Mouth to Mouth
Robin Teese (Curtin University, Australia)
Frankie placed his shaking fingers on the keys of the flute.
‘Do it properly,’ his teacher shrilled. ‘Your mother’s paying good money for these lessons.’
Expressed that way, her words were hardly calculated to inspire confidence in young Frankie, whose fingers had already slipped down the instrument and now, as he blew, a sound that was far from musical materialised, and then vanished.
‘See. You’re doing it again,’ came the teacher’s exasperated voice. ‘Alright. Let’s start over. Now. Embouchure. As I’ve told you, Franklin, you can do nothing without an embouchure. And don’t get the idea that it’s a God-given thing. As I have told you so many times, you have to work at it — otherwise, you will never make progress.’
Something about that phrase — God-given thing — transported Frankie to another place, a tree-bowered seat in the shelter shed of his primary school. The perfume-swelled air of a new spring and the girl in the polka-dot skirt beside him. Almond eyes. Soft mouth. Pink tongue. If not from God, surely a gift from the angels. He had practised his embouchure in front of his bedroom mirror. His lips would close like a bud. Open with a pop. Close again, the fleshy upper and lower skin drawn by irresistible suction. That was how he had formed his embouchure, and matched it to hers. He’d pulled her towards him, sensed the heat on her breath as she moved her lips toward his.
‘Losing concentration again. Off in your own world,’ his teacher snapped. ‘Honestly, Franklin, I don’t know why your mother bothers.’
Hearing this, Frankie couldn’t help but think of his father, the man that had fought his mum so hard he had run out of energy and had to go away and rest. At least, that was his mother’s story. She had also told him that the only money she could get from his father lay hidden in his coat pockets and that even then she had had to struggle. ‘Just so I can send you to school and pay for your music lessons, darling.’
She probably had a point. Like the embouchure, money was not heaven-made. You had to earn it, in the same way as he had to earn the affections of Katrina. She wasn’t the kind of ten-year-old that enjoyed being followed around everywhere by a slobbering paramour. ‘I’ve got principles, Frankie,’ she declared. When she said it the first time, it sounded like pimples, and she had had to ask him why he was staring at her. ‘I don’t go for just any boy, you know. He’s got to be strong, I guess — like you, Frankie ….’ He blushed at this. She knew he was the fastest runner in the class, and the school’s handball champion. ‘… But he should be gentle, too, and kind, and —’ ‘a good kisser,’ he said with loud enthusiasm. ‘No, that’s not what I mean, Franklin Roberts.’ But she smiled when she said it.
‘I give up, Franklin.’ The teacher was nearing the end of her patience. ‘If your mother wants to pay for your lessons with her hard-earned cash, that’s her affair.’ She adjusted her bifocals and glanced around the room, as though seeking inspiration. ‘Alright, what else … yes, let’s see if you can play the study I set you for homework. No, not like that. Place your lips de-li-ca-tely. So ….’
As he adjusted his embouchure, Frankie thought of the photo taken on his parents’ wedding day. He had been there when they had made their vows and kissed: a two-year old in a pram at the back of the church. They said he hadn’t cried during the ceremony but had sucked on his pacifier until they had processed back down the aisle, flanked by well-wishers and flowers. He had peered up at the newlyweds and the pacifier had dropped onto the bunny rug. But he was too little to control his emotions and would have started bawling right there and then had his mother not noticed in time and firmly clamped the pacifier back in his mouth.
That photo had stayed on the lounge room mantel all through his early childhood and, at the age of eight, he had sketched it. Proudly, he had taken the drawing into his bedroom, where he had set it on a shelf next to the bed. When his father forgot to come home, and then kept away more days, Frankie used the rubber from his pencil-case to erase the figure of the grinning groom. He took his time. A year into his father’s absences, part of the head and shoulders remained. Soon they, too, disappeared. But it was the mouth that was the biggest challenge. The boy laboured over its contours; the fleshy underlip, the straight top lip and the black flecks of stubble that hinted at a moustache. What kind of flautist would his father have made? Franklin mused, as he gently rubbed away the nose, the cheekbones, the ears, and then moved to the eyes, taking extra care with the faint, phantom shadows etched beneath.
‘You had better pack up your things, Franklin.’ The teacher’s voice again, high-pitched and self-pitying. ‘You’re wasting my time. You haven’t even looked at this piece. I’m just going to have to tell your mother to cancel your lessons. And the Lord knows I need the money, what with taxes going up and up and the kids eating us out of house and home, but it’s no good beating your head against a brick wall …. Let me tell you, young man, there are lots and lots of children who would adore having music lessons and they’d be willing to work at it, too, whereas you ….’
But the boy wasn’t listening. His mind hummed instead with the song of insects in the spring air, the tremble of a girl’s hand in his, and an urgent whisper to kiss her. ‘Now, Frankie. Now.’
Robin Teese has been writing literary fiction and poetry since 2014 when he started an MA in Creative Writing at Curtin University in Perth. Robin has had his works published both online and in hard copy, including magazine. Robin is currently working on a novel as part of a PhD at Curtin University. He is also interested in art and hopes to one day illustrate one of his works.