Hong Kong, 1989
When I was ten, Mrs Hart taught me how to play a slow, sad song on the recorder. A few months later she gave me the sheet music for the piano. Back then I didn’t know or care that the song was performed by Art Garfunkel. I only knew it as the theme song to the movie of one of my favourite books—Watership Down. Its haunting melody made me want to cry but I sang the lyrics dutifully, never pausing to ask what the song was actually about.
At school, music was my favourite subject and Mrs Hart was my favourite teacher. Those were simple days. Endings were always happy, and the good people always won. I still believed in fairytales and Mrs Hart was a real live angel. If she had flaws—which I’m sure she did—as a ten-year-old, I didn’t see them. To me she was all smiling eyes and soft lips and hair dusted with gold. I think Mrs Hart had a soft spot for me too. In grade two she chose me to sing in the school choir, and in grade five she selected me to be the pianist for the school orchestra.
I can’t remember if they played Bright Eyes at Mrs Hart’s funeral. Either way when I hear the song now I’m transported back to St John’s cathedral in Hong Kong—a dove-white church nestled between giant glass towers. I was twelve when Mrs Hart died. I had already left childhood, and Mrs Hart, behind. A friend and I were sitting in a pew at the back of the church clutching our tissues. We didn’t know the full story. The adults discussed it in low, hushed tones, as if they could be implicated or infected simply by speaking of it. I pieced together a story from the small fragments I heard—a breast lump discovered late in pregnancy, a delay in treatment, a disease gone wild.
Hers was the first funeral I ever attended. The sun was shining, which made me angry, because it seemed disrespectful, like a beautiful woman arriving at the service in a gold sequinned dress. Inside the church a baby was wailing. I remember the screams more than the sermon. As fitting as it was to imagine Mrs Hart perched atop a fleecy cloud, my sympathies were firmly with her howling, motherless child.
Mrs Hart was a teacher and she taught me many things. She taught me how to play Bright Eyes on the recorder. She taught me to have faith in myself. Sadly, and perhaps most importantly, she taught me about the cruel and random nature of life, and death. In that shimmering cathedral I learnt something else too, that sometimes there is an agonizing beauty in tragedy. For who can deny the poetry in a dying woman teaching a child a song about life’s big questions. Questions which now, as an adult, I still don’t have the answers to. Questions like:
How can the light that burned so brightly suddenly burn so pale?
What does it mean?
Melanie Cheng is a writer and general practitioner. Of Chinese-Australian heritage, she was born in Adelaide, grew up in Hong Kong and now lives in Melbourne. Her short story collection Australia Day won the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript and the 2018 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction. Room for a Stranger, her debut novel was published by Text this year.
Backed by The Stereo Stories Band, Melanie narrated this story at the 2018 Glen Eira Story Telling Festival. Melanie will be part of Stereo Stories In Concert at the 2019 Williamstown Literary Festival on Saturday evening 15 June. Balcony seating available. (Ground floor sold out.) More details.