THE BETTER FOR HEARING

 

Skinner got there fairly early. He wasn't the first, not by a long shot, but most of the crowd hadn't yet arrived.

He'd been wanting to do this off and on for years. Thought about it, but had never done anything about it. Until tonight.

He was in Ottawa, for a conference on cross-border security concerns when he saw the notice in the morning's paper: Come Sing!

It was an ad for a presentation of Handel's Messiah in which the audience took the part of the Choir. Tonight, at the Dominion-Chalmers Church -- which, according to the waiter he asked, was not far from the hotel itself. Rehearsal at 6 p.m., with the actual performance at 8. Bring your own scores, but if you didn't have one, some would be for sale in the church lobby. Tickets were required: call...and a phone number.

It was Friday, and the Conference was on until Saturday. There was nothing planned for the evening apart for the usual networking, something that Skinner could take or leave: preferably leave. He doubted anyone would notice him missing. Besides, he'd get plenty of that in Saturday night at the banquet.

He used his cell phone to call the contact number to be told he had left it rather late. There were some seats left, not many. Was he a bass or a tenor?

Skinner thought about it for a minute, decided that he would rather sit in the basses: better chance of being drowned out if he couldn't stay in voice.

He had gotten one of the last bass seats, which, it turned out, was just on the cusp of the tenors. He removed his coat, shook the light dusting of snow off it and folded it carefully before sitting down. In his hand he held a copy of tonight's program and a new copy of Handel's Messiah which he had indeed bought in the lobby, from a young woman who was obviously a music student at the local university.

He sat back and examined the church. It wasn't all that large. The "choir" sat in the pews that in semi- circular rows filled the lower floor of the church. The "audience" would be seated in the upper balconies that hung in the circumference of the building.

It was plain in decoration, though the high wooden ceiling, the gold of the old oak pews, the two discreetly decorated evergreens that stood on either side of the raised altar floor gave the stone structure a personality of its own. As did the pipes for the organ that had been placed in a wing formation on the front wall.

In front of the steps, on the floor itself, a small orchestra was rehearsing one of the four soloists up on stage, the bass whose voice made Skinner aware just how out of condition his was going to be. The conductor led everyone through their paces using a mixture of French and English, the occasional Italian musical phrases thrown in for explanation. He, the soloists, the orchestra ignored the increasingly loud "choir", until the conductor brought the whole house to a halt by firmly requesting silence until the soprano had finished her share of rehearsal. The crowd immediately quieted down.

Skinner smiled to himself: wondering if that tone would have the same beneficial effect if it were used in meetings with his X-Files agents. He doubted it.

The soprano left the stage and the conductor turned his attention to his choir. It was obvious that the man was popular. And that many of the people around him were not novices at this type of participatory performance. They had colour tags, paper clips marking the pieces that they would be singing this night. Some even had pencils in their hands, ready to make notations.

Beginning to wonder if he had missed out on something in the ad -- was he the only amateur present? -- he copied his bench-mate and turned down the corners of the pieces that were marked CHORUS on the program.

Within a couple of minutes, Skinner had forgotten he was an amateur. The conductor made them go through a series of voice exercises, humourously chastising them when they didn't perform as he expected. And though there were many "professional" singers in the crowd, a great many were not.

Skinner found himself enjoying the rehearsal, finding old friends among the movements he hadn't remembered. All those piano lessons his mother had insisted on were finally paying off. He could pretty much read the music and when he tried his voice, he found it wasn't that out of tune after all.

During the rehearsal, the last of the empty seats filled up with late arrivals. Even the "audience" seats were rapidly filling up. At 7:30, having gone through each of the chorus songs once, a supper break was called while the orchestra, conductor and soloists went off to change into their working clothes.

Skinner didn't move. He just sat there, enjoying the ambience of the hall, the people. Friends waving to each other, calling in a variety of languages -- but mainly English and French, hugging, kissing cheeks. This was Canada: moreover it was the part that was next to Quebec. Skinner had noticed in previous visits to the capital that people touched, hugged, kissed a lot more here than in Washington. He wondered if it were the French influence?

Gradually people were coming back to take their places. Through it all, the seat next to his, on the tenor side of the bass/tenor cusp hadn't been filled yet. It still hadn't when the orchestra filed in, tuned their instruments. Nor when the soloists took their places.

To great applause, the conductor entered and was giving a little talk on Handel and the Messiah -- a composition by a German, working in England, usually writing Italian Opera, producing a oratorio that premiered in Dublin, Ireland, 257 years ago -- when someone took possession of the empty seat.

Skinner pulled his coat over a bit more so it didn't take more space than it ought to, listened while the conductor explained that Handel had hoped the oratorio would not only entertain, but that people would be the better for hearing it.

The overture started and Skinner felt the music and the message flow over him. The tenor was the first singer to stand centre stage and Skinner smiled at the clear, melodic voice that filled the open space with the "Comfort Ye/Every Valley".

At a signal from the conductor, the choir rose and the intro for "And the Glory of the Lord" began. Skinner bumped into the man standing next to him. He turned to mouth an apology and froze. In a classic "What on earth!" pose.

As had the man he had bumped into.

They both missed the first few bars while they recovered, turned their eyes back to the conductor and found their places in the score.

What the fu...Skinner caught himself: he was in a church. He glanced over to right to find himself being examined by a stone-faced Alex Krycek. Their eyes met, flicked back to the scores they held in their hands.

Skinner felt all the enjoyment he had had so far in the evening evaporate. Bad enough Krycek still managed to manipulate his life by threatening to re-activate the nanocytes, Scully suspected he was responsible for the death of Doctor Sandoz at the hogan in Arizona.

So what was a rat bast...a rat like Krycek doing here in Ottawa of all places, part of a choir singing the Messiah? Tenor, of all things!

The choir finished their first piece and sat for the bass and alto solos. Skinner and Krycek glared at each other. Quietly.

Then Skinner came to a decision.

He had been wanting to do this for too many years to have it all spoilt for him by the sudden appearance of an enemy. Pointedly, he faced the front and began listening to the music.

And Handel's music worked its usual magic on him. By the time the choir stood to sing "For Unto Us a Child is Born", he was successful in ignoring the fact that he was sitting next to the man responsible for his second experience with death.

Then, over the course of the next couple of movements, he began noticing, out of the corner of his eye, little things about the man. Like that the score he held in his hands was not new, was obviously much used. Tattered in fact.

That the fact that he had missed rehearsal didn't seem to hinder Krycek in his participation. That his tenor was untrained but true.

And that, like Skinner, he was slowly relaxing under the influence of the music, the words.

The conductor had the entire church stand for the "Hallelujah!" and everyone in the church threw themselves into the joyous sound of the celebration of the Resurrection.

So far, Skinner felt he'd been doing rather well, considering it had been years since he had attempted to even sing. But something distracted him during the "forever and ever" segment of "Worthy is the Lamb" and he lost his place several times. He was ready to admit defeat in the "Amen" segment. It had been too long and he found it difficult to keep track of where he was going. He did notice that Krycek didn't have that problem. Then, a leather clad finger appeared on his sheet to point out the right bar. He nodded his thanks as he took up his place. And he was there to help the choir finish with a heartfelt "Amen".

There was a moment's silence and then, as one, a loud cheer filled the hall. There was loud applause for the conductor, each of the soloists -- the bass had been particularly good in the duet with trumpet -- and the orchestra. Then, to the delight of the choir, the conductor led the applause for them. There were hoots, cheers, shouts of "Bravo! Encore!", the sound of hands beating the back of the pew in front of them.

The conductor signalled for silence. Got it fairly quickly.

"Again, the Hallelujah?"

Cheers as choir and musicians found the right place.

The first notes played and the hall was once more filled with enthusiastic, loud, joyous sounds of celebration.

Skinner found himself grinning at the conclusion and experienced an Alex Krycek grinning with delight as they intoned the final hallelujahs.

The applause this time was even more raucous than the first round. But it was the end and everyone knew it. The conductor and the soloists left the hall, the musicians packed up their instruments, chatting with their friends and family. People picked up their coats, bags, shuffled out through the various exits, still high from their experience.

Alone among all the choir two men sat, side by side, quiet until the hall had emptied and only a couple of stragglers remained. Finally, these too left the hall.

Neither man said anything. Each waited for the other.

Finally Krycek stood up, rolled his copy of the score into a inner pocket in his leather jacket. If Skinner were going to do something, it would be now. But Skinner said and did nothing. He just kept his eyes on the front of the church.

Krycek made a small sound, as though he were clearing his throat.

Skinner turned his head enough to stare up at Krycek.

The two men just looked at each other.

Then Krycek gave a bit of a nod, a hint of a smile, a real one. And turned, left the row, walked down the aisle to the door. He waited there for a moment, expecting to challenged. Then he pushed open the door and went out.

Skinner sat in the empty hall, listening to the fading footsteps, to the sounds of the music still vibrating in the walls of the church.

He smiled. Rose. Put his coat on.

Walked out of the church, humming "Unto Us a Child is Born."

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