The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 20, No. 2


by Helen Simpson

"Remind me why we're here again," says Adam as he watches their companions decant themselves slowly and more or less painfully from the minibus.
      "You know why," says Tracey.
      "We must be twenty years younger than any of this lot. Thirty in Trevor's case. And Olive's."
      "Fifteen," says Tracey, smiling at the others as they approach. "Thirteen? Less. Pauline can't be more than, er, sixty–eight. Anyway, don't be such an age snob."
      "Trust my parents!"
      "It's been a hard year. You needed a break, and this was booked and paid for."
      She notices she still has his best interests at heart so probably she won't be able to leave him. But they really can't go on like this. Can they?
      Their seats for this Ring package are at the back of a raked box of six ranked in pairs. In the middle row are Pauline and the venerable Olive—two sensible, white–haired widows, Tracey supposes them to be—and in front of them the bearded ones, Howard and Clive.
      "I hate opera," says Adam.
      "You said you'd keep an open mind," says Tracey.
      They had originally agreed to accompany Adam's mother here over a year ago. The Ring Cycle, his late father's favorite, would be the best way to mark what would have been their diamond wedding anniversary, his mother had decided: suitably epic and time–consuming. Not long after booking it, though, she herself had died, and they had had to watch another coffin glide toward the flames. Meanwhile Culture Vultures, true to their name, would refund only one ticket of the three.
      Much of the time Adam's father had shut himself in his den and kept the household cowed by blasting out Wagner at full volume. He had resented the very existence of his children, according to Adam and his brothers; he simply would rather they had not been born and had made this quite clear during the years they had lived under his roof. Then, when at last in middle age his sons had felt brave enough to ask him why, he had beaten a hasty retreat down the corridor of dementia; as Adam had said to Tracey at the funeral, four years ago, "It's like he had some South American bunker waiting in the jungle."
      "I hate opera," he says again. "And I really hate Wagner."
      "Look, we'd both booked the time off work," says Tracey. "And we haven't exactly got money to throw around."
      "I know, I know," he says.
      She hopes this won't set him off on his current favorite hobbyhorse, how as an architect he has made so much less money than his brothers in insurance and advertising even though he'd been cleverer than them at school. Luckily he has been deflected from this path.
      "Just look around at this lot," says Adam. "They're all so delighted with themselves for being here. They make me sick."
      "Let's make the best of it," says Tracey. "Think of it as a challenge, like Everest."
      "What, a feat of endurance?"
      "Why not. You like a challenge. And a change is as good as a rest."
      "Also, Wagner is supposed to have unearthed the deep stories of Germany and I for one want to find out what all the fuss is about. We're European, aren't we?"
      "Are we?"
      "Well, I am."
      "OK, OK," says Adam, flapping the program in front of his face. "We're here now. Stuffy, isn't it."
      Tracey looks out across the auditorium and registers the predominance of snow–topped heads. Even you've gone gray, she thinks, glancing at Adam's angry profile.
      "No interval," he says, finding an English–language entry in the program to Das Rheingold. "They're having a laugh! Two and a half hours straight through?"
      "Um, the Culture Vulture notes say this is the short one," says Tracey, finding them in her handbag and scrabbling for her reading glasses. "This is like a prelude to the other three. Do you want to know what they say about it?" She does not wait for an answer. "In a nutshell . . . greed for gold, greed for property and power means breaking contracts, losing love, going against nature. Quasi–Marxist analysis of society; elements of a creation myth; da da da, remarkably prescient on climate change."
      "Oh great. Climate change, as well. Wonderful. That's the icing on the cake!"
      "Look, the lights are going down. It's about to start."
      "Can't wait."
      "Let's get lost in the story," she whispers, taking his hand. "The surtitles will carry us through."

Silence. Then, from nothing, from almost nothing, from one long, low chord, there grows a gradual swell of sound, a rising tide of it, and the stage is slowly flooded with rippling, blue–green light. This is beautiful. It's like the beginning of everything all over again. Tracey relinquishes his hand and touches the side of his face. His mouth twitches in a reluctant smile.

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