It’s a string quartet today. Beethoven. It’s what people enjoy. The folding chairs have been put out. The seat cushions have aged flower patterns and were last washed probably sometime at the end of the last century.
Audience members, mostly in their sixties and seventies (though the odd fifty-something can be seen, too), and regulars at this venue, collect their tickets and photocopied programmes from the table at the entrance. Glances scan the room, lips on smile alert, in search of familiar faces to greet or impress. In all the rush of opening their handbags and manoeuvring their purses while paying for their tickets, many women have forgotten to put away their car keys. These jangle in their fingers, the pendant with the car manufacturer’s logo swinging prominently. A homage, perhaps, to their husbands’ career – or financial – achievements.
The room begins to fill with block-coloured jumpers and block-dyed hair, faux-silk (a.k.a. polyester) floral scarves, large pearl, plastic and wooden beads around necks and wrists, as well as smiles that bear witness to the uncommon bliss of self-approval. Many have known one another since their children were small. Children who now have children of their own. Some wave at other people who, just like them, have a holiday home in South-West France. They did consider Italy and Spain when they were younger, but they already had some school French, and with so many other Brits already in that area, it was practically home from home.
There is a predominance of chequered and stripy shirt collars peering out of the men’s crew-neck woollen jumpers that look like old favourites. They trudge with modest, respectable stoops behind their wives. It’s as though the latter know best, after all. They’re the ones who always organise everything. They’re amazing, really. What with keeping track of the children and grandchildren, remembering birthdays, getting the wallpaper replaced and volunteering one day a week at the charity shop, and lunch with the other female friends every second Tuesday, of course they’ve never had time for a job. Many probably have a very uninhibited relationship with their husbands’ credit cards, even using them to buy their spouses’ birthday presents.
Before the music starts, I take out my little notepad and scribble away furiously in atypically for me small handwriting, so nobody can read it over my shoulder. I look around. I am not a huge fan of 19th-century chamber music, but an aficionado of people watching. I giggle to myself. I wonder what these people make of me and if they’ve made up an entire backstory for me, as well. H. asks me what I’m finding funny. I share with him, sotto voce, a few of my observations. He frowns. He doesn’t like my social generalisations.
He is a kind person.
I am less so. I, like Mr Bennet, think, “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?”
Then the members of the quartet walk onto the stage area. Four young people. Much younger than anybody in the room. They bow and take up their instruments. They start playing and the music, uncompromisingly Romantic, speaks to each and every one of us equally, yet with different words. I stop writing, and think that, actually, 19th-century chamber music can speak to me, too.