Woodstock

Mum hates housework and employs women to do it for her. Denise was one of them. She was only fourteen when she came to stay, with her piano accordion. But she seemed so much older to me and ever since her departure, I have longed to play a musical instrument of my own. Other than the school recorder, and improvisations on a pair of forty-four gallon drums near the wide gate, the only real instrument I’ve attempted is mum’s upright grand piano. She teaches me to play using kindergarten songs, and these make the lessons disappointing. But, to be honest, I have difficulty learning anything with mum as a teacher. She leaves me flustered, unable to concentrate, and fearful that her irritation might induce one of her turns. I haven’t done my piano practice for months. Lessons have stopped.

Mum’s power games leave residual anger: I get cranky, and ponder dark places and questions. Why are my parents the same age as my friends’ grandparents? Why, after such a fuss about adoption, does mum toy with me as if I’m made from rubber bands? As my anger grows, so too does a desire to hurt back. But I am the only one with whom I can be angry. Self-administered beatings and endurance activities soothe the flushes of fury, the impatience of helplessness. Mum rarely asks about the bruises and swellings, blithely accepting my explanations. After all, she reflects, with so much time outdoors I must inevitably take occasional spills.

I live a sheltered existence on the farm, but there is no shortage of music. From the symphonies, operas and concertos that have drifted into my bassinette in infancy, to pop music on my radio and the miracle of television, my life is steeped in melodies and pictures. While my friends are distracted by hours television, I rely on the radio for new songs and old favourites. Songs enable me expression, ways to remember the pain and wonders of my life in a language both ample and transportable. Soggy days sparkle with the addition of lyrics and I can choreograph menial chores to folk songs and rhythm and blues, while rock and roll provides the gears my bike lacks.

When Nick returns home for the school holidays he brings albums by Creedence, The Rolling Stones, Jimmy Hendrix, and The Shadows. And I invest my own savings on records: The Seekers, Neil Diamond, Sonny and Cher, and The Mamas and the Papas. At school I gather with friends to sing our favourites. Truly, music creates the kind of happiness nothing can extinguish.

Catchy songs by Simon and Garfunkel, Normie Rowe and The Monkeys provide a soundtrack to my busyness, while the political lyrics of Guthrie, Dylan, Eric Burdon and Joan Baez address issues of war and global unrest. For me, the potency of their songs is greater than any editorial in a newspaper, or TV bulletin.

Every weekend I ride in to town to buy a copy of a British magazine called Fab 208. Each issue features full-page, coloured pictures of my favourite artists and groups, and has articles about bands, new sounds and tours. I’ve pinned many of them to my walls, engulfing half the room with faces of my idols. Now the National Geographics rest unopened in dusty cupboards and corners.

While music cultivates my world, reading provides the means of exploring it. Teachers feed my eclectic appetite with weedy books by European and American radicals and, at lunchtimes, I peruse Life magazines, learning of Haight-Ashbury’s flower power, of free love communes, LSD and fashion. At last I have found reason to sew and, for the first time ever, make and wear clothes I like.

My curiosity bounds as eagerly as Husso. I’ve just read a novel about a heroin addict, and I want to know what it means to feel high. With my parents in bed, I locate a jar of ingredients from the pantry cupboard, and with a teaspoon, matches and candle, head out to the privacy of the laundry. After preparing the mixture, I clean up all evidence, grab an aspirin, and return to my room. Swallowing the concoction is the hardest part. It is bitter, and with a texture that sets me gagging. I chase the sludge down with a glass of milk, using the last of it to swish ghastly dregs from my mouth. God, I think. That guy must be desperate.

After a quarter of an hour I am convinced nothing will happen. I brush my teeth and get into bed as usual. But just on the brink of sleep, I detect a squirming dizziness. I attribute this to nerves or my imagination, turn over and go to sleep, quite unaware of the hell that awaits me.

I wake in shock, the room spinning violently. I have no balance and convulsions knot my stomach, legs and jaw. It’s hard to breathe and I’m scared. So terribly scared. Upon managing to turn on the bedside light, I slip out of bed, clinging to the sides in order to steady myself. The room reels and I am terrified of what else may happen. I grope my way up the hall, at last reaching my parents’ room where I call to mum, making only airy croaks.

I try again.
‘Mum! …mum!’ I’m determined to make some sound. Finally the reedy whispers wake her. She panics at the sight of me doubled up and shaking, racked as if cold.
‘What’s wrong?’ She reaches for my pyjamas. They’re soaked. ‘Have you wet yourself?’
‘No.’ My teeth chatter. ‘I don’t think so. I just feel really weird, sick. I can’t stop shaking.’

Donning her dressing gown, she leads me back to my room. ‘Hop back into bed and I’ll get more blankets. You’re freezing.’ She returns. ‘Have you been sick?’
‘No. I was fine at bedtime. I just woke like this.’ It’s difficult to talk with cramps racking my stomach.

Mum spreads two extra blankets over me and slips a hot water bottle in at my feet, tucking me in. Once I’m settled, she climbs into the spare bed and leaves the light on. I sleep fitfully, aware my mind is stretching in peculiar ways. More tremors leave me frightened. I can’t get warm and am convinced I am going to die.

In the morning mum wants to take me to the doctor. But because I am afraid to tell her what I’ve done, I insist: ‘A day in bed should fix it. Must have been something I ate.’

It takes two days for the shaking to subside, and provides ample time for me to reflect on how things may have gone, how such a simple mixture could be so insidious. Yet, while the experience has answered some of my questions, it creates more, failing to allay my desire for experimentation. Something has escaped from my cage and prowls, hungry to know more.

***

Each morning, before walking to the gate to catch the school bus, I pick a flower. Picatees are my favourite: the clove-scented ones mum likes. I pin the bloom to my jumper like a badge and wear it to school. Occasionally teachers remind me that it’s not part of my school uniform, but never instruct me to remove them. Flower power blooms and soon my classmates catch the vibe. We express our adopted culture in hippie artwork: doodles, decorous letters and posters and our speech is sprinkled with new phrases: cool and man and far out.

Few venture further into hippydom with regional conservatism constraining youthful expression. Any boys growing Beatle hairstyles are pigeonholed with hippies, petty criminals or druggies. But I’m far beyond caring what people think. The door is open and I’m eager to experience the possibilities of this new age culture, to seek my own individuality, a narrative, even notoriety.

I wear a broken cross on a chain, my first purchase from the new surf shop in Warrnambool. It represents my protest against war and conservatism, reflecting my hippie status. The symbol also appears on my schoolwork. My choice of pacifism is well informed, with Nick and his friends turning eighteen and eligible for call up as army conscripts and candidates for the carnage in Vietnam.

With the release of Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, I rise to the peak of my wave, cycling into town especially to pick up my copy. I play it loud, over and over on dad’s radiogram. Mum discovers me dancing wildly in the sitting room, oblivious to her protests about noise. I leave the house to ride, replicating the songs in my head.

* * *
There are no surprises about my Christmas present. It has been sitting on a bed in the spare room since September, following a droll visit to see Nick at boarding school. The day had promised to be long and tiresome, made more troubling by the possibility that my shameful congruence with Nick in the haystack, along with his sordid embellishments of it, was common knowledge among his friends.

But the day improves when, unannounced, we head for the city shops, straight to the biggest music store outside of Melbourne.

Mum makes enquiries of a young salesman who leads us to straight to the stringed section. There, with his help, my parents select a classical guitar. I watch the transaction in astonishment. The salesman demonstrates the range of my instrument, playing a Spanish piece I recognise. Rich, mellow phrases rise as his fingers straddle and dance over strings with the same strength. Passion and agility with which I climb trees. I want this artfulness for myself.

On Christmas morning the guitar sits at the foot of the tinselled tree, dwarfing every other gift there. Attached to the box is a large envelope. As is my preference, I take my gifts ‘from Santa’ to my room in order to open them quietly and privately. There I can concentrate, without parental scrutiny: the pressure to utter oh’s of feigned delight for the assembled family. Other gifts remain at the tree until after Christmas dinner.

I open the card first. ‘To dear Joanna,’ it reads, in mum’s round hand. ‘We want to you to have something special because you have done so well at school. Merry Christmas dear, and a Happy New Year too! Much love from Mum and Dad.’
So. A reward. Not from Santa.

Peeling sticky tape off wrapping paper is not something one hurries. It requires patience, much like untangling fishing line or sewing thread. And receiving a gift requires ample time for savouring, like a good meal. First one must look at the gift, appreciate its over-all presentation, its weight and shape. Then the components are identified, their qualities admired: their colour, texture and smell. Finally the gift must be possessed, not just held but embraced, for each part reveals a piece of the true nature of the object and the secrets of the gifted.

With wrapping paper neatly folded, I return to the cardboard box. It is stuck down either side, but the card is torn where someone has lifted the narrow end to peep inside – I am the unashamed culprit. I already know what smells lie inside, the shade and lustre of the wood, its grain and markings.

Freeing the tape, I raise the oblong lid for the first time, and slip the instrument out of its polythene bag. It is awkward to lift, quite heavy in fact, and I’m not quite sure of the right way to hold it. Finally, grasping it by the neck, I permit gravity to settle the matter and, from where the guitar nestles comfortably in my lap, I admire the wood grain beneath its flawless coats of varnish. A strong odour rises; sharp, gluey and resinous, wafting from the hollows.

The six strings hover, drawn tight across the soundbox by mechanisms beyond the neck. Three of the strings are nylon, like fishing line, and the others are wrapped in fine silver wire, much like piano strings. Beneath them the dark fingerboard is marked by frets and several spots of mother-of-pearl. Are they for ornamentation or have they a purpose? I wonder.

I brush my thumb across each string, watching them vibrate and listening to the vibrato ring. I can feel the notes through the soundbox, seeping into my chest and legs, intimately startling and present. My attempts at melody are disappointing: dull sounds from flat notes.

I take up the instrument and hold it properly, as I’ve seen Art Garfunkel do, and place my fingers in patterns on the fingerboard. I know about chords from piano lessons, where they seem much easier. My knowledge fails to transpose to here, and my attempts at strumming end in tangled-sounds.

Mum stands at the door beaming at me. ‘What do you think, dear?’ She speaks in her thick voice, one rarely used now.
‘I’m not sure what to do,’ I tell her, obviously disappointed. ‘I don’t know what to do. I will need lessons.’
‘Of course. We know that. There’s a lady in Terang who teaches guitar. I’ll phone her in the new year. But you can work some of it out, surely?’
‘Probably. But when I try to play notes, the strings buzz. And there seems to be no system to their tuning, either. Piano keys are in a pattern and easy to identify, but this is beyond me.’

For several weeks the instrument lies untouched in the box beneath my bed: a mystery I cannot cipher, taunting and goading me to try. I watch musicians on TV variety shows, but just as I catch a clue of their technique, the picture changes.

When school resumes, mum arranges the lessons. The first is very basic and already I doubt the teacher has ever played a guitar herself. I can tell from the spines of music books, piled high on a filing cabinet, that she presumes to coach an entire orchestra. I am accompanied by her st the piano, using a book containing chord diagrams. I follow slowly, but loathe the hillbilly tunes. I long for Seekers’ and Bee Gees’ songs.

Riding into town can be difficult enough without a cumbersome instrument case that is determined to behave like a sail in the wind. Inevitably, I have enough.
‘I’m not attending lessons anymore, mum,’ I declare after the return ride. ‘She’s teaching me cowboy songs and a country and western style. That’s not what I want to learn.’
Mum doesn’t argue. ‘All right,’ she sighs. ‘You’ll just have to teach yourself, then. There’s no-one else available.’

Of course that is easier said than done. Once again, sleek in its vinyl-zipped cover, my guitar languishes under the bed. But, as Christmas nears, mum stirs me to action.
‘Honestly, Jo! If you don’t want that guitar I’ll give it to Nick.’
‘You can’t,’ I snap. ‘You gave it to me, for Christmas. You can’t take it back!’
‘Well start playing it, then,’ she replies. ‘What’s the point of having it if you can’t use it?’
I smart at this. ‘That’s not fair, mum. I’ve made a decent effort to master the bloody thing. It’s beyond me, that’s all.’

But her threat is an effective catalyst. With a good ear for music and the book to guide me, I sit at the piano, tuning and practicing the few chords I’ve mastered. Then, on Saturday morning, I ride into town. At the local electrical and music store I discover sheet music for the Bee Gees song ‘Words’. It is a lucky investment for I recognise some chords, and assemble other ones a note at a time. Finally, with my scratchy knowledge of music theory, I pick out the introduction. The break through is momentous, and confidence spills through the breach. With basics in place, I now work out chords to songs that I’ve already learned and typed up on an old Remington mum bought from school.

***

The magic of harmony, the blending of voices, is something I have loved since infancy. I still sit back of an evening with dad, listening to Welsh, Russian, Austrian and American choirs on the radio. Understandably it is a small step from there to the school choir where harmony overrides the drollness of traditional pieces, and contemporary songs join our repertoire.

For me, music is as plenteous as air, a language open to infinite interpretation, universal. How, I wonder, can there be so much music from all over the world, yet so little in my hometown? Other than radio, many folk know little more than the church hymns of Christmas, Easter and funerals, and all that is too solemn for me.

Nick returns early from boarding school and picks up his year at Terang High where he mixes easily. I can see his cosmopolitan style appeals to local girls, and he is the envy of his mates. His girlfriend is Beth, a senior girl at school. One evening she knocks on the door. Nick is fixing his car and she is cold and bored.

She joins us in the sitting room for supper and we learn that she sings and plays guitar. I coax her to my instrument. Her voice is strong and confident, and she has an extensive repertoire of popular folk and traditional songs. Once we get to know each other, she teaches me new chord patterns, strums and fingering, and a technique for threading songs together. Our friendship extends beyond Nick’s V8 production cars.

* * *

This year the summer holidays provide a glorious blend of surfing and family picnics in and around Port Fairy. One morning as we fish for flathead in the Moyne, I smell a flaring match, and watch Nick light a cigarette upwind from me.
‘Hey, Nick. Let me try one of those?’
‘It’ll make you sick.’ But he obliges, and helps shield my flame from the wind. ‘You gotta suck on it,’ he coaches, ‘or it won’t stay lit.’
I try.
‘Draw on it properly, into your lungs, not just yer mouth.’
After a few aborted puffs I inhale, choking on the sensation. He grins, shaking his head, and leaves me to figure it out. I clear my throat and try again, knowing what to expect this time but as I exhale, I’m startled by how much smoke comes out. The thought of that and giddiness creeps up on me, turning into a real head spin. I lie back on the jetty, groaning.
‘Warned ya.’
I stagger ashore, clammy and pale, and head for the dunes in case I spew. I sit with my head down, fighting the nausea, determined not to vomit while the cigarette withers to dangling ash between my fingers. The seediness remains with me all morning.
‘Maybe you should try menthols,’ Nick suggests. ‘They’re easier on the throat.’
I consider this as we walk across the causeway, heading home. ‘Do they cost more?’
‘Nuh. Don’t think so. Anyway, you can get smaller packs if you want.’
‘I’ll think about it.’ I’m still unable to fathom why smoking is such a big deal. Grown ups must be stupid wanting to do something that makes you feel that sick.

There’s an on-shore breeze and the waves beyond the rocks are long and perfect. I’m itching to hire a board and get out into it. After lunch, I ride to East Beach and hand sixty cents to the tanned, body-board guy.
‘Charge me up for three hours?’
He nods. I’m a regular now and, when I go over time, he doesn’t call me in anymore.

That evening Beth and her brother arrive and we decide to attend movies at the local cinema, half a block away. After the show we walk down towards the river. Nick calls in at a milk bar and buys me a small pack of menthol smokes. I sit on a pier with John, his sister and Nick. Undoing the cellophane wrapping, I sniff the minty contents. Johns hands me some matches and I light up first go, then sit back against the pylon in case I get dizzy. There’s a pause in the conversation and I realise they’re watching me. My head remains clear and I become more confident, watching the smoke swirl, silver in the starlight. Beth slides over and teaches me how to blow smoke rings. It leaves an unpleasant bitterness in my mouth, but looks spectacular.

* * *

With more time on her hands, mum becomes determined to have me socialise. Again I resist, and she is aware of how closed I am towards her: sullen round the house, lacking affection or spontaneity. Troubled and hoping to gain some insight, she makes an appointment for me to see her psychiatrist in Melbourne. I sit out in the corridor while the doctor spends much of my consultation chatting to mum. It’s an unsettling feeling. The mumbling voices fill me with disquiet.

Finally the door opens and mum summons me in, before stepping outside to wait. The doctor stands, introducing himself, and invites me to settle back in a chair. He asks questions about arithmetic, general knowledge, what games and sports I play, about my friends, whether I like school. My answers are short and uncomfortable. It’s hard to warm to talking about yourself to a stranger. With that, I’m dismissed. Returning to the corridor I am left to surmise my answers must adequate. Mum goes back in and the mumbling resumes. Apparently he doesn’t share her concerns.

‘He thinks you’re going through a stage,’ she informs me on the way to lunch. But her socialising campaign intensifies, with a rash of invitations arranged with parents of my school mates, resulting in sleepovers. But her taste in friends is not mine, and I remain resentful of her manipulation and interference. This leads to frustration which I take out on my guests, deserting and observing them from perches in a dozen trees, with only pity at their helplessness. Most of the kids are townies, and have no idea what to do on a farm. It’s a cruel trick I play, and causes trouble at school. I’m ashamed of it afterwards, realising we are pawns in mum’s games.

‘Take her for a horse ride,’ mum suggests for my next guest. ‘Or a walk to the lake.’
‘She’s a townie, mum. She doesn’t like mud on her good runners. And don’t suggest horse-riding because I’m not riding that treacherous bloody pony again.’
‘Couldn’t you lead her round the paddock?’
‘I’m not going to lead her anywhere. She’s used to playing basketball, dressing up, swapping cards and stuff. She’s not interested in what I do, and her stuff is boring, too.’

Mum over-scrubs a potato, irritated at my stubbornness. She doesn’t realise how different I am, or how content I feel with my own company.
‘I’m not an entertainer, mum. Everything I do leaves them bewildered, and that’s not fair on them or me. They’re not confident climbing trees, they don’t have the stamina to walk round the lake – it’s three miles you know.’ She doesn’t know because she’s never walked it. ‘And as for archery, sitting in the middle of paddocks to hunt, or stuck up a tree, you can’t blame them for wanting to go home.

Finally she agrees to leave invitations to me. ‘It’s something I should do my own way. And when I’m ready, not with you pushing me.’

Few sleepovers follow, and occasional invitations to stay with friends. Yet I enjoy seeing how they live. Their modern homes are small and pokey, with gardens a stone’s throw long, but at least they have all the amenities of town and it’s an easy walk to school. They talk late, mostly about sex and boys, or clothes, movies stars, bands and school gossip – no wonder they don’t wake up till halfway through the morning. One group of friends agree to a walk across town with me but balk when they realise I mean literally across town: across the lake. Often I find their parents more interesting to talk to.

But quietude and home are what I love most. Nick is out most of the time, and I avoid mum’s demands by rising early, finishing my chores and maintaining neutrality. Her focus is more on Nick and his antics, and there are few arguments with me. I can only suspect she assumes her loneliness is like mine.

A dose of bronchitis has kept me in bed for almost a week. I notice mum is less manipulative when I am sick, more like her old self. I guess my dependence provides an opportunity to nurture and care and the truce is mutual. After lunch I listen to pop-music, writing lyrics to the new songs and then chord them on my guitar. Following temperature checks, afternoon tea arrives on a tray, with more cough mixture. Once the tray is clear, I entertain myself drawing aeroplanes, houses, and trees and, with scissors, homemade clag and old pop magazines, I create a collages. Mum offers a candid critique of my work.
‘That gum tree doesn’t look real,’ she points out.
I’m not in the mood for criticism. ‘Why?’
‘Gum leaves don’t grow like that. They hang down. Look.’ She points out my window. ‘And the trunk doesn’t sit on the ground, it grows out from it.’ And of my next effort: ‘The house has no veranda, and the roof is wrong.’

The comments are deflating, and wither my desire to draw. I assume she does it because she’s a school teacher, instinctively correcting mistakes, but I wonder how many children’s bright and uninhibited creations she’s pulled to pieces, and how much talent she’s quashed with her frank appraisals. She returns moments later with an art book of charcoal sketches and water colours of the Australian bush. I agree my drawings are primitive in comparison.
She admires a model aeroplane I’ve made from plasticine. She likes the detail: how there are passengers inside, and suitcases that open to reveal articles of clothing; and a cockpit with console instruments. I’ve even given the pilot a parachute. Mum says it’s intriguing.
‘Look,’ she chuckles, delighted. ‘There are socks and a handkerchief. You have a real gift with plasticine.’ She places a glass of orange juice beside my creation.
I smile in thanks. ‘It’s good because it’s kid’s stuff,’ I mutter. She doesn’t seem to notice the sarcasm.

Mary McQueen is an old school chum of mum’s, and an artist. She specialises in abstracts and lithographs which I find unappealing. Mary enjoys an enviable lifestyle, moving freely in international art circles, and teaching at RMIT. We’ve stayed with her a couple of times while mum attends her appointments with specialists. Mary’s studio fascinates me, but I am herded out with stern warnings. She has little patience with kids about, although she’s widowed with grown children of her own.

One spring, when Mary comes to stay with us on the farm, we drive out to Tower Hill Cemetery for some sketching. I bring my own materials, determined to improve my technique, learning from Mary. Using charcoal, I make scratchy sketches of statuary while Mary works with pastels and soft, coloured pencils which I gather are very expensive. Watching her work, I sense her irritation. She deflects my questions and withholds even the most casual tuition.

Next morning she asks me to sit on the back veranda while she sketches me in charcoal. She explains that she is taking notes that will become a finished work back at her studio. Later, after Mary has returned home, mum confides that Mary says I can’t draw and will never be an artist. Naturally I am wounded, but also puzzled, as her opinion contradicts my school results in art: my best subject this year. I wonder if they are deliberately putting me down. Fortunately it will take more than one appraisal to discourage my attempts at self-expression, of interpreting my world and my feelings. I know good art from bad; the former rings with truth in a way that cannot be objective. Eventually Mary sends mum a copy of a lithograph entitled ‘A Farmer’s Daughter’. Surrounding my stylised face are farm icons and Mt Noorat. I regard it with disappointment.

Inspired by Mary’s visits, mum executes decorative, brushwork designs on the bellies of glazed pots, vases and plates. Most are clumsy, but there some fine pieces among them. Open books clutter the laundry table, a tableau of her inspiration: Japanese calligraphy, ink-washed paintings, and Chinese prints. After school I watch her throw pots. Sometimes I suggest a shape I like and she produces one or two, but always returns to seemingly ungainly work, disproportionate and heavy-looking. Inevitably she agrees to teach me, but insists I learn from scratch, first preparing the clay and constructing coil pots and slab plates. One day when she is away I try throwing a pot on the wheel and it is easy for me. My hands seem to transpose ideas and I produce some elegant vases.
Mum is encouraging: ‘You’re good with your hands, Jo.’

She has a gas kiln constructed on the back veranda and there are problems fine-tuning it. But she produces some beautiful pieces and offers them as gifts. I learn to stack the kiln, too, and to monitor the firing through peep holes, where rows of ceramic cones indicate temperature for the duration of the process. The thundering noise, the hissing, white heat frighten me, but the thrill of holding my own vases is assurance that I must press on, determined to find the artist inside of me.

Advertisements