A home in Yarraville, Melbourne. A Friday evening 2008
By half-past nine the Jameson’s was finished. It wasn’t too late: the bottle shop would still be open. Philip went into his bedroom to retrieve his shoes. Looking under the bed he noticed a dull gleam. He reached for it and his fingers closed around his sax. Twenty years ago now, having outgrown the instrument he played in high school, he’d answered an ad in The Trading Post. On Grand Final day, while everyone was glued to the box, he’d driven to an address in a far northern suburb.
The guy selling the sax was over sixty, a retired postman, but he played ten times better than Philip ever would. He couldn’t believe Philip had never heard Coltrane and refused to let him leave until they had repeatedly listened to A Love Supreme.
“You’re not walking out of here with my Selmer till you know what saxophone playing is,” he’d said. He took up the sax and played along with the record, making the hairs on Philip’s neck stand up and his temples prickle.
By the time Philip left, clutching the instrument, all he wanted to do was play like that. He wore out his own copy of A Love Supreme attempting to master it. One phrase he practised for weeks, repeating it over and over like a drunk with a grudge. It seemed to contain all the emptiness, all the longing – for what, he didn’t know – in his life. In the end he let the obsession go: he could play the notes, but the magic was beyond him. He went back to normal life, picking up the sax a couple of times a week. He’d never be Coltrane, or that postman, but he’d learned what music could do.
Now he pulled the sax from its resting place. How long since he’d touched it? Six months? A year? Longer still since he’d wrung any notes from it. Despite that, he’d never attempted to sell it. His computer, the furniture, the good car – all the stuff he and Sarah had bought together – was long gone. But not the sax.
Cautiously he lifted it to his lips and tried a scale, like a kid at his first lesson. The keys were sticky, the reed was brittle, his lips had lost the muscle of regular playing. He attempted a riff – one of the first he’d ever learned. It was no good, he was thinking about it too much. He tried again, more relaxed this time, realising his fingers and lips had not forgotten everything. And as he played the slow, melancholy phrase, the woman by the railway lines came to mind. Her distraught face, her red hair and bare feet. Who was she? He played on. He wished he’d got her name.
From the novel Ghostlines, by Nick Gadd (Scribe 2008, re-published in 2020 by Arcadia).
Postscript by Nick Gadd
The saxophone-playing postman is a nod to Australian jazz legend Bernie McGann, who worked as a postman in Bundeena, south of Sydney, when jobs for serious jazz musicians were scarce. McGann used to head out to the national park and practise in the bush, where he developed his unique sound. He went on to establish wonderful avant garde jazz groups and release many great albums.
At the time I wrote Ghostlines I was listening to a lot of Australian jazz, especially McGann’s Playground. It was part of the soundtrack to my writing, so I thought it would be a nice homage to Bernie if I put a sax-playing postman in my book. It’s not meant to be Bernie himself, but someone like him.
The scene means a couple of things to me. One is that many people have an unsuspected artistic side to their lives. I love the idea of people getting their letters delivered by this guy, with no idea that he was one of the best jazz players in the country, if not the world. The second is that one tiny encounter, especially when it involves music, can have a huge effect on a life.
Bernie McGann died in September 2013 and we lost one of our finest jazz artists, but at least we still have the records.
© Nick Gadd.