:: Article

The Field: An Excerpt

By Gary O’Connor.


This all began with her. When I told her about the field she just laughed so I never mentioned it again. I remember picking up the telephone and hesitating, and Trish encouraging me.

She said, ‘It’s something you’ve always wanted to do so why not go for it. It will be fun.’

I dialled the number. It was an answer machine. It was her voice: ‘Hi, you have reached Cath Sims. Sorry I can’t take your call right now but please leave a message and I will get back to you.’ I liked her voice. She reminded me of someone else. I didn’t leave a message, but I phoned back again just to listen to her voice. It sounded smoky, like a small dimly lit room in the back of my mind thick with cigarette smoke, something I can’t tolerate, but in my head it neither irritated my eyes nor my breathing. It smelt like perfume, like the rich moist aroma of pipe tobacco before it is burnt.
I left a message this time, I gave my name and number and said that I was interested in having some singing lessons. Two days later Cath called me back. She wanted to know about me: had I sung before, what sort of songs I’d like to sing and what I was hoping to get out of the lessons. Cath recommended that I attend a minimum of six classes, and at 3pm the following Thursday I found myself outside St Mathew’s church hall in Cambridge.

I parked my car at the front of the building and tried the main entrance. The door was locked. I circled the building and came across two other entrances but both also appeared to be locked. I wasn’t able to see in through the windows and I couldn’t hear any noise from inside. At the back of the church was a children’s nursery, I could hear them playing. It felt awkward lurking around the doorway and I was about to give up when a rather short middle-aged woman appeared and asked me if I needed any help. I explained why I was there and she kindly invited me in. She said you could get to the hall via the nursery, and I followed her closely as she briskly navigated her way through a sea of toddlers and then through a small kitchen, to finally arrive at a rather Gothic-looking door. At this point she tuned to me and smiled, then quickly disappeared back the way we had come.

I paused for a moment. I cannot remember why or what was going through my mind but I remember the silence. I could no longer hear the children playing, or the traffic outside the building. It was as if everything had stopped except me. I could hear my heart beating. I could feel a tightness across my temples and the thud of blood moving around inside my head. The door handle looked like a knocker. I took the large iron ring in my hand and turned it to the left. When I opened the door it was as if a seal had been broken: a sudden surge of cold air hit me, immediately followed by the smell of old books and dying flowers, and the sound of children laughing and someone playing a piano.

As I opened the door wider I could see a woman standing in front of a piano with her back to me. She was tall. Her hair was tied back in a ponytail. I could see it had been dyed a shocking red colour but was now faded and grown out. Red cowboy boots, black leggings and a bright green bomber jacket completed the picture. She turned and smiled.

‘Hello, you must be Daniel.’

Cath had a smile that took up most of her face. Her eyes were searching, calculating — adding me up, making rapid decisions about my character. In the few steps that it took to walk across the hall and shake her by the hand she needed to know me. I guess we all do it; I did it too.

I was very nervous but also excited. She put me at ease. We talked for a long time, too long in fact, I only had an hour and was eager to get started. Cath wanted to hear me sing and had asked me to bring a CD of songs to sing along to. This was harder than I thought: I have a large diverse collection of music and it’s funny, but when I think about all of the songs I like, or even just a few, I’m confident I know all of the words but of course there are always one or two I get wrong or just can’t remember. I wanted a song that I felt comfortable with, one that was uplifting and made me feel great. I chose Another Girl Another Planet by The Only Ones. I’d recently heard a debate on the radio about the way music effects us physically and emotionally. There’s evidence that music excites receptors in the brain that in turn release chemicals that give us feelings of pleasure and euphoria, in much the same way as taking opiates do. Ironic then that this song has such a profound effect on me and yet contrary to common belief, the song is about taking heroin and not a love affair. In the conventional sense anyway.

I handed over my CD and Cath said, ‘Fantastic — I haven’t heard this in years.’ She seemed genuinely excited. She put the disc into the CD player. She said we should start with some exercises. The church hall was large and empty apart from the piano, a couple of tables and a few chairs stacked at the back next to the toilet. The hall looked Victorian: a large red brick shell clad on the inside with wooden panelling painted baby blue and broad wooden floorboards. Above our heads the rafters and beams were exposed. Acoustically it was not the best of spaces, every footstep and every word reverberated around us. Cath asked me to stand in the centre of the room with my feet apart and my toes pointing squarely forward. Standing in front of me she said, ‘Bend your knees a little, straighten your back, bring your shoulders back and let your arms relax. Keep your chin up, but not to far, keep your head level and look straight ahead.’ She asked me to relax but I could not relax in that position. She felt my shoulders and the small of my back. She held my forearms and looked into my eyes. I couldn’t help laughing and she laughed too. ‘I want you to put both of your hands on your tummy,’ she said demonstrating this with a grin. I placed my hands low across my abdomen. I took a slow breath in through my nose and held it there for a moment then gently exhaled through my mouth. She then explained that when I exhale I should contract my abdominal muscles as if I were squeezing the air out of my body, and then relax them when I inhale. I could feel the muscles working beneath my palms. This was strange at first because I was doing the opposite to what I would naturally do. We did this several times and then moved on to making shushing sounds, as if telling a child to be quiet. I had to keep this sound going until I had no more breath left to exhale, then sharply inhale and start again. I found it hard to relax when inhaling, and the more that I thought about it the more difficult it became. Cath told me I had to be in touch with my body which is why placing your hands on your stomach was an important exercise. I had to learn to use the lower part of my body to control and push the sound out. She said that it would not be long before singing in this way would feel natural to me and I would not need to think about it.

I get to the footpath that leads to the drain. I pull my collar up and look back at the field. The gunmetal sky pushes down hard on the land. The sky out here is so big. When I first came here I found all of this space difficult to deal with. I felt agoraphobic, fearful of being lost and forgotten. But once I had faced my fears I soon fell in love with the Fens. This place is bewitching; it will steal your heart without warning. I climb up the steep bank and walk along the edge of the drain. Like a canal it is long and straight. A light sprinkling of rain disrupts its surface and I can see a shoal of small fish in the water, they appear so expectant, as if waiting to be fed.

I was getting on well with Cath and there was no pressure to get things right. I was enjoying the experience but I hadn’t actually sung anything up until that point. I was beginning to feel nervous, I was putting pressure on myself and I could feel it building. Singing is something I do in private: in the shower or when listening to music in the car. To sing in front of someone else is like stripping off naked and running through the centre of town. Vulnerable is an understatement. My time had come. This was why I was there, to cross the bridge — to jump the hurdles, to become a singer.
Cath said, ‘Ok, let’s try something. I just want to hear what you can do so I know what I’ve got to work with.’ She gave me a wry smile. She could sense that it was going to be hard for me. She told me to relax, to take my time. Then she pressed play. I hadn’t considered the lengthy guitar intro, waiting for the vocalist to come in seemed to take forever. I really did feel naked: standing there with someone I had only just met, not knowing whether I should wave my arms in the air, tap my feet or shake my arse. I wanted to show emotion but I felt so rigid, so stiff with anxiety and fear: would I remember the lyrics? Would I remember where to come in? How long would it go on for? The music moved around me like a ghost, and then finally, the unmistakable dry languid vocals of Pete Perrett came in. One of the most beautiful edgy pop songs ever written. I struggled to keep up. It should have made the charts — it should have been number one, but of course I was wrong about popular belief, it was obvious the song was about taking heroin and that’s why it didn’t get airplay. It was not a comfortable experience, I tried my best to engage with the song, to be passionate and absorbed in the performance but my mind kept straying: did Cath know that the song was about taking drugs? Does she think that I take drugs? Does she take drugs? Cath occupied the far end of the hall, rhythmically pacing from one side to the other, mouthing the words and watching me with interest.

I open my eyes.

I’m humming a tune.

I get to my feet and start walking in the direction of the drain.


Gary O’Connor is a visual artist who has produced a number of publications to accompany his artworks. He is a regular contributor to Garageland magazine and his short story, “Soft”, was included in The Alpine Fantasy of Victor B and Other Stories. The Field (Transition Editions) was launched on 1 May 2009 at London’s Transition Gallery.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 13th, 2009.