I enter through the side door of Queen’s Head Pub. There are several rooms off this hallway. I walk into each, glancing for a television. The corridor continues around and empties into a large area. Forty people are seated in a semicircle, most facing the far wall. Music fills the room. They are singing, da do run run run, and strumming.
I came in here looking for the Manchester City soccer game.
Instead, I found the ukulele club.
I am in Rye, in southeast England. It is my first full day in town. I rent a bike in the morning. The owner of the guest house, where I am staying, recommends riding to Camber Beach. The man at the bike hire suggests a route there. About 10 miles, it runs through a wetland wildlife reserve along the coast.
Pedaling out of town, I pass through an industrial area and then into the reserve. A path runs along the land’s edge. I occasionally pass a walker or someone with a dog.
A few miles along, there is a small set of steps from the path down to the shore. I set the bike down and head toward the water. The mid-morning tide is out. Not out like a few feet, out like to the horizon. I walk and walk. The water has ebbed into various channels and rivulets. I continue until l reach a channel too wide to cross. The ground, logged with water, threatens to soak my shoes. I turn back and try a different route, only to again face water that is too wide or deep.
After several tries, I stop and look back. I am a few hundred feet from the path. The bike gleams faintly next to the stairs. I look toward the sea. I am still pretty far from the water’s edge. I look around. There is no one around me. Not on the path, not on the shore, not even a dog racing toward the water. I look up. The sky seems higher than usual, like the ceiling of clouds has been lifted. It is wide and quiet, and feels like I imagine it would on the moon.
At Camber Beach, there are warning signs posted about slippery surfaces. I walk out on the rocks. I dawdle, watch the sea. While daydreaming, I move out of the way of the waves without paying attention to the tide. It is coming in now, and steadily. Startled, I move hastily back to the path.
Clouds and wind have rolled in along with the tide. The temperature has dropped about 10 degrees for the ride back. I alternate steering the bike with one hand while I try to warm the other one. It is an arduous, frigid return, the landmarks slowly unfolding in reverse.
After dinner, I walk to the pub. It is even colder now, the clear night thick with stars. Man City and Kiev are playing in the Champions League; I saw a sign at a newsstand near the train station. It is worth a shot to see if this pub has it on. It is just after 7. The game should still be in the first half. After having been by myself for most of the day, the thought of being around people is enticing.
I enter the pub. The wind smacks the door closed behind me. I look into each of the small rooms and then enter the main part of the bar. I stop walking when I see the group, overwhelmed by the spectacle.
The members are mostly in their 60s. They are playing ukuleles and singing the original version of the song Energizer adapted for its commercials. What surprises me is that there are other people in the pub at the bar, talking with the bartender, continuing on as if this was not happening, as if it were a regular Tuesday evening.
I sit down behind the group in a high-backed chair. There is a newspaper near me and I pick it up, leaf through it, try to look normal. I get a pot of tea. They play “Bad Moon Rising.”
There’s no formal conductor. The players have a folio and a general understanding of how it’s arranged. Someone shouts out a number and letter, a couple other people shout to confirm it, and then the group starts playing. This fascinates me.
My day has consisted of getting chilled and thawing out several times. I finish the pot of tea and warmed from it I am singing with strangers. They play Arlo Guthrie. 40 Brits and I sing, “Good morning America, how are ya?” The irony!
The group takes a break. I see a couple of the ladies in the bathroom and compliment them. They thank me, say that they are here every week, and invite me back.
I return to the paper. I do the crossword. I do the word search. I am still singing along with strangers in the back of a bar. When they play “Runaround Sue,” several people bring out kazoos. This is a surprise. I had not seen the kazoos until this moment. They kazoo the chorus. I nearly fall out of the chair laughing in astonishment.
The music stops. Another break. People get up and mill about. At this point, I have lost all sense of time. I do not know how long they have been playing.
I am exhausted, jet-lagged, and giddy. I do not want to leave. I do not want the magic of the night to end. And yet, I know it’s time to go. It will not get any better than “Runaround Sue.”
I get my coat and head out into the brisk English night. The wind whips my face, but I am electric with joy.
© Sarah Smith
A poet and Baltimore public librarian, Sarah Smith also writes travel essays for hampdenunicorn.com. Her work has appeared in Yellow Arrow Journal, The Light Ekphrastic, and Smile, Hon, You’re in Baltimore.