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  • Writer's pictureMark Howitt

What Presence

I was in my own world as he shuffled over towards me and, with a slightly trembling hand, placed the four CDs on the counter.

“Are you still pricing those?” he asked, gesturing towards the tower of CDs in front of me, a glint in his eyes.

“No, they’re already priced, I’m trying to put them into alphabetical order.”

The expression on his face was one of hope, he didn’t need to formulate the question he wanted to ask: perhaps there’s something there that I might like?

I glanced at his treasure trove: Deutsche Grammophon, Decca labels, the one on top was Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius. For the lover of classical music, there are bargains to be had in charity shops.

How to put this without causing offence.

“No, this lot is more … recent music.”

Recent and bloody awful, I thought to myself. I’d only got as far as the letter E and nearly drowned in a tsunami of Dido and Enya. I picked up his purchases.

“I’ll just check that the discs match what they say they are on the boxes. We’re supposed to do this before they go out on the shelves but …” I trailed off, wondering why I hadn’t done this simple task in the first place and why I’d revealed this breach in shop protocol to this nice old man.

“Well, you’re doing it now,” he chuckled.

I got to the last disc and paused.

“Kathleen Ferrier?”

“You’ve heard of her?”

If I’ve learned one thing from working in the Oxfam bookshop, it’s that although I’m quite good at talking about books, films and music that I’ve read, seen and heard, I’m even better at talking about books, films and music that I’ve not read, not seen and not heard. But Kathleen Ferrier awoke some distant memory.

“Yes, my Mum was a great fan of hers.”

“I saw Kathleen Ferrier in 1952 at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. Of course none of us knew she was ill.”

“Yes …” For the second time in the space of a few moments I trailed off, the whole tragic story of Kathleen Ferrier succumbing to cancer at the age of 41 came back to me.

He continued to describe the concert as if it had taken the week before, not 70 years ago.

“There was an orchestral piece, then an interval. There was a hubbub, everyone was chattering, a real sense of anticipation. Maybe there was a signal … I don’t know, but the place suddenly went silent, and she walked on stage.”

He lent across the counter to get closer to me.

“I was only 16 and until that time I had no idea what stage presence meant. But I found out that night.”

“And what was it like to hear Kathleen Ferrier sing?”

He paused momentarily, as if replaying the events of that distant evening in his mind.

“What a voice, beautiful, I’ll never forget it. And what presence.”

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