Malcolm Craig and Marina Dunbar 1939
On the 20 September of 1939 I entered Broadcast House in Whiteladies Road, Bristol, prepared to sing in several broadcasts that day, as had been my routine since the outbreak of the war a few weeks earlier. It was a lovely late summer’s day without a trace of autumn chill in the air, so it would have been very pleasant to spend the day outdoors rather than in the sterile broadcasting studio which remained chilly no matter what the weather was like outside. Sometimes I gave a solo recital; at other times I sang duets or in ensembles with other singers. Today would be a mixture of all three
Rather absentmindedly I collected all my letters from the receptionist and gave them a perfunctory glance as I made my way towards the studio. I recognised Marina’s distinctive bold handwriting on the fattest envelope and looked forward to reading her latest voluble screed when I had a moment to spare in the course of my busy day. There were a few type-written business letters but they could certainly wait until I returned to my digs at the end of the day, although I did pause for a moment to thank heaven that I was now in a position to pay any outstanding bills. I wasn’t exactly a world-beater yet, but I was an established and respected singer, never without work, and most of that work had been better paid than the broadcasting I was doing at the moment.
I noticed yet another envelope written in a hand I recognised, but, just for a moment, I could not place the writer. The postmark was smudged so I looked at the back of the envelope for a return address. As far as I could recall, I knew nobody in Wigton. I had been to most places in the country during the course of my work and knew that the town was in the north of England near the Scottish borders, but I certainly had never been to the town on my extensive singing travels. Surely it wasn’t a fan letter? I had told our agent to hold all my fan letters until I returned to London. Perhaps this was one that had slipped through the net.Then I saw the name, “Mrs F. Davey”. Even then, for just a few moments, I couldn’t place that name, but it didn’t take me too long to figure it out. Trevor Davey had been the co-respondent named in my divorce from Felicity in 1931.
It had taken me years to recover from Felicity’s desertion and I had spent a great deal of my spare time searching for her in every town where I went to sing on the offchance that she might be living there. If she had contacted me in the years immediately after she left me without even as much as a goodbye letter, I would probably have been only too relieved to find her again, and perfectly prepared to forgive her anything. Had I known she was in Wigton I would have taken the first opportunity to go there and bring her straight back home where she belonged. I wouldn’t even have asked her to explain what she had been doing during her absence. It was ironical that she was writing to me now, after all this time, when I had reached the point in my life where I hardly ever thought of her at all. Instead of feeling relieved and happy to see her familiar hand-writing once again as I would have felt years ago, I was apprehensive, fearing that she might be trying to disrupt the even flow of my life.
I had looked on Felicity as my soul mate. If she had stayed with me I don’t think I would ever have looked at another woman, but her unexplained disappearance had turned me into a cynical womaniser. Nearly all the women I met afterwards were only too willing to go to bed with me. I wondered whether I responded to them with equal willingness because I was trying to prove to myself that there was nothing wrong with me, and that Felicity was the one who had made a mistake by deserting me. Even when I married Sally who truly loved me, I betrayed her trust and hurt her immeasurably with my affair with Marina. When Marina and I were finally married, I couldn’t manage to remain faithful to her for very long
“Why, there you are, Malcolm.”
As though from a great distance, I heard the producer call my name. I was always punctual for my professional engagements, so it was no wonder that he was surprised that I wasn’t already in the studio with the others, ready to begin our day’s work. “We’re all waiting in Studio 1 ready for the run-through – when you’re quite ready.”
“I won’t be a moment,” I replied, hastily stuffing all my letters into my music case.
I was late, knowing full well that my colleagues were waiting for me, and that I was wasting their precious rehearsal time, but somehow I couldn’t face going in right away. I didn’t dare open the letter in case it upset me further and spoilt my performance, but I needed a few moments on my own before I could even begin to think about singing and putting on a facade of bonhomie in front of everyone. I went into the cloakroom and splashed my face vigorously with cold water, trying to bring some colour back to my cold and pallid cheeks. Then I braced my shoulders and marched resolutely towards the studio to begin the run-through before the broadcast.
Usually singing invigorated me, but that day I found the work exhausting, and I knew my singing wasn’t up to its usual standard. I was distracted. All I could think about was Felicity’s letter lying unopened in my music case. I went through all my broadcasts like an automaton. The last one was a programme of romantic duets with Margaret Finnemore, a popular soprano, often heard over the airwaves in those days. She was a short plump brunette. That particular evening she was encased in a tight purple dress with a low-cut neckline which emphasised her voluptuous bosom. Her almost naked breasts quivered tremulously every time she drew breath. As we sang together I managed to forget my worry and distraction for the first time that day. I had sung with Margaret many times before and had never thought of her as anything more than a colleague, but suddenly all I could think about was what it would be like to bury my head in those breasts and have her comfort and soothe me so that I would forget all about that unopened letter. We finished our recital with The Indian Love Call. I was usually very disciplined in my singing, but I was so out of sorts that I took an unwritten high note at the end of the song. I had sung the same note in my recording a few years earlier and the critic in Gramophone had described the ending as “an astonishing piece of white singing”. At the time I had not been able to work out whether this comment was intended to be praise or blame!
“Where did that note come from? You completely drowned me out with it,” laughed Margaret as soon as we were off air. “I don’t think even you knew you had that note in your range!”
“I was carried away singing with you, Margaret, dear,” I smiled. “I think we did all right, tonight, don’t you?”
Margaret was engaged to a dance band clarinettist who had recently joined the army. Like me, she had been hastily billeted in digs the BBC had found for her. We were allowed only a pound a week to cover the expense of our digs so none of us were able to live in unfettered luxury in Bristol.
“My digs are just round the corner. Would you like to come back for a night-cap? It’s rather lonely being on our own, isn’t it?” she asked.
I sensed that Margaret might have far more than coffee in mind to round off our evening. For a moment I managed to forgot all about that letter as I concentrated my mind on the supreme satisfaction I would have if Margaret allowed me to unzip her tight dress, letting it fall to her feet, revealing her plump little figure. The idea of the possible encounter made me light-headed with desire, but, regretfully, I managed to pull myself together.
“I’d love to, darling,” I replied, “But we have an early start in the morning and I must write a few letters before I go to bed.”
I could see that Margaret was disappointed, but she was not a pushy woman so did not insist, as many other more determined young women had done in the past, and usually got their way. I kissed her briefly on her soft cheek, amazed at the unusual restraint I had displayed.
It was late when I reached the home where I had been hastily billeted. I don’t think Mr and Mrs Broadbent, the elderly couple who owned the house, had expected to have a guest living in their spare room who kept such irregular hours, but they probably looked on my presence in their home as their contribution to the war effort. They hardly ever seemed to sit down to eat a proper meal at their imboua dining room table, although there was always a good supply of food of all sorts in their cool pantry in those early days of the war. They had given me free rein to prepare my own meals because my hours were so unpredictable.Mrs Broadbent was not the keenest cook and was lost without her staff who had recently left her to enlist in the various armed forces. Thank goodness I had always enjoyed cooking and was perfectly able to cook my own food.
I wasn’t particularly hungry that night but I forced myself to make an omelette before I went to bed. As I sat in the large old-fashioned kitchen in the basement of the Broadbent household, forcing myself to eat, I looked at the two letters which I knew I had to read before I slept that night. Marina’s letter was definitely the more welcome of the two, but I still dreaded having to open the letter from Felicity, fearing what I might find in it. I had come to the conclusion that this letter could only mean that there was to be some unwanted disruption to my relatively tranquil life, if you could call living in a country at war a tranquil existence. Certainly I was having a much easier time than younger men who were signing up and leaving their families to go off for rigorous basic training in preparation for the active part they would have to play during the course of the war.
Britain might be at war, but so far we had not needed to wear the gas masks we were obliged to carry about everywhere with us, or to make use of the air raid shelters which had been erected long before war had even been declared, or for the protection of the sandbags stacked up high outside every building, for the Germans had not dropped a bomb so far. The fact that we were now at war had not yet brought about any great change in our circumstances.
I decided to read Marina’s letter first and leave Felicity’s letter unopened for as long as possible. Marina’s frothy letter was full of what she had been doing with her parents, telling me how impatient she was to start working again at a time when there was little theatrical entertainment taking place in the country, except for all the ENSA concert parties busy rehearsing their acts to entertain troops abroad, and the wounded soldiers who would soon be flooding hospitals in the UK when the war got going in earnest. In fact, only that day we had heard that a list of the first British casualties of the war had been published on the previous day.
Marina mentioned that her older sister and her husband had asked her to dinner at their palatial home and were inviting some of her old friends to meet her again. She had promised to sing for them after the meal, so at least she would be keeping her voice in trim during her enforced break from stage work.
Marina’s letter ended on a sentimental note. “I really miss you, darling, and long to join you in Bristol. Even if I’m not allowed to broadcast, I know I should be entertaining in some way or other. I’m pestering Robert to find me something to do as soon as possible.Of course Mummy and Daddy are very kind to me, but I feel like an innocent little girl again, living at home with them. Do you know what the worst part is? It’s going to bed at night all by myself. I can only get to sleep if I imagine you in bed with me, holding me in your arms, making love to me, touching me in those secret places, until I cry out.”
For a moment I forgot I still had Felicity’s letter to read. I tried to put the vision of Marina, lying in bed all by herself in her parent’s spare bedroom, and wishing I was with her there out of my mind.
I opened Felicity’s letter at last. It read as follows:
My husband, Trevor Davey, died suddenly last week leaving me a widow with two young sons, Graham and Edgar. Edgar, the younger boy, is Trevor’s son, but almost from the time Graham was born, I knew that he was your son, and although Trevor never suggested it, I think he knew this too. I would never have dreamed of contacting you while Trevor was alive, but now that he is gone, I feel it is only fair to tell you about Graham so that you have a chance to get to know him before it is too late. He is musical and sings in the local choir. He is nearly thirteen years of age.
If I had known that he was your son I would never have run away with Trevor in the first place, and perhaps we might have sorted everything out that was wrong in our marriage, but Trevor was very good to me and after you divorced me, we got married and were happy together until his death. I never stopped loving you but I grew to love him too and I miss him terribly now that he has gone.
I have no right to put any pressure on you as I know I was entirely to blame for the break up of our marriage, but if ever you are singing anywhere in the Wigton area, I would like you to meet our son. He loved Trevor and regarded him as his father, so I wouldn’t want him to know about your true relationship with him until he is much older – if at all. I enclose a recent photo of Trevor, Graham, Edgar and myself. It was taken three months before Trevor’s death. I am sure you will see a close likeness to yourself in Graham.
I’m sorry I hurt you all those years ago, but a lot of time has passed since last we met. I hope you can forgive me and choose to meet your son one day soon even if you want nothing more to do with me.
With all good wishes,
I can’t explain how I felt after reading that letter. Felicity had run off with Trevor Davey and left me miserable. How did I know that Graham was really my son? Perhaps she was just trying to get money out of me by telling me a pack of lies. But If the boy was really my son, I needed to meet him although I wished I could do this without ever having to set eyes on Felicity.
Eventually I cast my eyes on the photograph Felicity had sent along with the letter. It was a snap of a happy family group. Felicity looked much as I remembered her although she had filled out somewhat through the years, and somehow had managed to tame her unruly curly red hair into a smooth, fashionable style. I studied Graham carefully, half-hoping that he bore a strong resemblance to the elderly Trevor Davey rather than myself. But no matter how much I wished to deny that this unknown child was my son so that I could carry on with my pleasant life and forget Felicity forever, I might have been looking at a photo of myself just at the time my voice broke and I had to leave the Cathedral and return home. Marina was still adamant about not wanting children, preferring to pursue her career, so Graham might be the only son I would ever have.
I went to bed at last but found it very difficult to sleep. As I lay awake in my cold and rather lumpy bed, I wished I had gone home with Margaret. I could have spent the night with her, curled up in her arms, my head resting on her generous bosom, warm and sated from making love, still completely ignorant of the disturbing, yet exciting contents of Felicity’s letter
I knew I would have to reply to it tomorrow and that I needed to meet my son at the first opportunity, but what would all this mean to Marina? I could not decide whether to tell her about Graham while we were still apart, or wait until we were together again, or, better still, take the line of least resistance, and never tell her anything about him at all. While I was eager to meet my son, the thought of any kind of renewed relationship with Felicity was difficult. By running away with Trevor Davey without any explanation she had changed the way I felt about myself, and about the way I had behaved to others after her departure.
Eventually I fell asleep, and as I woke the next morning, just for a moment I felt cheerful and looked forward to the day ahead at Broadcast House as though I hadn’t a care in the world. Then my heart sank as I remembered the quandary Felicity had presented to me. I had a broadcast scheduled for 10 am that morning so I had no alternative but to rise from my bed, bathe, dress, make a sketchy breakfast, where I had the ordeal of making meaningless small talk with my hosts, who happened to be eating breakfast at the same time. Eventually I headed for Broadcast House. As a professional singer I was expected to give a good performance regardless of what might be weighing on my mind.
The boys were back at school now and Felicity’s days were long without Trevor pottering about the house, the small garden and the garage, coming in to have tea and lunch with her, and chatting to her companionably about this and that. Felicity had never been particularly interested in the various gardening and carpentry projects Trevor had undertaken to keep himself busy in his retirement. She hadn’t cared one way or the other whether he had managed to get everything quite right when he made her yet another cupboard, bedside table or bookcase, and she had hardly paid any attention to his long explanations about why the items he had made did not sit quite plumb on the floor, or why some of the drawers didn’t close properly, but now she would have hung on to every word he uttered if it would bring him back to her.
Immediately after Trevor’s death she had written to her estranged parents, hoping that her father might have softened his stance towards her with the passing years, but apparently he was as hard and unforgiving as ever. The letter had been returned to her unopened. Apart from her two boys, Felicity was quite alone. It was then that she had decided to write to Malcolm about Graham.
A few days after Felicity had resolutely posted her letter to Malcolm Craig, she began watching for the postman. She pretended to herself that it didn’t really matter to her if Malcolm never replied to her letter, that it wouldn’t make any difference to Graham if he never met his real father. After all, he would be none the wiser, would he? She was surprised to discover that she was suddenly very anxious to hear from Malcolm again. Her heart sank if there was nothing for her in the first post, but she still had a slight hope that the reply might arrive with the second post in the afternoon. When there was nothing by the second post she sank into a deep gloom and had to pull herself together to be cheerful when Graham and Edgar arrived home just after four o’clock, full of lively stories about their day at school.
About ten days later, when she was beginning to fear that Malcolm had ignored her letter and, like her parents, wanted nothing to do with her or his son, she received a brief note from him by the second post. Her heart surged to see his familiar handwriting after so many years, and she remembered only too vividly how she had relished receiving his weekly letters when he was on tour with the company. But in those days his letters had done little to assuage the loneliness and isolation she had felt as a young woman, without his physical presence to sustain her on a daily basis.
To say that I was startled to receive your letter is an understatement. Naturally I send you my condolences on the death of your husband, but I am quite astonished that you are telling me that I am the father of your elder son and that you are only letting me know about him after all this time.
I would probably have been quite willing to forgive you about your affair with Trevor Davey if I had known that the baby was mine. I know now that it was very hard for you living alone for such long periods while I was away on tour, especially as your parents had disowned you and would not allow you to visit them although they were living only a few miles away from us. They certainly should shoulder quite a lot of the blame for your loneliness and isolation with little much to do but wait around for me to come home for short periods. Of course I was heartbroken when you left me, and I tried to find you for years but, in the end, I gave up my search as a bad job. I had met someone else by then so I had no alternative but to file for a divorce.
But all that is in the past now. I was recently married for the third time to fellow-singer Marina Dunbar. I suppose I will have to tell her about the possibility that Graham is my son but I will not be able to do this for some weeks as she is not with me at the moment. I will contact you again so that I can arrange to meet Graham, but I’m not sure when I will be able to do this with the war on. Already there is talk that petrol will be rationed except for work purposes and you live in a very remote area.I shall have to explain the situation to Marina. She might wish to accompany me on my visit. At the moment I am on the staff of the BBC so it might be some time before I can arrange the visit.
I’ll write to you in due course.
Felicity didn’t know whether to be happy or miserable at Malcolm’s stiff reply. Perhaps it might have been better for all concerned had she never contacted him at all. She had not really been thinking straight when she wrote to Malcolm. She had been broken-hearted at Trevor’s death and life without him stretched flatly ahead of her. Of course she and the boys could have carried on as before. There had been no need to unsettle them by bringing Malcolm into their lives. They had alreadly suffered enough with the loss of their father and nobody knew what course the war might take. She wondered whether she should reply to Malcolm’s letter and tell him not to bother to visit them after all. It might have been best for all of them if Malcolm Craig had never known about Graham nor had any contact with him.