Saturday, 9 November 2013

A promise made is a debt unpaid

Debts, it’s frequently asserted, are there to be paid.

The French say that ‘good accounts make good friends.’ Polonius, in Hamlet, warns his son ‘neither a borrower nor a lender be’, which isn’t quite the same thing: while Shakespeare clearly feels debts are not to be carried, he only suggests not incurring them in the first place, which isn’t a lot of use if you already have.

No one sums it up better than Robert Service, who has little claim to be taken seriously as a poet in spite, or perhaps because, of having written one of the world’s finest comic poems, The Cremation of Sam McGee. It includes the sonorous sentiment:

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code

I know what he means.

Fifteen years ago I suggested to my son Michael, then in his mid teens, to take him to a performance of Mozart’s Requiem. The third person due to join us was a German friend of ours, Alenka. She would, I suspect, herself be the first to admit that her life isn
’t unduly marked by anything one might call order or structure. She tends rather to create an atmosphere around her that is redolent of the sixties, wherever she goes.

In one respect, however, Germany has influenced her far more than hippiedom. She has, in spades, the German respect for punctuality. I remember a boss telling me with some annoyance, long before I’d learned the lesson, that the only way to turn up to appointments on time, is to set out to be early. That was our friend Alenka through and through.

So she was at our place to collect me for the concert at a ridiculously early hour, or so it seemed to me, accustomed as I was to turn up for such events just a minute or two before applauding the musicians as they trooped in. Alenka was more the ‘sit quietly in your place and make small talk for twenty minutes’ kind of person.

Michael wasn’t home when she showed up. Since he hadn’t expressed any particular enthusiasm for joining us, I decided to set out with Alenka alone at the moment when waiting had tried her impatience to breaking point – still, in my view, far earlier than necessary.

Alas, on my return after a fine performance of what remains one of my favourite pieces, I found Michael more than a little put out at having been left behind.

‘You went off without me. You knew I was coming.’

Well, I hadn’t been sure, and I’d felt pressurised by Alenka... but in reality, no excuses helped me feel any better. I’d gone without him, though he’d wanted to come, and he was disappointed. All the guilt a parent can feel towards a child he’s let down invaded me. I wonder if there are any parents out there who haven’t suffered the same gnawing feeling?

And from that date, it’s never left me. But this year, back in September, I went to a concert in London at St Martin in the Fields (remember the nursery rhyme? You owe me five farthings, say the bells of St Martin's?). It was a glorious baroque setting in which to listen to glorious baroque music. My heart particularly leaped when I saw that a performance of Mozart’s Requiem was planned for 9 November. 

St Martin's: just the place for Baroque music.
And not bad even for classical
The ensemble may not have been the best I’d ever heard, but surely no one can completely cock up the Requiem, can they? I mean, the music’s just majestic enough to carry the performers with it, however limited their talents. This lot weren’t untalented, it was just that they left me unconvinced they were entirely outstanding. In any case, this was an opportunity not to be missed.

So the very next day I was on the line to Michael in Madrid, where he now lives.

‘Book a ticket for that weekend,’ I suggested.

‘Out on the Thursday, back on the Monday? Will that do?’ he promptly responded.

The day has now come. We have the tickets. Michael’s in the house. Alenka’s not around to disrupt proceedings with her chronological puritanism.

I don’t know whether the performance is going to be brilliant or just passable. Either way, the setting will be breathtaking. And several friends are joining us, so the ingredients for a good evening will all be there. And, above all, I
’ll keep a promise made, discharge a debt unpaid

A great weight will be lifted from my heart 15 years after it first settled there.


Awoogamuffin said...

Well I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I hope it's assuaged your guilt a little, even though I still don't recall the initial broken promise in the first place!

David Beeson said...

Ah, it was a sense of guilt and indebtedness that I was carrying around inside myself. It didn't require you to contribute to it at all.