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Music, Life-force, Connections, Poetry, Travel, Grief, Walking
Re-evaluating, Dreams, Revelations, Thermodynamics, Re-connection, Healing

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The Tracks




This is the beginning of the end that is the beginning. That’s just the way it was. “Nothing ever stays the same.” That’s what I was told when I was a child. Although it upset me at the time, I know now that I would not have survived had this not been the case. Back then, I thought you had to stick with the devil you knew. But, we kept moving, things kept changing and there was a lot I did not understand. There were two of us at the start, two sides to the coin, and we were different in many respects but we had the core where harmony blended us together. It was music that launched us on our esoteric adventures, and we never questioned its power. In fact, Maureen – though I usually called her Mau, would often communicate her feelings, and sharpen mine, simply by playing a song. For me and my sister, this was the bond that heightened our senses. It might have been ‘just music’ to everyone else, but it was a survival strategy for us. If we’d had no other means of communication, I know now that it would still have been enough.

Even before I understood this, however, I loved the medium to bits because it lit up and seemed to make sense of my everything. I only wondered if it was a bit weird to feel that way. In Mau’s case, the addiction was more intense and she would play her tracks over and over. But I speak for both of us when I say that in all the music we loved, we found special meaning and a connection with the inside. I know this because I could read it in her eyes. She would flash me a look when a certain track came on and we both felt the same visceral squeeze. On the other hand, while music can bring me immeasurable joy, some tracks can also focus my deepest feelings on all manner of things past and twist my essence into knots. Music can be a roller-coaster ride in that respect. With one or two unforgivable exceptions, I have always been completely at its mercy.

In the normal run of things, our ‘home’ was a place of tyranny where none of us felt comfortable – not even our tormentor. Our father had failed at practically everything he’d turned his hand to, and this meant that the rest of us had to make amends. But it didn’t matter what we did, we could never seem to please him. Whenever one of us achieved something significant, he would initially appear to be happy but, shortly thereafter, the Green-Eyed Monster would rear its ugly head. Ultimately, I think we all imbibed the lesson that it was unwise to mention any of our accomplishments at all and that it was better to stay out of his way. This was sometimes difficult. Being the principal breadwinner, our mother usually got home later than everyone else, but our father was almost always at home – one job after another having “not worked out.”

Mau could cry easily, but it was a rare occurrence for me once I realised that my father regarded this as a weakness. So, despite my sister’s frequent encouragement for me to let my feelings out, I just couldn’t. I had been his last hope for a boy, so you could say that I was on a hiding to nothing from the moment I was born – it certainly felt that way most of the time. Since our father made it difficult for us to be ourselves in his company, or to develop selves we could be proud of, we each sought refuge in something else: some unexpressed truth. For survival, everyone needs an idea of home to feel safe. Mau and I found it in music.

Since my sister always seemed happy, I tried to emulate her. I laughed, danced, and sang along to Beatles and Dusty Springfield tracks and frequently got myself into trouble. It was okay for Mau to be the clown, but my father had decided that I shouldn’t and he couldn’t stand to see me being frivolous. When I came home from school, at twelve years of age, with a report card that said I had ‘a keen sense of humour’ he hit the roof. “Where the hell is a keen sense of humour going to get you in life?” he said. I had to hide it after that.

I coped in various ways: I read a lot, I often went to the cinema, I began writing poetry, and I wrote great swathes out of me in short story form. I discovered Pete Seeger’s music, and was inspired by Dylan, Joan Baez, and the new wave of folk music sweeping the world. When I turned sixteen, I joined a judo club where I became friends with a great coach who loved to laugh. The training gave me physical confidence and, luckily, it also gave me an outlet, and springboard, for my hitherto constrained sense of humour. All the same, there were times when I was too upset to articulate my feelings in any way. During my teens, there was one particular event that I couldn’t ‘get rid of’ immediately because it involved my sister. It was quite a few years afterwards before I managed to discharge some of the hurt by writing it out as well.


The Worst Lesson

Coming home from school she put the key in the door and there it was again: that uncomfortable feeling. She wished hard, as she had done many times before, that it would be a normal house with a friendly atmosphere inside. It rarely was. Most days, she would come through the door, shout a hello, and get straight on with doing her homework out of the way in the front room. She’d learned, pretty fast, not to cause trouble, or hang around, or ask questions, or laugh, or smile. Growing up, she’d kept imagining that, by some accident, she was leading someone else’s life, and that someday soon her real life would start.

That afternoon, the atmosphere seemed worse than usual. She did the shout, and was about to go into the front room when she saw her sister there. This was strange as Maureen – who was two years older, never got home early. Now here she was, sitting ultra-quiet, and right alongside was her boyfriend Keith. This was risky since he’d been banned from the house and her sister’s life. ‘Oh-oh,’ she thought to herself. Her parents then appeared, and everyone began walking to the living room at the back of the house. She didn’t follow of her own volition, it was because The Beatles’ song ‘Help’ had suddenly popped into her mind when she saw the scared look on her sister’s face. Mau and Keith sat down together, her parents faced them, and she had perched in a corner. Her sister spoke first. It was just a couple of words that started the avalanche: “I’m pregnant.”

There was something like a split-second eternity before the verbal onslaught, but there was an immediate visual reaction from her father: a look of loathing and revulsion. It was a look that a father should never give a daughter, a look that says: ‘you’re finished,’ and one that no amount of words, or time, would ever take away. On the other hand, her mother’s face had shown only surprise. Then came the names – too nasty to repeat, even some she’d never heard before. Keith wasn’t spared, but the brunt of the insults seemed to be directed at her sister who sat helpless and in tears. The tone was merciless, biting, wrenching. She heard her mother try to calm things down, but it wasn’t possible because her father was angrier than she’d ever seen him.

Hoping, against hope, that all this would just stop, she wished for some loud drowning-out music to take the scene away. Perched there, silently, she was hurting for her dear sister – a young girl who wouldn’t harm a fly. She was shocked that a father could treat his own daughter this way, but she also realised that there was nothing she could do – unless she wanted to be struck down by the insults as well. In answer to her wish, a Cilla Black song began to play in her head: ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart.’ She and her sister adored that song. Since it was suddenly very clear that her father didn’t have a heart, she switched it off fast. She felt scared and guilty all at the same time – guilty, because she couldn’t speak up and stop this terrible train of vile words. The atmosphere, never good at the best of times, was now the blackest, and most awful, that she’d ever experienced. It would have been easier to cope with any amount of pain herself, but she couldn’t stand to see her sister being hurt.

The screaming lecture, about betrayed trust and disgusting behaviour, went on getting louder. At this point, not knowing quite why, she stood up. Her parents saw her and stared – as if they’d only just realised she was in the room, and the shouting stopped. She could hear Bob Dylan’s song in her head: ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ and she blushed scarlet. But she got off lightly and was only dispatched to make tea. Although she thought this was a ridiculous task at a time like that, she was mightily relieved to be getting out of the room. In the kitchen, she realised that she didn’t know how much sugar Keith took and she wondered whether she could barge back in and ask. She decided against it as other questions began bouncing around in her head: would they want biscuits, how many spoons of tea do you need for five people, and how could this business have happened?

As she poured the water into the teapot, she remembered another occasion when something strange had happened: the music teacher had come to see her father. Again, she was in the kitchen making tea but the living room door had been left open and she could hear everything. “It would be nice” the teacher said, “if your daughter came to one or two of the lessons you’ve paid for. Otherwise, I’ll have to give you your money back.” He had seven children that man, his wife had died, and he needed the money. For one of the rare times in his life, her father was speechless. But it was a different story later, when her sister came home and got the rocket!

After that, Maureen was told to invite “the boyfriend” over and her father had offered him a cigarette and a beer – as nice as you like, before ‘grilling’ him on what he wanted to do with his life and what he was doing with Maureen. At the end, her father shouted at him to go away and never come back. When the poor guy left, Mau received her instructions too. Like a tin god, her father had yelled: “He smokes, he drinks, he’s low-class, he’s NO GOOD, and YOU are too young! You’re never to see that boy again – you hear?” The smoking and drinking thing had been a trap, of course, and the rest was just plain unfair.

While she was pondering all this, something else popped into her head. Her parents had been away at the caravan during the summer and she’d been left in her sister’s care. Ignoring the ban, Mau had invited Keith over and they’d all had a good laugh together – he had a great sense of humour. Among others, they’d listened to some Everly Brothers music: ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream’ – they were all dreamers really. She was just smiling at this recollection and had absently begun preparing a tray, when this act triggered a more serious memory: she’d served them tea in bed! She’d carried it in on the tray, with a milk jug and a sugar bowl – all fancy. ‘Oh-oh,’ she thought again. She’d never said anything to anyone about this; hadn’t even remembered it until this moment, and it made her feel guiltier. She’d played a part in this business, and it was definitely going to be worse now when she’d have to go back into the living room.

She knew her sister had been on the pill for medical reasons. There’d been some instruction in school about this, but she didn’t understand it. Obviously, she wasn’t the only one! She was just wondering how long she could manage to stay minding the rapidly stewing tea, when the shouting reached epic levels again and she felt like crying. But she wasn’t going to give her father the satisfaction of making her cry too. She’d figured out that she could never let her guard down around him and had steeled herself not to cry about anything. So she pulled herself together to deliver the brew and, maybe, a sugar bowl. Shaking like mad, she carried the tray back into the mess thinking: ‘If this is what comes of going out with boys, I’m never going to have anything to do with them so he can’t treat me like this.’ That was the lesson she learned, and it haunted her for years.

When she went to bed, she had a nightmare about a big monster smashing everything. Something else happened to her sister that night – a ‘spontaneous abortion.’ About two weeks later, her father decided that – to avoid this situation happening again, Maureen and the ‘no-good boy’ should get married “as soon as everyone finishes school.”