Four Whiter Shades

A Whiter Shade of Pale

I

Blue gingham tablecloths on each table; all around them the rich smells of mixed food swirled. Tom and Ginny sat in the little Italian café, trying to make do with the cups of coffee that were all they could afford. They tried to pretend the food around them was irrelevant. In one way it was, because they were so entranced with each other. Somehow they had drifted into sharing a flat for exactly four months, two weeks and three days.
The muffled background music turned to A Whiter Shade of Pale as Tom leant across to Ginny and said,
“We’d better get out of here, the waitress is getting narky at us. We’ve got shopping to do, anyway. Important stuff.” And as they wandered off along Portobello Road, Tom steered Ginny towards a stall selling china, curios and antique jewellery.
“Now, you know we can’t afford a proper new wedding ring, Ginny, but you can choose any one of these. There’s no tax or something on second-hand ones.” And so the haphazard proposal worked. The old man behind the stall looked at them with a mixture of shrewdness and kindliness.
“As a special favour to you, anything on that tray is a quarter off. Special.” Ginny chose a thick golden band-“Victorian. They specialised in that sort of heavy jewellery” the stallholder added – and Tom paid a fiver for it and they strolled back into the sunshine of the market.
“We’ll have to economise now. Let’s see if there’s any cooking tomatoes or anything else going cheap. If we wait until the end, they’ll nearly be throwing stuff at us, so walk slowly,” Tom pointed out. They did this every week, loitering until the early evening. “And when we’ve got things sorted, I’ll buy you a proper engagement ring too,” Tom joked.
Ginny looked at the second-hand ring and wondered what was the story behind it. So many romances and hopes, all waiting to be revived from those stacked black velvet trays of gold rings. When they got home, laden with stale bananas, cauliflowers, carrots and various other wilting veg, and a pack of use-by sausages, they switched on the radio, and the first sound was the mysterious A Whiter Shade of Pale. They looked at each other and laughed.
“It looks as though we’ve got an ‘our tune,’ even if it makes no sense,” Ginny giggled.

II

While the madness of the sixties whirled around him, their neighbour, Mr Bernard Grantham kept firmly to another century; to several previous centuries in fact. Now in his late seventies, he was still searching for an enlightenment that was increasingly eluding him. In his worst moments he suspected that any significant spiritual experience was buried in his past, that he had glided past it ignoring the message.
To make up for the self-centred comfortable years of being a businessman, Bernard Grantham now collected books. Not just any books – he concentrated on philosophy and ancient myths and fables. One room after another, in his lonely widower house, these books piled up, each one giving a hint of how to cope with eternity, but each complicated answer gave few clues and many contradicted each other.
And now he often heard a strange song on the radio which seemed to taunt him with pointers to the answer. Beginning with a theme from J.S. Bach’s Air on a G String, a hymnal quality came from its organ-playing introduction. It went on into a maze of references mixed in with its haunting tune.
Bernard went to a music shop in Tottenham Court Road and bought the sheet music for it, to puzzle out the words. He skipped the reference to the Millers Tale (he knew it was salacious) and concentrated on the sixteen vestal virgins, who probably should have had a capital V for their goddess Vesta.
Whereas he knew something about them from Plutarch, Bernard went off at a tangent and wrote in his journal that the first thing that occurred to him was the voyage of Saint Ursula and her eleven thousand virginal handmaidens. He ferreted around and realised that this was the influence of a picture in his hall, a favourite of his dead wife, a mediaeval “Martyrdom of Saint Ursula” by Hans Memling. He had never liked it, but it came from her side of the family. At this point he was completely puzzled and wished he had never heard the song, which continued to taunt him from snatches heard from shops, café and passing cars with their windows wide open, as well as from the flat next-door with that young couple.

III

At the centre of the chocolate factory there was a point where all three tannoys could be heard at once, each one playing a different tape or programme. Tina Turner battled it out with the Sex Pistols, while A Whiter Shade of Pale zoomed in suddenly from the left aisle.
Ginny felt the voice as if it was speaking directly to her, from that milestone year. The surroundings fell away and she began to weep helplessly all over the boxes of chocolates as they sped along the conveyor belt in front of her. Praline, Strawberry, Coffee, Nougat raced past with her drying tears on them. It was impossible to stop working or to leave the post she was at. The other women could not help; they were trapped too. Only if someone fainted would the conveyor belt be stopped. When it came to their break time, a magic transference occurred; other women appeared behind each post along the conveyor belt and just took up the work with a seamless join. Stacks of little chocolates with their individual swirls waited to be inserted into the boxes. Stacks and stacks and endless piles of glamorous boxes.
On the day they all started, sent from the agency, Diane the forewoman had started the machine off at ‘slow.’ They did not know that, and were shocked when Diane produced a key to set the speed up. Day by day she increased the rate so that they were working like automatons, becoming part of the machine too, in order to survive.
The chocolates sailed past, the only cheerful things in the department. One of the women looked across and smiled,
“Time of the month?” sympathetically.
“Something like that, or the years,” Ginny answered as the tune faded away. It was ironic that the factory ruled that no jewellery was allowed except wedding rings and Ginny had long ago sold hers after Tom and she had split up.

IV

Tom was really amazed at the popularity of his musicology course, Forensics of the Sixties; Culturally relevant markers. It was soft sociology which often sailed over his students’ heads, while he was absolutely happy going through old songs, some of them his favourites, and taking them to pieces.
It was fun deconstructing A Whiter Shade of Pale, filleting the words and images with relish. It was only when he had written several pages that Tom realised he had just demolished their ‘own’ song, the one Ginny and he felt was important when they were together.
“Fans of this song are known as Palers, so it’s something special even now,” he announced.
For the students it was history and had no emotional charge. The 1967 summer was before they were born. They took notes and went off to research Vestal virgins, Geoffrey Chaucer and The Miller’s Tale, the symbolism of playing cards and dense allusions to the mid-sixties era 1964-68, like the Hamlet cigar adverts. The Miller’s tale really woke them up as it cantered through several instances of arses poking through privy ventilation gaps and a terrible branding with hot irons. Tom was glad he was not having to teach this at a school; university students were bad enough. He emphasised the comic aspect and told them it was mediaeval bawdiness at its best. The students ambled out, it had been an easy afternoon from their point of view.
“Mostly dope-smoking, but he can’t see that. Pretty obvious really. It’s obviously someone post ‘O’ levels going potty. I wonder if I can put that in my essay and get away with it.”
“Throw in enough quotes and he’ll accept anything. It’s only twenty-four lines after all and it’ll need padding out.”
“And you can go to town on The Miller’s Tale, he’ll have to accept it as research, all that rudery.”
“Even better. Let’s off to the bar now, business as usual.”
And off the students wandered, into the wide sweep of the newly-built social centre, to discuss the Olympics.

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