Because I’m living in England reading Katherine Mansfield and feeling lonely for an voice from home. What other reasons does a girl need?
The warm spring breeze blew in at the window, ruffling the white muslin curtains. Tipene Ngatai shoved them back and knotted them above the curtain-rail. London in the springtime was much, much less romantic than it sounded, at least in this part of town. When he was in Auckland, a first-floor apartment on Phoenix Street, four blocks from Covent Garden, had sounded ideal – but Tip hadn’t reckoned on it being immediately above the sidewalk of a street he had never heard of. Hadn’t reckoned on the dirt. The crowds – to a small-town boy, a city of a million was immense. There were more people in London than in the whole of New Zealand, and sometimes the very thought was overwhelming.
The breeze was flinging his music across the room, and playfully whisked the last sheet, the important sheet, the one he had sweated blood over, out through the window. Aghast, Tip, leaned out over the sill to try and catch a last glimpse of his masterpiece.
Instead he heard singing. “…nga wai o Rotorua, whiti atu koe hine…” A woman’s voice, a low sweet alto, singing the Maori words of the beautiful waiata half the school children of New Zealand learned by heart. Tip listened spellbound – oh, nga wai o Rotorua, the lake of Rotorua, was so far away now. “…marino ana e. E hine e, hoki mai ra…” Abruptly, the song broke off, and he heard the crackle of paper in the street below.
She stopped below his window, brandishing the music like a challenge. “Hey! Mister, this is yours.”
“Yeah. Thanks.” By leaning down as far as he could, and having her reach up to the extent of her height, Tip managed to retrieve the music from her hand. “Where you from?”
“How well do you know New Zealand? Paeroa, where the L&P comes from. Just across from Auckland. How about you?”
Tip couldn’t help smiling. “Paeroa. Normanby Road – up beyond the Cri’ as you pass the L&P bottle. We’re pretty much neighbors, eh?”
The bright blue eyes in the street below glittered with laughter. “What are the chances of that happening? Well, better be off. See ya.”
“Wait -” Tip held out one hand as if to stop her, much good as that would have done from two meters up. “Would you come up here and sing that song again? I want to accompany you. You sing pretty good.”
For the first time she showed a hint of suspicion. “Accompany me how?”
“On my piano. I’ve been here too long – I’m beginning to forget how a good Kiwi accent even sounds.”
The girl considered, pursing her red lips, brushing brown hair back from her pretty face. “You play up there and I’ll sing down here, eh?”
“Yeah, all right. Can you go from the second verse?” Tilting her head back, the girl from Paeroa sang in the middle of London the wailing love song composed a world away. “Tuhituhi taku reta, tuku atu taku rīngi…”
When she had given full expression to the last line, she glanced back up. “All right?”
“Thanks. You wanna do Te Aroha?”
“Can’t, sorry mate, I gotta go to work. I’ll come back tomorrow, same time – you be here tomorrow?”
“I’m always here! Tryin’a write a kinda opera – it’s not goin’ so good.”
True to her word, the girl came back tomorrow. And the next day. And the next. After a few visits, Tip summoned up the courage to show her an aria from his incomplete opera, and asked her to sing it. After a few months, she was test-singing nearly every bar he wrote, and if three in the afternoon had ever rolled around without pokarekare ana… sung gently a capella outside on the pavement, Tip would have gone out to look for her. It would have been pretty hopeless, given that he didn’t even know her name, but he would have gone anyway.
By the autumn, a chill wind whistled along Phoenix Street, and Tip repeatedly asked his friend – his muse, he called her now – if she wouldn’t come indoors to sing. She wouldn’t. But she kept coming, coming and singing bundled up in her dark coat, huddling it around her as if it might be blown away otherwise. She was always gone by four, hurrying away down the road like the taniwha was after her. By November the opera was as finished as it was ever going to be, and he still didn’t know her name.
She blew him a kiss when he told her, and said, “I got some friends in that line. Want me to run it by them?”
“Yeah – yeah, thanks. Sweet as.”
Apparently the muse’s friends were quite something, for barely a week later Tip received a letter from a producer, asking to stage his opera, and how long it would take to write another. Tip was in seventh heaven – the only thing that could complete his world would be to know the girl’s name.
On the day of the opening night, it snowed. Although he felt he couldn’t really expect pokarekare ana that afternoon, Tip left his window open just a crack regardless of the draft whistling across his piano.
“Hi!” Someone was shouting in Phoenix Street. Probably it was some English workman yelling at a friend. Tip shrugged and started playing randomly, half thinking in music, half composing a song for his beautiful muse.
“Hi! You with the winder open!”
Flinging the sash full up, he stuck his head out into the icy street. Snowflakes drifted down and salted his black hair and danced wildly in front of his eyes.
“You…” the man in the street was scrawny, sneering-looking, with colorless hair teased up as carefully as a girl’s. Squinting at a scrap of paper in his hand, he asked carefully, “You Ty-peen In-ga-tie?”
“Tipene Ngatai, yeah. Why?”
“Girl at the Op’ra House sen’ me t’ say she can’t come. She’s pretty bad.”
By this Tip correctly deduced the man to mean that a lady at the Opera House had sent him to give her apologies, because she was unwell. English English was a strange language.
“I don’t know any ladies at the Opera House.”
“Yer Tipping-y whatchacallit, ain’tcha?. She said t’ tell ya paw-kerry-kerry-enna and you’d get it.”
Pokarekare ana? His muse was sick? And at the Opera House? Tip crashed down the window, snatched his coat from the hook by the door, and pounded down the stairs to arrive in the street breathless and follow the Englishman down the street and out into Charing Cross Road.
The crowd and the snow whisked them up and whirled them along at the busy pace of London, along another street, then Garrick Street named for the actor, hurry, hurry, hurry like every other Londoner to the stage door of the Opera House.
“Who – what’s her name?” On the stage-door steps, Tip caught the man by the sleeve. “The girl. Her name.”
“Nyrie Philips. Summin’ ou’landish in tha’ line.”
Ngairie. Ngairie Philips the girl from Paeroa who had come to London and become a huge success. Ngairie Philips as famous as Kiri Te Kanawa had been in her turn. Ngairie Philips who had been singing outside his window every day for the last six months.
“Are you coming – or not?” The man was holding the door open, rather pointedly.
“Is she all right?”
“Well, I dunno what y’ mean by all right. She ain’t dead. – yet. She arst t’ see ya. Are y’ coming?” Seeing Tip’s look of blank horror, he elaborated, “Beam light dropped on ‘er in re’ersal. Bust ‘er. An’ now she’s dyin’ an’ the understudy’s in Surrey an’ can’t get through for the snow. I dunno what we’re goin’ t’ do – we open in two hours.”
From the theater-smelling dimness beyond the door, another English voice spoke. “Is that Mr. Ngatai, Paul?” Shivering in the fierce breath of an English winter, a pale thin woman came slowly to stand on the top step, holding a crimson silk dressing-gown around her. “Mr. Ngatai… I’m sorry. You’re too late. Miss Philips died five minutes ago.”
Tip trudged back to his apartment, mind as blank and grey as the featureless London sky. Sitting automatically down at the piano, he stared stupidly at the black and white keys for almost half an hour, before slowly, pianissimo, one last time, playing the song Ngairie had loved singing. Pokarekare ana…
Afterwards he carried on the train of musical thought that had been interrupted, writing it down, checking each note for perfection. Before he was half finished, the dull light from the window was blue and almost gone in the four-o-clock twilight of an English winter, but he switched on the electric light and carried on.
He stood and stretched his cramped limbs, ignored the clock’s silent protestation of the late hour – it was midnight – and played over the piece he had finished. Satisfied, Tip took up his pen again to title it: Waiata O Ara Whineka – Song of Phoenix Street. One thing more remained, and the pen scribbled hastily below the title, Song for Ngairie.
Tip is famous now, and his music is known around the world. You may have played some of it yourself. But he always insists that it is Ngairie who is really the inspiration behind his work.