Love and a Ukulele
Melanie Hall (University of Western Australia, Australia)
Nothing else matters in the arms of love. Not climate change, that dripping tap, whether the light is red or green. In love, the world becomes a place of joy.
Sunsets, cherry blossoms, old couples staring at ducks. These make your heart skip a beat, or enforce the lover’s policy on sighing.
But when love is gone, everything speaks of loss. Even old people staring at ducks cause stomach pains.
The scene is sepia-toned. It is not a fluorescent-lit train station newsagent, but a quaint bookshop at Sydney Central. The air is comings and goings, impending collisions with strangers, the promise of chance meetings.
Women in gloves clasp small handbags. A man in a suit dusts off his black Akubra, proudly replacing it like a crown on his head. Light from high windows catches the crowd’s well-shined shoes. Steam wafts upwards, seeking the sky.
Why do I deceive myself like this? To place our meeting in a past era gives it a dignified charm. But it also makes the love seem written and fixed.
This is an old story, a story I can’t change.
You saw me first. It was you that I was here to meet. You were the reason I was pawing through the Penguins Classics bookstand, keeping a calculated distance from the glossy women’s magazines, attempting to cast a look that said cool, casual, indifferent. These were all methods of self-preservation, survival techniques in a big new world.
But I took the indifference way too far.
You said, ‘Hey.’
And I stared blankly.
We had seen pictures of each other. It’s not like I’d arranged to wear a red scarf, and you were meekly addressing a woman with a pink one.
You knew it was me. I stared at you like a stranger.
In later years you mentioned this to me. You said, ‘Whenever you meet me, when we’ve been apart, you always look like you really don’t want to see me.’
How could I possibly explain? The matter was never as simple as repulsion. It was maybe a third-cousin of this emotion. A distant relative whose exact form is impossible to describe.
We caught the train and wandered around Newtown, flicking through old records, vintage clothing racks, dusty, perplexing volumes at the socialist bookstore. The shop attendant sat with one knee crossed over the other, reading a big book, a cask of wine positioned nearby. He eyed us, the only customers, very suspiciously.
I spent the day trying not to stare at people with punctured faces and mohawks. The women with dreadlocks like wild flames. The men in brown pants and paisley.
I was from a small country town in Western Australia, my visit to Sydney a high school graduation present. Most of my friends had travelled down South, joining the yearly pilgrimage of school leavers. A week of drinking and swimming in the sun. I wanted to visit my far-away Dad, to see that bigger world he lived in. So I took the Indian-Pacific across the Nullarbor.
You were the son of his work colleague. As we were both seventeen and interested in music, it was arranged that you would show me around town.
Towards the end of the day, we picnicked in a park near Sydney Central. Aboriginal people sat in a circle near us. Buses arrived from the Blue Mountains. We had the best version of silence we could get in Sydney; a fake one, created by the constant hum of traffic.
You confessed your life-long dream to become a session bass player. You wanted to play bass on Fiona Apple recordings. I felt bewildered that a person could narrow down all their wants, conflicting dreams and desires, to one, very specific goal.
I said, ‘I like writing. But I want to be a musician too.’
My dreams sounded embarrassingly general compared to yours.
You smiled and replied, ‘I think you’d be a really good writer.’
Soon it was time for me to go. We had a short, awkward hug, and I didn’t look back.
There was a noisy flock of cockatoos, and pinks and purples in the sky, a dusk that I’m sure wasn’t that colour.
And I didn’t see you again for a year.
You were on my mind. Our imagined conversations were prayer-like. At the end you would kiss my cheek and stroke my hair, which was my way of feeling Amen.
I moved to Perth. Already I was in a state of purgatory. You, Newtown, Sydney were the centre of my dreams. My hometown was a hole in the ground, but living in a Perth suburb felt like the worse kind of separation.
I began University, studying to be an English teacher. There were many oddballs at the Arts Faculty. Every day I attempted to hide my country-girl plainness. I stopped brushing my hair. Safety pins punctured clothes that weren’t torn. Che Guevara and ‘Meat is Murder’ patches lined my bag, although I couldn’t stick to vegetarianism.
Our phone calls and emails were all I looked forward to. I turned down invitations to the tavern after class, rushing home to call you instead. I caught the earliest bus to University, just so I could check my email. My heart climbed into my throat if I saw your name in my Inbox.
This was the most perfect relationship I’ve ever experienced; one without faces, without bodies. I imagined your spirit whooshing down the telephone line, and all the sparks and stars of a creation story, as you met me. There was nothing else to us.
Memories of my home at this time, a tiny flat where my sister and I lived, are bursting with dreams. My thoughts blossomed, they became thick like a forest.
I lay on the bathroom floor at night, singing about you. I lay on our prickly patch of lawn, watching the stars. I hand-washed clothes in the laundry trough, and gazed at the bone-coloured wall. I imagined our happiness.
Did I imagine our happiness?
One day, the news came. You had been accepted to into Music School in Perth. We would finally be together.
There was a bad omen the day of your arrival. The smell had been in my home for a while, but it was bearable. But the day you came it was humid, and the stench was noticeably worse.
I was about to leave for the airport when I discovered the source. Underneath the kitchen sink was a rotting bag of potatoes. Liquid and black. I hurriedly cleaned it out, but the chipboard cupboard had absorbed the smell.
So when you arrived at my flat, there was a fan on the floor of the kitchen, pointing directly at the open cupboard. I tried to hide the truth. I was a child playing house, incapable of monitoring the wellness of my groceries.
Everything else in my home had been strategically arranged. I bought a new shower curtain, two brown cups and saucers. I put up my TRAINSPOTTING poster and abstract drawings. I stuck 78 Records anti-Uranium mining stickers on my furniture. I closed the door to my sister’s room, which was covered in evidence of her sportiness: nanchaku, taekwondo uniform, tennis racquets and joggers.
People had joked that if we found it tough living face-to-face, you could wander round to a phone-box and call me. But there was no problem. We went for a walk in the park. We held hands and said we’d like to be married one day.
Later, I spread my star-and-moon doona on the prickly grass. We lay together on the stars, and wondered at the milky sky, all around.
People talk about the heart and mind like they’re separate. Like it’s a myth that they are concealed neatly in the same body.
Sometimes I feel like parts of my body act independently from my thoughts. My hands, feet, eyes and mouth each have their own mind. And they like to defy the rest of me.
For instance, I didn’t realise I was leaving you until the moment I left. Still, I can barely think why. My face didn’t turn in your direction. My legs were part of a rogue machine that no-one could switch off.
Now, all these years later, I’d like to write a chronology of your wrong-doings, an inventory of sins. I try, but it never works. All I do is write accounts of my first love.
Perhaps this is just a story of self-deception. Perhaps, but it is all I have.
We moved closer to the city. Our room was painted green, we were tucked in like peas in a pod.
Perth could be much colder than you expected. When riding home at midnight from your kitchen-hand job, you would stuff newspaper down your jumper. Sometimes when we undressed, I found newsprint on your skin. We wrote our own stories on each other’s bodies, fingertips tickling like feather-quills.
But outside love, the world was uncertain. There were protests about the War on Iraq. I panicked and took long baths, listening to classical FM.
One day I heard a choir singing a dirge. It was an expression of grief about the War. The choir walked into Parliament House and sang for the politicians, only to be removed by security guards.
I sang in the bath, in my small voice. Once I pressed my ear against the ceramic tub. Suddenly my voice was transformed. I was singing through a microphone, through a huge sound-system.
From then on, I sang in the bath every day. I sang till the water was cold and I was as wrinkled as E.T.
My songs were poems I made into melodies. Sometimes it worked the other way round; a melody played in my mind, over and over like a broken cassette. Then words fixed themselves to the melody, as if of their own volition.
Songs played in my mind at inappropriate times; during lectures, conversations with friends, conversations with you.
One day I wandered around a music store, browsing acoustic guitars. I found a beautiful one, pale wood with mother of pearl filigree traced down the neck. But I felt silly looking at this instrument. Presumptuous; it didn’t match my ability.
Instead, I was drawn to a stand of ukuleles. They were mostly novelty coloured, but I found a brown one that suited me fine. I bought an appropriately miniature book of chords and left the shop happy.
Back at home, I leaned my ukulele against our bedroom wall, your double bass standing adjacent, like a big brother. You laughed.
I learnt some chords quickly, and after a few days I played you a song. My voice was full of tremors, my hands clammy. It felt ridiculous that you listened so intently.
At the end, your clapping was quiet as the beating of moth wings.
You came to hold me and said, ‘I really like the words.’
That night I lay awake, staring at the silhouettes of our instruments. I thought of your daily practise routine; scales in the morning, first plucked, then bowed. The deep resonance, sometimes my tea-cup shuddered where I sat in the kitchen, reading a novel and listening.
Then I thought of my poor, timid ukulele. Its thin sound barely existed. I was a child playing with some wood and fishing-line.
Yours was confidence, exaggeration. Mine was shyness, understatement. I realised, these instruments strangely resembled us.
You once said, ‘it’s the most special kind of relationship when two people can sit for hours and not say a word.’
Eventually, we did sit for hours without speaking. I thought it was because we weren’t getting along, not because we’d reached some sorry state of enlightenment.
One night you snuck into the yard of a house down the street. We stopped there often, on our silent walks together. I liked to feel overwhelmed by all the flower scents, especially when it was breezy, they would waft into my nostrils without my even inhaling.
That night, you were harvesting a small array of blossoms when a square of light appeared. A man at the doorway and an angry voice. You ran all the way home, clutching your find. You retold the tale as though your actions were heroic.
My friends said, ‘That’s so romantic!’
I was quietly enraged. What would I do with these flowers? A bouquet of someone else’s dreams would never make me happy.
You filled an ex-DOLMIO jar with water and placed them on the bathroom window sill. But they quickly turned my bathroom singing shows into festivals of guilt. I made them disappear without a trace.
I continued to write stories and songs. When you read my writing you said, ‘this is what you were born to do.’
You started doing gigs, background jazz at restaurants and weddings. I didn’t see you play all that much. The size of your instrument meant I couldn’t fit in the car. Its body sprawled across the back, neck protruding onto the passenger seat. I felt slightly jealous, like you were two-timing me with a giraffe.
People began to ask you often, ‘Why did you move West?’
The emphasis on West made it sound like an act of devolution. I wished you’d say it was in fact an act of devotion to your loved one. But I heard you often replying that Perth was, oddly enough, the best place to study bebop—the most frenetic and edgy kind of jazz.
Then the day came. You burst noisily through the front door, your arm slung around the giraffe’s shoulder. You announced, ‘I’m going home.’
There was a residency-gig in a Club. The offer was too good. You planned to drive along the coast, then across the Nullarbor. You would stop at the mile-long jetty down South, in the desert, on hilltops. You would stop and set up your double bass and play the shape of the land.
You said I could follow along, but I wouldn’t fit in the car. I had no plans at the time. I was half-way through my degree and not worried about finishing. So I booked a ticket on the Indian-Pacific, the same trip I had taken when I was seventeen. I was now twenty-one. So I followed in the wake of your reckless self-belief.
In my recollection of that train ride, it is difficult to tell what is dream, daydream, memory and waking life.
I remember my dry mouth and fresh thoughts of our life together. We would make a home in a rundown terrace house in Newtown. The floorboards would be unvarnished, a rainbow rug would smell like mothballs. We would be so poor, the house would be furnished with op-shop goods; odd cutlery, a singing kettle and ceramic saucepans. I would find an old gramophone, and trembling early jazz records would be the soundtrack to our lives.
I recalled my original train-trip to Sydney. The land flashing past was so liquid. My past thoughts were liquid too. Like baptismal waters, old thoughts washed into me. And I remembered, when I was seventeen I believed in myself.
I felt pangs. Did I still believe in myself? I really wasn’t sure. Which must mean no?
Sometimes I woke from a dream of a great black plug-hole, threatening to suck me into non-existence.
The whole three day journey, an old woman shuffled about the carriage, talking to anyone who’d listen. I felt her imploring eyes and feigned sleep. On the third day I was caught returning from the toilet.
‘What is that?’
There were some seconds before I realised she was talking to me.
She was pointing, almost accusingly, at my ukulele case.
‘Oh that’s a ukulele.’
‘It’s a ukulele.’
‘Oh.’ She looked somehow annoyed.
‘That’s some kind of violin is it?’
No, I explained, it was an instrument in its own right. She parked herself in the empty seat next to me. All of a sudden my ukulele out of its case, she was knocking at its body, proclaiming how funny and small it was.
‘What will you play for us?’
I felt shocked at her forwardness. But after a short discussion, and a feeling of fire in my cheeks, I played a small song. I don’t remember what it was. It probably only lasted thirty seconds. But at the end, her small lips were smiling.
‘That was lovely,’ she said.
I don’t remember anything else, apart from the fact of arrival.
It felt accidental that I saw you. Of course we’d arranged to meet. But I expected a vague impression of bustling crowds, uniformed train guards, expectant faces of strangers. But there you were, with your old-man cap and well shined shoes. You were reading a book intently, looking defiantly comfortable in your own skin. Your look said cool, casual, indifferent, though I suspect it wasn’t an act for you.
Sydney Central isn’t charming and quaint in this memory. The trains screech, and I recall rumours of bathroom-muggings and bag-snatchings. But the image of you remains quaint and old. Were you fighting to dress in a 1940s style in a world unsympathetic to these things, or is it just the way I remember it?
That moment I caught myself unaware. Was it repulsion I felt ? Maybe a second or third cousin of this emotion. But the thump in my chest said, ‘I don’t want to see you.’
We couldn’t afford the run-down terrace house of my dreams. Instead, our worlds were squashed into a small room in a Stanmore share house. I got a job in a bookshop. We weren’t allowed pets and I never found that gramophone.
During the next few months, I began to have vivid dreams of choirs and bells. Three times I woke up in the morning to insistent angelic voices. Images of dangling crosses, red robes and wide open mouths slowly disappeared, like dust in the morning light. I have no idea whether these singers were God-sent. The third time I woke up from these dreams was the day I left.
That morning, I changed forever and I don’t know why. I could not fathom that I shared a bed with you, that I had shared most of my new adulthood with another human being.
That morning, I kissed your cheek and whispered ‘I love you’.
I packed up my meagre belongings, and dissolved into the city of my dreams.
I am having one of those moments.
It’s half an hour until my cafe gig starts. Another gig where I’ll be paid ten dollars and a cup of coffee. Where bums will be in my face as I sing.
I arrived early today so I decided to take a walk in a nearby park.
I steady my breath and wonder, do I brace myself in fear, or do I secretly look forward to these moments when waves of nostalgia come over me?
I never know when it will happen. I am walking through the park, crunched autumn leaves marking my path. Rain drops are like confetti on my skin, the air drinkable as cold milk.
Two young men play soccer, a portable radio on a picnic blanket nearby. The lake reflects happy ducks, bobbing on the water, and an old couple watch in stillness. Like mirrors, the couple seem to reflect the lake’s mood, its silent contentment. My chest hurts so much I need to stop.
Suddenly the wind rises through the trees, more confetti falls on my face. A crackly rendition of the Beatles ‘Love me do’ seems to increase in volume, and I remember.
Melanie Hall is from the country town of Northam, but moved to Perth to study Creative Writing at the University of Western Australia. As well as prose, she writes songs and performs her music at dingy venues around Perth city.