A cold rainy day on a wind-swept pedestrian mall. Doesn’t get better than this. Nat rolled her eyes – it should’ve been a Sunday.
A lonely busker stood on the corner, hood up, head down, playing for an audience of one – that’s if you could call a sopping empty hat an audience. He was playing a song with a laconic, down-low Caribbean vibe. She didn’t recognise it, something about sorrow and serendipity.
She shook involuntarily, turned, then walked up the narrow staircase to the clinic.
Twenty-five minutes later, a chirpy audiologist tried to sell a tepid smile.
“Your hearing is within the normal range; there’s nothing on the audiogram indicating any hearing problems.”
Nat shook her head.
I’m going mad, she thought.
She stared at the audiologist, tears welling.
Words failed her, spilling out as silly-sounding staccato clicks.
She was about to cry.
“I’ll get some tissues,” the audiologist said in a panic.
When she returned, Nat’s tears had already drowned her cheeks and reddened her eyes. The cuffs on her blue jumper were ruffled and damp.
“Here, take these, darling.”
The audiologist scratched her head; it was not unknown for people to cry after a hearing test, but never after learning they had perfect hearing.
Nat sobbed. “What do I do now?”
“I don’t know, dear, but at least you know your hearing is not the problem!”
Nat tried to smile; it seemed her problem had just become so much scarier.
She whispered, “Thank you,” picked up her bag and left.
She decided to go to the coffee shop on the corner, grab a cuppa-tea.
She sat down, sighing loudly when she heard ‘Madness’ playing Prince Buster’s ‘Madness.’
It could’ve been worse. Over the last three months, she’d quickly learnt that the tempo and production values of the late 70s and early 80s ska revival bands were more to her taste than their Jamaican inspirations.
Her mind returned to her problem.
The doctor said there was nothing physically wrong with her. He asked whether anyone in her family had hearing issues. Nat had no idea; she shrugged her shoulders; she didn’t know her family. So, he sent her for a test. And now, there was nothing wrong with her ears or hearing. There was only one conclusion to make – she was going mad! Although they were her words, of course, not the doctor’s. He politely suggested that the emotional distress and trauma she’d recently experienced needed to be explored further, code for you’re bat-shit crazy, lady!
The thought of seeing a counsellor left her feeling colder than the High Street bus stop she’d be standing by in twenty minutes.
Is it better to think you are mad or have it proven?
“Excuse me,” she interrupted a drenched middle-aged man sitting at the table next to hers. She stole a second glance; he looked familiar; then she recognised him as the busker.
He looked up in surprise.
“Can you please tell me the name of this song, the one playing through the speakers?”
He cocked his head, sat motionless, tuning in.
“I’m sorry, I can’t hear any music playing; usually, I can hear everything, but I honestly can’t hear any song, sorry love.”
That proved it: she was going mad.
Her problem started three months ago. Just after her mum died. Now, everywhere she went, in every spare moment, ska music engulfed her. When she turned on the radio – ska! Advertising jingles on TV – ska. Walking into shops – ska, ska, ska. It was driving her to distraction.
Her tea arrived as the first few bars of ‘The Guns of Navarone’ started blaring. The volume set at a rock-steady five, just loud enough to fill her consciousness without being migraine-inducing.
She stared at her milky tea.
Why, mum, why?
Why was the question.
Cancer was the answer.
Neville Staple started toasting as her icing sugared pastries arrived; full throated horns squirting joy and triumph.
It was always like this. Whenever she thought of her mother, her illness, or her death, her thoughts were stolen away by a thumping walking baseline, tightly woven drum rimshot and harmonic brass accentuating the off beats.
Thirty-six was too young to die. No one died of cancer when they were only thirty-six.
And eighteen was either too young or too old to be an orphan. Nat couldn’t work that one out. Yet, either way, she was now alone.
Uni friends had gathered around, laying upon her a soft protective wreath woven from kindness and empathy, so weighty it felt suffocating. Devoid of true understanding and staying power, her friends slowly drifted off. Philosophy lectures, exams, boys, and the irresistible force of élan vital paring them away.
Nat didn’t suffer in isolation though; loneliness, pain and anger gleefully masqueraded as de-facto companions, and she was comfortable in their company. Nat discovered despondence could also be a good friend of the bereaved. It expected nothing from you – you didn’t even have to try. Emotional squalor was cheap, but not necessarily nasty.
That was until late one night in bed, the 4/4 time signature and choppy guitar strums of Jamaica floated in through an open window and took a rent-free room in her brain. It was weird. It came from nowhere but soon became a welcomed beguilement. She found she enjoyed the toe-tapping rhythms, the testy themes of social justice, and the novelty of hearing something no one else could. She wondered if her mother was sending a message, but she hated ska. She’d told Nat that many times.
“Dope smokers and heathens,” she called anyone associated with reggae or ska. “Bob Marley was the king of the wastrels,” she said, as if she knew him. “Studio One was a den of debauchery.”
No, Mum much preferred the white bread diet of Doctor Hook, Leo Sayer and Roger Whittaker. It didn’t escape Nat that both Bob and her mother had died too young from the ravages of cancer. It seemed perverse that people so different in life could be connected in the manner of their death. Since the ska invasion, Nat wondered whether her mother and Bob might jam together in heaven, maybe doing Glen Campbell covers. Now, that would be fun to watch and listen to.
Aunty Dot was not really Nat’s aunt; she was her mother’s best friend. Aunty Dot filled Nat’s earliest memories and was the closest thing to family Nat had ever known. Aunty Dot and her mother had been inseparable in life, so it was no surprise that she came to stay and help take care of her mother toward the end. The only problem was that she had never left.
Aunty Dot was demanding, interfering, and opinionated. Co-parenting by personal invitation, she had to have a say in anything to do with Nat and her upbringing. She was also an outrageous lush and was likely at home right now tickling her throat with a sweet Riesling or some other wine she called pudding plonk. When Nat returned home, she would likely be onto her second bottle.
Nat sighed as she picked up her bag and was ushered out of the coffee shop by The Body Snatchers jaunty but deceptive and misleading song, ‘easy life’.
“Did you know I knew your father?” Aunty Dot spurted recklessly and dangerously. She was a repeat offender of speaking under the influence. Nat had just walked in the door and kicked off her shoes when the onslaught started.
“I told your mother she should tell you about him before it was too late. She said no, of course. She said, ‘what’s done is done.’ She’d made her decision long ago.”
This was a well-played record; Nat had heard this tune many times.
“I’ll get some dinner on,” Nat said, wanting to escape to the sanctuary of the kitchen. As she walked past the lounge door, ‘Save it for later’ escaped into the hallway. It must have been an insurance advertisement on TV.
Aunty Dot collected and clinked her bottle, then followed her. Objectional behaviour preceding the smell of alcohol, Nat was quickly on the receiving end of both. Aunty Dot sidled up beside her.
“How old are you now?”
“You know I’m eighteen; you’ve asked me that many times.”
“Well, don’t you think you should know who your father is?”
“I’ve lived this long without knowing, so I see no reason to change that. And I certainly don’t want to hear it from a pissed-up friend of my mother’s.”
“Phwoar, aren’t you feisty today?”
Nat stared. Aunty Dot was a good-looking woman, still in her prime. She was wearing an on-trend geometric bob on top of a two-tone ensemble of black and white. In Nat’s estimation, she could have any man she wanted, yet her choice was to save and ruin herself on the fruits of Brother Dominic. Nat didn’t understand why she’d lived her life vicariously through her mother’s and hers. The only thing she knew was, like her mother, she’d suffered a catastrophic family breakdown.
Perhaps drinking was just her way of coping. She and her mother had been close; clearly, she was missing mum just as much as she was. Nat changed tact.
“Tell me more about when you and Mum hung out.”
Aunty Dot’s face relaxed; she smiled, pulled up and plopped herself down on a kitchen stool.
“Oh, my gosh, you couldn’t want for a better friend. She was such fun. She loved to party, loved to dance. She loved the boys too, and the boys loved her. We used to sneak out on Friday and Saturday nights to go to parties and pubs. We wouldn’t tell our parents; we were pretty naughty.”
Nat interrupted. “How old were you?”
“We started going out to town during the 5th form, so what’s that, fifteen or sixteen? We didn’t stop until your mum became pregnant. Then, everything changed. Your mum transformed from this beautiful, fun-loving party girl to a beautiful but very serious and responsible young mother. I’ve lost her twice – really.
“We loved going to pubs and listening to bands. I knew many of the guys playing, so we’d never have to pay a cover charge. Awesome times and great music. And, in the eighties, there were so many great bands.”
Nat smiled, “So, what kind of music did you listen to?”
“Oh, anything and everything really: new wave, pub rock, punk, psychedelic.”
“Wow, there was a lot going on.”
“There sure was, but our favourite was ska.”
Nat dropped the potato she was peeling into the sink and spun around to face Aunty Dot.
“Ska… Your mother and I loved ska; we followed a band called Zooty Tooty.”
“I thought Mum hated ska.”
“She did after she became pregnant.”
“Why, what happened?”
“I’m sorry, I can’t say, your mother promised me to secrecy. She made me swear I would never tell you. Sorry, I’ve already said far too much. “
“Is it about my father?”
Aunty Dot paused, topped her glass, and then after a moment, nodded. “Yes.”
“It’s so hard, Nat,” Aunty Dot confessed, “I’ve been carrying this secret for eighteen years, and it’s so heavy, it’s killing me. You have a right to know. Please release me from this horrible burden.”
Nat thought for a moment. Mum was gone. She now could choose. “Go on then,” she said.
Aunty Dot burst into tears and reached for Nat’s hands. Through her sobs, she spluttered, “Your father played rhythm guitar for Zooty Tooty. He was a musician. The lousy creep never wanted anything to do with your mother after he found out she was pregnant.”
“Oh, oh no, poor mum. Did you know this guy? Does he still play?”
“Yes, I knew him, and yes, he still plays. He does odd painting jobs but busks on rainy days.”
“Oh my God, so you still know him?”
Aunty Dot drained her glass, quickly topping it up again. She hung her head. “Yes, I do. “
“Well… well, he’s… he’s my brother.”
Meet the Author!
Roly Andrews lives in Nelson, NZ. In his spare time he enjoys tramping. After many years of practising, he is still trying to learn to play the trombone! A champion for everyone, he has mentored rough sleepers and supported people affected by suicide, and is a disability rights activist.