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Thanks to Pearl Harris for her review of this book:
Here is a random chapter from Faint Harmony:
Here we were in the middle of 1943, still living in the Muswell Hill flat which had survived the blitz despite the devastation of so many other properties in nearby streets. Vera and I had expected to have travelled to all the war zones in the world with ENSA by this time, but most of our concerts had been held in various parts of Britain, more often than not at military hospitals, village halls and munitions factories. Our particular party was made up of women of all ages, but most of the men were over the age of call up for it was a very rare occurrence that younger men could get exemption from military service to become entertainers with ENSA unless they had some medical problem which had prevented them from playing an active part in armed combat.
The munitions workers usually worked night shift as their factories were disguised as something more innocuous, so we often did one show at midnight and another in the early hours of the morning as a bit of respite for the next shift of tired workers.
I could never get used to seeing the wounded soldiers in hospitals, many of them probably wondering how they would manage to face civilian life after the war, some blinded, some burnt, some without legs or arms. Many would be confined to wheel chairs for the rest of their lives. We were all gratified to see their anxiety dissolve during the hour or two we managed to entertain them, making them laugh, and forget their pain and anxiety for the short time we spent with them.
At the rate we were going, we would need to be inoculated all over again if we were eventually called on to travel to war zones abroad, for the original jabs that were done at Drury Lane at the beginning of the war would have expired by that time!
During the worst of the blitz Vera and I had makeshift beds made up on mattresses inside the Morrison shelter installed in our Muswell Hill flat. This shelter doubled up as our dining room table during the day. When the air raid warning sounded we would stagger from our warm beds and make our way to this cramped shelter in our small dining room. Vera was petrified at the noise and chaos of the falling bombs, the anti-aircraft guns, the aeroplanes overhead and the searchlights on the ground trying to locate them. She was far more afraid than me that our building might receive a direct hit, so we often clung together for warmth and comfort, covering our heads under our blankets in a vain attempt to deaden the abrupt sound of bombs hissing and exploding around us, sometimes at a distance, sometimes very close to home, until the all clear sounded – more often than not only in the early hours of the morning. Just like everyone else who had survived yet another sleepless and terrified night, we still had to rise, face the new day and get on with our work, no matter how little sleep we had the night before.
And what of Malcolm in the midst of all the carnage? I was so busy performing and preparing new routines for future concerts that I had little chance to think clearly about how much I still missed him, but no matter what I was doing, there was always a nagging ache in my heart which made life far less palatable than it had been when we were happily married and I had been under the illusion that our marriage would last forever. I had always known the worth of his beautiful voice and would never forget. the happy times when we had appeared together at joint engagements, particularly that shining summer season when we had worked together with the Starlight Concert Party in Margate. All these years later, it was still very difficult for me to accept that those days were gone forever.
Of course I didn’t begrudge him becoming a top oratorio soloist and taking his rightful place at so many performances at the Royal Albert Hall and with the Hallé orchestra in Manchester. He had been singing at the Queens Hall shortly before it was destroyed by a Nazi incendiary bomb. He had always considered that hall to be his favourite, so I knew he must have been very sad to see it brought to ruin in a matter of minutes.
In the dark, uncertain days of the early forties I was upset that Malcolm was now so busy with the lighter side of entertainment with Marina that he was probably unable to accept many serious engagements.
Malcolm and Marina Dunbar were doing well in their joint career on the variety circuit where they had become popular and well-paid star variety artistes in a very short time. They were soon making records together, appearing in musicals together, singing on the radio together, and making films together.
They had received very bad publicity in newspapers and magazines about our divorce and all our old friends had felt sorry for me having to go through the whole thing on my own, but of course people have remarkably short memories.
Once Malcolm and Marina started performing together, audiences had taken to them in a big way and our old friends who had supported me staunchly during the divorce, were inclined to distance themselves from me and renew their friendship with the more successful Malcolm and Marina, leaving me to get on with my life as best I could.
They were all over the place. It was very difficult to avoid them. If there wasn’t an article about them and their ideal marriage in the illustrated papers, they were on the radio, and singing in variety theatres all over the country playing to crowded houses, the majority of the audience being women snatching a night of relaxation and enjoyment as a break from their strenuous wartime lives so filled with anxiety.
These women, clad in their drab pre-war wardrobes, unable to buy anything new because of the stringent limitations of clothing rationing, were suitably amazed at Marina, bedecked in jewels, and wearing a series of glamorous gowns as though there was no such thing as wartime rationing and austerity. They all wondered how she managed to appear so sumptuously clad when they were all making do and mending their old clothes furiously, but still fighting a losing battle to look attractive and feminine. Most of these young women’s husbands were absent,. serving in the war in some capacity or other. Even though they were tired after doing war work, often spending sleepless nights in air raid shelters, and caring for their children, they were also sex-starved and all too ready to be enthralled by Malcolm’s beautiful voice, immaculate appearance and handsome looks. Their husbands might be absent, but by the way Malcolm treated his wife on stage, they could all imagine only too well how he would treat her in the bedroom.
They probably went home after the show to dream of him as they settled down to sleep in lonely double beds which they had once shared with absent husbands who had made love to them regularly and vigorously several times a week or more if they were lucky. If the women in their audience had such dreams about Malcolm, they were not mistaken in them. The ethereal Marina would be enjoying what I had once enjoyed, nearly every single night when he and Marina arrived home, elated and excited after another triumphant performance. Like all the women out there with absent husbands who would return to them when the war was over, I could only dream about Malcolm, who would never return to me.
Certainly people in the profession wondered why they hadn’t joined ENSA like the rest of us. We heard a rumour that Malcolm was unable to travel to the tropics because he suffered from a chronic illness and therefore could not be inoculated against certain tropical diseases. As long as I had been married to him I had known nothing about this mysterious disease. He had always seemed perfectly healthy and vigorous to me. Even after our divorce, I still wanted to believe the best of Malcolm, but even I could not help thinking that the chronic disease had raised its head quite opportunely as far as performing in tropical climes for ENSA was concerned.
I had also heard about the son he had discovered a year or two earlier. Apparently the boy and his younger brother often spent their school holidays with him and Marina, and Malcolm was paying their school fees at a good private school near Wigton where they lived.
In the meantime I had been absolutely shocked when I was notified by Malcolm’s lawyer that he wanted to stop paying alimony to me because he had taken responsibility for the education of his son and his brother, and therefore couldn’t afford to pay my alimony any longer! After the shoddy way in which I had been treated, I had never had any qualms about accepting the alimony payments. I had certainly suffered great emotional pain when Malcolm had discarded me in favour of Marina Dunbar.
I was earning about £10 a week from going on numerous rigorous ENSA tours. We would do two or three performances a day often after travelling vast distances in an uncomfortable charabanc, while he and Marina probably received more than ten times that amount for one concert in a comfortable warm theatre or concert hall. I had every right to insist that he should go on paying me the alimony to which I was entitled. But, for some reason, I just couldn’t bring myself to challenge him about it. The thought of fighting the shameful case in the courts was too much for me. It would be as unpleasant an experience as standing by myself in that unfriendly divorce court. I was the wronged party, but I was the one who had to appear in court and go into the most intimate details of the breakdown of our marriage. If he didn’t want to pay the alimony rightfully due to me, I wasn’t going to beg for it and set myself up as a helpless victim, even though I would be begging for something that was rightfully mine. I might not have been in Malcolm’s class in the profession, but I had been earning my own living on the stage from the age of eighteen.
Vera and I were still active members of the CAA. I was alarmed to discover that I had been booked as the hostess at a Monday night concert when Malcolm and Marina were due to sing after we had watched the acts of those who were hoping to be accepted as members of the CAA by showing us that they were good enough to join the ranks of the pros.
“You’ll have to find a substitute,” I told Ernie, who had organised that particular concert. “I can never have anything to do with the Craigs now that I’m divorced from Malcolm. Surely you should have had the common sense to realise that, Ernie.”
“I’d forgotten that you had ever been married to the man! It’s far too late to find someone else now, Sally,” he said. “You’re a pro. I know you’ll be able to handle it without breaking down or causing any embarrassment to the Craigs. We’re extremely lucky that they have a gap in their diary and are free to sing for us. I wouldn’t want anything to go wrong.”
There was nothing much I could do on this particular occasion but I made up my mind to stipulate that I would never accept work on the same bill as my ex-husband or his present wife in future. But what difference would that clause make? I would be the loser in the long run. They were the stars. Who would care whether I was on the bill or not? Ernie could easily find someone else who would be only too glad to act as hostess at any concert featuring this scintillating couple.
The first half of the concert went according to plan. I did my best to put all the young hopefuls at ease. None of them were shrinking violets but they probably found their appearance before fellow performers far more nerve-wracking than anything they had done before. To be accepted into the CAA because fellow artistes had approved of them was one of the most satisfying achievements of their lives. I remembered how I had been accepted into the CAA at the tender age of eighteen after presenting my own act to this same critical, but encouraging, audience.
Malcolm and Marina arrived during the interval. They gave me a very frosty greeting when they met me in the Concert Hall. They certainly didn’t appear at all put out that I was to be the hostess that night. I, on the other hand, was trembling and near to tears after they swept past me to greet some of their friends most effusively. I didn’t much care whether Marina acknowledged me or not, but to have Malcolm treat me like a distant stranger was more than I could bear. I had no idea how I was going to get through that night.
Consequently, introducing them to the audience in that intimate concert hall of the CAA, was a far more harrowing experience than I had imagined. I really don’t know how I managed it, but I introduced their act with a light and cheerful touch, as though I was delighted that they were there and couldn’t give a damn that I was introducing the ex-husband I still loved and the woman who had usurped me.
But after that introduction which had taken every ounce of my professional experience to accomplish, I had to rush to the cloakroom and retch my guts out in the nearest toilet. By the time I had stopped shivering and retching, and had managed to rinse out my mouth, wash my pallid face, and reapply my streaked makeup, I had missed half of their sugary performance – just as well, as far as I was concerned! I slipped back to my place in the hall, still shivering. I don’t think anyone noticed that I had been away. The audience was far too engrossed in listening to the star performers.
As usual, they were beautifully groomed and dressed, as though they were appearing at the Palladium rather than in the more intimate and informal concert hall of the CAA. I wondered by what means Marina had acquired her exquisite midnight blue gown in the middle of the war. He wore a gardenia in the buttonhole of his finely tailored dress suit. The suit was a cut above the one he had worn for concert performances when he was married to me. No doubt he had a smart and expensive tailor in Saville Row these days, not to mention having his shoes hand made from a last! by someone equally fashionable and expensive.
Their whole act pivoted on their apparent adoration of one for the other. They made sickly, arch remarks, calling each other intimate pet names, gazing into each other’s eyes with unrestrained adoration. Despite my discomfort, I felt sad to see Malcolm singing trite romantic duets with Marina, taking care to tone down his wonderful voice to blend it considerately with her thin, scooping, sugary soprano. I thought the rest of the pro audience would see through all that excess of synthetic honey, but, no! They applauded loudly and were as delighted with their performance as any less sophisticated audience in a provincial variety hall.
I felt sad that Malcolm had put on a performance like that in front of me and that he hardly acknowledged my presence at all. I hoped I could leave when everyone was having drinks afterwards, but I was still the hostess of the evening, for my sins. I was supposed to make everyone feel comfortable while all I wanted to do was to curl up in a dark corner and die. I need not have worried. Nobody paid any attention to me. Even my close friends at the CAA had forgotten quickly enough that Malcolm and I had once been man and wife. They flocked round Marina and Malcolm, congratulating them on their performance. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Marina head for the cloakroom by herself. Perhaps she felt as sick at the insincerity of the evening as much as I had done. I wondered if Malcolm might at least greet me properly now that she was out of the room. So much for our years of marriage.
I tried to make light-hearted conversation with some of my friends, but I was a poor companion that night. My usual vivacity and sparkle had deserted me.
I was suddenly aware of a tall figure looming over me. He spoke to me in bracing tones as though he was addressing a casual acquaintance and not the woman with whom he had once shared every possible intimacy.
“Sally, my dear. How are you? We didn’t realise you were to be the hostess tonight until the very last minute. I don’t suppose you wanted to introduce us any more than we wanted you to do so. We could all have ended up feeling very awkward, but you made it easy for us. You’re a real pro, as always.”
I turned to look at Malcolm. I knew then that I would never “get over” him as long as I lived. It didn’t matter what he had done to hurt me in the past, I was silly, deluded, and weak enough to forgive him anything.
“Malcolm,” I breathed. “I wanted someone else to take over from me when I heard you were going to sing here tonight too, but apparently it was too late for Ernie to find someone else at short notice.”
“I’ve often wondered how you were getting on, Sally and I’m so sorry about the alimony. I hope you don’t mind about it, but I’ve had a lot of extra expenses lately paying for my son and his brother’s education. I could hardly send Graham to a private school and leave Edgar to make do with the local county school, could I?”
I could hardly believe what he was saying. How dared he plead poverty to me when we were poles apart in what we earned? Yet he looked at me with those sad brown eyes so that I almost felt sorry for him, although I was the one who was being done out of what was rightfully mine. It took all the self-control I could muster not to lose my temper and shout at him, or burst into floods of tears. Vera and I were really struggling to pay the rent on the Muswell Hill flat now that the alimony payments had ceased.
“Of course I mind,” I replied coldly, “How could you possibly think that I don’t mind? I’m going to have to move somewhere cheaper soon for we can’t really afford the flat any more. I didn’t take any action because I just couldn’t face going to court again to challenge you about it, so it looks like you’ve got your own way again. You and your new wife are doing very well for yourselves in comparison to me. I would have thought you could very well afford to go on paying me. I just can’t believe that it was you who decided not to pay my alimony any more. Have you forgotten what we once meant to one another?”
He had the grace to look embarrassed and he was probably very relieved to see Marina walking purposefully towards us before he could answer me. She had been charming everyone in the room, but she certainly did not look her usual smiling and charming self as she approached us. She glanced at me suspiciously. The way she was behaving you would have thought that I had done something wrong instead of them. She ignored me completely and spoke directly to Malcolm.
“I think it’s time to be going now, darling,” she murmured, putting her hand on his shoulder possessively. “We have a table booked at that sweet little restaurant. Have you forgotten?”
Malcolm mumbled a shame-faced goodnight to me under his breath as Marina put her arm through his, as though warning me to leave her husband alone and not dare do anything further about the alimony he had stopped paying me. I watched their somber mood change swiftly as they left me standing all by myself feeling completely drained by the taxing evening.
They were saying light and frothy goodbyes to everyone. Even those who had despised Marina and supported me when I was divorcing Malcolm, were fawning on them now. My knees were trembling and I thought I was going to be sick again. I forgot my duties as a hostess. I went to the cloakroom, found my raincoat and umbrella and left the warmth of the club without anyone noticing that I was leaving. As I walked through the damp and darkened streets all by myself, I glimpsed Marina and Malcolm’s imposing car passing me by. To make matters worse, at just that moment, the air raid warning siren sounded. Somehow, I didn’t much care if I was annihilated by a bomb that night. All I could think about was how Malcolm and Marina had managed to build such happy and successful lives and careers on the back of my misery, without giving me a second thought.
I was sick again when I eventually arrived home. I shivered under the blankets and wept miserably the whole night through, hardly sleeping at all. Between them, they had hurt me and ruined my life. I had always made excuses for Malcolm, but now I was inclined to think that he was just as cold and unfeeling as Marina.
The following day Vera and I received letters from ENSA. With the rest of our party we were to embark on a ship sailing for the Middle East in a week’s time.
26 August 2015