In A Foreign Town

BJ Muirhead's Poetry and Fiction

Not a haiku

The birds outside drowned

by lawnmower thudding under

cloud waiting to weep.

Unsent Letters:the first chapter

Finding one’s voice, the manner in which one writes most effectively, often is the most difficult task a writer faces. In this novel I found a voice which overwhelms me, a voice which talks as though it is me, and not someone merely telling a story. I haven’t, in fact, written much literature since this work, at least partly because I feel as though I have said nearly everything. This is not true, but I have turned my literary bent toward an easier form, viz., the philosophic essays on my other blog.

I have self-published this work in print and ebook editions on lulu.com. But there needs to be something else said about it before posting the first chapter.

The book revolves around emotions and thoughts rather than events, so it is full of reflection, much of it philosophic and, perhaps, entirely too much for a non-philosophic audience. In any event, read, and possibly enjoy.

read me as though I am glass

It’s been over fifteen years since we’ve spoken to each other, and I don’t think you’re interested in hearing from me now. In fact, I presume you would prefer never to hear from me.

It’s odd, but I’ve visited your father several times over the past few years, and we had what seemed to be pleasant talks until the last time I dropped in. He seemed stressed and a little aggressive and instead of saying hello he said Oh, it’s you, then started to close the door. I tried to hold him at the door by saying I had been meaning to drop in for a chat for a while. It didn’t work; he said We’re just sitting down to lunch and shut the door, leaving me open mouthed on the steps.

I presume that you were inside, perhaps with your husband and children, and I presume your father’s behaviour was based on your desire never to see or be reminded of me for any reason. But life is constant change, and I need to talk to you now; I need to say things that perhaps I should have said long ago.

The fact is that when your father was busy closing the door on me, I, quite simply, was desperate to talk to someone, anyone who might even be vaguely friendly. I was surprised by your father’s behaviour, by his smirk and apparent pleasure as he shut me out, but I guess I shouldn’t have been. It alters nothing, in any event.

A long time ago, about the time your parents divorced and your father was always at our house being fed and supported, you said that my mother held my family together; you wondered what would happen when she died. That’s what I’m discovering now, and that’s what led to my last abortive attempt to talk to your father. It’s been five months since Mum died, less than two weeks after Liz (your replacement) and I broke up. I know you and Mum didn’t get on well toward the end of our marriage, but I hope you can spare a thought for her, and perhaps for me.

I can’t even begin to tell you how difficult it was to sort through her possessions, and all the more so because she hoarded so much, including a box of letters addressed to you, your grandmother’s diaries and some pieces of china. Should I destroy them or take them to your father?

You must have known these were with my parents or me, so maybe you never wanted them. Or perhaps you didn’t know; certainly there was a lot I didn’t know. It was only in the last months of her life, for example, that Mum told me that you phoned several times, and that she hung up on you every time. I was angry enough with you, but apparently Mum was angrier than I was, and determined that there would be no opportunity to talk and perhaps reconcile. But you were never far from my thoughts and I never imagined when you failed to return my calls that it was my mother’s doing. I wonder what would have happened if Mum hadn’t worked so hard to keep me angry with you? We will never know, and the mere thought probably pains you. Of course, I’ve wondered what I could have done to keep us together, but I know I have done many stupid things, including writing to you now.

One of my more recent friends, a woman about forty, has talked to me a lot about her life and what she wants in a man but, like so many, she’s frightened to make the mistakes we all make, so she’s single with a group of male friends who she questions endlessly about relationships. I have undergone hours of interrogation during which any interest I had in her was decimated.

We were sitting in her garden drinking coffee, trying to analyse what we would make of our future and what it is in our past that prevents our change for the better when, unexpectedly, she leant forward and said she would like to meet you, if I still knew where you lived. She said she wanted to meet you because every time I speak about you I get a far away happy look on my face, and she thought you must be a marvellous person for me to feel that way about you so long after the divorce.

I am afraid I laughed at her and told her not to be so romantic and imaginative. You are just like everyone else, after all, with irritating quirks of behaviour and a frightening temper—I still remember dodging heavy, sharp cooking knives and the screams as you threw them. That was the day I almost learnt to dance, though you weren’t as serious as you could have been. But Betty didn’t want to know about that—her face fell and she said oh and I felt mean. I could have left her thinking whatever she wanted, but I don’t understand why people (even me) don’t like to hear the truth, especially when it is something simple and obvious.

I don’t know if I will understand the world ever, especially not people’s desires and hopes and loves; it all stuns me into a bewilderment that takes over my life. My only option is to analyse it into comprehension, but I have given up philosophy for that very reason. Do you remember Harry? He always said philosophers were totally and permanently confused, and that this confusion about everything was the mark of a good philosopher. Unfortunately he thought I was a good philosopher, with excellent conceptual skills, far above the usual. Perhaps my skills are fading, or I am no longer as confused as I was—I no longer believe philosophy can help, if only because too few people seem capable of distinguishing the subtleties of conceptual thought. The majority inevitably reach conclusions which match their existing prejudices. Perhaps Bradley was correct when he said something about philosophy being the reasoned working out of what we believe on intuition; and Nietzsche, poor old Fritz with his claim that our deepest and most blessed truths are nothing but prejudices.

Do you remember your Nietzsche? I think you only read him because of me, but when I was looking through my copy of Beyond Good and Evil recently, I found two notes from you: Does he always do things in threes? and I ♥ you.

Over the years, whether I liked it or not, I regularly came across messages you wrote in my books. The problem was that I did like it; I enjoyed remembering just how much love we had once shared, and just how much I continued to feel. All the time I was with Liz, this was hiding with me and within my books. It was unfinished business that contrasted to the life I had built and continued to live until Liz called it to an abrupt end. I wonder if she knew about your little notes? If she knew how often I searched them out and how often I cried after reading them?

I doubt it. I never told her and she didn’t read, especially not poetry and philosophy which she and her family regarded as a waste of time, even if it was forced on them occasionally as a course requirement at university. I have to ask: did you do the same thing and choose someone as unlike me as possible? And I wonder what he will think of this letter?

Of course you won’t tell me and I don’t really care. Any mistakes you’ve made are yours and mine are mine and all I really want is to come to some peace and understanding within myself. This would be easier if you had told me why you left me, but you refused to talk about it or explain and there was nothing I could do but accept the way you ripped yourself out of my life while I was still trying to get over the abortion.

You wouldn’t talk about that either, except to say we couldn’t afford a baby; you kept all your serious discussion for your woman friends. I loved you as much as I could after you killed it, and that was a lot; but I still sat in my room staring at the wall and the dirty glass in the windows, wondering why you had killed our child, why I was alive and it wasn’t, and whether I could ever heal. Of course no one took any notice of me—the politically correct garbage you believed did not allow that I could be affected by your decision to abort—you simply didn’t notice how depressed I was; or didn’t care.

I was angry, so fucking angry with you, but the depression hid the anger from me. In retrospect, the abortion signalled the end—I no longer believed you loved me, and I stopped trying. It also produced the nearest simulacrum of the feelings I felt when Mum died, of everything I went through as I wandered around the hospital, trying to avoid watching her die but always drawn back to the living corpse she was. I don’t want to describe it to you; I just want to try and put my life in context, especially love, which seems so difficult to find and yet hangs around to torment us years after it’s lost.

Once upon a time you would have had a lot to say about this, you would have tried to analyse with me what the concept of love is, all the time laughing at the stupid, unanswerable questions we create for the purpose of self-torment. But of course none of us have the faintest idea what we mean when we say we love someone; we know we love them, and we know it means more than sex, yet sex is the main thing we focus on—all the fluff and goo of our bodies!

Do you remember Garry? How he would answer the door, naked and erect and say quietly Just go across the road and wait. I’ll just be five minutes, or maybe ten… And he expected meekness and patience while he indulged himself. For him love was sex and little else, even after he married and gave up men. Poor Eileen had to be ready at the twitch of his cock—the one piece of myself in which I never really had confidence! But that is because it tells me nothing about love.

Sometimes, you know, when I look at someone, even someone I don’t like, I hear a voice inside myself saying I love you and I am filled with something I can’t describe; not an emotion, a sensation.

Perhaps I’m crazy; Liz’s father always said I was—only schizophrenics hear voices he said—but I prefer to think I am aware of something bigger than me: the divine realisation of the relation of all of us in a web of love that could connect us all if only we would open ourselves to each other. But how can we do this when, instead of trusting love, we focus on hate? All I have to do is think of Liz’s father, who has loathed me since the minute he met me, who has built his initial reaction into a movement of hatred. No matter how much I focus on love, his hatred remains constant and affects me every time I see him. And how much easier it is to keep our hatred constant, to maintain it when we expect and seek only the worst: nothing good can change this. Yes, he did that well, but… And when we love, it is too easy for the beloved to disappoint, and how quickly our love fades when this happens.

But that, you see, is the rub of it all; I have never lost a little core of love, not for you, not for Liz. This doesn’t mean I would get back together with either of you; and it doesn’t mean I still like Liz or admire the way she lives her life. It just means that some part of me loves and understands her in a manner I don’t comprehend. Perhaps I should consult a psychologist, not for hearing voices, but for loving those who have harmed me—or should I become a Christian and try for sainthood? There has to be some simple answer, or insanity would be the best option.

I remember a paper in which the author argued that Nietzsche merely pretended to be insane over the last years of his life; the ultimate pretence of his teaching the renewal of oneself, to become a child again. If Nietzsche did this he would rank as the greatest performance artist ever, the greatest actor and most magnificent child. But is it meaningful? Is it any sort of an answer when you face the unanswerable? For Nietzsche, if indeed he pretended insanity, it may have been his only escape from realising he could not complete his grand project. But where could I take such an insanity?

Clearly there is no answer when we think about love (and Mum’s death has me thinking about that a lot) or, if there is an answer, we have failed to see it as we wander around saying I love you with meaningless intent. Maybe the truth is that I am more like Nietzsche than I had imagined; maybe I have been depressed for the past fifteen years and have pretended sanity all this time and am now thrust by death into true insanity. More accurate, if you want the truth, is that I have held myself in a self-protective wrapper with which I kept love and the world at bay. And yet I feel as though I have experienced nothing but love, a deep abiding love that maintains the years.

Oh dear, I can hear you cackle, half disbelief half sheer joy at the absurdity of claiming love whilst knowing nothing about it.

Perhaps I know less since Mum died and Dad sank deep into dementia. Perhaps the homelessness, the absolute aloneness, the shock of dialling the phone when it’s disconnected, the house empty—I am not on the streets or in the gutter, but I have nowhere I can go, and no one with whom to go there.

Do you remember when we met? You worked in that dreadful little coffee shop where I spent so much time waiting for the next bus home. The other waitresses thought it was funny and used to make sure I was sitting in your section. You were sixteen, gauche and delightful with the widest, happiest smile and I was thirty-one, encapsulated in my honours year.

I didn’t take any notice of your age until you said it would be a problem with your parents; it didn’t matter to you, or to me. What a silly boy I was. But the joy I experienced seeing you and being with you over-rode all other considerations and was unmatched until I held my children, looked into their scrunched faces and watched them grow.

God save me but it has happened again. I have met someone who affects me the way you did even when we divorced. She was twelve when we started talking, long crazy conversations about my son Alex, whom she was in love with, and about art and life; conversations which took me deep into the joy and optimism with which life should be lived. She is thirteen now, and every bit as delightful and beautiful as you always were. Just saying hello to Little Fox (because she is slippery and escapes fast) and seeing her smile, these got me through the months after Mum’s death. I was so thankful I had taken the time to know and talk to her. Perhaps it’s her age, but she has a natural compassion that she shares freely and without needing—or being able to—say all the adult things so prized by the world. Sometimes I look at her friends, the same age as her, wondering how they can look and behave as though they’re eight while she is so much more mature than her years.

It doesn’t matter in any event: we are not ‘going out’ or seeing each other, except when I pick my kids up from school, because of her age and mine; but I love and prize her as one of the most precious aspects of my life. Ah, the crazy old fart (she calls me gorilla) that I am.

It would have been too easy, I suppose, to love someone even remotely near my own age; but age has nothing to do with it, does it? It’s just what keeps us apart, and that may well be for the best because everyone keeps telling her I will go to prison, though I don’t know how that’s possible when we cannot and do not see each other. Truly, as near as I can tell, that is the only relevance age has, and seems based on the presumption that age always is malign when associated with youth.

Is there anything else to say? So little and so much, as always, and I could tell you tales of even greater stupidity than loving Little Fox. But I remember your laughter too clearly, and I fear I would have to laugh with you even though I am not very good at that these days. Gazing at my mother’s corpse cleared that out of me even if Little Fox helps me smile again.

Perhaps, when I am older, I will laugh more. Until then…

Married with children

This is a story I wrote quite a while ago, and have self-published in What Remains. Without doubt, the subject matter has prevented it from being published in the magazines I have sent it to, but it is, I think, a sweet story, and many people, both male and female, have commented that they have experienced something very like this. I trust and hope that readers will enjoy it. Of course, I like it, but I would, wouldn’t I?

Sun hidden behind clouds in the west; easterly winds cutting through scrub, barely touching the stillness of water barely moving except where it trickled over rock lips into the next pool. Four o’clock on a summer afternoon and the wind was chilly enough to wear a coat, though the trees in along the creek provided some protection.

‘So, how are you?’

‘Alright, I suppose.’

Michelle didn’t look convinced; it must have been something in the tone of voice, or the way I was staring at the creek where it ran under the railway bridge. It was true, everything wasn’t alright, but I didn’t know if I wanted to talk about it. Why would I talk when I barely knew what was going on?

‘How’s Sandra then?’

‘Just the same, really. She still doesn’t like my working nights; she still wants to open her own salon. And she wants more kids before it’s too late.’

‘She’s still got time.’

‘Yes.’

We shrugged shoulders and sipped our coffee; synchronized, as so often. We had talked about this already, and Michelle knew I wasn’t interested in another child; the two we had were enough, though only the youngest, Alex, was still at home. Thirteen and absurdly self-assured, Alex seemed to pass his time with us standing still and staring into our eyes while we talked, occasionally flicking his hair out of his eyes without breaking eye contact. He had learnt that he could intimidate and ignore simultaneously, and it sent his mother into rages for the first time since I had met her. At the same time, despite this, Alex and I had a good relationship. As long as I wasn’t saying anything that could be construed as telling him what to do, we talked about all sorts of growing up issues in an open, almost academic fashion while Sandra kept saying he wasn’t old enough to understand; he just had to do what he was told, or else.

‘I don’t like the way she brings the kids up, you know; it’s too controlling.’

‘But kids need discipline.’

‘Discipline is different to control.’

‘But when you discipline children, you’re controlling them.’

‘Yes, but I always think of discipline as teaching them how to look after themselves, how to control themselves so they can get what they want easiest, not just punishment, not just stopping them doing what they want to do. I guess discipline is the positive side of control, the side that is going to help them go where they want to be. For Sandy, it seems it’s all about stopping them doing what they want to do.’

Michelle said nothing, just went Mmmmm…

We had been having some version of this discussion regularly for years, and I think that’s one difference between friend and wife: friends often continue exploring issues, or trying to; husbands and wives give up and start fighting around the silences they build. That’s my experience, limited but etched sharply into me.

The silences are huge, barren with all the promise of despair over years I refuse to count. And, of course, they’re punctuated with glances and grunted exasperation. Yet we continued to fumble toward each other in bed, as though sex would change our inability to talk during day, where silences began to stretch from waking to late night weeping.

‘You two will get over it; you’re both good people.’

It was my turn to go Mmmmm, to quietly disbelieve.

Often, without really noticing, Michelle and I slipped into our own silences, not with the grit of unspoken emotion, but the ease of people who know each other too well; our silences told the other whether we believed what they said, whether we were thinking and still had more to say. Sometimes they lead the conversation in another direction, into areas we may not otherwise have had the courage to entertain, more difficult, even, than trouble with our respective spouses. But always gently, like a river before a flood.

‘I hear that Alice is working at Solitude now.’

‘Yeah, Friday and Saturday afternoon, for a couple of hours.’

‘Is she still going out with Alex?’

‘Ah no. They broke up a while ago.’

Another silence, shorter, more calculated than before. I wonder if I want to talk about this, if it shouldn’t be kept a secret even from Chele, hidden away like catfish in the deeper holes.

The problem, of course, is that everyone imagines they know what is in your head, just because they know what’s in your trousers. And who can we blame for that? No answer, just the irritation of trying to sort your thoughts out against the weight of assumptions that run life. I try not to let them run my life but ultimately, overpowered more often than not, I gossip out my assumptions like everyone else.

‘He said that she’s just too nice. I suppose that makes sense to him.’

Michelle laughed, a bell-toned sarcastic laugh that I always enjoyed hearing. Out here, in the wilds along the creek, it was like a bird call, soft and penetrating. It’s a laugh that says everything about her relationship to Stannum and its people; an estimation of survival in the society that formed her.

‘She’s a lovely girl, I really like her.’

‘Yes, so do I, but she’s a bit more than a girl, you know; she’s a woman now, no matter what the law says.’

She knew what I meant, but she couldn’t help asking What do you mean? And what I meant was that puberty changes everything—for the child become woman, for those who know her. It’s got nothing to do with experience or maturity. It’s something deeper, some fundamental change that comes with the physical changes, and maybe makes sense of them in a way boys don’t understand; not even boys who’ve grown up and, married with children, watch the girls change in front of them.

I suppose you’re right, physically, but there’s no maturity there. I mean, how old is she? Thirteen?’

‘Fourteen, but does that matter?’
‘Yes, she’s too young, and it’s illegal.’

That’s the problem when people really listen to you, really listen: they hear all the things you haven’t said, the things you don’t want to think. If they know you well, there’s nothing you can do to stop this.

‘The age of consent is just an arbitrary number.’
‘But maturity isn’t arbitrary.’

‘I guess so, but have you ever really thought about what maturity is?’

I looked at her, at the little wrinkles around her eyes; they only appear when Michelle is doubtful, when she’s facing something she doesn’t quite approve of. Her clear, light brown eyes develop a cast, almost a cloud she tries to peer through.

‘I sometimes think we use maturity to mean disappointment. It comes from experience, after all, from knowing what might happen and then building defences against it—get yourself ready for the bad outcome experience tells you is bound to happen; and then we say how mature we are, but isn’t it just fear more often than not? Just trying to avoid pain?’

‘No, it’s more than that. It’s knowing how to get what you want without hurting someone, how to give to others, how…’

‘Experience’ I interjected. ‘Just a set of things happening to you, and sooner or later they will. She’ll have good lovers, bad lovers, arseholes and bastards. That’s the maturity you’re talking about.’

And then: ‘Face it, Michelle; once a girl is past puberty, they’re a woman.’

‘I’m kind of wondering what you’re talking about. I mean, do you want to have sex with her, or something?’

‘Or something…’

That was the nub, and the rub of it all at once. Just what did I want? Another woman—but one so young? So fragile and ripe with desire?
Michelle waited for me to continue, but there was nothing to say. She was uncomfortable, but not with the outrage others would have. She was trying to understand, to push past her instant reaction while I sat, foolishly, wondering how to rationalise my feelings.

‘What about Sandra? And the kids?’

Michelle started talking, questioning me then answering herself, apparently unaware of the irony that she preferred older men as friends and lovers; while I slipped into a state where I thought about the past six months, how Alice had turned her attention to me. You’re cool she had said, hugging me in a more than friendly fashion; breasts so full, hips tight against mine. And the touches. How often she touched, running her hands over some part of me, smiling, eyes latched to mine. It was an absurd flirtation, and I knew it; a reminder of all the joys of love, all the delightful exploration and plans you thought to carry through life.

When she suggested, smiling, caressing me, that we should find a way to see each other more often, more privately, I was astounded. She had meant everything I had dreamt she had meant.

‘You’re too young’ I said, stepping back. She was outraged.

‘I’ll be fifteen in a few months.’

‘And you will still be too young.’

Alice, whom I loved with the purity of a first love, as I had never loved my wife, pursed her lips and walked away, shoulders straight. Whether I wanted or not, I had turned her away. Feeling scorned, Alice barely spoke to me anymore, but occasionally I caught her looking at me. I wondered why I had let her talk me into letting her work in the restaurant; why she kept coming back…

I sighed, turned to face Michelle, who was busy pouring another coffee for us. I wondered, idly, what it would have been like if we had been married. We seemed to understand each other so thoroughly, but it may just be that we didn’t really care, and didn’t have to live with each other’s oddities.

‘I think I’ll talk to Sandra about having another child after all’ I said, smiling; thinking of Alice.

Sea Chords

I wrote this for inclusion in Sae, a project by Audra Wolowiec at RAYGUN, Toowoomba, Australia, earlier this year. As much as she thanked me for the words, I don’t think she used them, so here they are.

Susurrus pulse, deep within body water floating within wave foam lining the dark sea beneath swimmers.

See the weather beyond waves rolling together, laughter foaming over rock biting sea that waves.

How the sea flattens still roiling waves drifting landward.

Cindy Hochman’s Habeas Corpus

hochman

Poetry performs many tasks in the somewhat limited area to which it is confined in contemporary literature, but making us laugh isn’t usually one of them, especially when the subject is the always serious near presence of death. We tend to want ‘the big issues’ to be dealt with in a solemn, reserved manner that suits experiences we may have witnessed, but have yet to undergo. Cindy Hochman’s Habeas Corpus breaks with this idea of overt seriousness by provoking laughter at the body.

What Hochman presents us with is the humour of the experience of having a body retrospectively, as something which is both self and other. Often it is a matter of word play which reminds us of some personal bodily reality, e.g.,

Eve didn’t know her asp from her elbow because she was too busy tendon her garden.

My own weeded womb has gone many places, except the maternity ward.

I’m alone in my womb.

The humour in this piece is bitter. Eve in the garden knew nothing, and this is laughable. It is the lived body, remembered and considered, which provides knowledge that she is alone in her womb. Ultimately it is an isolation from the “ideal” of womanhood, a necessary aloneness within one’s own body.

Central to the book is the following short piece,

After the chemo zapped my eyebrows to Kingdom Come, I took my kohl black pencil and drew an arched and defiant line in the sand.

Not humorous in itself, this poem submits the body to realisations of mortality with a snigger. If one’s face is sand, after all, the “arched and defiant line” will dissolve quickly into the background, leaving only that which remains.

Each poem in this book approaches bodily life from a side angle, providing insight and a dash of bitters to spice the laughter which bursts out of the collection and ends with a final acerbic observation:

None of my wounds are superficial (am I dying for my art?) Tell me: Which is the nurse’s button? Which is the nuclear button? Which is the panic button?

I think I shall make an exquisite corpse!

Whether or not Hochman ends as an exquisite corpse is beyond the laughter and cries of the present. What is relevant now is the high quality poetry she has provided for our journey through the body.

This is an exceptionally good book of poetry. It is small, it is the work of someone who feels their way through every word and balances their effect with a precision of meaning that emphasises the depth of her experience, and shares it with us.

The Inevitability of Life by BJ Muirhead

Most recent publication. This is the verse version, there also is a prose version, which may appear a little later.

The Blue Hour

Marked by uncertain movement
the exploration begins. A ricochet
of breath under sky, dark with rain
and a dozen white cockatoos in raucous flight
from desire congealed on aged skin,
crumpled loosely around joints,
like smoke trapped in the still of summer.
Breathing another breath, pressing bodies close,
a solitary moment bracketed
by the whine of a baby
the clack of rock falling on rock
the soundless creep of water
puddled in drought
Seeking continuance from the day
we know we are dead.


BJ Muirhead is a writer and photographer living in rural Queensland, Australia. He has published online and in print journals, and was included in an anthology of Queensland poetry (1986). He has published art criticism and was photographic reviewer for the Courier-Mail newspaper in the 1980s. His writing and recent exhibitions, Primary Evidence (2011) and Flesh (2014), continue his lifetime interest in the human body and its…

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Nancy

This memoir was first published in the journal :etchings, Volume 11: three chords and the truth. The other person in this memoir, Gary Williams, died last year (I have no idea whether or not he read this, though mutual friends may have shown an early draft to him). With both Nancy and Gary dead, I admit that I am tempted to write about all the things that were kept secret. But that would just be gossip and sex.

Nancy Weir

Nancy Weir

It was the year 1975; I was twenty and working as a clerk in a Brisbane government office. Often I would escape the office to wander the city streets, visit tobacconists, book shops and chat in cafés. It was in a café that I met Gary Williams, who introduced me to the social world of musicians and to Nancy Weir: pianist, exceptional teacher and inspiring eccentric.

Gary was relatively new to Brisbane, having moved to Australia to take the position of principal ’cellist at the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. He was on his ‘way up’, and explained to me that the natural progression of an orchestral musician was to leave the back rows by becoming principal in a provincial orchestra, then return to a major orchestra’s front row, at the very least.

In contrast, Nancy was on her way out, near the end of her career, but Gary’s admiration for her was without bounds, and he gossiped about her regularly: She had been a world famous pianist, had released records, soloed with the great orchestras and conductors, but had given it all up in 1954 when she left Europe and returned to Melbourne to care for her ill father. Since then her fame had shrunk from public awareness.

It meant nothing to me. Instead of being an artist, I was living a life I didn’t have the courage to leave. I loved classical music and I was excited to know someone who talked music and art, but I wasn’t a musician and I had never heard of Nancy. Gary, on the other hand, was in awe of her past, her talent and her sacrifice, so much so that he avoided introducing us for as long as he could.

It was a reasonable enough precaution, even if it only applied to Nancy—I was frustrated, aggressive, rude, loud-mouthed, arrogant, and I didn’t care what I said, who I insulted or how. Nonetheless, he took me to her house in Highgate Hill, showing me through it as though it was his own. Of course, Nancy wasn’t there; she was on a jaunt somewhere, and Gary was looking after her dog, Cully, who trotted around our feet as Gary took me from photograph to photograph. Gary used a world-weary tone to name the famous people in the photos with Nancy, no doubt hoping I wouldn’t recognise his envy that she had had the career he hoped for.

When the inevitable happened and Nancy and I met, Gary pulled me aside and admonished me with the words behave yourself, as he often did when I was meeting someone of musical importance. I was bemused because Nancy wasn’t what I expected. She was short, rather dumpy, wearing a floral dress that looked as though it belonged behind a large frilly apron. At the same time, she had a sharp mind and piercingly direct eyes. She also was prone to vagueness, when her eyes would lose focus and her mouth would open slightly until she returned, as sharp as before.

After our first meeting, Nancy and I became presences in each other’s lives without really knowing each other. Gary frequently took me with him when he visited her, just because I happened to be with him at the time, and we met at concerts, parties and on the streets until we were comfortable and happy to see each other.

The only conversation I remember from that period was when we met accidentally in the street. Nancy had just finished teaching at the conservatorium, which was at Garden’s Point at the time, and was walking into the city. She made it clear that she wasn’t happy when she answered my greeting with an acerbic: ‘You young people think we’re stupid, just because we’re older.’

‘Why? What happened?’ I asked.

‘I have this piano student, and he came to his lesson stoned today. As if you can play properly when you’re stoned!’

She paused, pursed her lips and gazed into the distance, as she often did.

‘He’d been smoking marijuana, and I told him never to come to my lessons in such a state again.’

‘And, what did he say?’

‘Well. He asked me how I knew, and I told him: I was in Alexandria during the war!’

I laughed; there was no other possible reaction. Besides, I was interested in finding out what she had done in Alexandria during the war, but when I asked her, she became evasive.

‘Oh, you know… I was in the army, er… I was… a nurse!’ she mumbled, waffling on a bit longer, but clearly, she didn’t want to talk about it. Being a nurse was an adequate answer anyway—so many people had taken unusual career paths during the war.

It was Gary who, not long after, let out the truth, laughing at the idea that Nancy had been anything but a spy. He told me to ask her about it. It was the first and only time that he didn’t launch into long and elaborate stories about what someone had done, which was how I knew he was telling the truth. A blunt little truth, which I never followed up with Nancy.Instead she and I talked about music and art.

If I had been in the music business, I would have made enough contacts for a lifetime. As it was, my main benefit was social. Some—but only some—of my rougher edges were smoothed in the process of listening and talking to the stream of visiting musicians and composers who dined at Gary’s house. When it was Gary and Nancy and I, however, the conversation was pure gossip, more often than not about who was sleeping, or trying to sleep, with whom.

The primary instigator of the gossip was Gary, whose love of sex and the salacious was unbounded; not even Nancy could avoid taking part, though it rarely was an active role. She would listen and laugh, occasionally making a comment that would further the general salaciousness and hilarity without actually participating. What stood out was that Nancy was, more or less, in charge of the conversation. All it took was a sideways glance, a grunt or a rare expression of disgust, to change the subject of the discussion. The only occasions on which this was not the case were parties, where Nancy blended in with the rest of us. This was the case at all parties I attended except one.

The party was at Gary’s and when I walked in late, as I often did, Nancy was sitting in relative quiet at the kitchen table, staring at the wall opposite. When I said hello, Nancy looked up but didn’t seem to see me.

‘Oh. And what are you up to?’ She said.

Thinking that she was drunker than drunk, I laughed and went down to the music room. It wasn’t a particularly wild party, but it was loud and intoxicated, and I knew everyone there.

At some stage Nancy came downstairs, sat at the piano and started playing. It seemed as though the room quietened. In reality, I drifted to the group around the piano, and focused my attention until she stopped playing, put her hands in her lap and called out.

‘What about the blues? Would anyone like some blues?’

She didn’t wait for a reply, though a lot of people called out yes or cheered and clapped as she improvised her way from tune to tune. Perhaps she wasn’t as drunk as I’d thought; it didn’t matter. She focused on the keyboard and her stubby fingers with knotted joints proved that she was every bit as good as Gary had said. This was what she called ‘banging away at the keyboard’ because, she said, she couldn’t really play anymore, not the way she used to. When she stopped playing, the party ground back to normal. The drinking, flirting and laughing continued and Nancy, well satisfied, rejoined the flow of the party.

I never heard Nancy play again, but our relationship went on, courtesy of our mutual friendship with Gary. We didn’t come to know each other directly, without the mediation of others, until she retired and purchased the Rialto Theatre in West End in 1983.

Not long after she’d taken over, I met her outside the theatre, fussing about posters, or something similar. She showed me around, from projection room to the dressing rooms and paraphernalia beneath and above stage and her pianos, which she tinkled on as she talked. I had friends living around the corner in Spring Street, and up the hill in and behind Dornoch Terrace. I introduced one of these friends, Gabrielle, to Nancy when we all met on the street by chance. Gabrielle was my age, an eccentric in training, and she adored Nancy immediately. Dropping in on Nancy was a part of my routine when I was in the area, and often Gabrielle would be there, pottering and laughing with her. Every time I visited, it seemed that Nancy had discovered something new about the theatre that she showed me and marvelled at with a child-like joy in which she recalled her long experience in theatres and concert halls.

This joy peaked when the Queensland Theatre Company had to move a production out of the now demolished SGIO Theatre while repairs were carried out. Much to Nancy’s delight, the QTC chose the Rialto.

‘That’s what this place was designed for, you know; it’s a theatre, a real working theatre’ she said, then took me around again, telling stories about the theatres she’d worked in, and repeating how delighted she was that the Rialto would have one more real production.

‘I mean, I love movies’ she said, holding her hands in front of herself, fingers bouncing off each other. ‘But this is a theatre…’

I made no effort to see the play, and I remember nothing about it, not even it’s name. Gabrielle and I did odd jobs and ran messages for Nancy, which included going to the pub and buying flagons of sherry, which Nancy consumed in amazing quantities. For the three of us it was a short period of intense excitement that ended all too soon.

Not long after, circumstances in my life changed and I lost contact with Nancy, though I maintained an erratic friendship with Gary, who reinstalled his habit of telling amusing stories about Nancy, many of which revolved around how absurd Nancy’s plans were. He would sigh dramatically and say‘You never know with Nancy, I think she said she was going to run a fish and chip shop… She wants to buy a church… she…’

A few years later, when my addled life became a little clearer, I asked Gary how Nancy was and how I could get in touch with her, only to be told that she had gone north to Mackay and died. The truth that she was alive and well; that she lived until 2008, was something I didn’t discover until 2011 when I found myself talking about the past with John Harrison, an old acquaintance whom I knew through Gary.

John was in town for an exhibition of his visual art, and I was quite excited to see him after some twenty years and to talk about people we had known long ago. It was he who told me that Gary had, inexplicably, lied about Nancy’s death.

I’d known for some time that Gary had lied to me about many things, that he’d actively spoken against me behind my back, so I wasn’t surprised, though John said that it was about that time that Gary became ill and erratic. Perhaps that explained it, but it made no difference to the way Nancy had impressed herself on me.I had thought and talked about her regularly, as though she had still been alive. She had been an ongoing presence in my life, since one particular night on the way back to the Rialto.

Nancy, Gabrielle and I had been at a party up the hill at the far end of Dornoch Terrace, and the three of us were walking home. I can’t remember whose party we had been at, but we were drunk and happy. We had turned the corner into Hardgrave Road. It was well after midnight, the sky was clear, the air crisp, there was no traffic, and I said I felt like dancing in the street. Nancy responded that she’d do it herself, if she could. And then she said: ‘Don’t just talk about it. If you want to do it, then do it.’

And so I twirled and leapt down the middle of the road while Nancy and Gabrielle laughed and cheered me on until I tripped and lay spread-eagled on the bitumen. Nancy nudged me with her foot, while Gabrielle hauled at me until I was upright and we set off again, holding to the middle of the road until a car forced us back onto the footpath.

That night hadn’t been the last time I saw Nancy, but it was the last time that held any value for me. Partly because there was a lot I never knew about Nancy, that I had never asked about because we rarely talked about anything but the present,but also because it summed up everything I knew about Nancy: if you want to do it, then do it, no matter what it is.

© BJ Muirhead 2011. All rights reserved


Born in 1915 in Melbourne, Nancy Weir was a child prodigy who gave her first public piano performance with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at age thirteen. After studying with Artur Schnabel in Germany, she completed her studies in England, where she made her name as an up and coming star.
When World War II began, Nancy enlisted in the WAAF before being transferred to RAF Intelligence. As a cover for her intelligence activities—which included interrogating prisoners of war, listening to enemy communications and going behind enemy lines—she regularly entertained troops in Egypt and Palestine. In later years, though generally coy about her activities during the war, she once said: ‘I think I am the only classical pianist in history whoever parachuted into Rome.’

The call to adventure

This is a first draft, but I like it so much, I am putting it up here immediately. There will be messing about with it, I am sure, but I do like it just as it is. Hope you do also.

 

…and so, when he spoke, the old man was frightened and looked in a mirror where I saw myself caught between words, my beard stubbled grey on the sunburnt skin I hid from starlight guiding this path toward the mastery of crows crowing on the desert of leafless branches tangled in blue-sky hope.

And when I spoke, lips cracked against the old man’s hope, polished with that desire, with your desire, with a crowd of tears soft on eyelids crinkled like paper ironed dry, and when we spoke, hot dry air fevered old lips cast adrift, shipwrecked on skin. And when the old man spoke again I saw him in my eyes and felt him rise as though he saw a virgin child, naked at prayer before a crowd silent with hate.

You, he said, child. Cover your mouth. Do not show that you speak to those who do not listen. They who take your voice and squander sound cannot hear the prayer of youth cast to the future.

I, older than you, whisper toward death in your stead.

And when you turn and look at me and I turn and look at me and I see your oldness in my eye; an age beyond years taken out of the hope I see fade in your eye, wrinkled blindly before these words trapped us—spectators on the coast of becoming who we are or have been seen to be before this wreckage sinks to earth. And when we speak it is us who listen to the air escaping our gasp as though he spoke again, fingers pointed with recognition and the calls of loathing blocking his throat…

Wishful thinking

When I was trying to think where I could submit this small poem, I realised that I don’t know anywhere that would be likely to publish it.   Clearly I need to expand my knowledge of the market, but in the meantime, it may as well rest here for a while.

With my apologies to any woman who finds it offensive, here is a little bit of wishful thinking…

 

I would have liked

to have eaten her, cunt

first then thighs squeezed

around my head

pressing me toward

her suffocated gasps.

 


© BJ Muirhead.  All rights reserved

Thought and action

 

No lonelier than most, you are everyone you have ever known. Mother father friend, lover and enemy hold court, a babble embodied beneath social appearance. Easy to pretend this crowded mind does not hold its opinions, but moves to them slow, painstakingly reasoned, a set of logical consequences, a simple run through life as though what will happen already is in you and your actions an escape from inevitability, from time, consequence and puppet insanities when voices long forgotten rise to consciousness, tell you what and when to do when experience clearly stands against you.

Henceforth, you will no longer exist. Only the voices of everyone you have forgotten, lonelier than most, have reality.

A poem from the last year or three, as yet unpublished anywhere but here. It’s one of my favourite works, and I think it deserves a good read or two. But, of course, I am the author.

 BJ Muirhead All rights reserved

 

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