Song as Epitaph

Song as Epitaph

Before he died the old man told me how he cleaved to his music. Pushing through life’s turnstiles interstate, overseas, he safeguarded these commemorative tracks. They outlasted a surly wasteland of work’s wrong turns, boredom, burglary, riddance resolutions, and the dying radiance of doomed love; Elvis, Fats Domino, Roy Orbison, and their peers, mostly gone now, like him, a motley pulse of wistful voices echoing in acoustic chambers of agitation. I softly blew dust from his beloved sleeves wondering about the girl from a family wealthier than his who shared them with him, who, spotting him walking in the rain, a hunched loner, stopped her taxi to chat him up.

These burgeoning harmonists’ mantras churning his heart survived wild New Years’ parties, soothed him during mid-life crises, and soundproofed the racket out there: squad cars, ambulances, alarms, the wails and whistles of life. That era, a ghosted outline of the present, enthralls me, teeming thoughts bearing me back. I didn’t know exactly how to operate his ‘fifties gramophone at first, its expensive diamond-tipped needle needing a light touch. I also hadn’t heard Ravel’s glorious crescendo, Bolero he described dancing to, spreading his wings in a favourite bohemian haunt, ecstatic, a fountain gushing, his pals, including me, a time-traveller attending in my dreams, loud with laughter and advice.

He came to know home was about time, not place. Before saying goodbye, his slippage stark, The Thinker with Rodin’s muscle wasted, eyes sad when not closed, close to warm blood and nerves’ end, he hoarsely spoke of that girl. Slouching death no more likely than a charging fiery dragon to swerve their way then, cigarettes haloes of light during winter nights in the unheated, damp, one-windowed room where they discover a measure of true happiness, they change records undulating a bare arm from beneath blankets while the news blares of an orbiting cosmonaut, the first human to view our blue planet.

After sluicing off crude labour’s bitter sweat he selects music. Nat King Cole croons Autumn Leaves and Too Young, lingering over syllables, voice husky like a whisky-drinking smoker’s. Nearby trains’ rattles echo until late night in that warty worn-out red brick district. They were too young to drink, and without need of it. That would come later, the old man said. One long hot summer Julie London sang of suffering when that girl, who later played her cor anglais in an orchestra, modelled a bikini fashioned on her mother’s sewing machine, posing contrapposto in stilettos, voluptuous in the weighty heat.

As a film scene I picture them caressing in their smoky shelter listening to The Twelfth of Never I hear on wireless earbuds they would have used were they invented then. Breathless, collapsed, his hand on her pale belly, their fevered love shudders to an end even as she grips his hair. Perhaps drums beat in concert with young hearts, or the blues cry rivers of regret as the disc spins slowly to a stop. Lyrics end, as do seasons, their brevity like that of softly falling leaves shadowing that window when those two moved on. He wanted me to understand what it was like the way they were before all is forgotten.


About the Author

Ian C Smith’s work has been published in  BBC Radio 4 Sounds,Cable Street,The Dalhousie Review, Gargoyle, Griffith Review, Honest Ulsterman, Southword,& Stand.  His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide).  He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island.


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