Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The jazz singer

My friend, a woman from Neutral Bay, who in the last ten years has gained moderate fame as a jazz singer, told me that it was only recently that she had been able to get any perspective on her achievement. She had gone to have dinner with a couple she had known for many years - a couple who still lived in the street of Victorian terrace houses in Marrickville where she and her ex-husband used to live - and the conversation at the table had turned on many things but inevitably, as she put it, on her sudden rise in fortune when she had been invited to sing at a festival in New York. It was while she was leaving the dinner party - in fact she had gone no more than two paces from the gate of her friends' house - that a young, roughly dressed and overweight man she didn't recognise hailed her by her first name and subjected her to a violent hug. It was lucky, she told me, that the man had been drinking. He kept exclaiming how good it was to see her and then went on to talk for so long and with so many repetitions that it soon became clear she had just met one of her former neighbours whom, when she had seen him last, had been no more than a thin, pale and spotty boy. He had come to see the old place, he told her. He too had moved away, although he didn't say where. In the last two or three years when she had lived in Marrickville, this young man, then a teenager, had made her life unbearable, my friend now told me. Surly during the day - he never addressed a single word to her - he would often become violent and irrational at night. These episodes would start in the early hours of the morning, beginning with a sudden noise as if he had fallen out of bed, and would escalate into what would always sound like one side of a desperate and vituperative argument, his bitter invective resounding through her house as if he were pacing around her kitchen or even closer - at the foot of her bed. In the mornings she would often see the boy's mother hurrying up the street to knock on the door of a friend's house. She had felt sorry for the family then, but more sorry for herself. Wanting now to say something in return, she had then asked after his mother, and this question of hers seemed to make him extraordinarily happy. His mother was wonderful, he said, though her ticker had been giving trouble and she was working too hard, but really, he wanted to say how much he had always loved living in this street, and particularly next door to my friend and her husband, who had always been fantastic neighbours and good to his mum and his dad. She and her husband, he said, had never complained about him and his parents, and he and his parents had never complained about them. In fact, he now said, he used to like the wailing she used to do with that trumpet music, as he called it, and that little playing up and down on the piano, always missing some notes - the wailing and the playing going all over the place - and just thinking about it now was bringing it all back to him. It was making him remember how happy he had been as a kid.

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