Friday, 10 December 2010

Failed Service

The dreaded words come over the PA system while your train is stuck in the middle of a snow field. “Blah blah blah…This delay is due to a failed service ahead of us…” Translation, “Broken down train.” And so we wait; an opportunity to contemplate the meaning of life. That we’re all gathered in this tin can, all victims of “extreme weather.” Do any of us know each other? Know the same person? How might some of us be connected?

For once family members can no longer tell me…”But of course you have snow. What can you expect if you choose to live in Aberdeenshire. It’s so nice and sunny where we live. ”

The picture from on high tells a different story.

Despite the blizzards and freezing temperatures, I was determined to make this journey down the length of Britain. My daughters, Johanna and Natalia had recently moved to London. Natalia was singing in the chorus of Handel’s Messiah, something I didn’t want to miss. Amber volunteered to stay home, keep the house warm and feed the cats.

The train sits helplessly yet no one complains. Back in Texas, you’d see people pacing up and down, demanding to know who is in charge anyway. Scottish people are used to muddling along without being too vocal. Failed service is to be expected; actually no service is more common when temperatures dip below -10 Celcius (20 F) because the railway points freeze up. And so when I started the second leg of the journey south, I found no trains leaving Perth. I hopped on a bus headed for Edinburgh. The driver, a small chubby man enjoyed tormenting passengers shivering at the bus stop, telling them, “A’ve nae room. I’m a’ fu.” He waited till their faces dropped before waving them on board. We drove through a white landscape, so still you could hear your own thoughts. After crossing the Forth Bridge, a bridge similar in length and design to San Francisco’s Golden Gate, the bus started to make thumping noises. The driver pulled over; opened the door. A loud hissing coming from under the bus was not encouraging. He radioed for help, then turned to us and said. “Sorry, we’ve broken down.” (No euphemisms of a failed service).

“Ye can wait here for another bus or ye can get oot and walk.”

“Where’s the replacement bus coming from?” asked a passenger.

“Inverness.” He waited to take in the terrified faces before winking.

Actually we only waited for a minute before an Edinburgh local bus pulled in behind us and took pity on us. And so we limped into Edinburgh, where I boarded the London train. Because of subsequent failed services, the train rolled into Kings Cross four hours late.

On the train journey back to Scotland, my cousin Basia and I sat opposite two men who were involved in a conversation about music. I was astonished to hear the older man talk about a superlative performance of Handel’s Messiah he’d participated in.

“A performance in Spitalfields?” I asked during a lull in their conversation.

The older man was Bill Hunt, the violone player in Natalia’s concert. Johanna and I had noticed him, and wondered about his instrument, a cross between a cello and a double bass. What are the odds that out of twelve million Londoners you will find yourself sitting opposite a man who participated in the concert you just attended? Odds as small as winning the lottery. The concert had been extraordinary. The choir, known as the Nonsuch Singers, with the sharpness and discipline of a professional choir, produced an enchanting effect. Of the top-notch soloists, most interesting was David Allsopp, the countertenor. Countertenors produce a high voice similar to an alto, the same range as that of Baroque castrati. David sang the alto part in the Messiah. His high voice was so unexpected that it sounded supernatural. Small wonder that Baroque women used to swoon when a castrati sang.

And who was the second musician opposite us? He was a countertenor though not the same one as in our concert. There aren't many of them, but here was one. We talked for a while about how he produces the high singing voice, as his speaking voice is quite low. When you scream, you’re apparently using the same vocal technique that countertenors use.

The train slowed down then ground to a halt. Yes, another failed service near Newcastle was the problem. Here we were, five hundred people aboard a train. I’d met two connected by only one or two degrees of separation. How many others might there be among the others? Many more than one might expect.

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