One bedroom apartment, Herne Bay, Auckland, 2007
“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious” – John Keats
Every so often you come across a song which can demolish you; take you down in slow-mo, floor by floor like an old hotel, ending in a puff of plaster and dust. Why a particular arrangement of words and notes should have this effect is hard to say. Possibly we don’t need to know. It may be enough to just feel it in your heart and your spine; to let yourself be undone.
We had recently sold our house and moved into a flat – all five of us shoehorned into a tiny Edwardian apartment over a shop, while we figured our next move. It was an odd time – one year of limbo dribbled into three. Herne Bay was a wealthy suburb of sprawling houses, tennis courts and swimming pools. Blonde women in German SUV’s prowled the streets and canine care personnel walked the dogs. We so didn’t belong.
Nor did we fit. The hallway was narrow with rooms opening off it on one side only, giving the place a lopsided, claustrophobic feel. We turned the living room into a dorm, bought bunks and wedged the kids in. The walls and carpets were skin toned, somewhere between beige and a sort of queasy prosthetic pink. It was like living inside an axolotl.
I began work on a book I’d been thinking about writing for years. Our youngest daughter had just started school and after dropping her off each morning, I spent the rest of the day cooped up at the kitchen table on my keyboard. When it all got too much, I would grab my iPod and walk all over the leafy, north facing slopes listening to music.
I was in the process of discovering Elliott Smith, after reading a review of his posthumous album From A Basement On The Hill. I went digging and one of the first songs I dug up was Between The Bars. You can fall in love with songs just like you can fall in love with people and because I discovered Elliott after he’d died, it was like falling in love and breaking up at the same time. As I listened more and got to know his work, I realised how well that push-pull image summed him up.
The other thing happening at the time was my mother’s demise. She’d had a rough life and was facing a rough death, dismantled by dementia. There were two things Dawn always said to me when I was growing up: Life isn’t fair and Don’t expect anything and you won’t be disappointed. If that sounds bitter – she wasn’t. But life had worn her down.
At seventeen she jumped ship to Sydney, leaving her joyless Methodist upbringing behind: no alcohol, no jeans, no make-up, no fun. She’d only been on one date before – a shy boy named Bill with wing-nut ears and too much hair oil. In Bondi she roomed with a couple of girlfriends, one English, one Canadian. They worked together in a downtown coffee shop and socialised in Kings Cross. There was at this point, I think, a brief flowering of freedom and fun.
Dawn’s English friend, Anne, was a model who looked like Sophia Loren’s skinny kid sister. She wore black eyeliner and smoked pastel coloured cigarettes with gold foil filters, called Sobranies. One night Anne got talking to a bunch of Hungarian refugees and introduced them to her friends. Dawn met Otto and the rest, as they say, is history. Not a happy ever after history, but one which lasted 29 years and produced three children nonetheless.
Even after my mother explained that she had no money and nowhere to go, I would still beg her to leave. Women’s refuges didn’t exist in those days. Her parents had disowned her when they found out she was pregnant and unmarried and though they later resumed contact, my mother kept the truth from them. She had already accepted her situation like a sentence; banged to rights for the reckless disregard of her family’s religious beliefs. I still don’t know how she did it. The abuse took its toll, but she was always there for us. She was the best mother she could possibly be.
It took two years for her to die. Her personality abraded, her memory went, everything made her anxious, she hardly ate. She wanted to stay home, so our family pitched in and nursed her through to her final days. In between rosters, driving back and forth to the eastern suburbs and taking care of my own family, I wrote my story and went for walks listening to music. The good people of Herne Bay got used to the crying ghost haunting their leafy lanes.
It was a weird, transitional time. I felt like an open space and this was the song that filled the space. This lovers’ conversation between an addict and his addiction. Between The Bars is about surrender, imprisonment and things which derail us because we let them. There is something perfect in its confessional tone – gritty but soft, wounded but healing. In its private, low-key way, this song will sit with you and keep you company. It will remind you that someone else felt just like this.
And now it is impossible to separate this track from personal context. Between The Bars is stitched into my heart with fish hooks and tripwire. Maybe that’s how the whole thing works. Is music a kind of homeopathic sting, administering a drop of deep feeling from some lake within; just enough to overwhelm, without drowning you completely?
The real mystery for me, is why my mother was drawn to someone who did her so much harm. And though I don’t understand why it had to be, I will always be grateful it was. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here to write her story. And think of her in a better place.
The people you’ve been before
That you don’t want around anymore
That push and shove and won’t bend to your will
I’ll keep them still
© Maria Majsa.