January, 1982. Baking heat sank through the slate tiled roof, through the flimsy insulation batts, through the pressed metal ceiling and into the bedroom. White nylon curtains, limp and dirty, covered half the window. The other half presented a view of a makeshift driveway, a paling fence, and the house next door – brick and weatherboard, subdivided and rented cheaply, just like this one. A light globe hung from a wire, in an orange plastic shade. Opposite the bed was a wooden wardrobe, and next to it a pile of clothes.
The music was coming from a pair of speakers, one on either side of the room, driven by an old valve amplifier and a turntable. “I’m Stranded” by The Saints. Again. Other albums piled on the floor included Nina Simone’s “I Put a Spell On You”, King Crimson’s “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic” and Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. A Stratocaster guitar, twenty years old but in perfect mint condition, was propped against a wall near the bed. A small Marshall amplifier sat next to, and partially under, the pile of clothes, looking a little like the cover of the Men At Work album that Brian so despised. (“Shallow, tedious, commercial. I mean, really, is that what passes for lyrics these days?”)
Brian himself was sprawled on the bed wearing a black tee-shirt and torn blue jeans, the top button open. He was flicking over the pages of Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”, hoping for inspiration, but the higher the temperature rose the harder it was to concentrate. He hadn’t written a song in three months.
Not that anyone cared. The Turncoats hadn’t had a gig since November, and rehearsals were quickly turning into extended sessions of mutual bitching and substance abuse. Cindy didn’t like his songs anyway, and Madeline – well, how would anyone know what Madeline liked, or wanted?
After trying to decode a particularly convoluted passage from the book, and fearing he had failed, Brian threw it on the floor and let his head fall back to the pillow. “Demolition Girl” – yes, that’s definitely the best track on “Stranded”. When side two finished, he closed his eyes and let his thoughts drift. They drifted, as usual, toward Madeline.
1974: Year 1, Term 1 – English Literature. The lecture theatre slowly filled with young women in sundresses and flat shoes; young men in tight jeans with long, dishevelled hair; and a few much older women with bright eyes and grey hair held up by ostentatious pins. Unlike most, Brian walked in alone. He searched for a vacant seat next to an attractive woman but wound up sitting next to Joey. The two struck up a conversation and Brian quickly determined that Joey played drums and owned records by Velvet Underground. They agreed to meet after lunch.
Then, exactly on time, the lecturer walked in. She looked to be in her mid-twenties. Her black hair was pulled back into a single plait. Her face was fine-boned, with shaped eyebrows and understated makeup (except perhaps for the mascara, which focussed attention on her exotic green eyes). Her high-collared top reminded Brian of Greta Garbo in “Flesh and the Devil”. Her tight navy skirt was mid-thigh, with matching stockings; and her legs were long, perfectly shaped and resting elegantly on stiletto heels. Brian gasped audibly as she stepped forward.
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to English Literature 1. My name is Madeline Rashid.”
By mid 1975, Brian and Joey finally had a stable line-up for the band, and between them they were writing about three songs a week. Gigs were starting to come, the sound was starting to gel, and study was moving steadily down on their list of priorities. But Brian NEVER missed a tutorial with Madeline.
“It’s an interesting premise,” she said, with a half-smile that could have been mistaken for mockery. “‘Patti Smith and John Keats: The Search for Personal Identity through Love’. I must say I’ve never heard Patti Smith’s work, but your quotes are certainly … ah … intriguing.” Unreadable as always. Interested, engaged, her eyes inviting and expectant, yet giving away nothing about herself. Then again, Brian wasn’t quite sure how much he wanted to know about Madeline. She was so beautiful, so exotic – he was both drawn toward her, and paralysed with fear.
“The thing is, Patti Smith and John Keats have the same manifesto.” Brian was allowing his enthusiasm for a position to take his mind off other things. “Individual identity is nothing, or at least it’s not something you can find within yourself. You need to burn yourself up … let yourself burn for someone else … that’s love, that’s what makes you real, and that’s the beginning of true awareness. She’s a rock singer and he’s a romantic poet, but they both have the same understanding of life.”
“So if they’d met, would they have been lovers?” Brian had never thought of asking that question. “Before you write your essay, I want you to write about when Patti Smith met John Keats. Were they lovers? If so, how did that love affair start, how did it develop, and how did it end? If not, what happened? You need to be concrete, Brian – stop playing with ideas and get down to an actual lived experience.”
“But Patti Smith and John Keats being lovers – isn’t that just a fantasy?”
“If you think it’s a fantasy then you think it’s impossible. So please explain to me why it’s impossible.” It was a typical enigmatic reply, delivered with raised eyebrows and head to one side – almost a coquettish gesture, in fact.
As the class was leaving, Madeline touched Brian’s arm. “I forgot to say – you’re interested in music, aren’t you? You must hear this.” Reaching into her bag, she produced a ticket for a performance at the university the following night – a concert by a German touring orchestra. She pushed it into Brian’s hand and walked away.
Joey and Cindy were both very amused. “You think she’s gonna turn up and sit beside ya, and get all cuddly, don’t ya?”
“Fuck off, I’m going for the music.”
“Oh yeah? Let me see the ticket – ‘The Rite of Spring’. Sounds like lots of fuckin bunny rabbits to me.” Cindy liked to prove she could be as foul-mouthed as the next student but, like Brian and Joey, her lower-middle-class affectations were really a cover for much deeper anxieties. She’d been with Joey since school, and they’d always seemed very close. Lately, though, Brian thought he’d noticed them both avoiding eye contact.
“Yeah, well, see ya later. I’ll bring ya back an Easter egg.” Brian had thought VERY hard about what to wear. The really soft, silky blue shirt that his mother had given him, with the black pants? Too obvious, and potentially embarrassing – it’s in the university hall, after all. Standard jeans and tee, saying “Hey, this is no big deal”? Come off it, for Madeline? He finally settled, somewhat uncomfortably, on the striped shirt with one extra button undone, the new canvas pants, and a splash of after-shave.
Half an hour later, with both adjacent seats taken and the orchestra tuning up, it was clear she wasn’t coming. He hoped the fat bearded guy next to him couldn’t smell the after-shave. It was going to be a long, cramped night.
Then came the first notes. Slow, drifting, mellow as a Steve Winwood organ solo. Then gradually the intensity grew and it was pulsing and pushing and finally it was thrashing like Zeppelin at their best – and it just kept on thrashing until it dragged you under, screaming. Brian looked around. Why aren’t these people dancing? Don’t they feel this music? Why aren’t they jumping on their seats and throwing things and making love in the aisles?
At the end of the next tutorial Brian went straight up to Madeline. “Hey, thanks so much for the ticket. The music was great, just so … powerful.” Stupid word.
“Yes, they play Stravinsky with such energy, don’t they? I was going to go but I got trapped with a pile of marking. I thought you might appreciate my ticket.”
“You were going on your own?”
“No, with my brother. He would have been the person sitting next to you.”
“You mean … ?” Brian held both hands about 30 centimetres from his body.
Madeline laughed. It was the first time he’d ever heard her laugh. “Yes, Iranian men do tend to enjoy their food.”
“You’re from Iran?”
“We moved here when I was three. It was quite traumatic for my parents, but I didn’t find it too hard. I never really knew life in Iran. I gather it was quite good – we were a wealthy family.”
“So why did your parents move?”
Madeline shrugged. “Politics.” But Brian wasn’t really listening.
“Hey, I was thinking, since you like music, maybe you’d like to come to one of my band’s gigs?” That’s not really asking your lecturer on a date, is it?
She smiled, completely naturally. “Sure. When and where?”
After the gig, Brian had his gear packed in record time and was hoping she hadn’t already gone. There she was, perfectly dressed for the occasion as always – blue V-neck jumper; designer jeans two shades lighter; shoes high but not too high, in a blue that matched the jumper; dangling gold earrings.
“So what did you think?” said Brian, a little too quickly.
“Well, I really liked the drummer. And the second-last song certainly got everyone going.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement, particularly as she was talking to the guitarist. But Brian took comfort in the fact that the second-last song was one of his.
“I’m just taking the guitar to the car – are you going that way?”
“No, but I’ll come with you.” Yes!
“I was thinking about Patti and John – you know, for my essay. I think they might have been lovers. But not, you know, straight away. They would have been a bit tentative, you know, because they both wanted to lose control, but being the one losing control kind of puts you in control. It’s letting the other one lose control that really takes the trust, and that would take time to build up.”
“That’s really perceptive, Brian.”
They stopped at his car. Brian put his guitar down, put his arms around her waist and kissed her on the lips. Not a long, passionate kiss, but long enough that it couldn’t be mistaken for friendliness. Madeline accepted the kiss graciously and when their lips parted she did her eyebrows-raised-head-to-the-side look. Brian wasn’t really sure what should happen now, but his hands were shaking and his head was throbbing. “Want to come back to my place?” – the obvious choice if it were anyone else – was just too big a risk. What if she lifted her head slightly and said “I really don’t think that’s at all appropriate, do you Brian?” So in the end it was just “Well I guess I’ll see you on Tuesday”, to which she replied “I guess you will.”
After that, Brian and Madeline met regularly for dinner at the university bar. They continued meeting even after Brian formally dropped out of all his classes. They talked about music, and poetry, and love, and his family, and Australian politics. Sometimes they went to a concert together – always classical music. They never kissed again, or even held hands. Once he invited her back to his place, but she said “I’m really sorry, I can’t tonight,” with no further explanation. He didn’t ask again.
Meanwhile, the band started touring. Cindy was now an official member, as backing vocalist. That was a big mistake because it meant that when, on the eve of a recording contract, she left Joey and took up with Brian, the band became unviable and disintegrated.
It wasn’t long, though, before Brian formed a new outfit – The Turncoats – playing the much darker, more distorted material that he was writing now. Soon they were touring again, and creating much interest among the cognoscenti of the punk scene. They produced two albums before the band went into a kind of hibernation in early 1981. Brian was quite proud of the albums, but they made almost no money, and with the band now just drifting, his finances were getting tight.
Some time during this period Brian and Cindy fell apart. Cindy was now using heroin regularly.
Whenever he was in Sydney, or even close by, Brian arranged a dinner with Madeline. Those evenings felt so good. It was like sliding into a pool of clean, clear water. She would arrive with her long, black, silky hair meticulously arranged, sometimes in a bun, sometimes out. Her dress sense was as immaculate as ever. And she was just as stunning as when she had first walked to the front of that lecture theatre. Brian told her about his life, leaving out some of the really nasty details, and she talked about the university where she was now a Senior Lecturer. She was still single – something that Brian found impossible to understand. But they talked about music, and poetry, and love, just like always. And at the end they kissed on the cheek and said goodbye.
Stretched out on his bed on that hot afternoon in 1982, Brian didn’t want a kiss on the cheek. He had a sense that something was about to break. Something had been lying at the bottom of his psyche for much too long, rotting in the darkness, and it needed to come into the light – one way or another. Still sprawled on the bed, he reached out, picked up the phone, and called Madeline.
“Oh Brian, how strange, I was just thinking that I need to call you.”
“Maddie, there’s something I need to …”
“I’m going back to Iran. Tomorrow.”
Stunned silence. He sat upright in the bed.
“What? Iran? But Maddie, Iran’s not even safe. The Ayatollah’s a lunatic. You can’t go to Iran now.” Brian had never called her “Maddie” before. Something had changed.
“Listen, Brian. Do you know why my family left in 1953? I’ll tell you. They were supporters of Mohammed Mosaddeq, the Prime Minister, who tried to nationalise the oil industry. The CIA didn’t like that so they organised a military coup and installed the Shah. It was horrible. Some of my parents’ friends were killed. Our family were harassed. If we hadn’t left we’d all have been killed too.”
“Ah, yeah, so …?”
“So two years ago the students rose up and declared a republic. It was so exciting, Brian, the country was going to be free. We all had such high hopes.”
Brian suddenly realised they’d never even talked about Iran, or about who this “we” might be.
“Then it all went wrong, and now there’s another tyrant, even worse than the Shah. I can’t do nothing. You know, I’ve actually realised that Iran is my country. I have a friend in the resistance and I’m going back to join him. So yes, you don’t need to tell me it’s dangerous. But if people can’t stand up for what they believe, they might as well be dead, right?”
Brian felt a cold knife piercing his chest. “Why … didn’t you tell me … about this … before?”
“Simple, Brian. You never asked.”
The silence was like a hall after the end of a gig, after the chairs have been packed away and the roadies have gone and the only person left is you. And the silence is the sound of all the songs that you didn’t play, and all the words that you didn’t say.
Madeline spoke again. “I want you to know that you’ve been very important to me, Brian. Very important. I’ve learned so much from you; more than you know. Remember the kiss in the carpark? I do. It … could have been different. But that time is gone now – there are things I need to do. So goodbye, my love, and I wish you every happiness.”
He whispered “Please don’t go”, but it was too late – she had already hung up.
Brian sat with his legs over the side of the bed and was quite still for some time. Then he stood and walked toward the guitar. He picked it up by the neck and hurled it against the wall. Pieces of broken plasterboard flew up, and dust spread through the room, but the guitar stayed intact. The floor. He smashed the Stratocaster against the floor, and the neck broke away from the body, with only the strings holding them together. He stood on the body and wrenched the neck upward until the strings separated from the machine heads. Then he took the neck and smashed it against the body. He pulled the amplifier into the centre of the room, turned it upward and pushed his bare foot through the speaker cone. As the foot withdrew, it caught against the metal surround, and a large gash opened. Blood began to drip over the carpet. Finally he picked up the neck of the Stratocaster and smashed it, over and over, against the bedroom door, until the door was a pile of splinters and Brian collapsed exhausted on the floor. He began to sob quietly, and within a few minutes he was asleep.
When he woke it was late evening, and the heat of the day had turned into a blustery, squally wind that wrapped itself around buildings and trees. The atmosphere was taut with the scent of ozone, from an approaching storm. Brian stood up and walked slowly to the front door, then out through the gate and into the street, blood still trailing from the gash in his foot. Soon rain was beating against his body. Lightning intermittently lit up the streetscape. As he walked, the clean, clear water lashed his face, and soaked his clothes, and washed the last traces of sleep from his eyes.
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