Sweetycat Press published this anthology, available to buy on Amazon and Kindle, in January 2022. My story, below, is classed as creative non-fiction.
A composite summer tableau from the nineteen-sixties: three sisters sit on the soft grass beneath an apple tree. One is a small child, the other two are in their teens. Libby is playing her guitar and singing in French. Katharine hums along as she makes a daisy-chain for me, while I, too young to learn languages at school, warble nonsense words that sound almost like French. Our parents watch, smiling, from the summer-house. No doubt they are charmed by the scene, and by the older girls’ willingness to entertain their chippy kid sister.
Dommy Neeka-neeka-neeka, son allay to Sam Plemonn,
Roo-chore, po-vray, shorn-torn….
The guitar-toting balladeers of the Sixties – Julie Felix, Peter Sarstedt, Nana Mouskouri, The Singing Nun – were Libby’s heroes. Her music is what people remember most, decades later. That, and her kindness. ‘She played and sang her way into our hearts,’ our aunt wrote, after Libby and her guitar had been on a visit to Canada.
She spoke, and sang, French thanks to a year at a Swiss finishing-school. She was no posh debutante, but didn’t get on with school in England, so our parents proposed La Fontanelle at Vevey on Lake Geneva. It was an inspired choice: she was happy, learned to ski, and made friends she kept all her life.
It would be wrong to say that there was no more music in our family when Libby died, but Christmases and family gatherings got quieter and sadder after we lost her to liver cancer, at the age of thirty-six.
The gibberish of Dommy Neeka stuck in my head, as rhymes and jingles from early childhood will. Decades later I used the Internet—that magical enabler of rediscovery, reunion, and ferreting-out, as well as the darkest embodyings of human obsession—to find the song’s real words. In the process I also found the woman who wrote them.
Jeannine Deckers was a Belgian nun, part of the Dominican order, who surprised the world, and herself, by becoming a pop star. In 1963 her song Dominique was an international hit, propelling her to fame but also into bitter conflict with the Catholic Church.
Dominique, about a saintly wandering monk, did not in itself anger the Church. The lyrics massacred by six-year-old me translate as
Dominique set out, a poor simple traveller, singing …
But fame and fortune led to problems, as they often do. The Singing Nun’s record label kept most of the profits from her success. Her relationship with the Church soured, especially when she released a song called Glory be to God for the Golden Pill in praise of contraception. She left her convent and became a lay Dominican. She never renounced her religious faith, but battled poverty and depression for years. In 1985 she died in a suicide pact with her companion and lover Annie.
Libby had no children, but there was music in the next generation. Three decades after she died, three of her nieces sang at my daughter’s wedding. Some of us wept to hear those voices, that were like songbirds. Like singing nuns. Like Libby.
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