The Singer

Cain is folded over his guitar, picking out notes that flutter around the room like birds. I sit down next to him, laptop on my knees. My additional weight on the couch seems to break Cain’s concentration. He pauses, drums his fingers against the neck of his guitar, then moves into a song.

I recognise the tune, ‘Paint it Black’, and hum along as I type out a few sentences.

‘You know this song, babe?’ Cain asks, without stopping his strumming.

‘Anyone with baby boomer parents knows this song,’ I reply.

My fingers move across the keyboard in time with Cain’s playing. Then he stops. My fingers freeze above my keyboard, waiting.

‘Sing along, babe?’ Cain plays a few bars from the opening riff, ending abruptly on a high note, a question.

‘I need to finish this assignment.’

Cain plays a few more notes. I close my laptop. I see a red door…

We continue together. I pitch my voice up an octave from Mick Jagger’s, singing falsetto like I did when I was a soprano in the school choir. My voice starts off rusty, but by the second verse, I’m warmed up.

‘Sing lower,’ Cain says. ‘Sing like you’re talking.’

I ignore him and continue in my falsetto. By now my voice is in tune and in time, but it doesn’t sound like the song. I shift down an octave, and before I reach the low note at the end of the next line, I begin to talk-sing.

‘That’s it!’ Cain increases the pace of his guitar-playing, and we’re off.

We finish the song and circle right back to the start.

‘We should check out that open mic night,’ Cain says, as he plays the opening riff.

It’s time for me to come in again, so I sing instead of replying.

I’m certain that we are good, that we’d do well at that open mic.

We could quickly get a few numbers up and running. Cain is accomplished and I can hold a tune. We’d probably be the best ones there. We’d get a standing ovation and be invited back the following week. Then the pub manager’s eyes would sparkle with a spotted opportunity, and he’d invite us to do a few paid gigs. By “paid” he’d mean a meal and two pots each. We’d start with Wednesday nights, then move to Fridays and Saturdays as the venue filled. Soon we’d be paid enough for Cain to be able to drop a couple of shifts and use the time to write our own music. I’d neglect my text books and buy sparkly dresses. We’d go to a studio and record Cain’s songs. They’d get played on the radio – community at first, then national and then commercial. We’d get a record deal and tour the country with our first album. The parent company of our record label, based in California, would pump money into the recording of our second album. Cain would quit his job and I’d quit uni. We’d move overseas. Then there’d be a shift, as there always is. Cain would be the talent, but I’d be up front, so I’d be the one who’s noticed, whose name is remembered. They wouldn’t see the beauty in the music Cain created, how he drew it from his guitar like liquid gold. Instead, they’d see me, twenty years old in my sparkly dresses. Soon I’d forget about Cain and his guitar too. We’d break up and I’d fall in with a slick crowd. I’d be tempted for forty days and forty nights, and in the end I’d succumb. My fame would reach the stars and Cain would be relegated to session musician. Kids would scream when they saw me and all sorts of speculations would be made about me in magazines, some of them lies, others not. I’d need more make-up and stylists to cover my pasty complexion and thinning frame. A marketing exec at the record company would write all the songs for my third album. He’d be the only person he trusts to deliver what he knows the market desires. Cain would announce he’s going home and there’d be a fast-forgotten moment of nostalgia as I say good-bye. I’d live between LA, New York, London and sometimes Paris. I’d have an assistant who’d writes birthday cards for my family. Sales for my fourth album would be lower than expected, then rise following my trip to rehab. I’d date an actor who hits me, but I’d keep going back to him. The press would blame me more than him. It would take longer to leave rehab the second time. On my first day out I’d get a new tattoo and call my dealer. I’d OD. My first album would be re-released, recorded with musicians from the studio, my voice auto-tuned. I wouldn’t be able to hit the same notes now that I’d become a smoker. I wouldn’t move in circles with people who think I was better when I sang with Cain. I wouldn’t have contacted my family in two years. I’d win a Grammy and OD again. I’d turn twenty-seven and they’d realise I won’t survive before I do, and start making movie plans. Cain won’t attend my funeral, but he’ll cry. It’ll only be after I’m dead that I’ll realise how much I love him.

He finishes ‘Paint it Black’. ‘We should check out that open mic night,’ he repeats.

I hug him so tight the edge of his guitar digs into my chest. It hurts, but I don’t release my grip.

‘Nah, babe,’ I say.

I open my laptop again and read over my assignment.

Excerpt from Chapter 1

Track 1 – My Perfect Cousin

Here I am at the police station. I sit in a chair, swinging my feet and wondering if they’ll ever be able to reach the ground.

‘Hi!’ I say when Mum arrives. She gives me a hug so tight, it makes me pant when I talk. ‘A lady with a Chihuahua found me. He’s a little dog from Mexico that yaps and nips and shivers. Can we get one? Pleeease?’

Mum ignores my question. ‘Dot Kelly! Your father and I have been frantic! Frantic! Do not wander off, ever again!’

The police are looking at me and laughing, even though I didn’t do anything funny.

‘You should’ve kept a better eye on me!’ I tell Mum.

‘What did you think you were doing?’

‘I was bored, so I went to look for records. Can I have a record?’

I already have one record. The cover is yellow with a picture of teenagers listening to music. The man at the party gave it to me. He said it came all the way from England. The song tells funny Beatle maniacs to go away because an ice age is coming. The man told me to look after the record because it’s the future. The future’s bright, he said. I keep the record hidden between my mattress and bed. It’s my treasure.

Mum grabs my hand and pulls me out of the police station and down Malvern Road. We’re both stomping.

‘You should be happy to see me!’ I say. ‘Next time, I’ll stay with that lady and her Chihuahua forever. I’ll name him Jason, teach him tricks and we can join the Young Talent Team.’

We march home. Mum’s not listening to me. I mutter to myself anyway. I’m mad at her and I’m imagining how nice it would be to join the Young Talent Team.

‘You can sit at home and drink your dumb tea and you’ll see me on telly, in my sparkly costume, singing with Tina Arena. I’ll be famous and everyone will want to talk to me. But I won’t talk to you. And then I’ll stop having that annoying dream about Major Tom’s capsule.’

I stop talking. I remember that my dream is a secret, my first secret. In the dream, I’m floating through space in a capsule. No people, no music, just me by myself, forever and ever. My stomach is a rock on mornings after I have that dream. I pretend this secret dream is a piece of paper with a rude drawing on it, fold it up tight and put it away.

Mum is walking fast, so I trot to catch up.

***

I stand outside, looking at our house. The paint is peely and the roof isn’t straight. Dad has planted some flowers, but weeds are growing too. When I stare long enough, the shapes of the window, porch and roof make a face that’s smiling at me. All the houses in Prahran look the same. I like them.

I liked the place where that party was, too. It was far, far away; somewhere called the Dandelion Mountains. There are lots of little green frogs there, red mushrooms and fat gumnut babies, who live under the ferns and dance and eat cake on the moss.

‘You, go straight to your room,’ Mum says, as she unlocks the front door. ‘Have a good, long think about being more careful in the future.’

‘The future’s bright!’ I shout, but Mum has already disappeared down the hallway.

I stomp into my room and half-shut, half-slam the door. Obviously Mum’s forgotten it’s the Year of the Child, so I sing the ‘Care for Kids’ song as loud as I can.

When I’m tired of singing, I lie on my bed and have a think. Maybe this isn’t my real family. I could be a kidnapped princess. Maybe there was another girl at the hospital, a girl with brown hair and mud eyes, like the rest of the Kellys. Grandma says they’re the emerald green eyes of Ireland, but they look like mud to me. Maybe a prince and princess were hiding from KAOS agents, so they had no choice but to swap their pale baby with that other girl. This could explain why I have that dream no one else does.

Mum comes into my room, and gives me a hug and a kiss, and tells me she was only angry because she was really, really worried about me. She loves me so much that if anything ever happened to me, she wouldn’t know what to do. Then she sings me a song about a dusty lady who doesn’t know what to do with herself. Mum isn’t very good at singing.