The Band Played On
The title of the next story in Nocturnes contains another musical reference, Come Rain or Come Shine, the title of a famous American song standard. It is narrated by Ray, who, like Jan in Crooner, is someone living abroad, away from England, his country of birth. The story continues to incorporate motifs of music, evening, immigration, and portals.
It begins with Ray describing how he’d become close with a couple, Emily and Charlie, in university days, apparently twenty-five years before the present of the story. At that time, Charlie was his best friend as was Emily—although there’s no mention of any sexual attraction on Ray’s part. He describes how he and Emily bonded over their appreciation of American standard songs performed by artists like Sarah Vaughn and Billie Holiday.
Ray then relates how, after university, he took up teaching English in Spain and is still there. “…I’ve been stuck in the same humid buildings year after year, setting spelling tests or conducting the same conversations in slowed-down English…When I first took up English teaching after university it seemed a good enough life…if the teaching was tedious and the hours exploitative, at that age you don’t care much…In the late 80s, there was still talk of making a lot of money teaching in Japan, and I made serious plans to go, but it never worked out…then before you know it, you’re forty-seven years old and the people you started out with long ago have been replaced by a generation who gossip about different things, take different drugs, and listen to different music.”
After “a few months that hadn’t exactly been the best in my life,” he goes to visit Emily and Charlie (who have married) in London. He goes with a sense of desiring connection with the past, with England, and his old friends. But he’s immediately disappointed—“his” room at the couple’s house is untidy, Charlie is distracted and critical of his life.
In fact, both Charlie and Emily are concerned and critical over Ray’s existence.
“…he (Charlie) fired questions at me about my life in Spain, and each time I told him anything, good or bad, he’d do this sour little smile and shake his head, like I was confirming his worst fears.” Charlie says: “Listen to me…your situation’s hopeless. You’ve got to hand in your notice…I can tell you won’t do any of this…You’ll go back and carry on just the same…in a year’s time, you’ll be moaning about exactly the same things.”
Emily says: “Oh, honestly, Raymond. You let yourself be exploited left, right, and centre by that ghastly language school, you let your landlord rip you off silly, and what do you do? Get in tow with some airhead girl with a drink problem and not even a job to support it. It’s like you’re deliberately trying to annoy anyone who still gives a shit about you!…Raymond, don’t you ever stop and ask yourself who you are?” Emily asked. “When you think of all your potential, aren’t you ashamed? Look at how you lead your life! It’s…it’s simply infuriating! One gets so exasperated!”
Not only are his old friends disapproving of the way he’s living his life, but they are also having marital problems. In fact, in a comedic twist, Charlie—who has to go away on a business trip—wants Ray to stay with Emily, believing that Ray’s presence will show Emily that he (Charlie) is not so bad by comparison. There follows a slapstick scene that comprises the bulk of the story. Ray accidentally damages Emily’s diary after discovering it expresses dismay over his visit. “Raymond coming! Groan, groan!” Then he tries to hide the evidence. With Charlie’s help (by phone) he attempts to create the impression that the neighbor’s unruly dog burst into the house and tore up the diary. This ruse involves breaking vases and cooking an old shoe in order to get the proper dog smell.
(Dogs smell like popcorn).
Please pay attention.
Emily returns from work and, appalled by the chaos, takes it as confirmation that Ray is deranged. However, she decides to cook dinner, and the pair listens to old vocal jazz records the way they used to. However, in a change, Ray does not wish to argue with Emily about which interpretation is better—the way they used to do. Ray tells Emily that Charlie loves her and doesn’t want to divorce. The two of them wind up dancing together out on the terrace.
“You’re right, Raymond,” she said, quietly in my ear. “Charlie’s all right. We should sort ourselves out.”
“Yes, you should.”
“You’re a good friend, Raymond. What would we do without you?”
Ray remembers the song they’re dancing to is eight minutes long. He thinks after it’s over, they’ll go inside, and Emily may become angry again because of his destruction of her diary and the cooking of the smelly shoe.
“What did I know? But for another few minutes at least, we were safe, and we kept dancing under the starlit sky.”
It appears that Charlie’s scheme may indeed have worked. Compared to Ray, Charlie seems better to Emily. Ray represents another unreliable narrator who underreports—at least to his friends. He acknowledges to his narratee—the entity he’s telling the story to—that he’s been stuck in an unsatisfying job and that the recent few weeks have been particularly bad. He wants to visit his old friends as a kind of re-charging. He thinks of them as happily married, solid and respectable. Grown-up—perhaps the way he’s imagined himself becoming. However, when they point out the deficiencies in his life, he denies them, saying rather that he’s doing just fine—and the reader knows this is not the case.
There is a strong theme here of someone living a sort of exile and longing for home—at least the illusion of a home that once was. But Ray is confronted with change; Charlie and Emily are not the same people he knew in university. And they are not accepting of his perhaps younger lifestyle.
Yet, at the end, there’s a sense that Ray has transformed in that he’s no longer interested in entering into arguments with Emily over old standard jazz songs. But he is consistent in just wanting things to be “nice” for the eight-minute length of the song they’re dancing to. He remains nostalgic for the way they all used to be.
The title Come Rain or Come Shine is probably meaning-laden, my friends. There are no coincidences, as Don Juan used to say. The implication is that Emily and Charlie love each other no matter what. And Emily can accept Ray with all his problems, and still see that he is a good friend.
However, I think in Ray’s case, the song title has a twist. Emily and Charlie may be mistaken in thinking that Ray cares for them. We the readers know that Ray is self-centered; he goes along with the couple’s schemes and endures their criticism because he desires the comfort of the past, not because he’s such a good friend. At the end, he wants the romantic song to continue. Ray remains the same, come rain or come shine. Like Crooner, Come Rain or Come Shine uses romantic music in an ironic way.
(To quote Jordan Catalano).
Till next time.