The Triangulated Heart - Chapter 10
Howard was up early, showered and dressed before Hélène could even remember where she was. His excitement was palpable.
'Do you want to eat here or in the dining area?'
'I saw the menu. We'll get a better breakfast ordering in. You look as if you are raring to go.'
'I am. An early start means I'll be back sooner.'
Hélène smiled but said nothing. She knew that he wanted her company but something caused her to hold back.
'This is a journey for you. I have to practice. Take Malcolm or Eunice with you. They can document what you see and we can share it later.'
'Usually, you are too.'
'Are you sure you're alright?' Howard walked over to the bed. He sat at the side, taking both her hands in his. Concern etched lines on his forehead.
'I am physically fine. Yesterday was momentous for both of us. My brain took in more information in a few hours than it has in the past months. You do this every day, Howard, meet people…. What do you say…schmo…'
'Yeah, that's it. I don't schmooze. You know, for the past twenty-five years, I have lived a fairly quiet, reclusive life. Suddenly, most of my routines changed. I have had these weird bursts of highly emotional 'people energy' ever since Philippe came back into my life and brought Kathy, Jacob, Holly and of course you, but when we are apart, I am still quiet and reclusive.'
Howard shifted his body as if to speak but her hand tightened and stayed his voice.
'I am not at all unhappy,' she affirmed, 'but I realized yesterday, when Ledgister asked me about singing, that I need to do it to recharge my physical and emotional batteries. And, before you open your mouth to apologize, I want you to just appreciate what I said and not feel it is a criticism of you or our relationship or all the wonderful things we have done together. I love you and will do anything to make you happy.'
The apology which did hover on his tongue died a sudden death. Howard was at a loss to come up with a loving thoughtful phrase or snappy comeback to what was really a watershed moment in their relationship. An apology might be misplaced but there was still a need to acknowledge and appreciate what the past three years meant to him. Rather than speak first, he chose instead to look deep into her eyes, unwaveringly, trusting that his heart would find the words.
'Hélène, it is my heartfelt wish to honour you every day, in every way I can. You mean too much to me to ever believe that your feelings are not important. You have blindly followed me into whatever scheme comes along, because I can make things happen, but I hope I have never made you feel as if anything we do separately or apart doesn't matter or that you are not a beautiful and accomplished woman without me. My sadness is simply that you are not with me, only because having you at my side makes the sun shine brighter. This isn't about me though. The great exercise of our love is respect for each other. I still have a lot to learn. Be patient with me.'
'You are a loving and giving man. You are a true dichotomy to what the world sees. You have always respected my work but this is about my work ethic and ultimately my mental health. Love is an answer but not the only one. I can't love you more than I do, but I also have to learn to love myself and that comes from and through my music.'
Howard thought about the times when she sang for him, just for him and how it changed her face, her body, everything about her. He remembered spending that beautiful Christmas evening in the Montreal Café where she spontaneously belted out carols for the small group of people. This would be different, but not really. She would give her best effort and she needed to prepare. 'I have never gone into a meeting unprepared. I have to know who will be there, their strengths and weaknesses and of course the agenda. Her preparation is no less important than mine. Howard, you are an ass he thought to himself'.
'Should I give Eunice or Malcolm a toss-up or just pick one?' he asked hiding his thoughts in nonsensical chatter.
'Toss-up! They work well together. I think one will give way to the other depending on their personal interests.'
'Care to wager who comes with me?'
'Malcolm! He's all about structure and although Eunice likes history, she will come with me. I heard her humming and she's got voice!'
Howard just shook his head. He already knew when he was defeated but he still placed a small bet on their wager and promised to deliver if she was right.
When they got together to plan the day, no one knew why Howard and Hélène just sat back and observed the discussion without any input.
'I'd like to come with you Hélène if the boss is ok with it. I love me some music.'
Eunice might have assumed that the big smile Hélène offered the Governor had to do with pleading but there was a self-satisfied look which spoke of some secret.
'Once again I bow to the wisdom of women. Eunice, I know that Hélène would love to have your company. By the way, do you sing?'
'Yes, I am in the choir at church and sing every Sunday, when I can go.'
'That's great!' Helene interjected. 'I may need a back-up singer or two. We are going to have a lot of hard work and a lot of fun.' She turned away from Eunice with a saucy wink. 'What time Ledgy?'
Ledgister watched the discussion play out. He didn't offer any comment, suspecting that Howard's dream was falling into place. As it turns out, a small ballroom on the third floor of the hotel was not booked out for the weekend. Ledgy wasn't sure where the family originally planned to meet but it seemed much more practical to use the ballroom and the hotel amenities for a party. He had discussed the idea with Howard and organized everything the previous morning. Later in the day he and Howard discussed a tentative plan with Lisette, currently the most senior female in the family after Matante. Everyone was agreeable. They would take their chances with numbers. Good food and great music were a must no matter how many people came.
To that end, Ledgy was determined to make the most of what he had seen and heard from Hélène. She wasn't shy about performing. Honouring her gifts by giving her space and time to rehearse were important. The hotel would be responsible for the food, and the family would be responsible for gathering everyone together. He would do his best to make the entertainment memorable.
After Howard and Malcolm left for the day, Ledgister, Eunice, and Hélène made their way to a store which specialized in sheet music. It was hard to believe that Ledgy had been injured just a few days before. He was like a man possessed. The store was quite a distance and on the way, he sought a list of her choices.
'You know I have to honour the songs born in the minds of my fellow Canadians. I also have a theme.'
'Does it have to do with the boss?'
'You know it does.'
'Have you two done this before? You sound like manager and client.'
'We have. Ledgy helped me to open my soul to the kind of music I have always wanted to sing. For the past few years, I have had more opportunities to perform in public, in unexpected places too. A few months ago, I was in heaven, doing a solo in a small club. I don't know how long my voice will last but I take heart from many others, especially Ella Fitzgerald who sang so beautifully, quite late into her life.'
'That is so exciting Hélène. Can I say that meeting you and seeing you with the Gov has been so…. uplifting.'
Eunice seemed as if she wanted to say more but thought better of it. Instead, the trio went on to discuss the list. Time was short and there was much to do. They had to be back to the hotel in time to meet the band who had been hired to play.
As it turned out Eunice had more than a pretty choir voice. She demonstrated true vocal power and learned quickly. It was clear that the full-time Secretary knew more than gospel music. She was somewhat younger than everyone but contributed a lot in terms of styles, performance and access.
Almost all of the sheet music they would need was available in the music store. Eunice offered to download anything else. It was quite a drive but worth the effort. Not a minute was wasted. The band arrived shortly after their return. There was no doubt that a certain amount of suspicion existed between the members of the band and what they thought Hélène could do. This was, after all, New Orleans, the home of some of the most famous music and musicians in the world. She felt their withdrawal but said nothing, choosing instead to engage the piano player first. Ledgy made a move to intervene. Hélène gave him a look which silenced his words and addressed herself to the band members.
'I am going to spend some time with Raffy. My first song is an homage to a great Canadian Jazz pianist. I just want to go over some details. Ledgister and Eunice can help you get started with the other songs in the meantime. She added something in French which seemed to surprise the group.
Hélène and Raffy moved over to the piano provided by the hotel. They shared the bench.
'Do you know Oscar Peterson?' she asked quietly
'Heard of him. Pretty good on the ivories.'
Hélène didn't agree with the 'pretty good' assessment but she held her tongue, remembering yet again this was New Orleans and the high standard for musicians. She asked to hear Raffy's version of the song. Surprised, he settled in and gave a stirring rendition of the first verse.
'Really nice. I'd like to sing it but the opening riff is important to me. If you can play it like this to start, then continue with your own version, I would appreciate it.'
Hélène in her turn played with a power that shocked everyone in the room. She pounded on the keys, stretching out her rather long fingers with an agility that belied her age. Raffy muttered something in Creole. Again, the early morning study helped, allowing her to answer, not in his dialect but with enough syntax to let Raffy know that she understood.
'Ma'am, I can do it. What else you got?'
'Ledgy has all the sheet music I would like to sing. I have chosen about 8 songs. I will do a couple more if requested but no more than ten. You may know some of my choices but we should be able to manage. You're pretty good on the ivories yourself.'
Raffy nodded and smiled. He didn't know how she knew he was good and Hélène didn't enlighten him about her background. In addition to the piano, Raffy also had a portable keyboard with all the bells and whistles as well as the accordion, a staple in the Zydeco style of music. There was also a horn, Saxophone, bass and guitar player. Ledgy didn't really sing well but he played both rhythm and bass guitar and felt he could manage despite the sore ribs. After a little vocal and finger calisthenics, the group was ready to begin hours of practice.
The band knew each other well. Melding their play with the vocals seemed challenging but Hélène quietly took charge. It wasn't her singing that stilled any conflict but her years of training and teaching. She knew how to manage, how to get the best out of everyone. Above all, Hélène was also happy to shift beats and rhythms as suggested by the band. Playing to an audience of people who had a particular pulse and style embedded in their consciousness meant adjusting where possible. Her final song, pulled right out of the heart of Creole Louisiana, surprised the band but they made an interesting observation which Hélène took to heart. There was a young man who sang well. If she was agreeable he could join the band as back up and sing the last song.
'I'll work with him tonight. He be ready. This is gonna be good milady. It's like you was one of us.'
'Byin mesi.' The Creole words sealed the deal.
Hélène was surprised that Howard had not come down to the ballroom. Usually, he was quite curious. She checked her phone to see if he was back. Apparently, he was waiting upstairs with Malcolm.
I want to be as surprised as everyone else by your playlist. Come up when you are done. I'll be waiting. The text settled her mind. She said goodnight to the band members individually. Eunice joined her but Ledgister stayed on for a bit longer to discuss a few final issues.
'How does your throat feel?' Eunice asked during the ride up in the elevator.
'I have to admit it's tender. I should do what Celine Dion does. She stays silent after a concert.'
'I won't talk. I'm sorry.'
'No, it quite ok. I don't sing often enough. I'll get lots of rest after. You did really well Eunice. Perhaps we will have another chance to sing together.'
'I'd like that.'
The door opened. Hélène didn't say goodnight be she felt certain her day was done and hoped that Howard didn't have any plans. As it turned out he didn't. A warm hug and kiss soothed any tension. The dinner, already on the way, settled her stomach and all the hugs in the world allowed her to sleep as if tomorrow was only a dream.
Once again Howard was up early. He shared a brief outline of his visit with the Corniche-Smirski family.
'I felt moved by their kindness. I understand how my mother's underground work affected her relationships. Of necessity, she kept her circle small and close. We have to remember that phones and wires back then were not private. After my father became a part of her life, she devoted all her energy towards his care. I don't have to work to build any bridges with them but we will come back someday for another visit and I will show you what I saw today. Some of them are coming tonight.'
'That's wonderful Howard. I will look forward to it.' Hélène's voice was husky. She was out of practice and the stress on her vocal cords had been overwhelming.
'You need to rest today. No more talk. Is there anything else that can help you?'
She gave Howard a list of simple comfort tools, drank a cup of warm herbal tea and went back to sleep. By noon she was up, feeling rested and ready to tackle the day. She and Eunice opted to go out and buy new dresses for the occasion. Against her better judgment, she chose a black fitted knee length dress with see-through lace sleeves and shoulders covering a sweetheart bodice.
'Are you sure this is ok?'
'It fits you and everything you plan to sing.'
Hélène enjoyed her outing with Eunice. There had been little time for friendships in years past. Sharing the afternoon had been a bittersweet reminder of all that she missed but like everything else, Hélène refused to dwell on it. 'Today is what matters!' remained the mantra. The two women kept conversation to a minimum. By late afternoon Hélène felt she would be fine for her performance. They had one hour of rehearsal before the evening festivities.
As she prepared for the party, Hélène realized that for two days, the bulk of her time was not spent with Howard. In fact, they both returned to the hotel room and shared their evening as any normal married couple might do. This is the reverse of me standing at the door watching him go out to work when we are in Albany. Could it be so bad to live like this? Hélène knew in her heart that she wanted to be with him day or night, every day of the years they had left to share. She had been adamant about not living together until his term ended. She knew it was important to let him know about her change of heart. But how to tell him remained a mystery. She knew Howard would ask the minute he stepped down but she couldn't wait!
Neither Hélène nor Howard had any idea how many people were attending the event. Some were genuine family members on both sides who came to welcome Howard and Ledgister home. Others, close friends, were just curious about this dynastic gathering. Some came just to eat and enjoy the music. Either way, the ballroom was packed. Everyone was encouraged to go inside but waiting outside the entrance were Lisette, Matante and two of the young men who had been at the house. This, Hélène realized, was meant to be quite the event. Security was posted nearby. It was important to remember that Howard was still a sitting Governor.
At the foyer entrance to the ballroom, the small select group, who were designated to make an entrance, chatted. In a few minutes, the sound of music hushed the chatter, everyone stood. Ledgister appeared at the door and escorted Matante to her seat, followed by Howard and Hélène, then Lisette and her grandsons. They were seated in the center of the hall. Hélène couldn't believe the effort that went into decorating and set up. At least one hundred people were present. Up front on a one-step dais, the band played some soft, local music. Once everyone was seated, a middle-aged man approached the microphone and offered words of welcome, explaining the reason for the gathering and talking a little about the two prodigal sons who had returned home.
He spent a few minutes offering a prayer of thanksgiving, before ending with gratefulness for the life of Matante and her contribution to the family of La Grande Dame. Hélène was mesmerized by the formality of the proceedings. The importance of it became real. The delicious locally flavored meal was served in stages. It was hard to remember that this was not a formal government event but a family gathering. There was a graciousness to it which lived up to the history of the South, The organizers wanted to be respectful of the guests present. In some ways, the scene reminded Hélène of her first meeting with Howard. She sat next to him at one of his fundraising Balls in New York, with little idea of their personal history.
'Does this remind you of anything?' she whispered to Howard.
'I will never, ever forget the night we reconnected.'
'Yes, because you have been in my mind and my heart since the first day I heard your name.'
Hélène had no verbal rejoinder. She squeezed his hand and smiled. For his part, Howard wanted nothing more than to take her in his arms and never let her go. He was interrupted by another portly man who offered a tribute to Matante. Everyone stood and raised a glass to her. The old lady smiled and offered a gracious wave of thanks. Hélène wondered how she could keep up and made a discreet inquiry. Lisette discussed the well-known family secret.
'Matante rarely goes to bed before 1 am and sleeps most days until 10. She seldom leaves her room before 4, eats no red meat and has a daily exercise regime which seems to keep her active. Every day she speaks at length with at least two family members. Since it works, no one questions her. She is looking forward to hearing you sing Hélène.'
Feeling a little flustered, Hélène clung to Howard's hand. She rarely had attacks of nerves but something about the night felt different. Two more people came up to speak. The last one introduced Ledgister who spoke in English and Creole. With tears in his eyes, he praised Howard for giving him a home, a job and the freedom to be who he was. He thanked his family for giving him a 'fine welcome home'.
'And now, I would like to introduce Madame Hélène. She has captured my heart with her music but loving my boss makes her real special in my eyes. Madame Hélène, please come and sing for us?'
Hélène swallowed hard and made her way to the front. She thanked everyone for their kindness. After the applause, she invited Eunice and Pero, the young man recommended by Raffy, to the front to join her.
'I have enjoyed myself immensely tonight and I am honored to sing a little for you. I love your Cajun music and we will do a local song, but my heart is Canadian, Acadian mes amies, and it has always been my practice to sing the music of my fellow Canadians. Some of you may have heard of Oscar Peterson. I will begin with his version of a favorite song of mine.
Raffy began with the powerful Peterson opening of 'Teach Me Tonight'. That got everyone's attention. After a well-practiced intro, Hélène stood in front of the mic and sang to her lover. There was also a lot of instrumental work. She stood at the piano and supported each musician as they played their own solo, before returning to the mic for the final verse. Applause was spontaneous and prolonged. She got through a jazzy version of 'I'm Pulling through' lyrics by Diana Krall. The sensuous 'Your Love Seduces Me' recorded by Celine Dion and written by a Canadian Dan Hill, was sung with the lights low. Ledgister played a soulful guitar solo. There was a gasp of surprise from the audience.
Hélène glanced at Howard. His eyes were wide and filled with desire. She nearly faltered. Perhaps it was too intimate, but he got the message. She then chose a song written by Canadian Shirley Eikhard, and recorded by Bonnie Raitt. 'Something To Talk About' went right to the heart of her early relationship with Howard. Eunice and Pero did a great backup and the audience joined in, keeping up the rhythm with hand clapping. 'About Last Night', another Eikhard tune, had everyone laughing at its sauciness.
'I am going to stray a little from my Canadian roots and sing a song by Melissa Manchester. Years ago, I loved her music and promised I would one day sing two favorites of mine, but there will be a little surprise in between.'
Hélène waited until Raffy switched from the piano to his keyboard organ. Once settled she began her four line opening solo of 'If It Feels Good, Let It Ride', followed by a raucous joint effort of the band, Eunice, and Pero. There was silence at the end of the song. People were breathless with the power of Hélène's voice as she held the last stanza in solo. Once the delayed applause died down, she stepped back and introduced Pero. The familiar introduction garnered some applause, but Pero had long mastered the voice of Louis Armstrong, singing the well-known tune and did so brilliantly with Eunice and Hélène as backup. He received well-deserved cheers.
For her final song, Hélène began with a finger snap. She was joined at the mic by Eunice. The beat had more of a Zydeco flourish. The audience joined in, encouraged by Hélène. Big cheers followed. It was the final song from Hélène's playlist and her wish for everyone present. She turned to thank the band and offer a chance for them to be cheered by everyone present. Before she could do anything else, Ledgister came to the mic.
'We do have one more song. I believe Madame Hélène is too modest, but I will ask her to just sing a song she knows well. It was written by her, for her grandchild and is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard.'
Indeed, Hélène rendered her song, keeping a vision of Aislyn behind her closed eyes. The band played the jazzy version suggested by Ledgister. It received another standing ovation. With tears misting her eyes, she hugged Ledgy and thanked him for his support. He held on to her shoulders while making another announcement.
'Folks, it's been a long time but Buckwheat, where ever you are, this is for you.'
Everyone knew what was coming and remained standing. From out of the crowd, Howard made his way to the stage. He had been awestruck by this side of his lady. It wasn't that he hadn't heard her sing. They regularly shared some music after each separation, but this performance showed him a side of his love not seen before. As the familiar Jole Blon began to play he got up on the makeshift stage.
'I love you. Will you marry me?', he mouthed over the sound of music.
'Oh Howard, I have already said yes, every day.'
'No I mean now right here and now.'
'There are at least three ministers here including Matante. I have wanted to ask you every day since we arrived, more than anything I have ever wanted in my life.'
Hélène was stunned but in her heart, she knew it was what she wanted as well. 'Yes Howard, yes, yes, yes!'
Even if Howard had secretly planned the surprise, Hélène was happy that it was possible. He had the license. She didn't question how or why. He pulled a ring from his pocket, a simple gold band. The music softened. Matante stood up. She was escorted to the stage and stood at the bottom. Howard and Hélène joined her there. Eunice and Malcolm came forward. With little fanfare, the band stopped playing, everyone was quiet as it became obvious that something special was taking place.
Matante for all her years, spoke the words which would join the couple in marriage. She blessed them both and left the couple to kiss and seal their vows. To loud applause, the band resumed its version of Jole Blond and played on while Howard took Hélène into his arms and danced their way into heaven.
Many thanks to my friend and collaborator AF who provides me with ideas and beautiful poetry.
This story is dedicated to all couples in their golden years who have waited a lifetime to find their own true love.
There will be more adventures of Hélène and Howard in the next story of Beauty and The Beast by Vetivera in FanFiction.