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Just Home from Singing a Sad Song and Getting a Laugh

The red nose helped. The ancient and august cathedral helped. Acoustics sublime. The Steinway helped. The genius playing the Steinway helped — that’s you, Will. (Pickvance to any as yet uninitiated.) The genius who composed the song helped (that’s you, Mr Sondheim.) It helps to be helped by geniuses. Even the man who gave me his parking place outside the cathedral, and his ticket with 50 minutes left on it, helped. (It was a forty five minute concert).

This all started last year. In my car. Freewheeling round a bend. A thought. On a rare respite break from my caring role at home. Running away from responsibility. Repossession of self. You become invisible when your life revolves around the duties of caring for someone who has lost their hold on the details of life. And thus, with the details, goes your identity, like so many ball-bearings disappearing under a sofa. I had three days to find them and, if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphors, keep them in a jar with holes in the lid. I did. Some of them hatch, every now and again. This time, one of them caught a thermal into the vaulted ceilings of St Giles Cathedral.

On my three day break, (it was yoga, it was sleep, it was exquisite raw food, it was in a lodge where Beatrix Potter first met Peter Rabbit, so we were told) we were asked if we’d had had, during our stay, any moments of bliss. I hadn’t. But I went for a last walk. The river Tay was sliding by, black and fat and deceptively fast. I had tried to keep pace with it without breaking into a run. It beat me easily. The air was darkening. I longed to sit by the water but visions of me in my purple anorak waving unseen as I boiled along, drowning, stopped me; the rocks were damp and the banks steep. But the, two steps along the bank, here in the long grass was a chair, left precisely where my legs needed it to be. I sat and pointed my knees at the river at the self same moment as my bliss came along. The splash and the silver flanks of a salmon breaking the water, appeared exactly in my line of sight.

This is right, the moment told me. This is now. This is where you are supposed to be.

It did not do it while my back was turned. It did not do it three seconds earlier. It did not do it three seconds later. It did it just and only once, right then.

With enough light left to walk the length of the garden back to the house, I shared my bliss with my new found friends, knowing they would get the significance, without knowing what the significance actually was, other than yes, this is it, whatever it is.

And in the car, on my way home, the thought returned as I freewheeled again. Such thoughts are not conscious or rational. They come when you try least to have them. The trick is to add action to thought and wait for an equal and opposite response. It became an email, a wish, sent on a whim; sent to someone who perhaps, just perhaps, could make it a reality.

I had been awake all night with mum. Hallucinations are a symptom of Alzheimers but complicated when fever occurs; reality seems less convincing than the fantasy being acted out. But I had an appointment with opportunity at noon. There was something as yet intangible waiting to be conjured that day; a single ball bearing to retrieve from under that sofa. I handed my wired mother over to a team of carers and headed out for an hour, ashen with tiredness, to sit in the audience of Will’s weekly concert and try to imagine us bringing my thought to life the following week. The thought was of a song that works well half-spoken rather than sung. But in a stone cathedral the spoken word is a thready thing. These churches were built for music. How hampered must the Reformers have felt speaking the new testament in these places built for a Latin Mass? I couldn’t imagine my performance in there. I couldn’t hear it. Never mind the ecclesiastical setting. I had no fear of that. In fact I applauded the church for allowing this secularity in the first place. But I offered to back out. I couldn’t see how it could be done. Let’s try it anyway, said Will. Let’s do it. Now.

I had no faith that my voice would work after a night without sleep but the audience had gone and only a few tourists were mooching about. Alarmingly one girl sat down to listen. She took it as a sign she was somehow meant to be here in Edinburgh. This was her favourite song. Signs and portents again. We decided, though I was not impressed with all the sounds my vocal cords were making, the acoustic was thrilling. Perhaps next week they would be up to the challenge. But I so wanted to act the song, not sing it. Ah well. What the hell. Ok. We’d meet the following week, an hour or so before. Rehearse. Then do it.

In the intervening days, I walked the streets after dark, learning the words, mother safely tucked up in bed. I wondered about an entrance, a performance style, a character to assume, what to wear, an exit. It’s really important once you’ve got on, to know how to get off. I pictured a bag lady, wandering into the cathedral, stopping with her carrier bags, hearing the music and, unabashed, opening her throat to sing. She’d just appear, sing, and go. An impromptu thing. But no. Would that work? I didn’t know. I went to the joke shop for a little red nose. The sponge ones fit on and come off with ease. The song’s about clowns after all. Two thoughts to play with. Maybe Will would have another. An hour before the concert we’d figure it out.

Such thoughts come when you try least to have them. The trick is to relax and take note of them, while you’re doing something else. I get a lot of chores done that way. I got on with learning the lyrics and letting whatever was going happen, happen.

At these events, these lunchtime concerts, Will asks for requests. Never knowing what will come up, he plays them all, finding his way through Bach into Cole Porter, shifting from Fats Waller into a Chopin nocturne. My cue was Abide with Me followed by a vamp on the opening chords of Send in the Clowns. I would be sitting as if enraptured with the rest of the audience and rise, as if moved by the Spirit to come forward and … well testify I suppose, in song. The idea was to make as if I was not part of the act at all; just a woman with a brass neck and a yen to sing. There would be no bow at the end. I would just go. The audience would possibly be embarrassed if it didn’t work, if I sang badly, if we didn’t manage any rapport on stage, but it didn’t matter. It was an experiment. Or they’d think I was a stray woman in off the street and gone. No harm done.

We chose to drive to the cathedral and it wouldn’t matter if I arrived after the start. All I had to do was drop Will off and go find a parking place. Middle of town. Royal Mile. Round and round I went. I have a naïve trust in things working out, with nail biting moments to spare. I don’t know where this faith comes from.

To digress for a minute, the first time I evoked the Parking Angel, was outside the Royal Festival Hall. After half an hour of driving around, and around, I thought I might as well give it a try. And I kid you not, there, slap bang in the middle of Waterloo Bridge there appeared a space. The parking angel likes beginners. You get the best view of London from Waterloo Bridge, and the best view of the Royal Festival Hall. The parking angel was showing off that day.

But I was running late for St Giles. The concert started at 12:15. It was already 12:15. Will would have started playing. What if I didn’t get to do it at all, because I couldn’t park my car! A passenger in a perfect parking place told me they’d be moving in ten minutes. I’d been twice round the block. I decided to wait it out and prayed. A man was waving to me through his windscreen. He was pulling out. I pulled in. He wound down his window. “I don’t know how long you need but there’s about 50 minutes left on this ticket, if you want it?” The 45min concert had started. “You’re an angel, I said.”

As I entered the cathedral there were fewer tourists than normal. I could hear piano music as I tiptoed in, the audience on this dismal January day a smaller than usual, scattered assembly. I took a seat at the back.

“Abide with Me,” I told myself. “Wait for Abide with Me. Don’t panic till Abide with Me .. and don’t panic even then.” When the basket came round for requests I put in Send in the Clowns, a signal I had arrived, in case my presence in the audience wasn’t clear.

To let you understand, I’m used to dressing rooms, to backstage areas, to warming up, to rehearsing even. To taking a last look in the mirror for lipstick on your teeth, or to check your skirt’s not tucked in your pants. I’ve never sat waiting to go on thinking about getting back to the car. The performance is usually uppermost in my mind, not a parking ticket. The church bells tolled. I know now both Will and I thought that meant it was 12:30. It wasn’t. It was 12:45 and he was playing on, and playing on.

Come on, Will, let’s be having Abide With Me. I’m getting a bit light headed here.

I was wearing no make-up, preferring to look pale and colourless instead of streaked or smudged. I dragged a brush through my hair and checked my nose was in my pocket. Why did I not think to bring a bottle of water? My throat was a desert. I sawed my tongue over my upper teeth. It makes you salivate. But water is better. I gazed longingly at the font.

Will was delighting three ladies in the front row with his version of Highland Cathedral, a pipe tune that fitted the setting well. Their heads were nodding in appreciation. He was warming them up. Other ladies had asked for Three Little Maids from the Mikado. He was playing through them all going from here to there, from Autumn Leaves into Joplin into … abide with me, fast falls the even tide, the darkness deepens, Lord with me abide, when other helpers fall and comforts flee moonlight becomes your sonata and you rise to your feet and walk to a seat nearer the front as the chords morph and change and snatches of Send in the Clowns start to resolve into the opening bars and a place to begin, as I reach the edge of the Steinway and place my handbag on the end of the piano, “isn’t it rich?” And we’re off, Will looking bemused as he’s supposed to, the three ladies in the front row nudging each other, people looking confused and there’s nothing to do but listen, but sing, but play, but deliver the lyrics as if they’ve never been heard before, to get to the last line of the song, to let the acoustics possess the high notes and bring the song to life till the final pause, “There ought to be clowns” the nose is out of the pocket and for a tremulous moment the sad, heart rending lyrics stop. The audience are laughing. Hadn’t thought of that. That’s good. But the moment is passing and the nose is coming off, back in the pocket. “Well … maybe next year” Pick up handbag. Exit. Applause. Hadn’t thought of that either. As I leave, I wonder at what point they realised this was part of the act? Was it long before the appearance of the red nose, or was it only then that they twigged? Because they have twigged. They’re clapping because they’re in on it now. I should acknowledge that. I keep walking. I’ve worn my clickiest shoes so they know the footsteps are not returning. Leaving Will playing, I’m out of the doors and heading back to the car. I’m talking to myself as I go. Will’s playing but I somehow can’t hear. You should have turned back and bowed to him too. Thank-you. Thank-you for this! But we both liked the idea of just walking off. Keep walking. Suddenly I remember. Shit! What’s the time? Did the church bell ring? Is it past one o’clock?

Oh hell, what if it is. That was awesome!

I had worked so hard to be calm, sitting in the audience waiting to step up to the piano, and I am still cool now on the cobbles of the High Street. There is a cold wind blowing. There is traffic. I’ll feed the meter, pop back and slip in through the cathedral shop.

I arrive back at the car. It’s one minute past one. Isn’t it bliss! The ticket expires at one oh three.

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