Chapter 1 – Musician

– Musician –

It was the end. I am talking about Valkyrie’s latest piece of music that would play and play over and over in her head as though she had missed something. Nothing had gotten away, it was all there, it just needed to hover around a bit in a loop and run free for a while. Like those thoughts that thud against each other at 3am and you know any decision will not play out well. But this is a song, so it was more like a bird, panoptic and with wings.

In her mind the song is caught in a holding pattern on play and repeat, stretched on an endless washing cycle until it is time to be released, hung on the line, but no not yet. The depths are strong, the contours subtle, like moving shapes behind frosted glass. These are moments, euphoric, where the song lays in suspension, its belly almost full and neatly fleshed and smooth. Soon there will be no slinking in dark alleys, turning up in sunglasses and oversized coats, standing in hazy shifty moonlight under earnest shifting clouds. Soon there will be no stepping back away into the shadows. For now, there is no need to push or change things like note lengths or volumes or move huge chunks of melody around to different places. But if this happens it is when there is an energy drop. You can feel it. An emergency. So, something daring, risky and experimental has to be done. And quickly, for some reason. All in that loud moment Valkyrie has become aware of the music dangling and pleading  – hanging in a memory of its former evolution. Valkyrie is now standing in the dark alley eyes alert with the energy drop emergency, and the air is misty. There’s no rescue truck anywhere and her sternum has filled with shards of glass and loss. She stops breathing, or only breathes very lightly, and becomes a waxwork of herself. The stillness, she needs this, for a surgeon’s knife to go in and cut and rebuild. Nothing else exists.

But soon the song will be out and visible to everyone and no one. Visible to the ear and stripped bare for all the heart to see.

But before then, with every listen, Valkyrie’s emotions are drugged and dragged around by the shirt collar. The strength of the sound pulls her left and right and unresistingly she goes with the flow. It is warm and dreamy, an ocean of rise and fall with different waves of rhythm and melody. The song’s terrain runs through her blood – chasing in her veins like lost toys in flood waters. The song’s pattern has almost metamorphosed, and she knows it.

The song plays in her head, in order, out of order, from the middle, at the end and back to the start, again and again. Not meant to be hellish, but hellish for some.

Nearing its final shape and settling the score, the riffs relax, the sub-tune-cameos peep out and flex like clever stray cats on the autobahn; hungry and anticipating the artful darting between the cars, before a fast escape or a slow vanish.

The song is now a sound painting. An auditory medieval village spread out on a huge hacked and stitched together canvas with little scenes of busy people making stuff and talking about it in busy little groups of bustling chaos.

A village of pulse and sound.

Valkyrie is sitting in her music studio in her house in a rainforest. Could it be better? She sits at the oversized computer screen looking at the bright patterns of the music software.  This is where the hours seem like minutes, and the ideas run fast in a kind of nowhere time. Most of the ideas slip out the door, others stay for coffee, lounging on huge couches like pompous business men and others become surprisingly engaged and intoxicated. This is all contained on the screen, on the colourful rows of different instrument sounds, that look like a busy flight information board of incoming and outgoing aircraft.

This song has only just landed on the vacant lot next door to the airport – unscheduled and off-brand. The song merits access to the major runways of the music industry, but that is outside of her flight control.

She wears grey jeans that are not loose and funeral-black T-shirts – you never know, you know. The clothing reminds her she has a body – not just a mind and emotions. Her clothes create a feeling of self-possession and structure, something she did not know as a child. There were no regular meals, no birthday parties – unless she organised one herself – and definitely no holidays. Her family home had been grave-silent, or loud at nights with the hate tones of her mother and stepfather fighting. Unlike the non-existent set meal times, the fighting was an anticipated constant. The worst part, although difficult to discern, was the lack of any communication or explanation. She was not spoken to, so did she really exist? It felt like she didn’t. It was a home of no music, no books, no questions and closed windows. Everything felt dank and stale.

The words, a narrative, describing her childhood took a long time to arrive in her throat and give context and content to the kind of the world she grew up in. It takes time to dissect a crushingly empty and lonely existence. The feelings of deadness and invisibility never quite leave Valkyrie, but the life she lives now brings her a contrasting reprieve.

Here in her studio she looks out at the viridian sanctuary, the green-blue tropical vegetation breathing in and out the wildness of the forest. Her backyard. She has surrounding windows that frame the sunrise and sunset and when you stand in the middle of the room, the northern aspect is straight ahead. She faces north. There she can see layers of palm branches and fern trees like theatre curtains. Some are in the near distance and others are up close, touching the glass. The floor-to-ceiling windows are glass louvres that let in the cool breeze and secrets from the many trees. When the music is loud, the louvres must be closed and the ceiling fan will whirl like a soft helicopter landing.

My name is Leerie and Valkyrie is the musician, she and I are very close – sometimes there’s no distance between us, but more about that later.

Valkyrie is her own muse and the cause of her own amusement. She often pantomimes around the house with funny walks and vocal absurdities that can’t be easily explained. It’s all a wonder she says to herself, this being a person with a life, a place – with rooms, a backyard and a long driveway.  Astonishing. Valkyrie is not short of a conversation with herself and is entertained and surprised by her own answers to her questions. She turns to an imaginary camera and responds to her hastily prepared questions, as if this part always takes her by surprise. And it does. The talking, the questions, the answers, this scenario, is a life-long rehearsal. She is never quite sure if she will ever be fully prepared for life.

Life with people. The world is fine, it’s just the people.

I, Leerie, hang around, lurking with a bit of intent. I am alert to all that I love and care for. No pretention there. I like to watch over my beloved Valkyrie and take in all that besieges her. The clues, the things that are missing and the junk that needs explaining before discarding. I was born almost exactly a year before Valkyrie and we have much in common – I have known her for a long time and one day I saved her life.

Chapter 2 – Piano


– Piano –

Valkyrie is 7 and is sitting at a huge, upright piano in her bedroom. I am sitting on the window ledge. She has been looking at a pair of absurd pink and white bathers given to her as a recent birthday present, with rows of frilly bits that bring to mind terrace gardens in Indonesia.  Not flattering as a bathing costume design but excellent for holding rain water and growing vegetables.

The piano takes up most of her bedroom – put there because it had nowhere else to go in the house. It is in good condition with tuned keys, nice wood and an especially resonant and responsive sustain pedal. Responsive.

Distracted adults stand in the hallway and an older girl called Dana walks in, sits next to Valkyrie and adeptly plays a classical tune.  Fingers with bulbous tips and savagely chewed nails, bounce on the piano keys like marionette mice at a rave. A strange phenomenon is taking place. A visiting parent ushers in their offspring, Dana, into an unknown space that is otherwise happily occupied by Valkyrie, private and singular. A room of one’s own. As though the parent expects, in an instant, a level of friendship on the basis of category match: child and child. I don’t know Dana, thought Valkyrie.  Dana walks in and shuffles her 11-year-old hips, next to Valkyrie, on the piano bench. They are two sets of bottoms, two sets of uneven bottom sizes.

There is this thing called classical music. It is beautiful. It lives somewhere else. These old and prized tunes have found their way into young minds, music lessons and school curriculums. Embedded in our collective psyche like a coat of arms or family shield that weighs heavy and solid. I feel sorry for all those other unknown classical musicians who were equally as genius and talented, but were left unseen and unpaid. Why did history freeze a handful of composers, as though  the job of classical music was done. To then have these tunes hammered into young heads through their grit and toil, toiling away their childhoods with repetitive hours upon hours of impossible finger gymnastics. More to the point, written by and for half of humanity’s sets of hands. These complicated tunes can traverse an acoustic piano length of at least 88 keys, each key a generous 24 mm wide, with 8 keys making an octave that stretches a magnanimous 16 cm wide. These measurements are relevant – designed for men who generally have bigger hands. Female hands, which are generally smaller, compensate by their winning physical prowess, as shown with a gun and target. A better shot, simply put and statistically proven. Females are more adept at target shooting but unfortunately these skills do not lend themselves to playing the piano. Large hands however, find their way on to stages, within ornate music theatres, flowing with red velvet seats, curtains, sparkling chandeliers and gilded people, who are all sitting and staring silently in a kind of daze. Some facing the stage. There, they see a black tuxedo walk in and a coat tail following and suddenly, like a wave rising from nowhere, the tail is flicked back behind the tuxedo and now the finger gymnastics can begin. Surely, this great frenzied activity of playing lots of notes really fast, back and forth across kilometers of oversized keys, on impossibly long stretches of octaves, cannot define the greatest music? The fringe-flying, the page flicking, the tail flicking and the remembering and rote knowing of someone else’s tune?

Valkyrie did learn a small part of a fringe-flying tune, satisfied in knowing that small part and satisfied in not going back for more.

Dana’s father militarized piano practice. When he was drunk, he beat up his daughters and played classical music on his radio so loudly that their sobs could not be heard. If he could hear Dana and her sister fighting over the sonorous timpani and violins, he would march into the room and smack them about their heads. Fringes flying but no maestros. All this could happen within a soaring orchestral moment, but the violence and screams would not rouse the attention of their mother who remained perfectly still behind a giant newspaper, reading. Not a muscle moved not an eyelid batted. One night Valkyrie heard them talk. They were worried about their daughters’ futures because they thought them plain and vain and burdensome. Pouring himself a fresh beer and taking a long swig – wiping the froth from his moustache he said, “they’ve got a hole so they better know how to use it”. The newspaper remained still.

These things had a bad effect on the much older Dana and made her heartless, selfish and mean so eventually Valkyrie had to brandish the sword and cut the friendship loose. Enough said.

In Valkyrie’s room that day, the 11-year-old Dana plays the tune over and over. I can almost see the notes tickling up and down Valkyrie’s spine. Dana was on repeat at Valkyrie’s insistence. She wanted to absorb the tune while mimicking the notes with her fingers in mid-air. After a while, adult voices came wafting in to the bedroom from down the hallway and Dana gets up to leave.  Valkyrie is dead keen to play it over and over again until her fingers know when and where to land. Dana looks at Valkyrie but she is staring at the piano and doesn’t look up. Only manages a distracted ‘goodbye’.

I don’t look up either.

As I, Leerie, swing my leg over the window sill, I turn to Valkyrie and the piano. The moment holds and etches itself somewhere safe for a future time. For Valkyrie this is the beginning of that explosion called music. The door is open, an invitation offered, from sound to heart and heart to sound, and then the sensory, synesthetic colours all gush in. The music is a place that is strangely left alone by Valkyrie for years at a time. A place that can be too strong to dwell in and too overwhelming to touch. A place that can be starved and forgotten. A place that brings a sense of focus, freedom and being- immersion with every note, beat and song.

I slip out the window, transiting to place where I look at the sky and breath in the palm trees and ferns – not the place of now and that first piano but a place of later – where Valkyrie eventually arrives. But before we go to that later room of hers in the forest, I must tell you more about my beloved Valkyrie and the early piano days.

If I was to say that the piano was sold 6 months later, and that she would instead imagine playing tunes on her teeth and her teeth were piano keys, I would not be lying. As weird as that sounds. It is not that her teeth were tuned pieces of enamel – bottom central incisor tooth a concert pitch C major and upper central incisor tooth, a C sharp, and lateral incisor as the next lower note – a D major with a corresponding upper D sharp, although… No, she imagined each tooth was a note, it could be higher or lower depending on the direction of her dental scale. The tooth notes were interchangeable, not a proper scale, as some tunes have many notes and several octaves and require more teeth. A set of 88 teeth would have made it easier.

Valkyrie has no traumatic memory of the day her piano left, as her person-status did not warrant an opinion, on any matter.  All decisions, be it major, minor, or mostly off-key, were made without her consultation and consideration; like walking on new cement and leaving no trace. However for that whole 6 months from 7 to 7.5 years of age she was a musician. Her repertoire comprised of ‘Dana’s tune’ and other ‘inspired’ tunes. These tunes were driven by resonance and volume crossing over and through each other like skaters on an ice rink. The piano top lifted, one buttock resting partly on the piano stool with the opposite hip angling down and her foot reaching to the sustain pedal, like a brick on the accelerator. Her wiry little fingers would press down on the keys hard creating powerful reverberations that would boomerang and chorus around in her head. On occasion she would slam down both little splayed hands on too many low and high notes, up and down in perfect drummer’s rhythm, and the sound would cyclone around in her bedroom.

From the front lawn I, Leerie, felt content. I ate my apple and watched her through the open window, curtains flailing in the breeze; little head nodding and fringe flying with each slam of a dissonant chord. She was a maestro, possessed.

One strange day when Valkyrie was 7.4, she found herself sitting at a shiny, black baby grand at her new friend Penelope’s house. Her friend’s mother was a piano teacher and Valkyrie was to showcase her complete repertoire. She ran her wiry, small fingers along the piano’s richly enameled surface feeling its mirrored perfection and caught the mother’s eye in a self conscious moment.

What happened next, is vague.  Valkyrie played the tune but soon found herself wandering back down the hill back to her home. She wipes her face of the memory, not quite digesting the force of the piano teacher’s mocking tone.  She cannot remember the words. Moments like these can mark a young mind forever and dreams disappear like water on sand.  Valkyrie wished she had asked to use the bathroom so she could have peed all over the beautifully tiled floor.  There will be no next time.

The teacher was half-right about the importance of practice and theory. But the beginner’s piano tunes would no doubt become unbearably monotonous and unsustainably boring. This became apparent as she began to steamroller-demonstrate these tunes, with a sweep of her large hips onto the piano stool next to Valkyrie, almost knocking her to the floor.   Hence the desire to pee on the bathroom floor. Also, piano lessons require an interested parent. This was in short supply.

Chapter 3 – Pool


– Pool –

Valkyrie looks up to the sky – she is 2.5 and is floating on her back gazing up at the clouds. Her lungs are filling, breathing has stopped – she is drowning. The odd shapes and colours are drawing her in, she is not afraid or resisting.

I, Leerie, am standing beside the tree looking at the pool. I have already kicked the bucket. That happened a year before. I willingly died in syrupy amniotic fluid and noise;  my personal sacrifice to give Valkyrie a future and forego mine – and be in a space in the breeze.

The water is clear and blue and the pool is rectangular and dingy.  Too deep to stop a little girl from shifting into other ways and spaces.  As I look at her, I can sense the rolling kaleidoscope of Valkyrie’s future, with colourful ribbons of sounds fleeting across the air – there is more life here to be had, than there is not.

In my breezy state I bang on imagined metal bin lids and go shouting around the backdoor of the house in front of the pool. I am trying to pierce through into the other space and alert the arguing parents. There is a child drowning alone in the pool! Between the unhappiness on their faces and their screeching retorts to each other they are somehow moved to go to the backdoor. I see them looking at the pool.

[Valkyrie] … I can feel the water softly dousing my ears, as I bob above and below the surface. The sky shimmers and dilutes.
I can hear an eerie ocean hum and then bright flecks of bird-song against the backdrop of noisy daytime. The sky above is arcing around me like a tennis stadium roof and I see huge white sea-creature clouds collapsing and reforming. Am I being lifted up and into a cloud?

The truth is she stepped into the water to end her life. It sounds dramatic but it was really just a matter-of-fact solution, to an equation, where she assessed that living for the next 12.5 years with this lot was an intolerable proposition. I understood her computation – it would be better to ditch this life, now, and ride the karmic wheel until something better comes along.

[Valkyrie] … all at the same time, I feel like I am air and water and wrapped tightly in a rough, clinging hessian blanket. It is hard to discern, but in the distance I can hear a bell or a car horn. I forget where I am but there’s that distant bell again, is it louder? Oh, and again, the bell, it seems quite near to me now. Overlaying stripes of pictures and moving volumes of sounds in my dissolving mind, and then a burst of wild galloping and thundering towards me. The sounds are so loud that I think they will crush me. It gets closer and closer and suddenly big-knuckled hands grab me and I am dragged along the burning water’s edge, scooped up like a huge pile of seaweed carrying half the ocean. l am hung upside down, to dry? The sky, clouds and shapes drain from my face and chest and pour on to the ground. My eyes look around blinking and over there, I see a shape that is standing beside a tree.
I think she knows me.

The scene was more violent than it needed to be. Valkyrie’s father went from standing at the back door, to bolting towards the pool with flailing arms and jagged leaps. On the way he notices the neighbour – a kind, old man standing near the fence with a look of concern on his face – he is frowning at the pool. Valkyrie’s father, embarrassed and enraged by the neighbour’s witnessing of his negligence, takes a sudden detour, and runs towards the man to punch him in the face. With blood on his knuckle, he then turns and resumes running towards the pool. When he reaches it, he dives in fully clothed and swearing. The water swallows his words and, in much commotion and splashing, Valkyrie is suddenly lifted into the air like an unexpected water feature or an offering to the gods. Her mother is there but is far away in thought, trying to recall the last insult she had hurled to the knuckle, only moments before. She was also looking at the blood dripping from the neighbour’s nose – then remembered her insult:  “… you think I find you as attractive as Con?”

Valkyrie survives … but later … her father is gone.