Footscray, 2021

The cat is back on the keyboard. She tries to leap over it but having only three legs makes her clumsy. She kicks me in the throat before settling on the keys with a contented purr. I spread my hands out, exasperated. Chris laughs. It’s his desk, and they perform this dance a dozen times a day.

His desk is also the dining table. In lockdown our flat is home, office, classroom and writing studio, and it is tiny. Much of what we brought upstairs when we moved in six months ago was marched straight back downstairs. The storage cage in the basement groans with second-hand books, records and furniture, all watched over by a furious-looking taxidermy hare with red eyes and a broken ear. When other storage cages are ransacked and robbed, ours remains untouched.

The flat is so small we trip over each other. But it is new, a corner apartment filled with light. It’s not been an easy road. In the middle of the loan application COVID took my job, catapulting me into stress so severe that chest pains woke me at night, and I found myself crying in the shower most mornings.

I try to push that memory away on nights like this, when Chris and I are writing, sipping wine, and gazing at the views.

There is little freedom in our lockdown lives, save for the sky. We are seven floors above Footscray. He sits in his red velour armchair, notebook on lap. He’s working on a new novel, playlist reverberating from his earphones. In his corner he can see Flemington Racecourse, and the enormous mural of local icon Franco Cozzo, arms spread wide in welcome.

To the north is the low hulk of the Macedon Ranges. I try not to focus there, not wanting to be reminded of all that’s outside our restricted 5km zone. The curve of the V-Line track is a hundred metres from our doorstep, the train line that’s taken me to forests and rivers I no longer have access to.

The cat swats at my pen. I look over at Chris and he removes an earbud to ask: “You okay, baby?”

I nod. Wine in hand, I lean back in my chair.

“Play some music out loud if you want,” I tell him. “I don’t mind.”

As he scrolls, I swivel my chair around to face the balcony. The towering gantries on the dock blink into the night, surrounded by shipping containers. The West Gate Bridge curves across the horizon.

Chris creates playlists for writing projects, evoking the subtleties of different characters, scenes and moods. I crank up my own choices, a Spotify playlist titled “Cool bitches with loud voices and big feelings”. We rarely agree on music, save for goth anthems and sleazy French pop.

He hits play. The first notes of the guitar catch me by surprise. I know them immediately – I introduced him to the song. “Good choice”, I murmur. The guitar doesn’t take long to build up speed. I want to focus on the bass, eyeing off my own instrument leaning against the bookshelf. But when I play, I am awkward, and hesitant, and this song is not. And then the music catches fire, and I close my eyes to listen.

It’s a classic punk song; raw, revelatory and raging. The band’s debut single in 1987, the members were all teenagers when they recorded it. The songwriter and singer was only 15; his dad paid for the recording. Despite these incongruous roots (or perhaps because of them) it’s become an enduring anthem in the Melbourne music scene. The Guardian claims it’s “one of the best singles ever made by anyone, anywhere, anytime”. It speaks to something dark and deep within the scope of identity, brought closer to the surface through the isolation and longing of lockdown.

Come over to my house

I got a plan for you

You’re not gonna come

But I want you to

 You’re my only friend

You don’t even like me

The voice is ragged, yelled into the microphone. The lyrics are sparse, but the message of loneliness feels horribly pertinent. We’re separated from our loved ones; Chris’s family in the UK, mine way outside our restriction zone. I no longer have colleagues to trade stories with; no beer gardens to hug friends in.

But My Pal takes the focus and places it firmly on the music filling our new home. Chris and I listen as the guitar winds down. The song, and the evening, will be another anchor in these new waters, keeping us stable.

Silence fills the flat. He blows me a kiss as the cat stretches. And at the same time, we both reach for our pens.

Stereo Story #636


*God, comprising Melbourne teenagers Joel Silbersher, Tim Hemensely, Sean Greenaway and Matthew Whittle, performed together from 1986 to 1989.

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.