After my visits to Depden and Westley, and contacting a few other churches with the result of having several potential audiences waiting for me, I decided to leave it a while. Although I was desperate to visit churches again, I simply wasn’t ready for an audience. Both because I was out of practice, and because I was feeling too emotional to be sociable or ‘perform’. I just wanted to be alone.
After a few weeks, however, I decided to try a change of tack. Instead of getting in touch with churches where I already had a contact, either because I’d tried to visit before or because I’d been due to give a concert there this summer, I would try churches with which I’d had no previous communications. My reasoning was that if they didn’t know who I was, perhaps they would be less interested in hearing me play.
I targeted a group of three churches in east Suffolk that I had attempted to visit before: finding out that Bruisyard church, memorable for my churchyard playing in February 2019, was once again open every day, I was overjoyed. Carlton would have to be opened for me, but that was alright: I was confident I should have Bruisyard to myself first. Saxmundham was open for prayer from 2 to 4pm on the day I wished to visit, so that, too, was easier. Until the churchwarden emailed back to ask what time I planned to come as he wanted to listen.
St Peter’s, Bruisyard
I arrived at Bruisyard knowing, therefore, that it was likely to be my only solo church visit of the day. I felt happy to be back there, although the realisation that the temperature on this lovely August day was comparable to my February visit was a strange one, as was the thought of everything else that had happened in the intervening period.
I entered the church, and found not an empty building, but a woman behind the altar working on a painting restoration.
After introducing ourselves and chatting for a short while, she – Julia – said, ‘it’s my first day working here’. That somehow made it worse: it was Thursday and I had been due to come the previous Sunday before visiting a friend in Framlingham, but she had postponed at the last minute, so I rearranged both activities for today. I felt ashamed of my selfishness, but I couldn’t override my visceral desire to be alone. She seemed a thoroughly lovely person and in any other circumstances and frame of mind I would have been fascinated and overjoyed to talk to her. I tried to engage in the conversation, but felt almost incapable of personal interaction in that moment.
I set up at the front of the nave where there wasn’t much space, but plastic and equipment strewn about the chancel prevented my choosing to play anywhere else. I sat down, resigned to feeling uncomfortable. I hadn’t played the cello in weeks. After a short while, however, I almost forgot there was anyone else in the church with me. It was different from having an audience. She was behind me, not in front of me, and we got on with our respective tasks, side by side. There was something companionable in it
After I stopped playing, she spoke. She was smiling so broadly and seemed so genuinely delighted with the sound of the cello and the music – I was trying out some more of the collection of Irish Airs I’d bought – that I noticed in myself a little ray of gladness, after all, that we had coincided.
St Peter’s, Carlton
The first time I tried to visit Carlton, when I nearly got stuck in the mud attempting to drive down the track on the field verge, I knew that my return visit would have to be planned for the summer months. This time I had nothing but a road closure and a few bumps to contend with. I met the friendly keyholder outside the churchyard, who let me in and said she would leave me a while to go and run an errand. My heart leapt: I would get some alone time after all. Then to my consternation she asked if she could take a video clip. I hesitated a fraction of a second too long, not wanting to say no, but at the same time horrified by the idea of my unpractised playing going on record.
‘It’s for the Friends of Carlton Church newsletter’, she said.
‘Of course,’ I found myself saying, not for the first time. This poor little locked church needed as many friends as it could get. For a poor little locked church, however, I had to concede it was looking in pretty good shape.
The reward for that video clip was my first half hour alone in a church since March. I could have wept. I nearly did. It felt like a medicine that had been withheld from me for months.
St John’s, Saxmundham
I confess I was a little non-committal about my arrival time to Stephen, the churchwarden. I confess I delayed my arrival slightly in the hope of finding myself alone there. The ploy was unsuccessful, however, and he was outside the church door speaking to someone when I arrived; whether he was waiting for me was hard to say. I put on my cheeriest face and said hello as he approached me.
After succeeding – only just – in not adding gravestones to my list of car attackers (or casualties), I walked up the hill to the church door. I had caught a glimpse of its interior in my pre-Christmas attempted visit when a scheduled rehearsal prevented my staying to play. It wasn’t my kind of church – urban and thoroughly Victorian in character – but added to that, I found its modern bright blue chairs dominated the whole interior. The church might have been beautiful in its way, but all I could see was blue. Simon Knott of the Suffolk Churches website seems to be a fan of the banishment of pews in favour of modern seating; I can say with confidence now that I am not. Although I do recognise their superior comfort (in this case at least) and practicality.
A woman was polishing the brass lectern and another was sitting down, using the church, I assumed, for the reason it was open. I felt awkward about the chat that was disturbing her peace; though, for once, not at all awkward about filling the peace with music. As I set up in the wide chancel, Stephen went to talk to her. I heard only a few words, but enough to gather, as much from her facial expressions and body language as from what she said, that she was having a difficult time at home and had come here for some quiet.
I hurried to start playing in order to replace the words with music. I suspected that would be her preference as well as mine, and the vague knowledge of her difficulties helped me get into a different frame of mind; one in which the presence of other people didn’t matter, all that mattered was the music and its healing powers and my ability to pass them on to her. I had brought other music with me, but once again the Irish Airs seemed the most fitting choice.
I played for twenty minutes, perhaps, during which time I paused once and Stephen came to tell me he’d taken some video clips which he would send to me. I smiled and said thank you, trying to sound enthusiastic and grateful but knowing I would never open the files.
Afterwards the praying woman came to speak to me.
‘Thank you,’ she said, with her hand on her heart. ‘The music was beautiful. It was exactly what I needed’.