Bob Mackinnon

Madame Nora’s Invisible Hand

James was happy to partner various older ladies who were willing to pay the table fees in return for a pleasant, sometimes rewarding, session. One of James’ frequent partners was Madame Nora Fanshaw, then long retired, one of those worthy Canadian performers who dot the musical landscapes in Northern climes: too emotional for the Germans, not hare-brained enough for the Italians, too intelligent for Americans, not intellectual enough for the French, so just right for London, one would think, ‘dependable, unassuming, and can sing comprehensibly in English.’ Her story went something like this:

‘I had hopes for the Metropolitan when Eddie Johnson took over in 1935, and we were invited to come to New York, but the war intervened, and I lost my chance. I had hesitated because Tauber wanted me for one of his productions, but he ran out of money before it was staged. During the War I stayed in the countryside on my late husband’s estate, learned bridge, and bore my dear daughter. One must never regret giving life to others, but by the time the War ended my operatic career was beyond recovery. Foolishly I had kept myself out of the picture, so I was condemned to oratorios in the Midlands.’

That was the story she told, but there were other versions, many including scandalous details. On the night of which we write, it was James and Nora’s good fortune to score 56.4 % which was sufficient to top the field East-West. Here was one board played on defence against the Reverend Reginald Forsythe, a pessimistic Presbyterian.

 
Both
South
N
Margaret
A10864
Q5
KQ1087
Y
 
W
Nora
7
KJ102
9642
AK92
 
E
James
KJ952
76
J53
753
 
S
Reginald
Q3
A9843
A
QJ864
 
W
Nora
N
Mergaret
E
James
S
Reginald
1
Pass
1
Pass
2
Pass
2
Pass
2NT
Pass
3NT
All Pass
 

Nora led the ♠7. James won his ♠K and pondered the significance of this lead. He could read it as a singleton. Thus their holdings in the majors were marked as being 6-6. There was a good possibility that the division of sides was 7-7-6-6 with Madame having the winning high cards otherwise given to the partnership. She might later be called upon to make a critical decision. It was matchpoints, not IMPs, so James thoughts were focused on how to protect his partner from a tough decision. That objective might best be served if he returned a heart, just in case she had a problem when a heart was led towards the dummy where the diamond tricks lay. An immediate heart might give declarer problems in communication, and without full knowledge of the distribution he might even be tempted later in a matchpoint context to take a losing club finesse himself rather than play safely for 9 tricks. Given the uncertainty of the situation he decided that to protect his partner from a later decision was the top priority, so he immediately returned the 7.

Nora could win the K and return a heart without giving away a trick in the suit with her winning clubs intact. Squirm as he might declarer could manage just 8 tricks. The timing was all wrong. ‘Why?’ he asked himself, ‘do women always give me problems. What have I ever done to deserve this?’ Of course he did not include his dear wife, Margaret, in the general condemnation – it was just his eternal misfortune.

Out of kindness James offered to escort the obviously delighted Madame Nora back to her rooms located in the vicinity of Albert Hall for a celebratory nightcap. Her living room was small, poorly lighted, but richly decorated. Prominently featured was a huge red velvet sofa facing a tapestry of an oriental theme with a dragon that looked out threateningly with smoke coming out of its nostrils. On an end table were framed black-and-white photographs of her in costume with legendary performers of the past.

Madame soon returned with two glasses of wine in her hands. She had changed to something more comfortable, a long, silk dressing gown embroidered with a floral design. It made her look much younger than her sixtysomething years.

‘Je viens celebrer la victorie,’ she trilled in a rich contralto as she handed James a glass of port before sinking softly beside him on the sofa. ‘Do you know that tune?’ she asked after sipping the vintage wine.

‘Yes, I believe it is from Samson and Delilah. My father had a record of that with Caruso, I believe.’

‘Marvelous. Delilah was a favourite role of mine. I sang it with Jobin in Montreal before the war. I wore a black body stocking in the first scene, quite the scandal at the time. Ebe Stignani had the voice, but I had the body and most of all, the temperament. I can only imagine her luring Samson into her tent with the words, ‘come and try my chicken soup’. Ha-ha. Raoul was a bit stiff, having been taught by Jesuits, but we sold out the house on every performance. Montrealers try so hard to be sophisticated, but really they love their hockey more than opera. Caruso was well before my time, but I did sing with the great Chaliapin when I was very young. Shall I tell you a naughty story about Feodor Ivanovich and myself?’

James nodded enthusiastically, realizing there would be no way to stop her short of walking out. The port was delicious.

‘In the days before radio I toured America in The Barber of Seville where I played a very young Berta and Chaliapin played Don Basilio. Although his was a small part, he was the main attraction and he ran the whole show. One night after a performance in Cleveland that went particularly well, he came up to me and suggested, more a command really, that we should rehearse next day. We had little to do together on stage, so I said, ‘I know my part backwards,’ and he said, ‘I assure you that won’t be necessary. I shall call on you shortly before noon.’ Of course the whole company knew what that meant, and they all urged me to keep the master in a good mood for the rest of the tour. I was easily persuaded, for in those days I was up for anything.

‘The next day before noon he appeared at my hotel room in this elaborately decorated dressing gown with the grey hairs on his chest peeking through and a dozen pink roses in his huge fist. By noon he was on top of me naked in bed making beautiful manly sounds.

‘You are as big as a horse,’ I commented over the noise meaning it as a compliment to his prodigious manhood. His English was poor and he misheard what I had said.

‘You tink I was a bit hoarse?’ he replied, stopping what he was doing. ‘I thought so, too. I fear I am getting a cold.’

‘What about me?’ I asked, startled, because every singer fears catching a cold on tour.

‘You? You are always flat.’

‘I’m flat certainly, just the way you like me,’ I replied, ‘flat on my back.’

He roared with laughter, and we instantly became great friends. The tour became a tour of love: the baritone loved the soprano, the soprano loved the conductor, the conductor loved the harpist, the harpist loved the first violin, the first violin loved the tenor, the tenor loved the audience and the audiences loved everybody. Of course, with Chaliapin even his wives knew you could never hope to be his one and only. He was a giant, certainly, but a baby as well, a baby who sucked on vile black cigarettes.‘

James laughed politely, a bit apprehensive about where this might be leading.

‘Indeed? I know you can still buy Chaliapin blend cigarettes in the Burlington Arcade,’ he observed lamely. ‘Well, as it is getting late maybe I should….’

“Yes, you should go as I still have what remains of my reputation to protect, and you must have some pretty young thing wondering what is taking you so long, but first let me ask you a question about one of the hands we played tonight. You will remember when I led a spade and you, dear, dear boy, returned a heart defeating Forsythe and his mousy wife in 3NT. Yes? Well, I must ask you why did you return a heart?’

James remembered his thought process, but he didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, so he replied evasively, ‘I can’t say actually, except it seemed a good move at the time. I was thinking about a spade, or maybe a club…’

‘Exactly! But you chose a heart. All the time you were thinking, I was saying to myself, without moving my lips, “heart, heart, heart…” and your brain received my brain waves. I do this quite often – I lead a card in a suit I don’t want returned and then I concentrate as hard as I can on the suit I want partner to lead back, and very often that’s the suit he or she returns. Of course, one must be playing with a compatible and sympathetic partner who is ready to receive such a message. It’s the same mental power that makes the Ouija Board work. Think about it, and tell me what you conclude, while I fetch a tiny goodnight glass of port.’

James did not protest. Foolishly he remained seated on the sofa waiting obediently almost against his will for what would come next. He would really prefer a cold lager as he was feeling quite warm facing the snorting dragon. Was it possible, he wondered, that his decisions were being guided subconsciously, like the movements of a planchette on a Ouija Board, by some Invisible Hand?

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