I wrote this piece a couple of years’ ago. It’s some of my early writing so please forgive the errors and simplicity! It was one of the first pieces I wrote in my own ‘voice’ and was published in the OOTA anthology, ‘Jukebox’, in 2013.
In Memory of My Father
Geoffrey David Allan
1940 — 2012
NEIL AND DAD AND ME
What a beautiful noise,
Comin’ up from the street.
Got a beautiful sound,
It’s got a beautiful beat.
The stereo arrived one Christmas in the early 70’s: a boxy brown colossus in three parts. It was almost as high as me and sprawled along most of the exposed brick wall. The brand was His Masters Voice, with the dog looking down the trumpet of the gramophone. I was proud that my parents chose that one because I liked dogs.
Dad taught us how to handle the shiny vinyl: how to lift it from its flimsy sleeve without touching the disc, hold it by its edges and set it at the top of the metal spike in the centre. Then we snapped the clasp over the top to hold it. This stereo was automatic, so we only had to flick the lever at the side and the vinyl disc dropped all by itself onto the spinning rubber below. The robotic arm whirred as it rose, pivoted and swung out over the rotating record, before lowering ever so gently onto its circling edge.
Then we waited through the lumps and the hiss and the crackles until, finally, the music came:
It’s a beautiful noise,
Goin’ on everywhere.
Like the clickety-clack
Of a train on a track,
It’s got rhythm to spare.
That’s when Neil joined our family. Record after record of his appeared in the cabinet below the turntable. On Saturday afternoons, after the cars had been washed and the driveway hosed down, I’d walk inside, the beat of Neil’s music thudding across the boards under my feet. Dad would be sitting on the maroon velvet couch, head back and eyes closed, a stubby of beer in his hand, just listening. And I’d enjoy it, too: the feel of the music vibrating inside me and seeing my father relaxed and happy, and knowing why.
It’s a beautiful noise,
It’s a sound that I love,
And it fits me as well
As a hand in a glove.
Yes it does, yes it does.
The piano arrived not long after the stereo: an antique walnut Renardi with a stool that Mum had covered in maroon velvet to match the lounge suite. We weren’t allowed to start lessons until we were eight but I tried to play anyway. I sat on the stool and moved my fingers one after the other over the keys, but it never sounded tuneful, and I felt frustrated that I couldn’t make the music I heard in my head. I longed for my eighth birthday to hurry up and come.
Sometimes, late at night when I was lying in bed, the opening bars of Neil’s Jonathon Livingston Seagull drifted through the house, and I pretended I needed a drink and snuck out to the fridge, past Dad on the couch, showered and dressed in his smart clothes—a shirt with a collar, and trousers, not jeans—a glass of wine beside him and his eyes shut as he listened.
On a painted sky
Where the clouds are hung
With a poet’s eye
You may find him
If you may find him
Then cassettes came on the market and Dad bought a player for his car. We heard and felt the ‘voomp-voomp-voomp’ as he drove up the driveway past our bedroom window. He’d turn off the engine and sit in the car on his own, waiting and listening until the song had finished.
On a distant shore
By the wings of dreams
Through an open door
You may know him
If you may know him
Then out he’d climb, keys jangling, whistling as he made his way inside.
I turned eight and started piano lessons and as I practised, Dad would slip in and sit in his listening spot on the lounge. I’d play my scales. When I’d finished I’d look around and he’d be sitting with his head back, his eyes closed. He’d open them and say, ‘That sounds really nice’, and I’d say, ‘It’s only scales’, and he’d say, ‘Doesn’t matter. I could sit here all night listening to it.’
And it made me smile and feel warm that I could bring such pleasure to my father.
At the end of my first year of lessons I played Für Elise by Beethoven in the school concert. I walked onto the stage in my green wedges and pink dress that had been sewn especially, and sat on the stool. I’d practised so much that my hands knew the notes without my brain needing to remind them, yet when I reached the beginning of the second section, the fingers of my left hand tripped. I started again but still my fingers landed on keys they weren’t meant to. I felt myself growing hot under my frills and Sister Bernadette sidled over and stood behind my left shoulder and began counting in my ear. ‘One-and-two-and-three-and …’ I kept trying but my fingers wouldn’t play the right notes, and I was sweating and wanting to tell Sister to shut up and leave me alone, but still she stood there counting, ‘One-and-two-and-three-and …’
When I’d finished, I wanted to run straight off the stage but I pulled myself up and pretended to smile as I bowed. Everyone smiled back and kindly but sadly clapped the poor girl who’d stuffed up.
When the concert was over, Dad found me and put his arm around me and said, ‘Well done,’ and I turned to him and cried into his belly.
We dream, we dream,
While we may.
Dad built a holiday home on the coast and late on Friday nights—always late, after he’d knocked off work and whistled while he changed out of his overalls, and kept whistling as he showered and dressed and packed the car—we drove to the coast. Neil would be singing:
What a beautiful noise
Comin’ up from the park
It’s the song of the kids
And it plays until dark.
Eventually my brother and sister and mother would fall asleep and only Dad and I would be awake, and the night sky overhead would be black and vast and filled with stars, and Dad would tell me about when his family used to camp along the coast, and fish in the river, and his mother would have the fire going on the bank, and they’d cook what they caught and how nothing beat the taste of fresh fish like that.
And I’d tell him about what I’d learnt at school that week, especially in Maths or Science because they were the subjects that interested us both, and he’d ask me questions as if he wanted to learn it, too. He’d look down at me as I sat on the console between the bucket seats of the four-wheel drive, and smile and say, ‘Wow. You kids know so much these days.’
Then, we’d sit in silence for a while until he’d spot a star or a planet in the night sky and tell me its name and how it was part of another galaxy and we’d wonder about the universe and marvel at how big it was and that our minds couldn’t comprehend it.
When we reached the Pass I knew we were nearly at our shack and part of me wanted us to keep driving all night so I could just stay talking with my Dad, with Neil crooning:
Lonely looking sky, lonely sky,
Lonely looking sky,
And bein’ lonely
Makes you wonder why,
Makes you wonder why
Lonely looking sky.
Still Dad came and listened while I practised piano, eyes closed, never interrupting, never correcting, never asking for a particular piece or if I could play something again. Just sitting and listening to whatever I was playing.
A few years before I gave up piano lessons, I told him I was sick of them. He shook his head and looked at me with his brown eyes and wrinkled forehead. ‘Oh no,’ he said. ‘You can’t stop playing. I wish I’d had the opportunity to learn an instrument …’
I knew how much music meant to him and I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t give it up, so I played on for a couple more years.
He listened to music other than Neil’s and as I grew older, he’d come home from work, his car heaving with sound as he drove into the garage below. He’d bound up the stairs and into my room, saying, ‘Come and listen to this bloke’, and I’d put down my pen and follow him.
Neither of us would say a word as we’d listen, and I’d watch him in his navy blue King Gees, ruler poking from a leg pocket, measuring tape bulging from another, eyes shut, concentrating on the music. When it had finished, he’d turn to me and say, ‘What do you reckon?’ and I’d raise my eyebrows and say, ‘It’s good,’ and I’d love the music because my father did.
I left home for University and when I heard a new piece of music, I’d buy the CD and take it up to Dad when I next visited. I’d play it and ask him, ‘What do you reckon?’ and he’d say, ‘Oooh, yeah.’ And next time I went home, it would be in his collection, too.
Then I married and at our wedding I looked up from where I sat on the altar and saw Dad in the choir loft in his suit, his tenor voice soaring throughout the Church, and I thought, finally, after all these years, everyone can hear him.
Later at the Reception, my brother sang as my husband and I waltzed, and everyone threw confetti and streamers over us. Then I took my Dad in my arms and we held each other and started dancing.
Hello, my friend, hello.
It’s good to need you so.
It’s good to love you like I do
And to feel this way,
When I hear you say,
I started crying because I was leaving my Dad for another man, and I didn’t ever want to leave him.
Then I had my own family and we moved states, and I didn’t see Dad as much. After that, things happened and I didn’t see him at all.
I couldn’t listen to Neil.
I think about you ev’ry night
When I’m here alone,
And you’re there at home.
Seven years passed until I was able to see him again. By that stage, he was well into his dementia and I worried he wouldn’t recognise me.
He was sitting on a park bench, thinner and greyer, but as upright as ever.
‘Dad,’ I said as I reached him.
He looked up. ‘Oh,’ he said, as if he was surprised to see me. Then he grinned and his arms reached up and pulled me to him. I pressed myself against him, feeling him and smelling him again, and sobbing like a child.
Hello, my friend, hello
Just called to let you know
I think about you ev’ry night
He was different though—shaky on his feet and quieter; folding and unfolding the hanky he carried with him; looking from his plate to his fork as if he didn’t know what to do with them; crying a lot; frightened of what was happening to his brain.
Not long after that, he came to Western Australia to live with us, and when he went into hospital, my kids took their instruments and played to him. We sat outside, the kids and I on blankets, and Dad in his wheel chair. As they played, he closed his eyes and listened, and when they’d finished, he opened them again, and clapped and smiled, and looked at me and shook his head, and said, ‘Aren’t they amazing?’
When he moved into the nursing home, I played Neil through the iPod while he lay in his bed, his legs writhing under the sheets as he tried to sing along. I leaned back and closed my eyes, listening hard, straining to hear something in there, a remnant of the voice that sang and whistled its way through my childhood.
It’s a beautiful noise
Made of joy and of strife
Like a symphony played
By the passing parade
It’s the music of life
Then I opened my eyes again and saw his gummy smile and wiped the glob of pureed pumpkin from his beard.
Eventually even the music didn’t register, but I kept Neil playing. And when he lay on his side with his mouth open and his breath rattling around in his throat, I stretched alongside him on the sheets and stroked his hair and his hands, and ran my fingers all over him. I tried to inhale him and cram every bit of him into my memory so I’d still be able to smell and feel him even after he’d gone.
We dream, we dream
While we wait.
And as the end grew closer, I lifted myself from his bed, and sat on the chair next to him, and trimmed his beard and cut his nails one last time, and kept Neil playing as I let him go.
Is a song in search of a voice that is silent,
And the one God will make for your way.
Beautiful Noise by Neil Diamond, Stonebridge Music
Be by Neil Diamond, Stonebridge Music
Lonely Looking Sky, Stonebridge Music
Dear Father by Neil Diamond, Stonebridge Music
Hello Again by Neil Diamond and Alan Lindgren, Stonebridge Music