21 Swan Crescent, Pakuranga 1974
Willow, for grieving
love left behind
The pocket of East Auckland I grew up in was a bland new development bursting with kids. We lived in variations of the same tin-topped weatherboard box on marine-themed streets. We played bullrush and go home stay home under the mortal hum of power pylons and occasionally someone would be dared to climb one and have to be rescued by the fire department.
My best friend Tracey lived on the same street as our school. Her house, down a long black driveway, wasn’t like the others. It was interesting and generous and her family was too. They threw parties and invited neighbours over for drinks in their lounge with the massive stone fireplace and the picture window.
They went on holidays, all of them together, camping and water-skiing. They had dogs, cats, guinea pigs, a caravan and a boat. They were everything our family was not. I spent as much time there as I could without arousing suspicion or concern.
Tracey had a twin sister and two older brothers who were tanned and handsome in that tousled ‘70s way. The boys used to chase the twins and me around for sport. When they caught us, they would sit on us and tickle us till we cried, which was quite exciting. Occasionally they upped their game, formed a runway on the lounge floor with the cushions and made us sprint down it one at a time while they clubbed us with rolled up newspapers, which was terrifying, but also exciting.
There was always music at Tracey’s house. In summer her brothers opened the windows, cranked the volume and played Bowie, Pink Floyd and T Rex; songs rebounding like a mini-Glastonbury round their garden. One hot afternoon as Tracey and I lay on the grass under the willow tree, I heard the descending piano chords of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. I squinted up at the bright river of sunshine through the moving leaves and listened.
This tune has a weightlessness, a kind of slow-mo bounce that never quite touches down. There is a sense of constant motion in two directions at once, trapping us in the soft turbulence of an endless loop. Just as we find some composure in the bridge and verse, the chorus turns up to pitch us back into the heavens again. Uncertainties hang in the air with no resolution. When are you gonna come down? When are you going to land? We meet them as we fall and again as we rise, like the hopeless parts of ourselves we’re unwilling or unable to fix.
The sound is deceptively sweet and clean and when that chorus kicks off, laden with strings, backing vocals and swooping chord changes, it spikes the blood like a sugar rush. But under all the fairy floss, trouble is lurking. There are wrong turns, regrets, situations that are easier to run from than face. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is about escape and it wasn’t lost on me that the first place I heard it was my favourite place to escape to.
My first ever sleepover was at Tracey’s house. I remember watching TV after dinner, stone hearth blazing, Tracey’s parents nestled together on the couch. Everyone except me was watching the screen. I was staring openly at Tracey’s mum and dad. I’m sure no-one noticed – it was a small moment. I was staring because I had never seen parents touch each other in a non-violent way before. At five, it was a revelation to me.
When Tracey and I were in high school, her family moved to Australia. The last time I went to their house in Swan Crescent I was in the living room, surrounded by boxes, watching them pack up their lives. I felt their excitement and their limbo. I concentrated on every feature of the room, the framed view of the garden, filing them in my memory, knowing I would never be back. Tracey kept offering me bits and pieces, things they couldn’t take, but I only wanted them to change their minds and stay.
A year later I quit school to plot my own escape from the suburban cul-de-sac. Tracey and I kept in touch, through marriages, children, death and divorce. Her family still lives in Queensland, so they must have found whatever it was they were looking for. And if I hear Goodbye Yellow Brick Road now, filtered through supermarket speakers or default music on hold – no matter where I am or how I feel – I am handed right back to the safety of Tracey’s family.
© Maria Majsa. Maria will be part of Stereo Stories In Concert on Sunday 20 November at the Geelong Library & Heritage Centre.