Jean Genie and the Boy from Boggabilla
A suburban kitchen, Brisbane
January 10th 2016
“That’s not how a mother dances.” That’s my son’s opinion. He’s thirteen, my exact age when I first flirted with the Jean Genie, in distant pre-disco days with a local band belting out a raunchy Jean Genie at the high school dance in the Presbyterian church hall.
My toast pops and hoicks me back into my kitchen, back to January 10th, 2016, where we’ve woken to the news that David Bowie is dead.
The Jean Genie blares from the radio. My daughter is on Spotify, finding more of that dead guy’s music, because the kids and I are disagreeing about whether they’ve heard any. How could they not have?
My toast is as pale as Bowie’s make-up in his 1970s music videos. My hands beat out the Jean Genie riff on the breadboard while the toaster tries again.
The Jean Genie played at my first disco, in my first year at university. That’s where I met the boy from Boggabilla. He liked the way I danced. And I liked the way he liked my dancing.
He was full of surprises, like the long, fine fingers on his broad, calloused palms.
The boy from Boggabilla was a musician from a family of farmers. He learned to play the Jean Genie harmonica part, just for me. And I learned to let myself go.
We ought to be out of the house in fourteen minutes. I’m ready, but the kids are way behind me today. I stride up the hall, in Jean Genie rhythm, to deliver my get-a-move-on glare.
But back in the kitchen, David Bowie and Mick Jagger are Dancing in the Street. I remind myself that there’s no official arrival time for the kids’ summer school holiday program. I open my work email, while my feet tap out that brand new beat.
The boy from Boggabilla didn’t come back to Brisbane after the break between our second year and our third. His father had hurt his back and his mother was earning off-farm income in Goondiwindi, so he deferred his music degree to get the sorghum in. Best harvest for eight years, he said, and they needed every cent to pay down the farm debt. That was during one of our rare phone conversations. Long-distance calls were such a luxury in the eighties that mostly we wrote longhand letters full of passionate promises to be together soon and love each other forever.
I studied hard. I had no distractions. My results were excellent.
The pain in the back of the father of the boy from Boggabilla turned out to be bone cancer. My precious, practical boy switched to external studies in agriculture and business. We had six glorious nights when he came back for his residential week. His arms were freckly and the skin of his hands was rougher than ever. But he played Liszt’s Isolden Liebestod for me and fitted piano lessons around his compulsory tutorials.
The boy from Boggabilla also riffed on his golden heads of wheat and the towering skies of the western plains. I began to understand how much he loved that farm near Boggabilla.
The boy’s father died. I finished my economics degree. The boy asked me to live on the farm and be his forever. I was devastated. I’d escaped to university from a small agricultural town which was much bigger than Boggabilla. I applied for postgraduate scholarships and waited for him to come to his senses.
We exchanged sober letters about the progress of my research and the pros and cons of running beef cattle on the farm near Boggabilla.
My boy earned his Agricultural Science degree and his MBA. We had a week at Noosa after he graduated. It started so well. He played honkytonk love songs for me on an out-of-tune piano we found in a little bar off Hastings Street. Everyone in there loved him. The waiters brought free drinks to keep him playing. But the week ended in tears. We couldn’t work out how to be together for a fortnight, let alone forever.
Years passed. I settled for a kind, predictable musicologist in the nick of biological time. He seemed to want everything I wanted. So even more years passed before I realised that I’d never danced with him.
It turns out that the musicologist has a deep and abiding passion for the music and dance of West Papua. And he prefers to watch.
Back to 10 January 2016: I answer eleven emails, delete seventeen and flag three for further attention. I have thus earned a reward, so I open Facebook. I’ve got a new friend request. I ignore these, unless it’s an actual flesh-and-blood friend, but today I’m feeling reckless. Today, I click accept.
My newsfeed is all Bowie tributes. I click on another Jean Genie and the link delivers a young, glam Bowie with vermillion hair and teeth that no 21st century popstar would keep.
Then I notice that this video was shared by my new “friend.”
With a comment.
And I click play.