My father raps the roof of the car with his wedding ring in time to the Hungarian song he is singing as he drives. He looks straight ahead most of the time, his right hand on the wheel, his left arm bent, elbow resting on the ledge of the open window, his left hand reaching up so his finger can rap against the metal of the car roof. This is when he is singing one of the marching songs, or one of the fast, pretty songs, the ones I like. Some of the songs are slow and sad with tunes I don’t like. My father likes those ones just as much though. I sing with him. I don’t know the meanings of the words, but I have heard the songs so often that I can copy the sounds. I lean my elbow out the window the way he does, but I cannot reach the roof without lifting my elbow up and stretching my arm.
When my mother drives, when my father isn’t there, she sings different songs. She sings Someone’s In The Kitchen With Dinah. She sings My Darling Clementine about a girl who drowns. I picture that girl over and over, slipping, dying. My mother sings a slow, sad one called Old Black Joe and a song I like about an Indian Maid. That one has a lovely melody, but my mother is never quite sure of the words and though we can do the first line or two, we end up mumbling. Which is sad because it's my favorite tune and I wish we could really sing it, but it always stays just out of reach.
In boarding school we sing an American song called The Big Rock Candy Mountain and I think it is pretty much the best song I have ever heard. My favorite is the line about how you never have to change your socks, and there are lots of good rhymes. I have always loved good rhymes.
In boarding school now there are the good singers and the not-good singers. Lucy Ann is the best singer. She has a very pretty face when she sings it sounds like an opera singer even though we are both nine.
Sister Barbara sings sometimes at night. She is old, but she is the best singer of all the nuns. She sings up in the choir, up in the balcony that overlooks the chapel during Mass. At night, after lights out, she walks slowly up and down the two narrow corridors lines with curtained-off cubicles. I lie in bed in one of the cubicles in the dark and I can hear her go by, long skirts swishing, singing in her melodious old-lady voice, When Grandpapa Kissed Grandmama In The Second Minuet.
Now there is a new songbook for school. We are each given a copy, a set of about twenty pages stapled together, typed in pale purple. These are new songs. I like them. Michael Row The Boat Ashore and I learn the little bit of harmony you can throw in and it sounds so pretty and Sister Camilla – Camel, we call her, behind her back, of course – plays her guitar for us now, sometimes even in church. Sister Camilla is like a gym teacher, tall and energetic. In the evenings she runs the dispensary, a little closet on the second floor landing under the stairs. She stands inside surrounded by densely packed shelves of drugstore things. We wait in line, sitting on the wooden floor along the corridor, to go in one by one to buy what we need.
Ann does not sing well. She sings flat, she says, and others say it too. Ann has short thin straight hair and she likes to do boy things more than girl things. Nicola sings well, but not as masterfully as Lucy Ann. Madeleine comes first in the class almost every week when the list is posted and organizes our plays. She is the most grown-up. Nicola draws like a miracle – horses and dogs that look real. And Nicola can run on all fours like a horse – light, as if she is made of weightless rubber.
And she is not afraid when we go riding. She is so unafraid that Colonel Rutland puts her on the prancing Arab pony who bucks her off, and still she isn’t scared. While I am always scared, scared on cold grey slopes, feeling the pony underneath me dying to run and gallop free. Lucy Ann isn’t afraid either, nor Madeleine, so I must pretend that I am as enthusiastic as they are though I dread Fridays when Colonel Rutland, old and grumpy with a moustache, picks us up in his green car with the wood strips, and takes us out to his farm.
On the drive over he tells us who will ride which horse. He has it written down on a scrap of paper. I hope for Pullover, an old quiet horse. Not Brandy or Biscuits, mother and son, both of whom are small powerhouses who want to get rid of their riders and have the open fields to themselves.