I knew I was in trouble the moment my co-worker caught me humming the female part to the last duet in La Boheme.
‘That sounds familiar,’ Lucy said as we stacked rows and rows of fragrant soap. ‘My grandmother loves that opera. She’s never seen it in person though, which is a shame. Maybe I should bring her one of these days.’
We laughed and continued restocking the shelves. It was a job that made a pair of opera tickets near impossible. The sound system crackled to life, and my faint memories of the song were drowned out by saccharine pop, making the store artificially cheery.
‘You know what happens in the end of that opera, right?’ Lucy asked, putting a final soap in place.
I did, having read the Wikipedia summary on the bus this morning. But I said nothing.
That morning, I awoke before the music started, and lay in the dark, waiting.
I had never been an early riser, but every morning I now shook myself awake in restless anticipation for the performance to start. I arose with scales in my ears, which quickly mellowed out to softer voice exercises then, as I down a cold, half-hearted breakfast, the songs. It was no secret there was an opera singer living in my building, even my letting agent muttered that she hoped I liked music when I signed the contracts. I had already heard multiple curses and shouts from other neighbours in a futile attempt to stop her from practicing so early.
I knew some of the more famous songs. Arias from Carmen, The Magic Flute, and Madame Butterfly, my father played for me on a CD when I was younger. To him, opera was the highest mark of civilization. He lived in fear that one day someone might catch him unfamiliar with some aspect of Western culture, exposing him for the farmer’s son that he was. In turn, he fed me a diet of strange facts and fancies, until I picked up the habit. My phone was filled with tabs from Wikipedia, online dictionary entries for opera terminology, and YouTube video compilations with titles like ‘top ten best opera singers in history.’
Sometimes on my way to work, I caught sight of the opera singer’s harried personal assistant, balancing coffees on a drink carrier and nearly spilling them in a rush to open the front door. She barely had time to nod before disappearing into the mysterious depths of the opera singer’s ground floor flat.
When I left that morning, I couldn’t resist the urge to look at the singer’s window. She stood in the dark lit by faint sunrise glow, mouth trilling wildly in a perfect O. She stopped when our eyes met, mouth still open, daring me to complain about the noise. Even in the dim light, I could see that she was beautiful.
As I walked away, she resumed her song, like a concert performance suddenly unmuted.
My neighbour on the 2nd floor, a single mother with an always inexplicably sticky daughter, moved out on Saturday. I helped—she was lovely. She often dropped by with food as if her motherly spirit couldn’t help but overflow onto anyone younger than her. I was sad to see her go but I would miss her casserole more. Knowing she would never accept a gift from me, I hid a care package of soaps and lotions in one of her unsealed moving boxes by the door.
‘I don’t want to leave but I have to,’ she said wistfully, looking at the mess strewn around the small flat. I had tripped over a mobile and was trying to free myself without destroying it. ‘My little girl’s nursery teacher advised me to stop speaking French at home but that’s exactly the problem—I don’t speak a word of French.’
She leaned down to give an affectionate peck on her daughter’s cheek. As if to illustrate her point, the girl burst into a sweet rendition of Carmen’s Habanera. Although the tune was right, it replicated none of the words’ meaning.
She sighed in resignation. ‘I don’t think she understands what it all means, but she sings in reply to everything now.’
I wondered what the opera-singer would make of this. If they ever met they could sing in reply to each other, making new meaning from the old songs.
‘Between you and me,’ my neighbour lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, ‘I’m hoping the new place doesn’t come with a built-in alarm clock—god knows a child is loud enough in the mornings.’
The first time the opera-singer spoke to me, she mistook me for her personal assistant.
To be honest, we looked nothing alike. Her assistant was a willowy blonde nearly a head taller than me and a graceful heap of angles and bones hidden under a carefully draped cardigan. Meanwhile, I inherited my father’s farmer son stockiness and, because I refused to listen to my mother’s advice to stay out of the sun, had a noticeably darker skin tone. Still: the hallway was dark, and the clock had just ticked past six. Still: like a siren, the sound of her voice lured me into her cave. I never stood a chance.
‘There you are,’ she said in a low voice as I entered the building. It had been a long day at work, and I was looking forward to having the evening to myself. I stopped short in the doorway, face cloaked by shadow. I glanced over my shoulder, wondering if she was really talking to me. The opera-singer wore a dark veil and a black dress with beads that glinted faintly.
She tapped her doorframe impatiently. ‘Well? You’re letting the cold in, which you know is bad for my throat. Close the door and come in quickly, I need you.’
Like a shrouded wraith, she passed through the door and left me to run after her so the flat door wouldn’t shut in my face.
Before I migrated to the gloomy British Isles, I had never lived in a flat before. My family was proud of the fact that we were 三世同堂: three generations living under the same roof. My grandparents and parents still lived in the same concrete and corrugated metal roofed house, and I had grown up close to the sun, moving easily in and out of the outdoors like it was a second home.
Here, things were different. A house was something that hid you from the elements. Somewhere you could pretend that the outside didn’t exist.
Standing there at the opening of the opera-singer’s flat, for a brief moment, I imagined I had stepped into the backstage of a theatre. I didn’t know where to look first. The walls were covered in poster-sized theatre bills, many of which in she was the star, her face in posed expressions of emotion, her name in large capitals at the bottom. I learned her name when a piece of fan mail was delivered to my mailbox by accident. Vases of luxurious hothouse flowers battled to stay alive, stuck in that heady, perfumed stage of half-rot. A costume rack stood to attention in the corner, where the opera-singer had tried on and discarded a few outfits already—the white and gold cotton of an Egyptian queen, the heavy petticoat and bustle of a 16th century noblewoman, the flattering cut of a tongue-in-cheek suit clearly made for a woman.
‘You smell different,’ she noted, not bothering to look at me. I didn’t move, unsure if she would catch me the next moment. ‘A bit like a soap store.’
She had already collapsed into a red velvet upholstered chaise longue and had an eye mask on. There was no chance I would be found out. Just as I was about to reply, she gestured to a neat pyramid of clementines on an ornately carved table beside her.
I stepped forward gingerly, trying to leave as little of my presence on the carpet as possible. In that moment I didn’t think of how it looked, the upstairs neighbour who had lied her way in and now was preparing to, well, I could have done anything to her. A series of dramatic scenes flashed through my mind: my hand holding a dagger, like a horror film, where the opera-singer was the beautiful victim; my hand carefully touching her face, as if she were a fairytale princess cursed to sleep forever; my hand reaching out to tenderly stroke her hair, the eye-mask falling off as she looked at me properly for the first time. Our eyes would meet, and instead of terror, I would see understanding, a mutual accord that we had fallen in love.
‘Sometime this year,’ she said, leaving her mouth slack so there was no room for me to mistake her order. Whether out of sheer habit or not, her mouth was curved in a perfect O.
I moved faster, squatted next to the table and peeled the clementine, not caring that the pith and peel lodged themselves in my nail beds and would stain my fingernails orange until I next had a shower. Out of habit, I peeled them the same way my mother did: in a single unbroken strip that curled into a spiral.
When the clementine sat naked in my palm, I split it into its segments and rocked back on my heels, sitting as close to her as I dared, lifting a single fragrant slice to her mouth. Her tongue darted out to taste the juice beading on the edges of the clementine. Then, so my fingers would be safe, she took the piece between her front teeth and retreated to chew her prize. I trembled when her lips brushed my fingers. Even her chewing was measured, and I could see her throat shifting in a smooth ripple as the juice and pulp moved down into the cavity of her body.
I sat there for what could have been seconds or hours, like a supplicant endlessly twisting the rosary around their fingers. If I had continued the motions of peeling and lifting any longer, I’m sure I would have forgotten my own name, where I had come from, what I was doing there.
The sound of the building door opening broke the spell. I cast around wildly and tried to gather my bearings. I dropped the orange half on the carpet and crushed it underfoot in my haste to run from the room. If this was a comic opera, I would have dived somewhere ridiculous to hide—underneath the chaise langue the opera-singer sat on as I watched the action on the main stage. But self-preservation kicked in, and I pushed past the door just as the assistant entered, my head doggedly lowered, so all I saw was a flash of shoes and a small cry coming from her mouth. It was too late for her to do anything. I had already taken the stairs three at a time, sprinted into my flat, and slammed the door shut.
I laid like a dying starfish on my cold floor. My heart struggled to escape my chest.
Over the next few weeks, I did everything I could to avoid the opera-singer and her assistant short of scaling the wall to my flat. I left the house a half hour before the assistant turned up. When I walked past her window, if the opera-singer had started already, I resolutely did not turn around. I stopped humming opera at work, I tried to move past the obsession, I even bought earplugs to distract myself from the morning concerts.
I kept dreaming of her voice. Sometimes I was plunged into complete darkness, with only her music coaxing me to relax and become absorbed by the dark space. Other times she sang without words. Just an endless wave of noise that spilled into her real-life vocal warm-ups.
On a Saturday, weeks after I entered the opera-singer’s house, I left the house around 1 when I would usually avoid leaving or entering. Saturdays were matinee days and there was too much of a chance of meeting her. In the past, her leaving for the theatre was a spectacle that I watched from my bedroom window. When I heard the slowly chugging engine of a taxi waiting on the road, I waited too, to see what the opera-singer would be wearing. From what I understood (the occasional manager did come to shout through her windows), the opera-singer lived her life perpetually late to her next appointment. She dressed and rehearsed at home as much as possible, hardly ever leaving her flat except to travel to the theatre or go on stupendous shopping trips and expensive dinners with men that kissed her cheek as they parted ways on the doorstep. When she did make it to the theatre, it was very often down to the wire—literally flinging herself onstage the moment she arrived.
So that Saturday, as I descended the stairs, she spoke to me.
When I recall it now, she must have been waiting there for me in silence, half-shadowed by evening light. I was on the last flight of stairs before the ground floor, distracted by digging through my bag to make sure that I had my wallet.
‘Can you help me with this?’ She asked. ‘I would ask my assistant, but she’s not in today. She’s sick again. People really need to take better care of themselves.’
I froze at the sound of her voice and looked up.
She was facing away from me, the curve of her spine exposed in a lace dress with a silk slip inside. The help she needed was clear. There was a row of many, many tiny pearl buttons that needed to be done up at the back. Each step I took towards her brought a new detail to my eyes: the angular planes of her shoulder blades, the smooth, unblemished surface of her skin.
The opera-singer stood perfectly still, like a hunter waiting for its prey to slip into a trap.
I fell right into it. It was as if I had dissociated and was watching the scene from outside my body, staring at our two figures as if we were set onstage.
My fingers were sure and steady as they made their way up the dress. When they were done up, they looked like an iridescent spinal cord, one I could pluck like an instrument’s string. My fingers were practically on her skin. The gentle heat emanating from her hypnotised me. She was silent the whole way through until the second-to-last button.
‘Do you want to watch me sing this afternoon?’ she asked.
The final button slid into place, as did the rest of my life.
The opera-singer’s manager shut me away in a box that no one else seemed to be in, rolling his eyes and complaining about my attire the whole way through. The crowds we squeezed through were a mixed bag. There were young and old audiences rippling with excitement, murmuring the opera-singer’s name. Glancing at the programme, I smiled when I saw the performance was going to be La Boheme.
I quickly realised why no one else was in the box once the opera started. It was set behind the stage rather than in front. You couldn’t help but be in the spotlight, part of another dimension, onstage being watched by an audience with eyes like tadpoles. The crowd hadn’t realised there was a courtship unfolding outside the opera they watched.
I watched the glossy back of the opera-singer’s head as she twirled across the stage. My favourite part of La Boheme—when Musetta sings a waltz to try and win over Marcello—was riveting. She was singing to an overweight Marcello clearly past his prime, but it didn’t matter. The lilting tones drew me in and tied me down. My father had played it for me as a child. The waltz was transformed before me, a song sung for my ears alone. The only living thing onstage was my opera-singer. As she hit her triumphant high note, she flicked her eyes to my box, a grin on her lips.
I left the box. After the song was over and the lovers had fallen irresistibly into one another’s arms, I fled to the bathroom to compose myself. Trembling in front of the endless rows of mirrors in the black-marbled bathroom, I stood weakly at a sink, trying to banish the red from my cheeks with cold water.
Her manager tracked me down just as the curtains drew over the final act. ‘She wants to see you,’ he said with a slight sneer.
In the dressing room, she had miraculously returned into the high necked, pearl buttoned dress, as if she had never taken it off in the first place.
‘I’m starving,’ she said. ‘We should get dinner.’
We were whisked out the side doors, avoiding anyone who wanted a picture or autograph, to a quiet all-night breakfast cafe down a deserted alley.
We drank wine with our English breakfast. She fed me a scone dripping in clotted cream and jam. She talked—more than I did—about her life and her art. It took her some time to shed the skin of her performance, she said, and talking about it helped her feel like herself. She told me her real name, apparently a different one from her stage name, and offered I should call her a pet name instead. The only type of jam she liked was strawberry, never raspberry, because the seeds in the latter got stuck in her teeth. The sweater I wore reminded her of an old schoolteacher she had a crush on. She loved travelling but hated flying. She’d been to Malaysia once on a layover to Australia. Her favourite novels were mysteries, and a close second was space opera. ‘It’s impossible for us to be alone,’ she said, smiling. ‘I just don’t believe that’s how the universe works.’
We spent another hour before sliding, tipsy, into the taxi waiting for her outside. When we finally drew up, I saw people walking to the train station to begin their daily commutes. The sound of the key unlocking the door seemed as if it might wake up the whole building. We passed by her flat, and I said goodnight as she opened the door.
‘Aren’t you going to come in?’ She asked.
Without waiting for an answer she disappeared into the yellow glow of her flat. The door remained open.
I slept that first night deeply and without dreams.
The sunlight woke me, not song. From the angle of the sun entering her window, I knew that it was well past my usual waking time. I had missed my shift at the soap store. The opera-singer was curled up by my side, one arm thrown over my ribcage.
I wondered if I should leave, awkwardly shuffling out the flat, praying no one in the building saw me. Before I could decide, the opera-singer’s assistant flung the door open and stared at us in the bed. The opera-singer awoke and stood by the bed.
‘Eileen?’ She said as the assistant relayed the singer’s plans for the day. ‘You’re fired. Leave the schedule outside.’
The assistant let out a small cry, sunk to the ground and clung to the opera-singer’s knees. Throughout the exchange I feigned sleep but I felt my face slowly turning red.
Only when I heard the door close, and the front door slam did I open an eye to peek at the scene. The opera-singer stood by the window, peeling the skin of an apple with a sharp knife, letting it dangle down in a curl. When she saw I was awake she smiled gently.
‘I seem to have lost an assistant,’ she said. ‘Would you mind taking over until I find a new one?’