Um-pah

(as performed on July 19th 2008 at a Grand Charity Concert at Bedale Methodist Church featuring Harrogate Gilbert and Sullivan Society and Friends)

  ‘For heaven’s sake!’ said Imogen in a sudden fury. Christopher looked up from his D major vamp and his hands almost dropped from the piano - but a little um-pah, um-pah, um- slipped out before he noticed the look on her face. It meant trouble.

  ‘Something wrong?’ he said.

  ‘What is it with you?’ she yelled. ‘If it’s not railway tunnels, or road signs, or maps, it’s some other obsession. I’m getting fed up with it.’ For a moment Christopher regretted the day he’d pointed out that local road signs around North Yorkshire often had blue edging instead of black. Well, at the time he’d thought it was interesting.

  ‘They withdrew those blue ones in 1994 and yet here we are in 2008 and they’re still here. Amazing, isn’t it?’ On that occasion Imogen had simply replied with a cold look, but now she was pretty fired up.

  ‘So what’s the hot obsession now?’ she went on, rhetorically. ‘What’s the latest Christopher Barker mania? - the most recent Christopher Barking-flipping-mad fixation of yours? Huh? Well? What is it?’

  ‘I don’t know’ said Christopher. ‘But I’ve a feeling you’re going to tell me…’

  ‘Gilbert and blooming Sullivan!’ she said, putting her hands to her hips to express her utter contempt. ‘Yes. Gilbert and Sullivan! And, of course, you can’t be normal about it, can you? You can’t just whistle the Policeman’s Song, like anybody else. Oh no! You have to get the entire works off pat, and fill the whole house with dirty old sheets of music. Forty-seven flipping operas - all sounding exactly the same!’

  ‘Fourteen, actually…’

  ‘Well, whatever… Too many, for certain. I mean, what is that wretched tune you’ve been playing all morning?’

  ‘It’s the Soldier’s Chorus from Patience [he sings] - Um-pah, um-pah, um-pah, um-The soldiers of our queen are linked in friendly tether upon the battle scene…’

  ‘Yes, alright, alright…’ said Imogen. ‘Can’t it wait till I’ve gone shopping?’

  ‘I’ve got to practise…’

  ‘Practise? Practise for what?’

  ‘They want me to play for a concert.’

  ‘What, the Gilbert and Sullivan Society?

  ‘Yeah.’ Imogen gave Christopher a withering look.

  ‘I knew I shouldn’t have let you go’ she sighed. ‘They’ll have you on a piece of string before you know it. What concert is this, then? And when is it - and where? - you’ve not booked anything the day we’re going to mother’s, have you?

  ‘No! It’s in Bedale.’

  ‘Bedale?’ Suddenly Imogen went rather quiet. She had a sneaking regard for Bedale. It was the only place she knew where Christopher’s famous sense of direction had let him down. They’d driven to the Dales three or four times and each time he’d turned left at the Market Place instead of right, and they’d ended up in Exelby instead of Patrick Brompton. For Christopher, the uncrowned king of maps, to get it wrong - and not just once but three or four times - felt, to Imogen, like some kind of delicious triumph. On each occasion he’d turned the car around without a word.

  He was surprised when she said she’d come to Bedale with him. Was she really going to sit through a whole concert of Gilbert and Sullivan highlights? Well, it was unusual, but nice of her to show a little support for a change. But he was wrong. The moment they turned into the Market Place she told him to stop the car, and out she jumped.

  ‘Where are you going?’ he asked.

  ‘You don’t think I’m sitting through a load of G&S do you?’ I’ll be waiting for you here, okay? About ten. Have a good time in the Nineteenth Century.’

  ‘But where are you going?’

  ‘I’ll be in the Green Dragon.’

  ‘On your own?’

  ‘Yes I’ll be fine… Don’t worry.’

  Christopher let her go, and he almost drove on to the concert, but a nagging doubt made him stop and he parked-up on the cobbles in front of the Post Office. Did he need a parking disc? Was this space for taxis only? Suddenly he didn’t care. His pulse was racing. He wanted to know exactly what was going on. There’d be no more wandering minstrels now. Good Lord, no! It was farewell to the moon and I - good riddance to the Policeman’s lot. Suddenly his obsessive nature focussed fairly and squarely on his girl. He marched to the Green Dragon. She wasn’t there. Across to the Old Black Swan. Not there either. The Waggon and Horses. The King’s Head. Well, that wasn’t even open. How could she have disappeared so quickly? He scanned the street. Ah! One more option - The White Bear. He ran diagonally across the junction - cars hooted - but it didn’t matter ’cause there she was in the front window - bold as brass, chatting up three soldiers in uniform. He saw red - swept in towards her.

  ‘What on earth is going on?’ he demanded. Imogen looked up, boldly. The soldiers went quiet, sheepish.

  ‘You’ve got your soldiers of the queen’ she said. ‘And I’ve got mine…’ But something in Christopher’s unexpected fury stopped her. Suddenly she was impressed. She stared at him full in the face with a fierce, triumphant look.

  ‘It’s alright boys’ she said, over her shoulder. ‘He’s back. I believe he’s come to his senses. Just in time.’ Christopher pulled her towards him more possessively than she could believe and kissed her in a way he’d never kissed her before. The soldiers whooped and cheered, and raised their glasses in a sort of merriment not un-tinged with relief.

  Back at the Methodist Church, where the concert was, the Chairman of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society had bullied old Mrs Evans into standing in at the piano. She was very nervous, and it had to be admitted - her um-pah was not quite what it had been. What a relief it was when Christopher shot in looking flushed and untidy, just in time to play The soldiers of our queen. He’d been held up, he muttered. Imogen followed. She’d come with him after all. Suddenly these obsessions of Christopher’s were no problem - no problem at all. They were okay - absolutely fine. Especially now she knew she was one of them.

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