Harry was in his little house on the edge of Back Bay when at half past twelve her voice came over the radio for the first time. A voice unusual in its sound and unusual in itself, since there were no other female announcers on air. He listened to the slow, clear, almost unnatural confidence, the low-pitched sexiness, the elusive accent as she read the local news. More than curious, already in love, he walked into the station the next day at precisely the same time.
It was the beginning of June, the start of the long, golden summer of 1975 when northern light held that little radio station in the large palm of its hand. Eleanor Dew was behind the receptionist's desk and behind clever Eleanor was the studio. She looked up, surprised. Harry rarely darkened the station door except at night when he came in to do the late shift and got away with saying and playing whatever he liked. He paused beside her desk and with a broad wink asked about the new person on air.
"Hired off the street," she told him. "The parting shot of our erstwhile manager."
"Well, well, well," said Harry.
Despite the red glow of the on-air light, he then pushed through the studio door, only to be met by one of the great mysteries of life. We look so very different from the way we sound. It's a shock, similar to hearing your own voice for the first time, when you're forced to wonder how the rest of you comes across if you sound nothing like the way you think you sound. You feel dislodged from the old shoe of yourself.
Harry had pictured somebody short and compact with sun-bleached hair, fine blue eyes, great legs, a woman in her thirties. But Dido Paris was tall, big-boned, olive-skinned, younger. Glasses. Thick, dark, springy hair held back off a wide face. Faintest shadow on her upper lip. An unreasonably beautiful woman. She didn't look up, too intent on the newscast typed in capital letters on green paper, three-part greens, the paper-and-carbon combination the newsmen typed on.
He turned to check who was in the control room. Eddy at the controls and one of the newsmen standing at Eddy's shoulder. An audience, in other words.
Harry took out his lighter, flicked it, and put the flame to the top corner of the green. And still she didn't look up.
Page 1 of 2An upper lip as downy as he imagined her legs might be. And yes, when she stood up later and came around the table, her legs were visible below a loose blue skirt, and the mystery of her voice was solved. She was European. European in her straightforwardness, her appearance, her way of speaking, which was almost too calm, except when the page was alight. Then her voice caught fire. She stopped turning her long pencil end on end, pacing herself. Stopped speaking altogether. Her eyes went in two directions – one leg on shore, the other in the canoe, but the canoe was pulling away from shore and shit – she picked up her glass, poured water on the flames, and read with jolting speed, repressed panic, to the very last word at the bottom of the page.
The news clip came on, she switched off her microphone and looked up wildly at the man with the boyish gleam in his eye. But he wasn't boyish, he was balding, bespectacled, square-jawed. She noticed his cauliflower ear.
"You're Harry Boyd," she said.
And she, too, had imagined another face – a big, bushy head to go with the relaxed, late-night growl that she heard only as she fell asleep. The man who'd once been a big name in radio, she'd been told. He was shorter than she'd expected and his hands trembled.
Half an hour later, perched on Dido's desk, bumming a cigarette, Harry asked her how she'd come by her intriguing accent. She studied him, not quite willing to forgive his outrageous behaviour, until he asked if she was Greek. Then out bubbled her easy and seductive laugh.
No chance. She'd grown up in the Netherlands near the German border, the daughter of a Latin teacher who'd listened to the BBC and written questions to "London Calling" about expressions he didn't understand. Her father had a reel-to-reel tape recorder and taped programs off the radio. She learned English at school, she told Harry, but her pronunciation was terrible and so she'd asked her father to make some tapes for her, and then she practised her English listening to Margaret Leighton reading Noel Coward and to Noel Coward himself, acquiring in that way her peculiar European-English accent, which she hated. "I figured marriage to a Canadian would solve my problem, but it hasn't."
"Two minutes," said Harry, "and you're already breaking my heart."
"It didn't last," she said.
"Then we have something in common, you and I."
He slipped her glasses off her face and breathed on the lenses and polished them with his handkerchief, then slid them back over her nose, saying, "And Dorothy Parker said men never make passes at girls with glasses."
"Dorothy. A writerly wit who famously claimed to be 'too fucking busy and vice versa.'"
Dido was only semi-amused. To Eleanor the next day she called Harry "the loser," a put-down softened by her accent; it came out "lose-air." She said he'd taken a drag off her lit cigarette, then set it back on the ashtray. "So cheap," she said with a shake of her head and a faint, unimpressed smile.
"But not without charm," countered Eleanor. "Charm, sex, insecurity: that's what Harry has to offer."
Dido was more interested now.
"He's too old for you, Dido."
But his age was the last thing Dido minded.
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Excerpted from Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay. Copyright 2007 by Elizabeth Hay. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.