One of the things I wanted to do whilst in England was to go shape note singing. Via word of mouth, the internet, and the Sacred Harp Minutes1, I'd found a number of singings in England, but, sadly, the majority of them took place only once a month or every couple of weeks, and in places that were relatively distant from the Lake District.
However, while singing in Frankfurt, I'd been invited to sing in Nottingham on New Year's Day. I asked Randy about it the night before, and he said it would be possible to drop me off. So, the next morning we woke up quite early and drove to Carlisle. I was there a good five minutes before the train and successfully purchased a return ticket.
Not long thereafter, I was seated in the yellow-glowing light of a traincar. Outside it was completely black. The only world was the car. The only inhabitants were me… and sleep-deprived zombies.
The sun rose, time based, and we rolled into Sheffield where I'd arranged to meet H.L. I bounced off the train, climbed the stairs across the tracks, and came down into the main terminal. The train was about ten minutes late getting in, so I was worried that maybe they had left without me. My worry only increased when I didn't see any friendly faces and waving hands in the parking lot.
I had H.L.'s phone number, though, so I wasn't too worried. I opened my laptop, brought up Skype, and began ranging about the station searching for an internet connection. Only to find… nothing. No free wireless signals! No paid wireless signals! I closed the laptop and looked for H.L. outside again. No go. I wandered the station looking for a signal again. No go. It was now a good forty minutes after I was supposed to meet up with my ride. I was really worried! Should I leave the station and find a signal for a call? Should I stay in the station and hope they appear?
I ran across the rode and up the hill towards what looked like a Witherspoons, one of only a disturbingly small set of restaurants and pubs to offer free internet in England. Signal in hand, I phoned H.L. “Oh, sorry about that! We're running a little behind, but we'll be there in a few minutes!” My heart quieted and strolled back down to the station. Sure enough, a small car pulled up not long afterwards. And we were off!
After a good deal of driving we turned onto a narrow lane not far from Nottingham and saw cars parked all along the sides as it dived down into a field and rose slowly up the other side. At the top of the rise, a church rose on the road's right-hand side. H.L. drove up the road, turned the car and parked us facing down-slope. We all piled out and headed up. Around us the sun shown on a carpet of immaculate green.
Inside, the singing was already underway. I found a book and some room in the bass section.
Writing about this months afterwards, I'm once again struck by the thousands of inconsequential details I remember about a place or event. The bottle-necked doorway leading into the kitchen and how the line for both that and the bathroom intermixed and snaked into the chapel. The many good foods arranged on the island and window of the kitchen, the little dessert-castle someone had made. The hands I shook. The green field in the background and the tilted tombstones in the foreground that you saw when you looked out the broad windows of the church. The yellowish light of the bathroom. The high-fiving hand shake D.N. gave me afterwards, and the invitation to come down to London and sing. Mistaking someone for M.W. and apologising to them later. Things that set a mood and a place in my mind, but don't lend themselves well to description. If I close my eyes and blot out the sounds which surround me, whole scenes, replete with detail spring before me in three dimensions. For a moment time reverses itself and I have never left that other moment. Save that there are things which do not come to mind, like so many people's names, what their faces looked like, the details of the conversations we had.
Are people transient, their edifaces crumbling against the whithering forces of time in my memory leaving only fragments behind while the more substantial forms of churches, mountains, and the interiors of gas stations2, unbound by time or whimsey linger on? Or are people so rich with detail that they cannot be wholly remembered and everything else I know seems distinct and lucid in comparison?
When the singing was over, I carried a giant box of books with me to help load up the cars, stacked chairs, and found my camera in the place where I'd lost it. H.L., the man who was riding with us, and I got back into the car and headed west. I told H.L. that Manchester would be convenient for me, and we agreed that she'd drop me off at the main station. H.L. drove past Manchester to drop off the man and then back towards the city with me. (An elevated road, green signs above, a sea of darkness and occasional lights of houses below.) At the station, I thanked her for the ride and went to board my train.
I don't remember too many details about the ride home, other than a rising feeling of victory as we passed town after town after town and no one checked my ticket. When I finally got off of the train I was holding in my hands a piece of paper that would give me a free ride to Penrith any time within the next month. It's like gold. It was already night as I went through the tunnel beneath the tracks and popped up on the other side to find Randy waiting with the car.
1Shape Note or Sacred Harp singers meet regularly, all over the world, for one- and two-day conventions in which they sing for something like six hours at a time. There's a 10 minute break every hour and an enormous potluck lunch. Usually, the singing unofficially continues well into the night afterwards and over breakfast the following morning. The conventions send a list of every song that was sung, any dedications the leader made, and who attended to a group of people somewhere. The information is then compiled into an inch-thick book and copies are sent out to singing groups.
2When I was eighteen, I was driving back into town from a party I'd been at out in a farmhouse somewhere. Approaching the town, the lights of the city got brighter and gradually distinguished themselves into individual street lights. But the street lights reminded me of the lights at the edges of many, many other towns. Momentarily, I was lost. During that moment of confusion, I happened to think of gas stations. For the next three days hundreds of memories of the interiors of gas stations swarmed intrusively and unstoppably upwards into my consciousness. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw them. Eventually, they went away, but the tendancy to remember did not. Perhaps gas stations break the monotony of a long trip and are therefore especially memorable. But they are not the only thing which springs to mind. Enough of this, though, I don't want to trigger another episode.