Melbourne, 2019

It was the hooves that got me in the end. I’d nailed the borscht; violently violet and richly aromatic, we’d eaten every skerrick. The breakfast dumplings with pumpkin and nutmeg also worked a treat. But those damn hooves! In my new Polish cookbook, each ‘hoof’ was a thumbnail sized ball of dough to be boiled, then fried with crispy bacon and sage leaves.

Music blaring, wine flowing, I moved around the kitchen. The dough had taken hours to knead and rest. I carefully dropped the chunks into boiling water, then watched as they immediately swam to the centre to make one huge useless hoof the size of a small child’s head. We ordered Malaysian instead. The only good thing to come out of that was that I got to listen to Merry Clayton again.

I love to cook, especially for loved ones. Moving in with my man and his son has made preparing meals even more enjoyable. An evening in the kitchen with tunes playing – always with tunes playing – is an evening to revel in. We keep a stack of CDs on top of the microwave. I clean them, but always find flecks of parsley wedged between the spines, a dollop of pomegranate molasses on a cover. Lamb baked with a crust of ground pistachios, lemon rind and mint calls for Janis Joplin; for the goat’s cheese tarts with shortcrust pastry I choose Serge Gainsbourg.

But more and more often these days, the CD that remains in the player is Merry’s.

We were eating when the doco came on, plates on laps in front of the TV. 20 Feet From Stardom tells the story of backup singers whose iconic voices we all know, but whose faces and names all too often fall just outside the spotlight. I was so mesmerized I put my fork down and reached for a pen instead. I may not have known her name, but I sure as hell knew her voice.

You do too, I bet. Merry Clayton is the voice you hear on Gimme Shelter, the one that leaves Mick Jagger flailing behind. Her howl is so full of rage and dread that the song wouldn’t have packed the punch it did without it. Hers is the voice that, if you’re listening properly – and you should, believe me – will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. But despite all that, it was still misspelled as ‘Mary’ on the initial release.

She was woken at midnight by the Stones, asking her to come down to the recording studio. Heavily pregnant, hair in curlers, she turned up, strode into the booth, and nailed the first take. You can actually hear the Stones’ holler of astonishment on the isolated vocals. If you listen to that, the extraordinary 36 acapella seconds where she wails ‘Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away’ to the point where her voice cracks and your heart leaps and your eyes widen with wonder, then her name will never leave you again.

The morning after the doco aired, I ordered her CDs online, and several of the other backup singers featured in it. But it’s Merry whose voice keeps me company as I chop and stir. She powers through Neil Young’s Southern Man and Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, as well as gospel songs and blues classics. Her own version of Gimme Shelter is where I have to stand back from the stove. I’ve been so immersed in music before that I’ve forgotten where the knife ends and my body begins. Sometimes I wear scars of songs that move me; a nick on my finger, a burn on my wrist.

Once, I was trying to cook while feeding the cat and listening to feminist punk. I accidentally gave the cat a spoonful of gourmet mince from a pan, while forking Fancy Feast towards my distracted mouth. Did I realise in time? Alas, no. And it was definitely not fancy, let me tell you.

Tonight I’m cooking egg fettucine with crispy pancetta and sage leaves. I will place two soft boiled eggs on top of each plate and crack the eggs open. If I get the timing right, each one will spill its yolk onto the mound of pasta and seep into it to become the sauce. Eggs take exactly six minutes to reach the right stage, my cookbook says. I read the CD notes to find a Merry Clayton song whose length will keep me company for just the right amount of time.

When she begins singing I step back from the pan. I reach for my glass of wine, close my eyes, and listen.

 

Rijn is an Australian writer whose work has been published in numerous anthologies and literary journals, presented at festivals, and adapted for performance on Australian and American radio. In April 2016 she won the inaugural Sara Award For Audio Fiction. Rijn is part of Stereo Stories In Concert.