A short story
My finger hovers over the V. I have never typed this name before. Nor said it. I press the V. But this name has flitted through my mind for years. A small i. It was around somewhere as I grew into adolescence. Small c. Had my first jobs, packed eggs and loaded lorries. Small k. When my father died, when my mother died. I press the y. The name went with me when I moved from Northern Ireland to England.
L. Partners coming and going. A child born. Another child. The e. I don’t know where it came from. Or where the partners, the children went to. I don’t know why I haven’t looked it up long ago, and I don’t know why I’m doing this now. A lot of fuss over a foreign-sounding name. The a. Not sure of the spelling, and thinking. The n, then d, r, o, s, quickly.
It’s typed. I look at the screen.
I click ‘search’.
There are many videos of her. One is of the Eurovision Song Contest, March 25th, 1972, Edinburgh, and a song called Après Toi. I have never watched the Eurovision Song Contest, but I’m less surprised at seeing this than I think I should be. 1972. So many years. God. I click, and click again. ‘Après Toi’. I wouldn’t have known what that meant in 1972.
The camera pulls away and I can see the stage for the first time, and it is only just in time, for a slim young woman in a long dark dress is already walking out in front of the cameras and the audience. She walks quickly, confidently. Her right arm swings once, up and ahead of her. She stops. The spotlight has thrown an oval on the floor behind her, and her shadow, like her, slim and dark, stretches out across the oval.
Vicky Leandros. I accept it is her, but it could be any pretty young Mediterranean woman. It doesn’t explain anything, but knowing her name and nothing else about her for forty years has alone given her mystique and gravitas. Immediately the orchestra pumps out music. Poomp poomp poom.
I must have seen this before. This exact performance. Sitting, on what was surely a Saturday night, in front of a television with my parents in their house in Milltown Street, Dunmaddy, Northern Ireland.
I’m shivering a little. All the why questions are running in my head. It’s like I have found an old diary, I’m reading about something that was once important to me, and I can’t understand why it was ever important, and why it was then forgotten.
She seems a little hunched, but it is the raised shoulders of the dress. I am hearing her voice before I realise she is singing. She sings softly. Tu t’en vas. You are leaving. Now I know what the words mean. The camera is coming in closer. It could not come in close enough. She is beautiful. A serious, beautiful, face.
The camera comes closer still. The voice is not strong, but the image and the sound fill me. I see her hand holding the microphone, the small pale fingers, a ring, like an engagement ring, on her middle finger. The long waving dark hair cascades, yes, about her face. Her eyes close, her mouth makes a bow shape, opens, and now her singing erupts: Qu’après toi…
And I look at her, and my heart moves in me, as it surely must have done on that night in Dunmaddy, in my childish self. Very little moves me, and this is moving me. It’s not comfortable. I watch the dark hair, the face, the little curve of the nose, the bow mouth that spills out wonder and tenderness and sadness: … je ne pourrai plus vivre, non plus vivre qu’en souvenir de toi. After you I cannot live, not live only in memory of you. Her right hand, the back to the audience, rises level with her face, and descends and the fingers ripple as the hand comes down. The fingers have twinkled, and there is nothing cheap about it. She continues to sing and I am not translating any more. The sound is, as it must have been then, sense enough. As her voice falls at the end of this verse her face breaks into a smile. She is making a beautiful thing and should smile.
Was it at this moment on the sofa in Dunmaddy that her name, the only words I could understand, became so firmly hung on that peg in my head? My thoughts shoot away from the video and to Northern Ireland in 1972. What was happening then? But I have spent many years making sure those things haven’t stayed on any pegs.
She is facing me now. Her right hand begins to ascend once more, slowly, to level with her face, the back of the hand to me. It hovers, then descends swiftly. I am fascinated.
I would have known then, as I read on-line on the morning after this evening, that, up until this Saturday night ninety people had been murdered in Northern Ireland in 1972, thirty one of them in those first twenty five days of March alone.
I would have known then that five days before this night a 200 pound car bomb had been detonated in Donegall Street in Belfast city centre, murdering seven people and injuring one hundred and fifty more. Two of the dead were policemen trying to evacuate the area. Three were binmen, blown off their bin lorry. Two were old age pensioners.
I hear the words ‘après toi’ again and again. There is a large brooch of leaves and berries on the high-necked dark dress. The dark hair falls and curls against her cheeks, the smooth skin pale against the dark of the hair and the dress.
I would have known then, as I watched this before, that a little later on that same day as the car bomb a sniper fired a single shot and murdered a soldier.
Now her head and the hand holding the microphone fill the screen. I can see her sad, serious, heavy-lidded eyes. The camera is pulling back. I try to think about this singer and song, what it has meant and what it means to me now, but the desire to watch and listen overwhelms the desire to understand.
I would have known then that two days before that night the army shot and murdered a thirteen-year-old schoolboy in Belfast. A petrol bomb was found nearby but no evidence he had ever touched it.
And the voice rises once more, and once more the right hand rises with it, the fingers ripple, the hand descends. Yes. And again, as surely I was on that Saturday night forty years before in Dunmaddy, I am full of both sadness and joy. It is hard and shocking. I inhale and forget to breath out, and then jolt back into sense.
The murders on the day she sang were even more ridiculous and avoidable and banal. I imagine Vicky Leandros waking about seven a.m. to rehearse, to prepare herself, a long day ahead, in Edinburgh on the far side of the short strip of water that is the Irish Sea. About seven a.m. in Springhill Avenue in Belfast a man was accidentally shot by his friends, and trailed into a house. The woman who lived there came downstairs and found his body in her living room. He had been somehow accidentally shot by twenty-four bullets of three different calibres.
Après toi je ne serai que l’ombre… the camera is pulling back… de ton ombre… The song is nearing its end. Even I, unmusical, know that. Her right hand is rising in a wide sweep, moving out, around… Après toi. The hand descends suddenly and her song is over. There is applause, much applause, and she is looking up. It is over for her, and beginning. Her head moves just a little to her left, then forward, and she bows. The applauding goes on and on.
The other murder on that March 25th was in another part of Belfast, around the time Vicky Leandros sang. A man had gone to the Shankill Road UDA club and complained about the beating of a friend. Were the drinkers watching this on television too? The man who had done the beating shot him in the head.
Not a thing of these incidents when Vicky Leandros sang in Edinburgh, or anything about the other four hundred and ninety-six people murdered in Northern Ireland that year, has stayed with me. That might have been the year the IRA shot me in the arm. It was some year around then. I can’t remember. I have succeeded in not remembering, in making the petty, deadly, things nothing to me. But I have remembered this singer’s name.
Sitting there after the song finishes I do remember some of the stratagems for survival in Northern Ireland in 1972. Draw the curtains before putting the house lights on. Keep the car interior light permanently off. Never stop walking if someone pulls up in a car to ask directions. Don’t open anything you might find. Never answer any knock at the door without first checking. I would have known many more then, yet never enough. That was life, as we walked and talked and went to school and work, and watched the petty, deadly things come up to our own door and then turn away, maybe this time, maybe not the next. And while we waited for that knock we watched light nonsense on television, and I saw Vicky Leandros make a little, important, bit of wonder in a hall in Edinburgh.
I’ve timed the video. From the music starts until she stops singing is 2 minutes 55 seconds.
Over the next hours of this evening I play Après Toi in English, where it is supposed to mean Come What May. The English words are happy and so wrong. I hear it sung in German, in Greek, in Spanish. I watch and hear a Vicky Leandros, recognisable, stranger, harder somehow, a performer, sing it in 1992 and 1995. I watch and hear her, over the years, always attractive, never magical, sing many other songs in a range of languages. I watch her with bobbed hair five years before that night in Edinburgh singing another entry in another Eurovision Song Contest, a song called Love is Blue. She looks full-cheeked and what she is, a very young woman with heavy makeup.
I go back and watch the video again. As I watch I see things I missed first time around. I watch again as her face breaks into the smile after the first crescendo. I freeze the frame, and look at that face as the lips begin to close. Yes. She knows she has done this well. Does she know how well? I watch the gesture of the hands, the fingers rippling, the brow furrowing, the lips changing shape. Seeing the effects work over and over does nothing to lessen them. I expect them, I think I understand them and, on this created, crafted, constructed thing, they work again and again.
Later, way into the night, I think: what happened to the long dark dress? Does she still keep it, in a wardrobe, the dress she wore when she broke through and became… whatever she became? Was there a man, a boyfriend, who asked for and got the dress and then maybe in a year, full of anger as she moved on, threw it away? And the brooch of leaves and berries?
I think: in the morning shall I look up what was happening in Northern Ireland around March 25th 1972? Of course I do. It is the cold experience I anticipated. It is what I have just told you.
I think: if I was naive to find this song and this singer so beautiful all those years ago then, held up against the stupidity and bigotry and hatred and violence all around me, it was a small naivety, a small stupidity.
I tell myself that on that Saturday night in 1972 I forgot to be fearful for all of 2 minutes 55 seconds, that for that time I was free, and that it was long enough, important enough, for me to carry the name, the one thing I understood, in my head all these years.
That is what I have told myself anyway. It may even be true.
So I play the video again. I play it again, I play it again, and this I do know: each time as it ends the sadness of something lovely having been lost sweeps over me.
Après toi’ by Vicky Leandros