Honestly, the church has never had these gimmicks before. What’s happening to this parish? Being in the chair can make it difficult to meet people, so the summer fete is a blessed social event for me. It’s a shame to cheapen it with computer games. Dad wouldn’t be happy about it turning into such a circus. Then again, last time we came to church together was Palm Sunday; he’s too old to drive.
I told Father Steve that people like Victoria sponge and a few spins on the tombola. No need for bells and whistles. The Lord might turn a blind eye to a raffle, but he surely cannot condone the violence of a computer Battle Royale tournament.
We have a special relationship, Father Steve and I. Life has tested my faith, but he guides me. He works ever so hard for this community. I’m sure the parishioners gossip about us. We would make a smashing couple in another life.
The ground on the village green is uneven, so it’s hard to wheel between the stalls. My arms aren’t as strong as they used to be. It’s a lovely day though. The smell of freshly cut grass breezes over from the cricket pitch, and the sun’s not too bright. It’s wonderful to leave the house without a cardigan. I feel like I’m on holiday, but when I stop to take it all in, my thoughts are interrupted by noise from the loudspeakers.
Janice Beasley on jams and conserves gives me a push towards the tent HQ, where Father Steve is on announcing duties. “There you go, Jo,” she says, and leaves me outside the marquee. I think I can hear Father Steve.
“Twenty thousand V Bucks for the tournament winner. Sign up until three o’clock. Only ten pounds per player.” The prize is some kind of virtual currency I suppose.
I try waving. “Father Steve.” Nothing. I try again. “Father Steve. Psst.” It’s no good, I’m too low sitting here in my chair, and I can’t barge to the front of the queue. Judging by the group of twelve-year-olds lining up to register, he’ll be busy for a while. I’ll come back later.
A few stalls down, after the boxes of second-hand vinyl, and a child spinning around on a two-wheeled electrical deathtrap, a large wooden sign catches my eye. There’s a list of popular songs painted on the front — The Beatles, Cliff Richard, and even some religious songs. Behind it sits a woman a little younger than me, and far thinner. She’s wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat and white plimsolls.
“Hello there,” I say.
“Oh hello, madam. Are you interested in a song?” She motions towards the board.
“Well, I do like to praise the Lord with music.” She smiles and adjusts her hat over her short brown hair. “I’ve not seen you at church before.”
“Yes, I’ve been away. Quite exciting actually. I’ve been in Tokyo, at the convention.”
“For singing? All the way in Japan?”
She stands up for dramatic effect. “Whistling, actually.”
My confused expression leads her to point to the sign again. Grace The Whistling Wonder Woman: one song — £1, three songs — £2.
Honestly, who has heard of professional whistling? It’ll be belching next! “We can all whistle, can’t we?”
Her face tells me she’s heard that before. “I’m trying to show people that it’s a practised skill, a talent . . .”
“Well, it’s for a good cause. I better contribute, I suppose.”
“Lovely, feel free to sing along too. It’s part of the fun.”
The organ would make a better accompaniment, but I choose Jerusalem and pay my pound.
When the noise from the games tent dies down, she starts. I’m ready to sing along with my favourite hymn, but I can’t. My mouth remains open with no sound emerging. The same cannot be said for Grace. She hits the notes perfectly, changing between them with pinpoint precision. It’s like she’s playing an instrument. She controls the volume, adds vibrato for the longer notes, and weaves in some beautiful turns and ornaments. The high notes are cut-glass clear, but not piercing. She holds them steady. It really is graceful. I don’t want it to end. We are here together enjoying the moment — England’s green and pleasant land. It takes me a good few seconds to come back down to Earth and tune into the hustle and bustle of the fete again.
“Thank you so much,” I say. “I must say I was sceptical, but you really do have a talent.”
“I’m glad you enjoyed it. You’re right though, anyone can do it.”
I imagine myself taking a deep breath and blowing into a microphone as they must do at the competition in Japan. “Mmm, I prefer the security of the congregation in church when I sing.”
“We’re actually forming a group,” she says with an encouraging smile. “There are a few of us in the parish. We’re planning on meeting once a week.” A whistling choir. I wonder what the Lord would think of that in church. She roots around in her bag and hands me a flyer.
We get chatting and I forget all about Father Steve and the silly computer games. Then, she tells me about her attempt to wrestle the world record for the highest whistle note from the current holder.
“I’ve been training all year,” she says.
I’m not usually one for jokes, but I can’t resist. “I’m surprised the convention isn’t held in Whistler, Colorado.”
She laughs. “I haven’t heard that one before. Three days it is. Such a variety of whistlers, and a wonderful atmosphere.” Grace shows me some videos of the world champion Geert Chatrou on her phone. He’s marvellous
. He performs concertos in front of thousands of people.
I pour the tea for Father Steve and I. The sponge cake hasn’t turned out as I’d hoped. Not much has since the fete last summer. I’ve enjoyed being part of the whistling choir, but I haven’t been since Dad passed. I still can’t bring myself to say that he died. We’d been looking out for each other so long, I thought he’d always be here. Now it’s just me.
Father Steve makes that sympathetic expression people do, by tightening his lips. “How are you this week? Any thoughts on coming back to the group?”
He’s only been gone for six weeks but every day of silence in the house feels like a month. The carer looks in on Mondays, and Father Steve comes on Fridays.
“Your father would have wanted you to give a performance,” he says, “and the tickets are paid for. Let’s not let our hard work go to waste.” He looks at me like the Lord himself is peering through his eyes. “We miss having you at practice, Jo. Besides, we can’t find a replacement, not at this late stage.”
I flash forward to the sights of Tokyo — the neon street signs, the bullet train, Japanese officials ushering competitors from one place to another. But then, I’d imagined sharing all these pictures with Dad, just as Grace had shown me the video of the champion whistler at the fete.
Father Steve pats my hand and stands up. “I’ve got a little something to show you. Perhaps it will change your mind.” When he returns, Father Steve has a large frame. “Grace hoped you’d see this at practice, but it’s been so long . . .”
The sign read ‘This is to certify that Grace Henry recorded the highest pitched whistle by any person — measured at 5,476Hz, and adjudicated by an official World Records judge.’
“Well, I’ll be . . .,” I say. She’s left me speechless again! “That’s nearly an F8 note.”
Father Steve smiles. “Grace The Whistling Wonder Woman, eh?”
I feel embarrassed. I’ve been letting them down by not attending rehearsals. To think she’s been waiting all this time to tell me. So thoughtful.
“The funny thing is,” he continues, “some American chap beat her two days later. But, she can always say she held the record.”
“Bah, they can have a ‘whistle off’ at the conference,” I say. The good news is like a little boost of energy. “You should get practising on your low notes, Father.”
He chuckles. “Mmm, who has ever heard of a whistling duo?” But three, that’s a group.”
“The holy trinity,” I say.
Dad would have laughed at that one.
“So, you’ll come to practice this week?” he asks.
What is there to think about? “It would be an honour to whistle with a former record holder.” I suppose the sushi in Japan will taste better than my sponge cake anyway.
(c) Philip Charter