SING-SONG

Short story

The Minister sticks his head round the door, looks at Sam who taps diligent words into a record of minutes.

“Sam, I need you!” the Minister says.

Then he’s gone. Sam jumps and follows his glimpse of the Minister’s head.

Sam is seldom summonsed solo by the boss, and is amazed he’s the only one in the meeting. Usually he’s at the back of the pack scribbling notes. Sam knows he’s an under-promoted unit with an underwhelming impact. A junior staffer, this his first and only job. He’s clung onto it for two and a half years now, using the cunning strategy of being as helpful as possible.

Sam flips the edge of his suit jacket from under his bum. Suits don’t really work on Sam. They crease quickly because he can never relax, and after a while constellations of tiny food stains mysteriously appear down the front.  In contrast, the Minister’s suit is impeccable, dark blue and free of dandruff. His hair is slicked back and at the ready, his face lightly powdered at all times in case of impromptu TV door-stops. The Minister slowly leans back: “I’m delivering a speech …”

“A speech? And you want me to write it?”

“No, no, no, Cheryl’ll  do that,” says the Minister looking amused. “Wouldn’t let you near a speech, Mate. No, it’s a presentation to the Australian Workers Union Congress and I need some research done.”

Sam masks his disappointment. He’s a world expert at the bland mask.

The Minister wants to pepper a speech with the song lyrics of Dudley Morton, a turn-of-the-20th century union activist, who also, according to legend, had a “beautiful tenor singing voice.”

“I want his rousing words. A bloodcurdling union anthem that I can rediscover for the crowd! I want you to chase down one of Dudley’s long-time old songs.”

“So not eternal music then?” asks Sam, still trying to move on from the speechwriter slap-down.

“No. Workers’ music! Union songs! The past has a lot to teach us, Sam. Dudley Morton was Australian Workers Union to his bootstraps, well for at least 20 years until he became a Wobblie. But he stuck to his union guns all his life. All clear?”

“Yes, Bob.”

Sam writes the name “Dudley Morton” down, and “Wobblie”, then retreats. He doesn’t know what a Wobblie is which makes him feel worse and he hopes the Minister failed to detect this ignorance.

Sam easily finds the meaning of Wobblie on Google – an International Worker of the World, but there’s little on Dudley Morton. All he elicits is “minor union figure.” Clearly no-one’s exhumed this turn-of-the-century activist into the post-internet age. He’s invisible on the wikis and blogsites. Dudley is a ghost.

Sam heads for the staff bathroom feeling a bit desperate. He washes his face at the sink and looks at his damp features in the mirror. Smart haircut – dark brown. Blue tie. Slightly surprised looking curve of the eyebrows, and still young. He still doesn’t emanate gravitas. Just a friendly if distressed face.

“Get a grip,” Sam says to himself, dabbing his face with a paper towel. “Someone in the Library can help.”

His friend, Deidre, the Parliamentary Librarian, can only find references to two Dudley Morton songs: Let Us Build a Better Land, and, Workers will Unite all of the World.

Deidre certainly has librarian gravitas, he thinks. She knows exactly where books are, and in a bubble of immense quiet, locates them with a knowing grace. These two songs are apparently quite famous, sung at 100 year past pickets and lockouts, but the various books cite only a few paltry lines. He still can’t discover any lyrics of a “bloodcurdling union song” for his boss. Sam’s heart sinks. The Librarian suggests he visits the Victorian State Library down the hill.

“Tell them I sent you. They can help,” she says with a smile.

Sam Smith squares it with the Minister’s Chief of Staff. She’s busy, but stops to ask a couple of quick questions about other tasks. It’s clear from her grumpy face that the Minister wants his speech done by the middle of next week, and Sam’s fishing expedition is a work priority. For the Minister and not her.

“Okay. Don’t bust your boiler tho’ if you can’t find anything down there,” she advises. “Also, he’s tied up all next Monday prepping for COAG meetings in Canberra Tuesday, so don’t bug him with anything ‘til Wednesday. We can stick anything you find into the speech at the last minute anyway.”

The Chief of Staff is a tough gatekeeper. She doesn’t have to tell Sam all that. He knows the schedule. Knows the beginning of next week is a bit ferocious. Still, he doesn’t like being an “at the last minute” afterthought either.

Sam, in his rumpled suit, bursts from Treasury Gardens into the human muddle of the city, where trees have greened for the summer. He catches a fizzing tram filled with tourists and workers, down the hill to Swanston Street and then, after another short journey, he leaps from another dinging tram and enters a second cocooned building, the Victorian State Library. The noise of the world dies away and he looks around and sighs. The reading room is lovely, plush, quiet.

This grand interior lulls Sam. He sits for a while, enjoying the smell of books. He then seeks out a nice chatty Librarian with a grey haired bob and a pink streak thru the front, explains his quest, and drops Deidre’s name.

“Dear Dee-Dee,” the woman says. There’s clearly a secret society of Librarians, Sam thinks.

His new ally, who introduces herself as Anne, cross-links the catalogue and finds the same books as Deirdre. He is desperate to find some actual songs. So she turns to the Library’s catalogues of trade union memorabilia, and then to the music collection.

“Here we go,” Anne says, scribbling numbers. “Follow me.” They head into the basement of the building.

Sam helps the Librarian slide a grey train of huge compactus files until the memorabilia section opens like an Aladdin’s Cave. Amazingly the vault contains the historic commercial sheet music of singing Australia, protest songs, drinking songs, songs of the town and the bush, all catalogued, kept in protective sleeves.

Anne locates sheet music for two songs by Dudley Morton. One is: Let Us Build a Better Land (already cited in the literature). But the other is, as far as Sam knows, uncited. Sam’s skin feels the physical thrill of discovery and the illustration on the front of the musical pamphlet certainly looks bloodcurdling. The cover page was originally garish, now faded to browns and rusts, and features a shearer with a massive beard wearing a once-red shirt. Sam only knows it’s a shearer because the guy is waving his shears in the air, as if he’s about to stab someone. The title: “A PROUD MAN’S CALL” is emblazoned in faded red across the top, and the sheet was printed by the Australian Workers Union. The musical notation on the inside is clear, for piano and voice, a very simple tune plus chorus plus 3 verses, but Sam looks at the piano score uncertainly.

Anne smiles as she looks at the music.

“In G major,” she says. “An easy-peasy key.”

The paper has deteriorated and the Librarian gingerly takes the two sleeves of sheet music up to the photocopier and copies them carefully.

“Shouldn’t you hold the old paper with cotton gloves?” Sam asks.

“Oh, cotton gloves are harsher than skin. Cotton can be adverse,” Anne says with a teacher’s voice. “Skin’s like plastic. As long as your skin is clean and dry, it’s better for handling paper. The past can be so  …” she reaches for a word … “fragile.”

The Librarian passes him the photocopies. Sam is very grateful.

“People such as yourself are important,” Anne continues. “Reconnecting us all with old music, old forgotten feelings. Sentiments. Songs such as this are a living history.”

He thanks her yet again, and forges into the busy street.

As it’s 5pm on a Friday – knock-off time – Sam hops on a tram and heads for his Albert Park flat and texts the office to say it looks like I’ve got what the Minister wants and I’ll bring it in Monday.  Once home, he tells his flat-mate, Jerome, of the bloodcurdling find.

Jerome is doing a full-time Masters at uni, so he’s already scruffed up for the weekend, five o’clock shadow and ironic t-shirt.

“Wow. Old sheet music!” Jerome says. “It’d be good if you could actually play the piano and sing the song to the Minister.” They are debriefing their day over a beer at the kitchen table. Start of the weekend.

Sam thinks a sing-song is a very good idea. He did learn piano for three years while still at primary school, when his mum was trying to interest him in the world.  A piano recital might impress everyone, it’s in an easy-peasy key, and the chords look familiar.

“Do you know any piano teachers?” Sam asks Jerome.

“Remember Lillian. We went to school with her. She’s a music teacher, but I don’t know where she lives tho’. Maybe Rosie’ll know.”

Sam phones Rosie and gets Lillian’s number. He immediately rings Lillian before he asks himself too many questions about this mad course of action. Before cold feet set in. The sheet music sits there on the kitchen table. The bearded Shearer looks up at him, angrily brandishing the shears. He feels he should colour in the monochrome picture so the shearer’s shirt is red again.

“You probably don’t remember me,” he says to Lillian.

A cool voice with that middle-east migrant child’s inflection: “Of course I do!”

Stupid question. Of course she does. They were in the same high school class for at least four years.

“You were Jerome’s friend,” she adds.

“Still am,” he replies hesitantly and she laughs, and asks after Jerome.

He explains the demand of his boss, “the Minister”, and the quest for a bloodcurdling song. He asks for a piano lesson.

“Do you own a piano?”

“No.”

“Well, can you practice on one?”

“Err, yes, sure. There’s an old upright piano at my work … in one of the meeting rooms. I could probably practice on that.”

“Ok. As long as you practice, I’ll give you a lesson. That is my deal for you. Come over tomorrow evening and I’ll help you with your sheet music.” She tells him the address and he punts it into his phone.

Deal! Piano lessons!

Then he and Jerome head down the street to the pub for more Friday beers.

*

A warm evening. He walks up a simple worker’s cottage path and knocks. Lillian opens and smiles. She’s dressed in a white short sleeved satin shirt with a short collar, and black leggings. She’s quite tall. Long dark shiny hair. Looking older, with a few lines round the mouth. Smilier.  He’s not sure whether he should peck her on the cheek, so he reverts to a handshake. They knew each other at school, but didn’t eat lunch together.

He sits, and pulls the sheet music from his leather satchel, then slowly traverses the ponderous chords on Lillian’s piano. She raps his knuckles figuratively as he plays with bent fingers. He flattens his recalcitrant digits. He tries singing at the same time and it goes all over the place.

So she sits beside him, hip to hip, and plays the music while he sings, bellowing out the words, because well, with all the exclamation marks, they have to be bellowed.

Across the bright and shining sea

and under the Southern Cross

Hear the clarion call of work for all!

And a living wage from the boss!

 

We won’t tire till our mighty fire

Scorches off the curse

Of Capital’s greed, for which good men bleed!

Until left for dead in the dust!

 

There’s nothing wrong with a proud man’s call

For a living wage each day!

And to wrest our comrades from the thrall

Of Capital’s slavery!

 

Our Union heeds the proud man’s call

For his living wage each day!

And we’ll fight for our comrades held in the thrall

Of Capital’s slavery!

 

They both crack up laughing, side by side on the piano stool.

He again tries to play the music and sing at the same time, and messes up a second time.

“This is difficult,” he complains.

“Learn the chords first, you idiot,” says Lillian laughing again. “And the melody line. Everything is difficult. Practice, practice. Once your fingers know where to go, they’ll slot into place. Your hands have muscle memories to learn. Even your little pinkies. The tune is in G major – not a difficult key.” Easy-peasy, even.

Its eight o’clock when they finish. He offers to buy Lillian a coffee or a wine and to his surprise she agrees, and they head into a warm Saturday night. They sit and chat in a small try-hard café bar with plastic blobs hung on the roof and annoying dubstep music turned too loud. But the toasted paninis are good.

She seems pleased to have some company. He tells Lillian of his incremental struggles with an office full of hard heads and hungry, ambitious people, some younger than him (and he’s only 25). Labor Party pups who all want to be MPs.

“Don’t you want to be an MP?” she asks.

“No … not really. To be honest, I’m not sure what I want to do in the future. I like the work tho’.” Ooh, he sounds so ridiculously indefinite.

What do you want to be when you grow up? Err … Umm … Ugh!  

“I s’pose I’ve left my run too late for concert pianist!” he says, trying to hide is embarrassment.

Lillian laughs. She doesn’t seem to notice his awkwardness.

She tells Sam of her on-again, off-again life with a great guy named Jack. While her Lebanese family disapproved loud and long, she and Jack were an item for two whole years until he went to Sydney, out of the blue. Rang her from Redfern, said it was over. She describes the split in a matter of fact tone, but Sam is empathic enough to feel her distress.

“Did he say why?” he ventures.

“No.”

That was more than a year ago. Since Jack, her dad and brothers haven’t spoken to her, tho’ her mum rings, and Lillian has worked hard, thinking of music, the kids.

“So, I’ve a part time contract to teach music classes around local primary schools, three days a week. I love working with kids,” she says, face all lit up. “I teach grades one to three. And sometimes older.”

And while she’s on permanent contract, it doesn’t quite pay the bills, so she also teaches private one-to-one clients – mostly older kids, and some adults brushing up on their technique, like him.

“How much do I owe you for the lesson?” he finally asks, suddenly aware he must pay her. He feels awkward again.

“Oh,” she waves an elegant hand, dismissing the idea. “It’s a one-off, isn’t it? To learn A Proud Man’s Call? Come again on Tuesday for a lesson and buy me a nice dinner afterwards. That’s fair. If you practice, you’ll have it sorted by then. You kinda know what to do, Sammy. You’ve just got to practice. I remember you in class. You were funny. It’s been great catching up.”

Sam is surprised. She’s being very, very nice to him.

He walks Lillian home and then walks back to the tramstop still thinking: why is she being so nice to me?

Sam practices all weekend in the dusty meeting room, wishing for his fingers to remember, which they eventually do. He starts singing the ponderous song in his best imitation light tenor shearer’s voice. Bringing back sentiments from the fragile past – that’s what the Librarian said.

The Minister texts him Monday morning despite the Chief of Staff’s warnings, and the COAG meeting.

      Find anything?

      Yes. Dudley’s song called A Proud Man’s Call. You’ll like! Play it for you Wednesday.

      Great work!

Sam’s amazed the Minister didn’t reply with – just email me the words. He hopes that the song is up to the Minister’s mark.

When he returns to Lillian’s house with the sheet music and a bunch of flowers on Tuesday evening, he’s much more confident. He sits up straight. He wriggles his fingers remembering to keep them level. After some care and consideration he plays the song through, singing loudly.

Lillian is grinning, pleased with Sam’s effort.

“The tune’s not too bad,” she says. “But the words are awful.”

He thinks there’s awfulness, anyway, in old songs which lose their meaning. That’s why it’s fun to inject some loud heart into the old sentiments. While A Proud Man’s Call was never going to be eternal music, the song may, in its day, have galvanized people either at a picket line, or in a pub full of singing workers. He was enjoying his micro-revival of a very minor work.

As Lillian and Sam walk to a rather fancy restaurant he’s booked, Sam thinks it’s funny that they avoided friendship all through school – but he knows why. Then, they were poles apart – him a bit of a clown, she, a proper Lebanese daughter. Now, those co-ordinates have shifted.

He looks down Sydney Road, at the wires and the tramlines disappearing to a vanishing point of car lights, clouds and building facades, and he sees a long perspective, a long finish. He is surprised to find Lillian’s warm hand in his, and he squeezes her fingers gently.

At dinner Sam and Lillian really make friends. With heads bent together, they talk about the current careers of old classmates. They exchange quite similar views on politics, while he discovers, not surprisingly, she’s more into classical music than him. The confluence of conversation inevitably winds back to them, their own futures in the complicated city with its fizzing trams, high-piled offices, its gentle parks and fervent aspirations.

Is he part of all that? Of course he is. So is she. As he’s practiced the song over the weekend in the dusty room, Sam’s had a big think. He’s got his lines straight for Lillian, this time round. He now has a fleeting idea of where he’s going, and Lillian might well be there with him.

Because Sam has also finally glimpsed why she’s being so nice. Why she suggested dinner, and held his hand. She’s clearly keen for his company.

Later, in the dark, she again finds his hand under the warm cocoon of doona. She strokes his finger tips, then slides her head onto the raft of his shoulder.

His eyes are open, but it’s so dark in her bedroom it’s as if they are shut anyway. Her hair is soft, and she smells wonderful but it is dark, apart from something blinking occasionally, on the dresser.

“Can we do this again sometime?” asks Sam.

“Oh yes,” she says. “I’ll need a detailed report on how your sing-song goes. Imagine … a sing-song around an old upright piano with the Victorian Minister for Schools, Employment and Corrections. Good on you. Learning the music, rather than just handing him a bunch of old words without the tune.”

“Am I that weird?” he asks, suddenly worried.

“No. No. What you’re doing – it’s great. Music rocks. People find something when they sing. The Minister will like it, I’m sure”

*

Lillian is proved right. The song goes down well.

Wednesday lunchtime the Minister takes off his jacket and loosens his tie and looks rather excited as he leads the expeditionary party, with Sam as guide, to the piano – ten people in all including and his harassed chief-of-staff, his EA, and a couple of interns. They gather round the very badly tuned upright.

The instrument lives in a dark, paneled committee room. Someone pulls the drapes back for sunlight. Someone else sneezes.

Sam hands out photocopies of the lyrics to his workmates many of whom hold them gingerly. He flexes his fingers a couple of times, and runs through the melody so they can “hear how it goes.”

Then the assembled staff sing the whole song once through with the Minister. Then again. Sam is now playing quite loud and florid chords as they progress. Then the Minister insists on repeating the rousing chorus.

Our Union heeds the proud man’s call

For his living wage each day

And we’ll fight for our comrades held in the thrall

Of Capital’s slavery!

The Minister bellows this chorus about five times with his staff, laughing between each rendition. Louder and louder they sing, and some even try to harmonise, badly.

Letting off steam, Sam thinks, as he bangs the ivories with gusto and sings along. Everyone at his workplace is so terminally tense. The COAG meeting went badly, making things worse.

As the session ends, one of the ambitious office pups says: “Well, the words are soooo arcane, but the music certainly gives it an oomph!”

“It’s not that fucking arcane,” snaps the Minister, over Sam’s head, to the pup. “Plenty of people out there still getting rorted by their boss.” The pup looks a bit miffed at the slap-down.

“Cheryl,” he says, “put the whole chorus in the speech. Near the end.”

Then he says: “Great work, Sam. I enjoyed that!” Slaps his back.

Sam is about to joke: “Hip-hop of its day, Boss!” but the Minister has already turned on his heel and the pups and other staff follow in his wake, out the door.

Sam lifts the sheet music from the stand and smiles at the chief-of-staff who remains at the end of the piano, shaking her head, baffled.

*

The sky is darkening early, and Autumn mutters its arrival through a few crunchy leaves on the path that leads to Lillian’s cottage. As he bumps through the front door with the suitcases, Lillian looks up and smiles. The bags are heavy and he laughs and puffs at the same time.

“Just pop all them in the bedroom,” she says, jumping up from her couch and heading for the kitchen. “I’ll pour us a glass of champagne!”

As Sam walks back into the room past Lillian’s piano, he plinks middle C.