I once had to take a train from Penzance (yes, as in “Pirates of”) to Paddington station in the UK. It was a horrible trip – six hours one way, sitting fully upright in the tiniest, most uncomfortable seat I’ve ever sat in.
I was on my way back home from the International Musicians Seminar, in Cornwall, UK.. At what is called “Open Chamber Music Sessions”, young classical musicians from all over the world come together and spend ten days rehearsing and performing chamber music, studying and playing with some of the world’s most prominent musicians.
IMS takes place on Prussia Cove, an idyllic private estate near Penzance. And the British film Ladies in Lavender, starring Judi Dench and Maggie Smith was filmed on Prussia Cove, for all you fans of these Grande Dames of British cinema.
When I arrived in Paddington station, I plopped myself into the luxurious seat that awaited me in the Heathrow Express train. The train was new, clean and quiet, with just a few passengers riding to the airport.
I had fallen asleep when the train arrived at the airport just a short 15 minute ride later. I startled awake, collected my things and went upstairs to the terminal.
But something felt funny, something was missing. With a gasp and what really did feel like my heart in my throat, I realized I didn’t have my violin. I’d put it up on the rack overhead on the train and, in my sleep addled state, I’d left it there.
Okay, so this must be what a heart attack feels like…
I raced back down to the train platform (I’ve never run so fast in my life) and saw the empty tracks and thought I was going to throw up. I ran up to one of the men in uniform, the train conductor, standing on the platform. I couldn’t get the words out but thankfully, he was able to make out that I’d left something on the train.
“Is it a trombone?” he asked, “In a long black case?”
Yes, yes, I told him, the ‘trombone’ was mine.
“Don’t worry, Miss,” he said, “It went back to London on the return train. I’ll tell them to bring it back on the next incoming train. We always do a security check at every stop and remove all items left behind. You’re lucky you didn’t leave it on the Tube, Miss.”
I started to tear up and thanked him. I sat on the bench and waited, the longest fifteen minutes of my life, for the next train from Paddington station. The train arrived and from the far end of the train, another man in uniform walked slowly towards me, my violin case in hand.
I rushed towards him and nearly included him in my embrace as I threw my arms around my violin. I thanked him and the conductor and offered them both money for their help. I would have gladly handed over my whole purse but they wouldn’t accept anything.
“No, miss,” the conductor said, “We don’t want your money. But maybe you could play something for us?”
The kindness of strangers
Normally, I would have balked, protesting that I’ve nothing to play, I’m not ready, I haven’t practiced enough. But this time, I said yes and opened my violin case with more eagerness than, well, probably ever.
He called forth all the other uniformed workers to come hear me and between them and the new passengers arriving to travel to Paddington Station, I had quite a sizable audience.
I really didn’t know what to play so I just did snippets: a little Bach, a page or two of Tchaikovsky concerto, the opening to a Beethoven sonata. Just whatever my brain could churn out.
I must have played for about ten minutes total, but after I was done, the crowd erupted in very loud applause. Embarrassed, I ducked my head and put my violin away. I thanked the conductor, shaking his hand again. He smiled at me and said, “thank you for playing for us. What a gift.”
As I made my way up to the terminal again, a woman stopped me, haggard from her travels and lugging behind her a huge, battered suitcase. “Today was a total crap day, until I heard your music,” she said, “Thank you.”