Pakuranga, Auckland 1967
I’m standing in a corner of the kitchen. It is evening, probably winter because the lights are on. I’m staring at the floor, which is a giant checkerboard of black and white lino. My mother keeps it exceptionally clean. She gets down on her hands and knees with an old cloth and a bucket of soapy water and washes it at night. There are jokes about floors being so clean you could eat off them, but my mother’s floors really were that clean. She’s on the floor now, but she’s not cleaning. She’s lying on her side, eyes shut, waiting for it to be over. I want to do something, but I’m scared, so I stay in the corner and watch.
My father works in a loud factory full of machines. When he comes home he smells like metal and grease and his nails are black underneath. His boots are always dirty and my mother doesn’t like it when he wears them inside, but he does anyway. His fingers make black smudges all over the house; on the backs of chairs, on cupboard doors, on handles and taps. My mother spends a lot of time scrubbing the marks off.
I’m not sure where my brother is. He might be under a bed or behind the couch. Sometimes we hide together. Once my brother got himself in between them, but even that didn’t stop the fight.
The yelling has stopped and it is quiet. I know she is hurt and I wish I knew what to do. I stare at the floor so I don’t have to look at him standing there; he seems to reach the ceiling. Soon he will grab his keys, slamming the door on his way out. But he’s not done yet. There’s an ache in my throat like when you’re trying hard not to cry. I want to say something to make him stop, but I’m afraid he’ll remember I’m there and get angry with me and I don’t want him to notice me, ever. This is my first memory, I think I was four.
In the same kitchen of the same suburban house, there is a radio in a brown leather case on the bench. My mother turns it on during the day when my father has left for work and the house feels different. One morning as I’m getting ready for school, a song comes on the radio. It is the first song I ever recall being aware of. It opens up something inside me that feels like an actual place I can go when I’m listening to it. I don’t know what the song is called or who sings it, but I become obsessed with it. Whenever I hear it, I stop what I’m doing and turn up the volume. I lean on the bench, head resting on my arms and listen to Penny Lane.
I remember the sound drawing me in, though at the time I probably couldn’t have explained why. The music had a whimsical lightness; it unfolded in a gentle, orderly way, like a walk through town, or a story being told. There was something sad and sweet in its daydreamy fusion of images; a kaleidoscope of summer and winter, sunshine and rain, innocence and knowingness, all piled up.
In Penny Lane there were blue skies, pretty nurses and laughing children. There was a sense of something shared and human. It seemed welcoming. Safe. My childhood was anything but safe and Penny Lane sounded like a place I wanted to be. And all the people that come and go, stop and say hello.
The song is a montage of memories from McCartney’s childhood and the Liverpool neighbourhood he grew up in. It is steeped in nostalgia and that feeling is reflected in the way his voice rises upward for the chorus, just as the key shifts down, creating a wistful sense of distance. I connected entirely with that feeling, though I probably experienced it more as a longing for the childhood I should have been having.
Penny Lane always brought up a knot of confusing feelings in me that were difficult to unpick. It still does now. There was a deep sense of injustice, an overwhelming urge to be elsewhere and the curious sensation that someone out there was living my life instead of me; no doubt having a much better time. And though she feels as though she’s in a play, she is anyway.
© Maria Majsa