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Whispering Hearts

V. C. Andrews

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  “You walk out that door now, you walk out of this house and this family forever,” my father shouted, standing in our entryway like the statue of Lord Nelson in Trafalgar Square, punching his fist toward our front door. He wasn’t close enough to touch it, but in my mind I could hear the pounding.

  My father always seemed predisposed to keep parental controls tighter on me than on my sister. One would think he had seen defiance in me the day I was born.

  A forefinger poking the air was his way of showing anger or disappointment; a fist was absolute rage and was often accompanied by rose-tinted cheeks, flaming wide eyes, and a tight jaw. Sometimes, he would speak through his clenched teeth and have a way of hoisting his shoulders that made him look even more frightening. I knew all of it was meant to intimidate me. When I was much younger, his reactions always succeeded in sending me into retreat, but eventually I did what he himself often advised: I grew a little more backbone.

  From what my sister told me months later, that morning, “as if he had been sitting on a large spring,” he had popped up and out of the living room when our short stairway creaked beneath my feet, revealing that I had begun to descend.

  I continued down, carrying my small suitcase, my brown leather Coach drawstring bag hung off my shoulder, clutched under my arm as tightly as I would cling to a life preserver. It had been my maternal grandmum’s; I had often been told that I had inherited her cheekiness. Julia had been given her ivory brush, and we shared her sterling silver hand mirror. I would never tell her, but sometimes I saw my grandmum smiling at me over my shoulder when I gazed into her mirror. She would be whispering, Your perfect features should be captured in a cameo. If I did tell Julia about that, she would only accuse me of being conceited.

  I had lowered my head after taking my first step on the stairway this morning and had held my breath from the moment I left my room, anticipating the confrontation with my father. I knew this would be the worst altercation ever between us, and there had been some fierce ones recently. I had put my hair in a braided bun earlier, looking at myself in the mirror and taking periodic deep breaths while I chanted, “You can do this. You must do this, Emma Corey. Do not retreat when he growls.”

  I had dressed in my new light-blue pleated skirt suit that I had bought with an employee’s discount at Bradford’s Department Store and had saved to wear on this day. It was practically the only thing I had purchased for myself during the two years I had worked there, anticipating how much money I would need for the journey across the Pond to New York City.

  When I reached the bottom of the stairs, I ignored him and instead looked into the living room and saw my mother and sister sitting beside each other on the sofa, their hands clutched in their laps, knuckles white. Absolutely terrified, neither dared glance toward the door. It was as if the whole house had frozen. Clocks were holding their breaths, hands trembling.

  It was one thing to talk about my leaving for America and hear his objections, his protests and threats, but far another to actually do it. I was as determined as Mercedes Gleitze, the first British lady to swim across the English Channel, in 1927. My father wasn’t going to block me and stymie my ambitions, either.

  For months I had been talking to my mother and my sister about my going to New York to work and to audition for opportunities to develop my career as a singer. I was trying to prepare them and boost my own courage simultaneously. My excitement sprouted and blossomed as the time for leaving grew closer, and my resolve strengthened.

  My sister didn’t help. She was never supportive of my pursuing a career as an entertainer. In fact, for as long as I could recall, she did her best to discourage me.

  My mother’s silence whenever I discussed it telegraphed her utter dread of anticipating my father’s reaction. Whatever she did say was almost always discouraging.

  “You really don’t know anything about that world, especially in America,” she told me. “You’ll be a poor little lamb who’s lost her way.”

  She was always on the verge of tears when we conversed about the subject. Her lips trembled, and she wove her fingers around each other so nervously and tightly that I thought she might break one. Everyone always said she had bones as thin as a bird’s. It would merely take a brisk wind to crack one.

  “From what I’ve read, no one really knows that world, Mummy, here in England or there in America. Most everything depends on a lucky break, but you’ve got to be at it to get that to happen, and if you’re too frightened to try, you’ll always wonder if you could have succeeded. Regret is worse than failure, because failing at least means you had attempted to do something. Not seeking to develop your talent is a sin. I can’t imagine years and years from now staring into the memory of this time and wondering forever about what might have been.”

  I explained how I hoped to get into a Broadway show, to be seen by a music producer, and to be contracted to do an album, just as Barbra Streisand had done. My voice was often compared to hers, so I envisioned myself on television shows performing as well.

  I loved singing, loved to bask in the expressions on the faces of my audiences and thrill to the way I could touch them. I was able to get people to pause in their busy or troubled lives and travel comfortably with me along the paths of the melodies—some joyful, some wistful, but always taking them to another place, even if only for a few minutes. For as long as I could remember, I was told I had a special gift. Why didn’t my family believe as I did that it was as important to develop and share it? If you were given a gift, surely it was immoral to ignore it.

  “Totally ridiculous,” Julia said when she heard my plans. “You’re still just a child full of imagination. You’ve never gone fifty miles from your home without me or our parents or some school chaperone. Be realistic. Grow up, for goodness’ sake.”

  Julia was wrong. What I wanted wasn’t some pipe dream a teenage girl grows in a garden of fantasies. My plans were stable and mature. I was especially disappointed that she, who already was working as a teacher, didn’t see this. It was supposed to be in a teacher’s DNA to encourage young people, to push them to try, to experiment, and to be courageous so they could become all they were capable of becoming.

  But then again, maybe she did envision all I could do; maybe she was simply jealous that I had the courage to step out of this house alone to try something so big, something she couldn’t do. She knew I was lead singer in the church chorus for years and lead singer in the school chorus as well. She was aware of all the praise I had received from the moment I had sung my first note as a child. She accompanied my parents to every school performance and was always in church whenever they attended and heard me sing. A cloudburst of compliments soaked us all before we walked down the steps to go home.

  Most important, she was aware that it hadn’t stopped there. I had earned praise in other ways. On weekends since my sixteenth birthday, I sang in pubs in Guildford and at some social events, even a wedding, but I really felt professional when I sang in taverns and was paid for it. In the U.K., you are considered an adult by the age of sixteen. Not only can you drive, but you are allowed to have beer, wine, or cider with a meal in a pub if you are with an adult, and so singing in one wasn’t unusual for someone my age.

  Many people told me that
the pubs had better attendance when the word was out that I would be singing in them. I would do all the traditional favorites like “The White Cliffs of Dover,” “Pack up Your Troubles,” and many songs written by Cole Porter, as well as songs sung by Streisand. In particular, the Three Bears tavern did so well that the owner advertised me in the local paper occasionally and on flyers left at store counters.

  I avoided joining anyone’s garage band, even though I was constantly invited to do so, and by some of the best-looking boys in our school, too. My interest wasn’t in their kind of music. I was heavily into pop songs, big-band tunes, and show tunes. Besides using Barbra Streisand as my touchstone, I wanted to be on my own like Jewel, Mariah Carey, or Sarah McLachlan, who were popular at the time. I was convinced that was my future.

  But I suppose the person who influenced me the most and did the most to encourage me to pursue a singing career was my secondary-school music teacher, Mr. Wollard. He had been teaching for over twenty years and told me that I was the best singer he had ever had during all that time. Unlike most teachers his age, he kept up with what was happening in the current music scene and convinced me I had the voice for it, not that I needed a great deal of convincing.

  “You could definitely be the next Streisand,” he said when I told him she was my idol.

  From when I was fourteen years old until now, I brought home his compliments gift wrapped in confidence and joy and often revealed them at dinner. Most of the time my father ignored them or muttered something like “The man should be careful blowing up a young girl’s image of herself.” In the early days, never anticipating that I would take the big leap defiantly, my mother would remind him how beautifully I sang and how so many people had complimented them both about it.

  “Don’t say you aren’t proud of her, Arthur. I see the joy in your face when you hear the praise.”

  He’d grunt reluctant agreement about that but made sure to point out that I didn’t have real competition, thus, deliberately or otherwise, belittling my achievements.

  “You can give her a head full of air. It’s not like she’s singing in London on the West End,” he would say, and then turn to me and wave that thick right forefinger. “And one in ten thousand, if that many, makes a living doing it. You mind your grades and think about finding a decent way of earning a living like your sister wants to do.”

  Julia had already determined she would be an elementary-school teacher, which our father approved of so enthusiastically in my presence that there could have been bugles and a marching band accompanying him. At dinner he would raise his arms and look toward the ceiling as if the answer to the question he was about to bellow was scrolled across it.

  “Why should I have one daughter with her feet solidly on the ground and another who is flighty? It’s beyond me. I didn’t bring one up differently from the other.”

  “I’m not flighty, Daddy,” I protested. “I’m very serious about the singing profession.”

  “Profession,” he said disdainfully, and shook his head. He looked at me with a softer expression, catching me off guard. “You’re a pretty girl, Emma, and you do well in school. Don’t go chasing pipe dreams. The world is not a friendly place to those who don’t have a solid footing. Remember that. You rarely get a decent second chance in this life.”

  I knew he wanted me wrapped like a fish in brown paper, his responsibility as a father done and off his list of worries. If I did anything that particularly annoyed him, he would rant, claiming that sometimes he believed children were rained down upon us “like stinging hail.” However, the more he fought the idea of my pursuing a singing career, the more I clung to it, and not simply out of spite, either. I was that confident in myself.

  I never told anyone in my family that Mr. Wollard had a friend in New York, Donald Manning, who managed a restaurant in Manhattan and who had offered to help find me a place to stay and a job at the restaurant so I could support my efforts. I knew if I had mentioned it, my father would have made some formal charge against Mr. Wollard and maybe even have caused him to be sacked.

  The day after my eighteenth birthday, I called Donald Manning. I had saved up enough money to get to New York and set myself up for a while. It had always been my intention to do it immediately after secondary school; otherwise, I might lose my nerve. He put me in touch with Mr. Leo Abbot, the landlord of the apartments that were walking distance from the restaurant he managed. After I had spoken to him, I sent him a cashier’s check for the first month’s rent and deposit. All he had available was a two-bedroom, which was more expensive. The initial payments took up half my savings, but he said I should have no problem finding a roommate to share the expenses.

  “New York is always burstin’ with young ladies lookin’ to hitch themselves to a star,” he said.

  I didn’t like the way he had said that. I didn’t want to be part of a generic pack of lemmings running headlong over some cliff of fantasies. I knew it was going to be hard, very hard, and I would swim in a lake of disappointments. Eventually, I might drown in rejection, but I decided to do it anyway. Was that courage or blind stupidity?

  “The apartment is furnished and has a passable set of dishware, pots and pans, and silverware,” Leo had told me. There was a pause, and he added, “Not real silver, you understand.”

  When I announced it all at dinner the night before I was to leave, my parents and my sister were astounded and upset that I had done all this planning and arranging so quickly without their knowledge. I had hoped that they would be proud and impressed that I had taken care of so many details on my own. I had tried to be businesslike, explaining the costs for travel, the rent, and what I could make in my temporary side job. I even had a liabilities-and-assets statement for my father to peruse. However, when my father saw it, he crunched it in his fist and slammed his other hand on the table so hard the dishware and silverware bounced. He stabbed his right forefinger at me, forbidding me to follow through.

  “Get that deposit back, cash in those plane tickets, and quickly. I didn’t raise a daughter, give her good room and board, clothe her, and get her educated to have her turn into a cock-up and embarrass this good family name.”

  He spun on Mummy, still pointing his finger like the barrel of a pistol.

  “I told you, Agnes Lee Moorhead, that permitting her to sing in those pubs before a crowd of worthless and wasteful lumps who don’t know a do re mi when they hear it would come to no good. They blew her full of herself. She’s just another impressionable young girl someone is going to exploit.”

  “You can’t say she hasn’t got a beautiful voice. You’ve heard her in church and in school, Arthur,” Mummy said softly, light tears starting to swim in her eyes. “And you’ve heard how much she was admired. Maybe, if she continued to sing here in the pubs and—”

  “Because she sang in church and school? That’s cause to waste young years, not to mention the real money she could be earning in a useful position? It will come to no good, and I won’t be part of it or have it be part of my family here or anywhere. I forbid it,” he said, then left the table, which was very unlike him, for he wouldn’t stomach anyone wasting his food. He told us his father used to make him eat for breakfast whatever he had left over at dinner.

  Mummy turned to me, her face as crimson as it would be if she had stood too close to a fire. “You’ll have to reconsider, Emma. Maybe wait until he’s warmed to the idea.”

  “He’ll never warm to it,” I said, looking after him as if there was smoke in his wake. “He wants me stuck in some bank-teller job or something and then have a brood of children to mind. Just because he buried every dream he has ever had doesn’t mean I bury mine. I’m eighteen and in charge of my future now. I’ve got to pack,” I said defiantly, and, like him, rose and left the table.

  “They’re two peas in a pod,” I heard Mummy tell my sister. “Both stubborn and butting heads.”

  Now he stood there in our entryway, the threats dripping from his eyes, his lips quiverin
g with rage. I was trembling, too, but I wouldn’t let him see that.

  “I’ll call you, Mummy, when I arrive in New York,” I shouted past him. She looked up and at me, tears streaming down her face.

  “No, you won’t. You won’t call this house if you step out of it with that suitcase,” my father said. “I forbid your mother to speak with you, and your sister as well, if you leave. Send no letters, either. They’ll be burned at the door.”

  Despite how hard I was shaking inside, I stood as firmly as he ever had stood whenever he had forbidden us from doing something. Maybe he saw himself in me, in the determination fixed in my eyes, and that told him he wouldn’t win the argument today, no matter what.

  “Burn what you want,” I said. “I’m going to do what I’m meant to do, Daddy, with your blessing or without.”

  “It’s without!” he screamed behind me when I opened the door.

  I gazed back at him. He looked made of stone. I would never deny that I was afraid. I had never defied him as much as this, and I was about to set out alone for a world in which I didn’t know a soul. Julia was right about that. For a girl from a small city in England who had never even been to London except only on a school trip to see a West End show, this was the same as being rocketed into outer space.

  In my purse I had pictures of my mother, my sister, and my father. I had the gold locket they had given me on my sixteenth birthday. I had my birth certificate, my passport that my father never knew I had, and a little more than three and a half thousand pounds that I would exchange for United States dollars at the airport currency kiosk. I had packed a fraction of my wardrobe in my one suitcase, thinking most of my clothes were not really suited for an entertainer in New York City.

  I had called for a taxi to the airport, and the car was there at the curb waiting for me. Even at this moment, I couldn’t believe I was really doing it. But I was.

  I looked back into the house.