Turning Back The Years
I went to a mixed secondary school in a very small village in Ireland. Most subjects were taught to both girls and boys, but there were exceptions: girls studied Music and Musicianship and Domestic Science, boys studied Commerce and Latin.
I loved the music part but Domestic Science was the bane of my life. In our first year, at age 13, our Sewing project was to master the ancient, ornate, foot-pedal-powered Singer machines and produce an apron, to be worn when grappling with Sewing’s evil twin, Cookery. I succeeded in concealing my pathetic attempts at an apron all year until the day we had to parade our finished creations before our teacher, the lovely, understanding, bemused Miss O’Connor.
Unlike the crisp, smooth, perfectly fitting aprons of the other girls, mine was a bizarre assembly of random gingham panels, which nowadays would probably make it onto the catwalks of Milan or into Lady Gaga’s wardrobe for the sheer audacity of its design, were it not for the grubby paw-prints and needle-prick bloodstains. I had tied it onto myself as best I could, knotting straps of unknown function through ill-finished buttonholes which shouldn't have been there at all.
Cookery was no less a disaster. Let’s just say that my lasting memory of the class is me force-feeding a ‘poached’ egg down the sink in order to hide the evidence of my ineptitude.
As I stood there in my ‘apron’, I bared my soul to Miss O’Connor, told her how much I hated domesticity, and begged her to release me from its dastardly clutches. She agreed, resignedly. I will forever worship her for it.
The question was: to what good purpose could I put my time when the other girls were learning how to be little homemakers? Incredibly, miraculously, and joyously, I was told that I and my friend Linda Kane, also a domestic reject, would spend 2 double periods per week in a classroom, UNSUPERVISED, doing homework and ‘extra study’.
Thus began a time of unparalleled bliss. Linda and I were free to chat, read, draw, but mainly to sing.
Let me try to describe Linda. She was so sweet. She had an unconscious poise that was rare in a country school – Jane Austen would call it ‘artlessness’. She never displayed the teenage moodiness or cattiness of the other girls. She was very very funny without realising it. And she loved to sing. No matter what you said to her, Linda would pick up a word or phrase and turn it into a song, and I would join in and we would sing it to its end, swaying in time as we sat side by side at our desks. Cup of tea? “Tea for two, and two for tea!” Are you going home? “Home, home is where I wanna be, yeah..!” etc. Some of the references were weird and obscure – the weirder and more obscure, the more we dissolved in fits of laughter.
Thus we spent those free classes belting out songs from Marilyn Monroe to Bad Manners, from hymns to Irish ballads. We didn't care, we just sang and laughed until we wept - that helpless, gasping, doubling-over, wee-inducing laughter - is it unique to teenage girls? I know I have never laughed as I used to laugh then.
And that is what I associate with group singing. The fun and the laughter. Bellowing out pop songs with Linda. Singing hymns with dramatic, exaggerated, false piety with my friends as we walked through school, and – to our hysterical delight - receiving approving smiles from a nun who didn't get the irony. Choking on our giggles as we stood up in the hallowed, rarefied atmosphere of the choir gallery of the Parish church during Christmas Mass rehearsals. Bursting into song at every moment, loving the music, improvising harmonies, and laughing, laughing, laughing.
But we appreciated the beauty of music, too. Sad songs made us sad together. We thrilled together at a particularly lyrical musical phrase. We followed the charts assiduously, and argued over our favourites. My friends and I were all piano students, so we knew what it was to create music, to have that power to replace silence with magic. But singing together was something else. It was our way of being together, sharing our energy and emotions, expressing the wonder and thrill of being 13, 14, 15 years old, with life stretching out ahead of us.
Now, for the first time in 30-odd years, I find myself in a choir again, standing alongside other 20-, 40-, 60-year old teenage girls (and now boys too, hurray!) - I know we all feel it, that same excitement, the inner and outer giggles, the shared joy, the feeling of togetherness, the expression of just how great it is to be alive and lose yourself in a song. To be suspended as one in a moment of pure, simple happiness. At those moments, I am 15 again.
Linda died 2 years ago of breast cancer, aged 45, plucked at random from life. Yes, I am crying right now.
So when I stand up in Ely Cathedral on Saturday, singing songs from the sublime (Breaking) to the ridiculous (Marry You’) I’ll be thinking of her. She would have absolutely LOVED it.
Linda, this one’s for you.