“Say it ain’t so, Joe, please say it ain’t so,” Samantha Muir sang whilst hanging out leather belts in the Ladies’ Accessories department of Jacksons. “That’s not what I wanna hear, Joe. Ain’t I got a right to know?” She hesitated. Why was she singing that? Her mind flashed back to a scene when she was nine years old, her little brother Joe coming to her with blood pouring from his nose. An older boy, Terry, had punched him in the face at the bus stop after school.
“Excuse me, young lady, are you serving or dreaming?”
Samantha looked up to see an old lady, slim with white hair and dressed in a purple cloak and black hat, though it was a fine spring day outside. “Sorry, can I help you madam?”
“Indeed, you can, my dear, I’d like a silk scarf, something beautiful – if you have such a thing.”
Five minutes later, the old lady was twirling around in front of a mirror with a grey chiffon scarf hiding her wrinkled neck. It featured butterflies and peacocks in a contrasting purple. To Samantha’s surprise the woman burst into song. “I could have danced all night, I could have danced all night,” whilst waltzing around the floor.
Samantha couldn’t help but join in. “And still have asked for more. I could have spread my wings –”
In harmony they sang, “And done a thousand things ….”
“Thank you, Miss Muir, that will be all,” came the loud croak of Ms. Steel, the manageress. “Kindly get back behind the till and serve this good lady. Now, I have to attend to a crisis in the shoe department.” She exited the accessories department, huffing and puffing.
“Oh, I don’t much care for her!” exclaimed the woman.
Samantha bit her lip.
“By the way, my name is Millicent Lawson.” The old lady offered her hand. “You may have heard of me.”
Samantha blushed, “No, madam, I’m sorry, I haven’t.”
Millicent began to tap dance. “Smile, though your heart is aching, smile –”
“Even though it’s breaking,” joined in Samantha, warming to the woman’s eccentricity.
“When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by.”
Millicent stopped in mid-tap. “Just a minute, dear, how old are you, if you don’t mind me asking.”
Samantha blushed, “That’s OK, I’m twenty-four.”
Millicent approached Samantha and gazed at her with wide hazel eyes. “You’ve a good memory for songs, my dear, before your time too!”
Samantha hesitated. “Yes, well, to tell you the truth, Madam, er, Millicent, once I hear a song, I never forget it.”
The old lady burst into song once more. “What never … hardly everrr. Hardly ever swears a big, big D,” singing the lines from HMS Pinafore. Then she stopped abruptly and handed Samantha a card. “My son, Andrew, is in the music publishing business, give him a call. Then give three cheers, and one cheer more –”
Samantha threw her arms wide. “For the well-bred Captain of the Pinafore!”
Ms. Steel’s croaking voice was icy. “Miss Muir, will you please stop larking around and serve this customer at the till!”
Two weeks later, having thought of every reason not to phone Millicent’s son in the meantime, Samantha finally gave in to curiosity and plucked up the courage, scarcely imaging why he would want to speak to her.
“Good afternoon, Lawson’s Music Publishers, can I help you?”
“Er, well I’m not sure. Mrs. Lawson, er, Millicent, said to phone Andrew, her son. My name’s S-Sam … Samantha Smith.”
A moment later, Andrew came on the line. “Hi, Samantha, I’ve been waiting for you to call. What took you so long? And may I call you Sam?”
To Samantha’s surprise, Andrew was friendly and chatty, then, “Is it OK if I test out your claim?” he asked.
She suddenly felt confident. She trusted her memory completely. “Er, sure.”
Twenty minutes later she had reeled off the complete lyrics to nine of the ten songs Andrew proposed. Songs from shows, the charts, even old black and white films. The other one she was certain she had never heard.
Andrew laughed. “That’s incredible! Look, we could really use some new song writing talent right now. With your amazing memory of melodies and lyrics, surely you could put together an, er, … amalgam of bits from here and there, disguising them a bit of course, to make a … well, a chart-topping hit?”
Was this really happening? thought Samantha. “Er, I don’t know.”
“Well, have a go, send me a recorded clip in a week or so. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, just the basic chords and melody. Millicent tells me you have a good voice, and do you play the piano or guitar?”
“I can play the piano a bit, but I don’t have one.”
“Right, give me your address and I’ll have one sent round. One you can plug headphones into so as not to annoy the neighbours!”
Samantha laughed, thinking of cantankerous old Mr. Belcher. “Yeah, that might be useful!”
One year later to the day, Samantha sat crashing out chords on a walnut-cased baby grand. She didn’t need headphones anymore and Mr. Belcher, Jacksons Department Store, and the croaking Ms. Steel were history. She gazed out of the windows onto a lawn where a pigeon was preening itself on a sundial. She could hardly believe her luck. She had to keep telling herself that, yes, it was all real.
She’d needed a few days to get the idea of creating something new, as opposed to just singing other people’s songs, but by taking a couple of bars from here and an influence from there, she’d begun to come up with some snappy tunes. And the lyrics were even easier, she could write them in her sleep, and often did.
It had taken her half a dozen songs to fine-tune her talent then, bingo, she’d hit pay dirt with her next song, the funky Devil on the Mountain. It had been taken by Adele and now it pounded out in every bar in the world. Of course, Joe Public wasn’t particularly interested in who wrote the song, so she had a degree of anonymity and that suited her just fine. The money was what mattered and it just kept rolling in. She looked around the room to where three gold discs hung in a row. Room for a few more!
The phone rang. She looked at the number and smiled. Robbie Williams. Well, let him wait. First, she had to return a call from Elton. Goodbye Bernie, Hello Samantha?
Featured in the book, Letters from Reuben and Other Stories: 40 Little Tales of Mirth
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