I met her first when we were students in London. I was a second year, she was a fresher. I and the producer were casting The Gondoliers, which I was due to conduct in a few months' time. She said she thought she was a soprano. She wanted to audition for a solo part. She was lovely, rather than gorgeous: dark hair, sculpted figure, about my height (i.e. not enormous), trim and neat, delectable in every way. She was indeed a soprano. She had a beautiful voice, pure rather than powerful, perfectly in tune, well modulated, velvety in the lower register and maybe a little thin at the top of her range. She was a find. I fell in love with her before I even knew her name: Alison.
I kept my feelings to myself. There could be no hint of the casting couch, especially as she landed the plum solo part of Gianetta. She felt a bit uncertain: she'd really wanted a smaller part, Fiametta or Vittoria.
As rehearsals progressed she responded well to encouragement. The plot of The Gondoliers requires Gianetta and her mate Tessa to form a quartet, two couples, with two gondoliers, respectively Marco and Giuseppe. Alison really enjoyed working in quartet. Every note she sang pierced my heart yet deeper. I said nothing. Like the Spartan boy in the legend, the fox bit deep into my vitals, but I suffered in silence. It hurt to watch Marco take her in her arms, where I had hardly touched her. From the podium it was painful to watch him kiss her, where I had never kissed. These agonies were abated a little by knowing that off-stage Marco was going out with Tessa, a gorgeous petite redhead from Cumbria, and Giuseppe was already spoken for elsewhere. I longed for the last performance. When it was all over I could tell all.
But over the months of rehearsal affections and affiliations shifted. Rumours snaked through the cast. Marco was two-timing. It wasn't all his fault, the kindly ones said: Alison had come to depend on him. Too demure to flirt or throw herself at him, nevertheless she found herself increasingly attached to him. You can guess the outcome. After the run of three or four performances Alison and Marco were a steady couple, as long as Tessa, who came from another college, wasn't about. I was out in the cold.
We stayed good friends, as we always had been. We went out once or twice, nothing much. She sang under my baton in the following year's opera, Die Fledermaus, but in the chorus. I was encouraged when one summer holidays Marco came to stay in my cottage in Scotland with . . . Tessa. (When they left Tessa gave me a weigela. I planted it in front of the sitting-room window. It's still there, goodness knows how many years after. Tessa died very young. That weigela is her memorial, as though it's living the full span she ought to have lived.)
At the time of my finals I started looking for a teaching job. I didn't mind where. Alison said her father, a Southampton headmaster, was looking for staff. My heart leapt: if her father took me on, the link with Alison wouldn't be broken. I went for interview and was taken on. When I found out that snake-in-the-grass Marco had slithered off in search of other prey, it seemed that at last Fortune had smiled.
There was a serious miscalculation, though. Alison had two years of further study. While I was working in Southampton, seeing her eyes in her father's (not really to be recommended, staring fixedly into the eyes of your boss in the hope of a vision of his daughter) she would be in distant London. While she was in Southampton for the holidays, I would be in even farther-flung Scotland. There was an overlap in September, however. We saw quite a lot of each other in those few golden weeks. There had never been the slightest diminution in my feeling for her. Shortly before she was due to start her new term, we met in the Civic Centre rose garden. The words wouldn't come: Suppose we?...Could I?...What if?... Would she?... How about?...Do you think we?...
She knew what I was trying to say. No, she said. I'm sorry. I can't.
Is there someone else? Marco? I asked.
I never saw her again. If she ever married I never heard of it. Via her father, she gave us a wooden bowl as a wedding present when I got married, first time round, three years later. I still have it.
I dug out the dress rehearsal photo, above, from the archive. Most of the cast mentioned above are in it somewhere. The pair of shoes (extreme right) belong to the Duchess of Plazatoro, who has just passed out. You'll recognise the conductor, of course.