Each year the winner took the trophy home before returning it to stand on the mantelpiece of the choir master’s study, until voting came around again the following year.
 
Then one morning it was found to be gone; had simply disappeared into thin air. The cleaning staff were carefully questioned, but to no avail. You never knew, they might have been tempted – it was said to be worth thousands, though not quite a million, as one of the young Preppies maintained. “Telling you, man. My Dad said so!”
 
Boarders in the junior school were in and out of Mr Elliott’s quarters for a variety of reasons, all the time. But now it led to whispers that the culprit must be one of the boys – either as a prank or perhaps for financial gain.” Who knows,” said the rumor mongers, “probably been sold already!” Next a teachers’ committee decided on a locker inspection. It would be a spot-check, unannounced, after breakfast the next day.
 

Jim Dickenson was stunned, numb with sheer panic, when he opened his locker, to find among the usual clutter the trophy staring him in the face; no attempt even to disguise its presence. He began to stutter with shame and embarrassment. The choir master and his committee drew back to consult among themselves, leaving the boy literally shivering with fear – and denial. How could it be there? Who had done this to him.
 
“I uh… it…it was…wasn’t there when I uh l-locked up m-my stuff last night,” he blurted. Tears hovered on the rims of his eyes. He tried to explain. His keys were where they usually were, on top of his locker with his watch, his fountain pen and his diary when he’d got up that morning. Mr Elliott begged him to confess. He even said he understood, and it wouldn’t be held against Jim.
 
“I didn’t take it,” was all the boy could say. Again and again. He was summoned to the headmaster’s study. He was caned. Still he protested his innocence. The headmaster glowered at him. He said, as further punishment, Jim could no longer sing in the choir, and would henceforth be gated, indefinitely. “It was a terrible thing to do. You’re lucky not to be expelled!”
 
In the first term of the following year, he told his mother he would not be coming home at weekends. He needed to brush up his studies. Mr Elliott’s long, sad face was even more sombre than usual when he summoned Jim and asked him once more, “Did you do it, son?”
 
But Jim just looked at him; said not a word. His only reaction came at the first weekly mass of the New Year when he sang the prescribed hymns with such gusto and power in the church’s main body, that he almost drowned out the choir in the gallery above. Jim never sang in the choir again – and when his schooldays were over, he disappeared for several years.
 

I’ve always kept in touch. I was never a really close friend, but we both had a love of the Batman comics and later, books – novels and short stories by guys like Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald, specially The Great Gatsby. But couldn’t sing to save myself, of course. There was just something about it, singing, that totally defeated me. How did they know, these guys who made absolute fortunes out of it, where that starting note was? And how in the hell did they know where to go on from there?
 
Well, I saw Jim just the other day. I popped into a pub for a pint on my way to the newspaper where I work, and there he was, sitting quietly by himself – and these days that’s quite surprising considering what’s happened. Anyway, we just chatted. Caught up on the old days. Even mentioned, with a cheerful laugh, old David Kinghorn, who, so Jim told me, is his accountant these days. Then finally we got onto music.
 
“Funny old world, isn’t it?” he said.
 
“You can say that again,” I agreed.
 
Jim has his own band now, and they only do rock ‘n roll. As lead singer he loves to shout and jump about. He never told me but I looked it up later. He was recently honored for his third album “going Gold”. He’s this country’s top-selling vocalist of all time, and currently No 3 in the list of recording artists, worldwide.
 
He told me as we sat having a second pint – people stopping to congratulate him or ask for his autograph as they came in through the pub’s squeaky swing-door – “You know, that business over the School Vocals Cup?”
 
I nodded.
 
“Best damn thing that ever happened to me.” He grinned. “Really woke me up!”
 
Oh, and another thing: just shows how the cookie crumbles sometimes. With the best medical attention money can buy he’s had his leg fixed up beautifully. As he was leaving, he gave an impish grin and a small skip, clicking the heels of his shoes together.
 
“Maybe I will try soccer some day!” he said.
 

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