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Scene One: The Heartbreak Choir

When Aidan died, I inherited his tax bill and his estate. Now, I am the keeper of the keys. The holder of the copyright of his work. The person who must sign off on casting and script decisions. And yet I know nothing about theatre. It has never been my domain. I sit in the dark with the rest of the audience, transfixed by what unfolds before me, but I do not understand the backstage.

Aidan wrote many plays in his career. He also directed some and starred in the earlier ones when he ran a theatre company with two of his friends. As his career grew, his plays became more ambitious in scope and style, moving away from the one-act, hour-long pieces to large-scale, main-stage productions.

Following the success of his play The Architect in 2018, he wanted his next work to be a comedy. His intention was to write a trilogy—The Architect was the tragedy, the second was the comedy and the third, which would never eventuate, would be satire.

Around this time, we went to see our daughter’s music concert at her high school. She was in one of the choirs and they were performing an arrangement of a song by legendary Melbourne composer and choir director Sue Johnson. As we worked our way through a bag of chips that we’d brought along in lieu of dinner, the choir sang—a wash of forty young voices, woven together.

That was the moment Aidan decided singing was what he’d been missing.

That was the moment Aidan decided singing was what he’d been missing.

The next week, he went with a friend to a rehearsal of the Pagan Angels, one of the many choirs Sue Johnson leads in Melbourne. He came home calm and smiling and a little smug. Apparently, he had a lovely tenor voice and, besides, they needed men.

Aidan had never been a joiner. He avoided groups of people with names he knew he’d likely forget as soon as they parted. He left the school council meetings and the netball coaching to me. But the choir was different. He felt restored.

Each Thursday night he headed off to the Abbotsford Convent to sing in tune. He became one of those born-again choir members, telling everyone they needed to sing. Initially he even tried with me, but no amount of his private coaching could help my voice over the line. In our house, I’ve always been the family joke when it comes to music—the only person not a member of a choir, the only person who can’t hold a note, the only person without any musical talent at all except for a little year-eight flute. Our children have been blessed with Aidan’s musical genes. They both play multiple instruments and can recognise a song in seconds.

Pagan Angels wasn’t just about the singing for Aidan. It was about being vulnerable, being honest with the people he met. Through the act of trusting each other with song, they spoke of their lives. And he felt safe, changed by the communal act of sharing his voice.

And then he was diagnosed.

When he came to write his new play, the comedy in his trilogy, he turned to his Thursday night choir and found his story. One of hope and humour in a small town. A play about the past and the damage of the church, and ultimately about the power of singing. He recognised that his own need to come together and sing with people, who started as strangers and slowly became friends, would be the heart of it.

And then he started missing choir because he was in pain or having treatment. I urged him to keep going, knowing how it made him feel. But he was torn. Aidan always processed things alone. He wasn’t like me. He didn’t just spew his feelings out to the person standing closest. He kept them tight, making sense of them first before returning to the world. And choir was somewhere he couldn’t hide. In many ways it was one of the most regular outings of his week, aside from chemo or visiting the oncologist. So the choir members saw him struggle, even if they didn’t know the details.

He kept [his feelings] tight, making sense of them first before returning to the world.

In November 2019, Aidan was due to sing the lead of the Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds song ‘Into My Arms’ for a Pagan Angels performance at the Abbotsford Convent. Finally, the kids and I would see him sing. That Saturday morning, I was setting up a toy stall in the school gym for our son’s primary school fete. The plan was the kids and I would go to the convent that afternoon and watch the performance and then all go out for dinner.

I was knee-deep in bright-coloured plastic when Aidan found me in the school gym. He was pale. Two rounds into chemotherapy and it was knocking him. He was wearing my mum’s old green raincoat that always looked so out of place on him with its cheery colour and its oversized shape.

I stopped sorting jigsaw puzzles to make plans about where to meet at the convent. He started crying in the gym and told me not to come. He didn’t want us there. He wouldn’t be able to sing if we watched him. I didn’t understand. I thought we helped when he felt vulnerable and shaky, but he said it was too much.

He left and I went back to pricing Barbies.

That was the only public performance Aidan did with the Pagan Angels. I have a recording of it. His voice is strong. Sometimes when I’m trying to find him now in the house, I play it and the layer of thirty voices harmonising helps. He is singing the solo and, each time I hear it, I can imagine him that day without us, trying to make it to the end of the song without breaking down.

I don’t have text messages or voicemail messages from him where he says my name because my phone died not long after he did and took them all with it.

But I have him singing.

He spent hours talking with Sue at the Pagan Angels about his play. She helped him understand choirs and how they work. Writing kept him focused on something other than medicine and hospital appointments. It gave us an engine to our family that wasn’t just about him being sick.

In the foreword to the play, he writes: The reason for the choir to exist was about wanting culture and beauty. It was about finding joy. But it was mostly about finding a connection that wasn’t transactional and wasn’t sport.

He finished writing that play, The Heartbreak Choir, in late 2019 and it was programmed for the following year, April 2020. Aidan went to a reading with the cast and came home exhausted. Sitting in a chair for hours with cancer in his spine was painful and hard. We weren’t talking about the play as if it would be his last, even though we both knew.

Then Covid hit and theatres in Melbourne went dark. The play, like so many others, had to be cancelled. We were devastated but hopeful that if it was programmed in 2021, he’d be alive to see it.

But he wasn’t.

This is an edited extract from Love, Death & Other Scenes by Nova Weetman (UQP), available now at your local independent bookseller.