Alan had never been a fan. Not like his mother. When she was 70, and still liked to go on foreign holidays, she’d saved up and gone on a pilgrimage ‘to Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee’, as she liked to say. He’d offered to go, too, but she wouldn’t have it.
‘You’ll only mock,’ she’d said. ‘You’re too young. You don’t understand.’
‘I’m not that young,’ he’d argued. He’d already been over 40. But she’d insisted that pilgrimages were only for believers, and he wasn’t a believer. So, he’d driven her to the airport and waved her off in the new violet coat she’d bought for the occasion.
He was sure that some of the neighbours thought his mother’s fixation on a dead singer was odd, and even a little morbid. But to Alan it was normal. So, it was also normal when the present his mother brought him back from Graceland was a black wig of abundant Elvis-type hair, a pair of wrap-around Ray-ban tinted glasses and a flashy, garish, white suit studded with rhinestones, the sort that the man himself used to wear on stage in his later years.
It’s the thought that counts, he told himself, as he unpacked the gift and quickly put it away in a wardrobe.
He might not have shared his mother’s devotion, but he’d always liked some of the songs that Elvis sang, and all his life had gone around the house singing them to himself. He particularly liked ‘Love Me Tender’. His mother enjoyed hearing him sing that.
‘You should be the television,’ she would say. ‘You’ve got a lovely voice.’
To which he would laugh and reply. ‘Who would want to look at me on the tele?’
‘Well, I would,’ his mother would answer, which to Alan wasn’t quite as encouraging as it had been intended, because he knew that all mothers think their children are beautiful, even when they aren’t; and even when they were middle-aged, which he now was.
Not that Alan was ugly. He wasn’t. But he was very shy, and always had been. As a boy he’d been invisible, just another shortish, stout, quiet, well-behaved, good-natured lad, who had begun to lose most of his hair almost as soon as he’d finished taking his GCSEs.
That was in an age long before baldness and a stubbly chin were fashionable. And, by the time both were, he’d realized that he couldn’t grow much hair on his chin, anyway.
He’d never had many friends, and not once had a girlfriend. Many times he’d wished he had, and there’d been many a secret crush over the years. But none of the girls at school had seemed to notice him, nor did the glamour girls on the beauticians’ counter at Boots.
While, nowadays, the pretty nurses with their bleached blonde, fulsome hair seemed to look right through him as he went about his porter’s chores at the hospital.
His mother hadn’t been married when he’d been born, so he’d never known his father, and had probably been closer to his mother than most boys were. ‘Just like Elvis and his mum,’ his mother used to tell him, which he didn’t like to hear. He thought it sounded a bit creepy.
But she’d been a good mum, while he was a dutiful son, she with her adult education lessons and Elvis records, and he with his weather forecasting hobby, Fulham FC season ticket and job at the hospital.
Then one day his mother died. She’d never been ill. Her heart just stopped one afternoon while she’d been shopping in Sainsburys. He discovered later that she’d had an undiagnosed heart problem for years, and had needed a stent, but had never known.
Everyone at work was very sympathetic, encouraging Alan to take some time off. But time off meant he was by himself at home, where all he had to do was to sort out his mother’s financial affairs, which was easy, and her Elvis paraphernalia, which was not.
Theirs was a three bedroom council flat, and his mother had been saving everything Elvis since she’d been in her teens, turning the tiny spare bedroom into something of a shrine.
When she’d been alive, it had been a place of embarrassment, but now Alan was comforted by the photographs and posters among the albums and CDs. There was just so much, and he even found himself reading the account of Elvis’s death on a copy of the front page of the Daily Mail from 1977.
As a boy, he’d pretended to amuse his mother by imitating her hero, knowing all the moves to ‘Jailhouse Rock’ and the hip jerks for ‘Hound Dog’, but now he found himself singing along with the slower songs that she’d most liked when she’d got older. ‘I will spend my whole life through, loving you,’ he and Elvis sang together. He’d always liked that one, too.
It might have been expected that his mother’s death would drive him to retreat further inside himself, and for a while, through grieving, it did. He knew that if he didn’t make an effort to be convivial and talk to more people, no-one was going to talk to him. But where, and how, to start. It was difficult.
Then, one morning, as he was pushing a basket of washing in his trolley into the hospital laundry, he heard someone singing a hymn he recognized from his mother’s Elvis albums. Her name was Estelle, a plump laughing lady, in her early forties.
‘Oh well, I’m tired and so weary, but I must go along…’, Estelle was singing.
To which, without thinking, he responded: ‘Till the Lord comes and calls, calls me away, oh yes.’
Estelle stopped singing. ‘Oh! I didn’t see you there. My, you’ve got a lot of washing this morning.’
‘Monday mornings are always a busy washday,’ he retorted, which was quite conversational for Alan.
‘Every day is busy for this washerwoman,’ Estelle came back, laughing.
The ice had been cracked, if not exactly broken, and every day after that he and Estelle would momentarily exchange a few words or lines of a song as he went about his chores.
‘I didn’t realise anyone knew ‘Peace in the Valley’ apart from Elvis and my mother,’ he told her one day.
‘The Mahalia Jackson song, you mean? Oh, yes. We sing it at our church,’ Estelle replied.
‘You sing in church?’ he asked.
‘That’s why we go. Well, mainly why I go. You should come. We need a good tenor.’
He didn’t know how to answer that, so he didn’t. ‘Better push on,’ he said, and continued on his rounds.
Estelle’s words, however, stayed with him. Was he really a ‘good tenor’? Or was she just saying that, for something to say. And, by inviting him to go and sing at her church, was she just trying to save his soul?
Another thought then struck him; a romantic one. Was being asked to go to church, a bit like being asked out on a date? Obviously, he knew that it wasn’t a date. Not a real date. But was it a reason for Estelle to get to know him better? Did she want to get to know him? Why would she? Did he want to get to know her? Yes. Very much.
In the end, over several weeks, she had to mention her church four times before he agreed to meet her there. Estelle’s church service was on a Saturday night, and although there was some sermonising and praying by the pastor, much of the time was given over to singing by small groups of men, women and children.
He knew a few of the hymns, from his mother’s Elvis religious albums, but although Estelle urged him to join in when the choir sang ‘Joshua Fit The Battle of Jericho’, he shook his head.
‘I can only sing by myself,’ he told her as they walked to the bus stop after the service. ‘I couldn’t sing if people were looking at me.’
‘You’re too self-conscious,’ she argued. ‘No-one knows you here.’
‘No. But I know me.’
‘Oh well,’ she said, as her bus arrived. ‘See you on Monday.’
It took a while, months actually, but Estelle kept mentioning it, and, little by little, Alan became, at first, a part of the congregation, then of the choir, then one of two tenors in a large ensemble, and finally a single tenor in a male quartet as they sang ‘How Great Thou Art’.
No-one stared at him, as they sang. In fact, most of the congregation just seemed to smile and look up into nothing. He could, he thought, have been invisible.
Meanwhile, Estelle was always there encouraging, a happy lady with brilliant white teeth, who listened with apparent interest when he explained his weather forecasting hobby, who began to notice when Fulham FC won a match, and was amused when he would tell her of incidents concerning his mother’s infatuation with Elvis Presley.
‘That’s okay. My father was a Sam Cooke fanatic. He was so thrilled when he saw that film where Harrison Ford finds an old car in a barn and the radio starts playing “Don’t know much about history, don’t know much biology”’, and she sang the lyrics.
‘It was Witness,’ Alan said. ‘Great film.’
‘Yes,’ she agreed. ‘Except that he doesn’t get the girl in the end.’
‘No. Real life, I suppose,’ said Alan.
They weren’t going out together, just meeting at her church and singing, but Alan’s days were brighter because of Estelle, and going to work at the hospital had become a joy.
Then one Saturday night, just before Christmas, they were on their way to the bus stop, when Estelle announced that a few of the women in her choir had agreed to perform at a special concert being put on for elderly patients in the hospital. ‘We’re doing it on Monday. None of the men can get time off work, but, as you work there, you could do a solo performance, couldn’t you,’ she said.
‘What? Me? Singing? Alone?’ he gasped. ‘I couldn’t.’
‘Yes, you could,’ she insisted. ‘Joseph from church is retired so he’s going to be there accompanying us on the piano. He could play for you, too.’
‘But they’ll see me, the nurses and patients and doctors… They’ll know me and wonder why I’m not pushing a bed around or something.’
‘When they hear you, they won’t think that,’ she told him. Her bus was approaching.
He shook his head. ‘I couldn’t do it.’
‘Oh, come on,’ she urged. ‘I’m sure you can.’
‘I’m sorry,’ he said.
She looked disappointed.
The bus stopped. The driver was waiting for her to get on.
‘Never mind. It was just a thought,’ she said quietly. ‘Good night.’
And, as she stepped on to the bus, the doors closed behind her.
He couldn’t sleep that night. Singing in church along with lots of others was one thing, but a solo performance? The thought terrified him. He would like to have done it; loved to have done it. But what if he opened his mouth to sing and stage fright froze him into silence?
Then he thought about Estelle, and he pictured that little look of disappointment. Was he letting her down? Would she still like him now?
At four in the morning, for want of something to do, he got up and began tidying away his mother’s Elvis souvenirs. After her death, the Graceland suit, with the wig and the Ray-bans, had joined her other Elvis memorabilia in an old chest. He should find a charity and give it all away, he thought, as he lifted out the white Elvis suit and looked at it.
He’d always felt guilty that he hadn’t even tried it on when his mother had brought it back from Graceland. He’d been embarrassed by it, but he knew that it wouldn’t have hurt him to wear it once for her, and to have seen her face light up. It would have made her happy.
Piece by piece he laid the outfit on his bed. The flares looked even more ridiculous now, he thought, then he wondered vaguely if the white rhinestone jumpsuit would fit him these days. So, he tried it on.
It did fit, just about, if he breathed in. The Ray-bans came next and covered half his face, but the wig, all gelled pompadour and cheap black nylon, was grotesque.
He looked at himself in a mirror before he put it on. Without the wig, he was just Alan, the hospital porter, wearing silly glasses and an absurd get-up. Then he pulled the wig on to his head, and everything changed.
He was unrecognisable. Only his white gym shoes revealed who he really was, and they were just about hidden by his Graceland trousers.
Holding a wooden hairbrush as a pretend microphone, the way he’d done when he’d been eleven years old, he began to sing. Pacing around his bedroom, he began with ‘It’s Now Or Never’.
Then swaying his hips and puckering his forehead in guilt he went into ‘Suspicious Minds’. By the time he reached ‘Hound Dog’ he was almost gyrating. He looked at himself hard in the mirror after he finished singing,
When he reached the hospital on the Monday morning there was a Christmas tree with fairy lights in the reception area and a Father Christmas making his way from bed to bed around the children’s wards. In the laundry, Estelle was busy dealing with another porter’s basket of sheets from the intensive care unit, so, he didn’t get chance to talk to her. He thought about her, though. He thought about her all the time, the plump, smiling, joyful woman.
He had a busy day, and no sooner had his shift finished than it was the time for the concert. The porters’ lodge was empty as he took off his hospital work uniform, with the sound of ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter;’ echoing down the stone staircase nearby. Estelle and her friends had such beautiful voices, he thought as he listened. Then came ‘Away In A Manger’ as he pulled a hospital gown round himself.
The concert was being held in a ward for old people on the ground floor, and, as he reached it, he slipped unnoticed behind a clutter of ECG machines.
‘Gloria in excelis de-e-o…’ the singing finished.
At the end of the little concert, as the applause faded, Estelle stepped forward to thank the audience. ‘I just want to say thank you, you’ve been a wonderful….’
But, catching sight of him as he slipped off the hospital gown, she stopped in astonishment.
Then suddenly she smiled and smiled. ‘But before we go,’ she began again, ‘we’re very lucky tonight to have with us a very special guest. Will you all please welcome… Elvis Presley.’ And, holding out a hand of welcome she handed the microphone to Alan.
Anonymous in his Elvis suit, hiding behind his Ray-bans, his Elvis wig perched on his head, Alan swallowed, wet his lips, then, with a nod to Joseph the church pianist, he began to sing. ‘Love me tender, love me sweet, never let me go. You have made my life complete, and I love you so…’
For a moment, all he could see was Estelle’s smile. But then it began, a soft murmuring sound as at first one or two, then a couple more and finally the entire ward began to accompany him.
Singing along with him, came lyrics that the patients had known all their lives, words that brought back the days and nights when they’d been young – aged fifteen, seventeen, twenty.
And alongside the patients, the doctors and nurses, carers and consultants, psychiatrists and physios joined in, too.No-one cared that it wasn’t really Elvis Presley.
Perhaps some of those present thought it was Elvis Presley, especially when Joseph on the piano got all bluesy and Alan went into another song. ‘It’ll be a blue Christmas without you, I’ll be so blue just thinking about you…’
But it didn’t matter who he was or wasn’t, nor that Alan looked absurd in his Elvis outfit. The song and the voice, Alan’s voice, were all that was important, as the audience in and around the beds provided their own pictures, seeing themselves again as they once had been, everyone picturing happy moments from long ago, memories of those they’d loved and lost and still loved.
And even when Alan’s scalp became so hot under his wig that he snatched off his fake Elvis hair, no-one guffawed or laughed, not even the consultants, so wrapped up were they in the emotions of the songs and the moment.
They didn’t see Alan the little hospital porter. They didn’t see Elvis either. Through the music and the singer they saw themselves and their lives. And they were happy in their thoughts.
For his final number, Alan had chosen the one that starts ‘wise men say, only fools rush in’ when a second voice began to sing somewhere behind him. He looked back and there was Estelle, harmonising as she walked towards him.
Then she took and squeezed his hand as they sang together.It was like something off the television, his mother would have said, had she been there. But it was better than that. Better than television. Better than anything. It was real life.
‘And I can’t help falling in love with you.’
© Ray Connolly, 2022