If you want to put this excerpt from Like Clockwork into context, read Monday’s post. It takes place in the deserted shell of St Matthews Church, London, in the recurring year 1850.
The pocket London of the novel hangs uncomfortably between utopia and dystopia — pretty much like real life. It is a place where everyone lives forever in a peaceful world, but where alternative thinking is strictly avoided.
It is also a place where no one sings.
Eve asked, “What are songs?”
The question hit him like a blow to the heart. Balfour said, “Didn’t your mother sing to you?”
“My mother was so desperate to live forever that she hardly lived at all. She held me and comforted me, but she lived for her work.”
“So she never sang?”
“Not to me. And I have never heard anyone singing here in Luddie London. Do they sing in the outer city?”
Balfour shook his head.
“Thank you for the book of songs, but these are just words on a page to me.”
“May I sing for you?” he asked.
For a moment her youth shone through her eyes and she nodded.
Balfour did not apologize, or say, “I’m not much of a singer.” This was not about quality, but about sharing. He found a familiar song and sang in a scratchy tenor:
Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
T’was blind but now I see
Eve said, “I don’t like that song. I’m not a wretch. Don’t sing me a song about self-loathing. Sing to me about a garden.”
Balfour ruffled the pages. He said, “I don’t know this one. Give me a moment to work out the notes.” She watched him, head bobbing slightly, lips moving as he read the staff twice through, then sang:
I come to the garden alone,
While the dew is still on the roses;
And the voice I hear, falling on my ear,
The Son of God discloses.
And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own,
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.
“Thank you. Oh, thank you,” Eve cried. “But that last line is wrong. If God gives the joy, then everybody would know it. Please go on.”
He speaks, and the sound of His voice
Is so sweet the birds hush their singing;
And the melody that He gave to me
Within my heart is ringing.
I’d stay in the garden with Him
Tho’ the night around me be falling;
But He bids me go; thro’ the voice of woe,
His voice to me is calling.
Eve said, “Don’t sing that last verse any more. I don’t want to leave the garden. I’ve never seen a garden, and I so much want to.”
“Could you sing it?” Balfour asked.
“I don’t know. Repeat it a time or two more and I’ll try.”
So Balfour repeated, dropping the last verse, and changing the last line of the chorus to All others shall ever know. Eve squeezed her eyes tight and her head moved to the music. After he had sung the song twice more, he said, “Now you.”
She sang. There was neither hesitation nor shyness in her manner, and her voice was pure and light. Balfour knew she was not singing for him, nor for herself, but for God. It was so beautiful that it almost made him believe again.
Eve shook her head at the end; there were tears in her eyes as she said, “How can I have lived my life, and never have heard a song?”
She remained silent for a time, then said, “I do thank you, but I don’t think you brought these songs just to please me.”
“No, although I would have if I had known how much you needed them. I have been trying to talk to my friends about Before, but they won’t listen. The direct approach to changing their minds is not going to work.”
Eve smiled and said, “So?”
“So we’re going to be sneaky. I’m are going to entertain them with excerpts from A Christmas Carol and you are going to sing sad love songs to them.”
“What good will that do?”
“Everything. It’s an formula that storytellers have used since the beginning of time. Tell them a story, and hide the message. They’ll listen to the surface, and then spend days trying to figure out what you really meant.”
Balfour and Eve do that thing with little visible results until other events intervene. Then Balfour says to Eve:
“The people are milling about and angry today. I don’t know if it is safe to go out.”
“We must. You need to read the third stave where Scrooge embraces a new life and I need to sing songs of change.”
“They are in no mood to listen.”
“They always hear, even when they don’t listen.”
Obviously, since this is a blog by a writer on the subject of writing, Eve’s criticism of the two hymns is my criticism, which I hoarded for a lifetime until I found a place to express them.
There is one more song in Like Clockwork, the only song remaining in this London. Everybody sings it at Midwinter Midnight. That song turns out to be new lyrics to an old melody, and when Eve decodes it, she uses it to drive the last nail into the coffin of that pocket London.
Meanwhile, even an ex-Christian can feel the joy of carols and can miss hymns like In the Garden. Right or wrong, they express human longing for goodness.