Authors: Mandy Sayer
PRAISE FOR MANDY SAYER
âMandy Sayer's storytelling is unforgettable music.'
Maxine Hong Kingston, author of The Woman Warrior
âSayer's prose is lyrical and clean, stripped of any flowery euphemismsÂ .Â .Â .Â The effect has the immediacy and power of a punch in the face.'
Australian Book Review
âSayer makes magic from the darkest tune.'
âSayer's control of tone is flawless.'
Sydney Morning Herald
âSayer's language and her imagery are as captivating as the stories themselves.'
Nine to Five
âThe writing is lyrical and loopy, like saxophones scaling the blues.'
âSayer has crafted a spellbinding story of family mythology and betrayal that delights in the melody of each word rather than in its exotic subject matter.'
Interview on Velocity and Dreamtime Alice
Mandy Sayer has published ten books of fiction and non-fiction. Her awards include the Vogel Literary Award (
), the National Biography Award (
Dreamtime Alice: A Memoir
), the South Australian Premier's Award for Non-fiction, the
Book of the Year for Non-fiction (
Velocity: A Memoir
) and the Davitt Award for Young Adult Fiction (
The Night Has a Thousand Eyes
). Sayer is a regular columnist for the
newspaper and the
. She lives in Sydney.
First published in 2011
Mandy Sayer 2011
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. The
Copyright Act 1968
(the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or 10 per cent of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) under the Act.
This project has been assisted by the Commonwealth Government through the Australian Council, its arts funding and advisory body.
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And in memory of my parents, Gerry and Betty,
whose many anecdotes and adventures inspired this story
arling boy, if you're listening to this, I'm either missing or dead. The story I'm about to tell you isn't, thoughâyet somehow I can't bring it to life. I've always expressed myself better in music than in words. Not like you. So I want you to play these tapes one by one, and as you listen, write down the story I'm telling you. In writing our storyâthe story of me and Martinâyou'll also be writing your own.'
Aunty Pearl tried writing her memoirs many times but she never got further than the night she lost her virginity in an amusement park. She scribbled on the backs of electricity bills, scraps of paper, in notebooks filled with half-finished musical compositions, but the sentences and paragraphs didn't accumulate into much more than a string of anecdotes with too many adjectives and hardly any punctuation.
She died a year ago, two months after my father, Martin, passed away. Pearl and Martin were twins, and both played the saxophone, but it was Pearl who was the better musician. The books on Australian jazz published since the seventies note her contribution to the local music scene, particularly the fact that she introduced the new American style of bebop to our musicians. No one, not even the famous Sydney saxophonist Don Burrows, can figure out how she came to know so much, having had so little experience.
Only last week, the jazz historian Brian Jackson, an old friend of Pearl's, visited me here at the house. It was an awkward meeting because I'm having the place renovated and that day the floors upstairs were being sanded. Over the roar of the sander, Brian told me that, just before she died, Pearl had instructed him to contact me about some archival tapes she'd left here in the house. For some reason, she wanted him to wait a year after her death before he brought up the subject of these old recordings. Why? I don't know. And neither does Brian.
âListen,' he said. âI'm writing another book on Australian jazz and one of the chapters will be devoted to your aunt.'
I began to tell him that I'd already donated her papers and all the copies of her records to the National Archives in Canberra, but Brian cut me off, reminding me that it wasn't her papers he was after.
âEverything went into the archives,' I told him, but Brian wasn't convinced. He cast his eyes around the parlour and into the dining room, staring for several moments at the small stuffed dog on a stand near the piano. âIt's a big house,' he said. He looked hopeful and a bit desperate, I thought.
âShe told me she'd hidden them. Something about a toy box. Does that ring a bell?'
I thought for a moment. My son once had a toy box when he was little but that was twenty years ago and it's long since gone.
I shook my head, and then asked Brian who was publishing his book. A couple of decades ago he and I shared the same publisherâSpireâa small press in Melbourne. But after my third crime novel was a modest hit, my agent got me a four-book deal with Allen & Unwin, an independent publisher based in Sydney, and that's where my career started to take off. I created the Aboriginal detective Herman Djulpajurra, who grew up on a remote mission, learning traditional tracking techniques and how to read the complex syntax of the bush, before attending Sydney University, where he studied cutting-edge forensics. When my first novel about him begins, he's twenty-six years old and is returning to Central Australia as a gun for hire. Me, I'm only half Aboriginal, from my mother's side, but over the last fifteen or so years I've become known as Australia's First Indigenous Crime Writer, a title that's taken me to writers' festivals all over the world and made me a decent living. So far there are twelve volumes in the series but since the deaths of my father and aunt last year the only words that I've written are for funeral notices and epitaphs. I've never experienced writers' block before and, to be frank, I haven't known what to do with myself. Fixing up the house has helped, and I've developed an interest in gardening, but I miss the ongoing flirtation with a blank page, the thrill of making something out of nothing. As I rattle around this big, empty house I often feel so alone in the world, unless you count an ex-wife and a son who has his own life now.
Brian didn't answer me right away about his publisherâit was too noisy, perhapsâjust stood up and began pacing the room. I noticed his moustache was a little greyer and he wasn't wearing his wedding ring. When the sander upstairs abruptly fell silent, though, he said, âA University Press is interested in the proposal.'
I crossed my legs and nodded.
âBut there's one proviso,' he added.
âYeah?' I asked. âWhat's that?'
Brian leaned on the mantelpiece, gazing at a photo of Martin and Pearl as toddlers, dressed in identical white dresses. âI've got to come up with some new stuff on your aunt.' Then he turned and stared at me, frowning, as if I were deliberately standing in the way of his research. âShe used to tape record all her live gigs, you know.'
I felt sorry for him then, he's an excellent historian but I sensed both his personal and professional lives were stalling, as were mine. I promised him I'd do a thorough search of the house and bundled him out the door, telling him I'd ring if I found them.
I spent days looking for these secret tapes; I didn't have much else to do, after all. Even though there were no toy boxes in the house, I tried the basement, where Pearl and Martin had always rehearsed; Pearl's bedroom on the first floor; the linen cupboard; the cartons and tea-chests in the attic. I found one of Pearl's old band uniforms from the fiftiesâblack pants and jacket with red and white piping. The uniform hadn't been laundered and when I lifted it to my face I inhaled her familiar scent after all these yearsâa sweet, peachy odour that flushed back childhood memories: playing duets on the piano; rollerskating hand in hand (one time we ended up skating straight through the door of the local police station), the way she'd make up bedtime stories for me rather than read them from a book. But still no tapes. I felt inside the chimneys, went through my grandmother's mothballed wardrobes; I even searched my grandfather's old MG, which is standing up on blocks in the backyard.
In the glove compartment I found an old tin moneybox that had been mine when I was a kid. As I shook out a few pennies and sixpences, I suddenly remembered where I used to hide it, in a hole beneath the floorboards of my father's room. When I was about six or seven, Pearl and my father showed me the secret space, where, as kids themselves, they'd hidden things from the prying eyes of adults: stolen lollies, matches, money, a pet mouse. No one else knew about it except me, they said. And then I took it over for a few years, stashing in it comic books, my grandmother's chocolates, a slingshot and a knife I once found.
I dropped the tin box and rushed back into the house. My father's old room was being renovated. The old rug had been rolled up recently and was leaning against one wall, revealing a few water-damaged floorboards. My eyes flew straight to the right-hand corner, where a tiny round indentation was grooved into one of the boards. I crouched and, for the first time in over fifty years, slipped my finger into it and pulled away a section of the floor, about a foot wide and long, like a trapdoor. In the space between the floor and the ceiling of the cellar I saw what looked like a large metal cash box covered in dust. I opened it and there they were: twenty-three cassette tapes, numbered sequentially. I was about to rush to the phone to call Brian Jackson when curiosity got the better of me. I thought I might have a listen to a fewâperhaps even copy them onto CDs. Trouble was, I didn't own a cassette player. Who does these days?
I left the tradies to work on the upstairs veranda while I scoured Kings Cross for a tape deck. The Happy Hocker stocked second-hand record players, transistor radios, even an old eight track, but not what I needed. The village markets sold scented candles, baby clothes, electric cake mixers, serviette rings, jewellery boxes, and extension cords. Nor did I have any luck at the Wayside Chapel opportunity shopâif only I'd been in the market for baggy dresses and mismatched earringsÂ .Â .Â .Â
It wasn't until the pawn shop opened at 11 am that I found what I was looking for: a large black and silver boom box from the eighties, for only sixty-five bucks, including batteries.
I paid the guy and turned on the radio, switching it to the local jazz station, and the sound of Duke Ellington playing âTake the “A” Train' burst into the room. I hoisted the box onto my shoulder and left the shop. As I bobbed down the street to Ray Nance's familiar trumpet solo, I got a few strange looks, and one old lady even threw a coin at me. For such a big system, it was surprisingly light.
Back at the house, I told Omar and the boys they could take an early lunch. I wanted some privacy and silence, and retired to my study. I plugged in the cassette player, poured myself a double whisky and settled in at my desk.
Now that everything is quiet, I open the metal box, select tape number one, push it into the plastic slot and press play.
I'm expecting to hear a sound check or maybe musicians tuning up before starting a gig, but after several scratchy seconds I find myself listening to my aunt's reedy voice, asking me to listen to the tapes and write up her story. âEach tape is a chapter in itself, Darling. Write each one up as you go along. No skipping to the end, to the very last tape.'
âPretty it up,' she then demands. âMake it sing.' And when she explains it like this, I begin to understand my responsibilities. After all, I'm a novelist, not a typist. I shape and embellish; I edit and shade. It's similar to how she would improvise on a piece of music, taking the bones of a song and turning it into something startling and unique.
Yes. I'll have a crack at it.