The inspiration for this
story arose from the lives of ordinary people. Unfortunately, up until the final
draft, the author wrote with a verisimilitude that, while morally admirable,
prevented him from giving full reign to his imagination. The modest successes,
the disappointments and failures of his main character were described, as
faithfully as possible, within the context of complex reality. I told him,
sometimes to express the truth you have to tell lies. That skill is the heart of
good fiction writing. He finally agreed with me and even invented a name for the
country in which the story takes place. I also impressed upon him the imperative
of starting the book in a way that immediately captures the readers interest.
The author is a modest,
retiring man. His instinctive approach to any contentious topic is to consider
it from several points of view before making a decision. This innate caution
made it difficult for him to find an emphatic way to begin his book. When he
first began to write the novel, his opening chapter had nothing to get the
readers adrenalin going. He started the book describing the property where he’d
grown up. Then, he went into details about how his maternal great-grandparents,
Siegfried and Christiane, met. It
seemed to me, as I read the draft, as if he was writing a sort of genealogical
record. I told him to start his book with an event in his life that would draw a
reader in and, hopefully, tempt him to continue. I remember that he thought for
a while and then started to tell me about a misjudgement he’d made which nearly
killed him and three other people.
I thought he was going
to admit to some ghastly misdiagnosis because I knew he was a doctor. The
near-accident, however, occurred over twenty years ago, long before he got into
to medical school. He said he’d once owned a light aircraft which he used to fly
in the remote, north of the country. In the novel he calls this region the San Juan Strait.
He describes the narrow
strait as a scattering of islands in a shallow sea, swept daily by immensely
powerful tides. It divides Paduras to the north, with its vast rainforests and
fetid swamps, from the enormous island continent of Stateland. In the novel, the
islands of the strait fall into three distinct groupings. To the west are the
mangrove fringed Western Islands. In the middle
lies the sandy Central Group. The rich, volcanic Eastern Islands
define the eastern limits of the strait. The author takes his inspiration from
the novel by RJ Simmons, ‘The Warriors of Mekea’, and describes Mekea, the most
famous of the eastern islands, as being dominated by a large hill in the form of
a sacred dugong. The eyes of the dugong are shallow caves twenty metres above
the sea and the dugongs head forms the easternmost point of the island. In the
early mornings, the shadow of this evocatively shaped hill falls over the
village which is situated close to it on flat land near the beach. In the
rugged, central terrain of the island, an airfield was bulldozed out of the bush
and black volcanic rocks in the late nineteen sixties. It was in his plane,
flying a few feet above the ground, not far from the grassy slope of the
dugongs back, that the author thought he was going to die.
It was with this story
that he decided to begin his book.
Over the weekend, before
Sunday’s near death plunge in the plane, Matthew felt as though he was living a
dream. He was on the most famous island in the
San Juan Strait!
He’d flown out to Mekea on the Friday afternoon, landing on the airstrip just
before last light. There were three other people in the plane: two young,
dark-skinned islander girls who were studying at Brubeck High School
and Matthew’s wife, Tammy, who taught art at the school. Brubeck Island
was a small island near the mainland but it was the administrative centre for
the whole strait. The girls boarded with relatives on Brubeck. Their home was on
Mekea which was over a hundred and fifty kilometres away to the north-east.
When Matthew said he
wanted to fly out to Mekea, he asked Tammy if she knew of any students who might
want to go with them. Tammy was particularly fond of two girls from Mekea, Daisy
and Beryl, who were in her junior art class. When she took them aside and asked
them if they’d like a trip home for a weekend they could hardly contain their
excitement! That afternoon, from the phone at the boarding college, they made a
call to the one and only telephone box on Mekea. The father of one of the girls
was chairman of the Island Council and Matthew automatically got the permission
he needed to land there.
The impression Matthew
and Tammy had of the
had been restricted mainly to what they’d seen on and around Brubeck Island.
Like most other visitors to the strait they were curious to see how the
Islanders lived on the outer islands. But most people didn’t get the opportunity
to travel away from Brubeck and its surrounding ring of islands. Matthew and
Tammy were, however, more fortunate. Not long after they’d met and at the
beginning of the first term holidays they were offered the chance of a trip
through the Western islands. The vessel they
sailed on was called the Lady Orchid.
This ship was a small
vessel that usually operated as the main ferry between Brubeck and nearby Marina Island.
Through his job Matthew got to know the skipper, Ted Shipwright. He had the look
of a veritable old salt, an authentic, ancient, man of the sea.
The Stateland government
regularly hired the Lady Orchid during the year to take school children
back to their islands for the holidays. It was April and the south-east trade
winds were already strong. The ship left on a Saturday and, in the rough seas,
the trip took longer than expected. Tammy became violently seasick on the voyage
home. She spent most of that third day of the trip lying on a bunk in the cabin
with a metal bucket by her side. Matthew felt almost as ill. He sat up on the
top deck and tried to keep his nausea at bay by concentrating on the unwavering
line of the horizon. The Lady Orchid didn’t get back to Brubeck Island until late on Monday afternoon.
Matthew worked as an
assessment officer for the government on
Island and he missed a
full day’s work. If he hadn’t got on so well with the office manager he’d have
been reprimanded for his slackness.
That trip had been over
a year ago. It was one of the last school trips for the old ship because
the Stateland government funded airstrips on many of the Western and Central
islands. The days of long and dangerous boat voyages for passengers were coming
to an end.
It wasn’t long after the
voyage on the Lady Orchid that Matthew left his job and started working
full time in the screen printing business Tammy had started. She got the idea of
renting a little shop in the main street and selling fabric that she and Matthew
screen printed by hand. It was fortunate they enjoyed screen printing together
because the demand for their materials began to exceed their wildest
expectations. They found they had to print most nights during the week and often
on a Saturday and Sunday. A lot of the material was used by the Islanders to
made dresses for the women and lava-lava’s for the men. The Islanders loved to
wear bright colours.
Matthew was so motivated
by the success of the shop that he wanted to expand the business to include
Islander arts and crafts. It was with this in mind he got the idea of buying a
plane. Matthew already had a pilot’s licence. With a light aircraft, he told
Tammy, they could sell material on the islands and buy arts and crafts directly
from the people. There was no need for a middle man. Not only did it seem like
good business but they could also get away to some of the most isolated and
scenic islands in the whole country.
This trip was their
first flight to Mekea. They left, after school had finished, from the airfield
on Marina Island
where Matthew kept his plane. Brubeck Island was too small for an airfield and Marina, larger and
flatter, was only a ferry boat ride away. In the late afternoon light the flight
out to the east, over the scattered islands and the blue waters of the strait,
was smooth and uneventful. The sun was setting behind them. The horizon was
saturated with translucent blues and pinks, the sea calm and the islands shone
like jewels in brilliant enamel. They could make out the hills of Mekea dimly in
the sea mist about twenty minutes into the flight. Matthew was on full SAR as
the strait was a designated remote area and he needed to be in constant radio
contact with flight service.
In the slanting rays of
the sun, the airfield on Mekea looked like a green scar through the hills. The
earth plunged down steeply over one hundred metres to the sea at the western
edge of the strip. Matthew had never landed on anything like it. He circled the
strip. The wind was from the east so his attention was focused on the western
edge where the plane would touch down. Over the sea, he turned onto the base leg
of the circuit and then onto final. A few seconds later, the plane passed over
the black sea rocks at the base of the precipitous cliffs and touched down. It
bumped along the grassy runway. To his right, Matthew could see a row of people
standing near an old, red tractor. Matthew braked and brought the plane to a
stop. Then, he revved the motor, stood on the right brake and swung the plane
around to taxi over to where the people were waiting. By the time Matthew shut
down the engine the sky had become noticeably darker. It was easy to forget how
quickly day turned to night in the tropics.
That was cutting it
fine! he muttered to himself.
Men, many of whom wore
traditional lava-lavas, and women in modest knee-length dresses started crowding
around the plane. The girls in the back waved eagerly to them. The girls said
the people who were in old work clothes had come from their gardens in the hills
while those who’d come up from the village were better dressed.
Most of the people were their relatives. They’d been towed up to the
strip in the trailer behind the tractor.
Daisy and Beryl were
happy to be home and, after introducing Matthew and Tammy to their families,
they vanished into the company of their friends and relatives. Matthew and Tammy
were put up in the guest house. This was a tin shed beside the beach in the
middle of the village and they were free to roam about wherever and whenever
they wanted. The people of Mekea were, without exception, friendly and
hospitable. Every mealtime, food was delivered to the guest house.
On Saturday, Tammy
suggested they walk around the island. She wanted to collect shells from the
beaches and Daisy and Beryl had told her the island could be comfortably
circuited in half a day.
When they got back about
midday, it was hot and the sun was beating down from a clear sky.
They lay down for a rest in the guest house and didn’t get up until late
afternoon. That night, it rained heavily and it wasn’t until about midnight when
they could hear, once again, the sound of the waves hissing over the sandy beach
just outside their door.
Matthew had arranged
with the Chairman, Mr Mauir, to leave about mid-morning on Sunday. Matthew said
he and Tammy were prepared to walk up to the airstrip but Mr. Mauir wouldn’t
hear of it. He was a small, wiry, fine boned man of fifty with white hair but
his authority on the island was unquestioned. He insisted that they be taken up
the hill in the trailer. Matthew explained that he wanted to get away early so
the sun would be behind the plane all the way back to
The tractor, towing its
trailer, arrived punctually outside the guesthouse door at half past ten. The
driver was Beryl’s brother and he’d already picked up the girls. The four of
them, sitting and bouncing around in the trailer, were slowly hauled up to the
strip. It took over half an hour. The road was very steep in places and, every
now and then through a gap in the trees, they could see the blue ocean way below
The weather was fine.
The rain during the night had left muddy pools scattered along the edge of the
strip which was tinged with the bright flush of fresh, green shoots. It was
obvious the grass hadn’t been mowed for a week or more.
When Tammy and the girls
were safely in their seats Matthew started the engine, radioed his flight plan
to Flight Service, and then, revving the engine, steered the plane towards the
western end of the strip. He stood on the right brake and turned the plane
towards the sun.
The airstrip on Mekea
was short, situated as it was between the peaks of the hills. In fact, it was a
severely truncated strip. The day before he flew out to the island Matthew
called into the office of Air Tropic to speak to Sam, one of the company’s two
commercial pilots. Sam had flown with the company in the
San Juan Strait
for over a year. He knew the local conditions well. Air Tropic had two
Bandorantes which were based on
Island and Sam flew
regularly to Mekea. In a serious and pragmatic tone of voice Sam told Matthew
the airstrip on Mekea was too short for the twin engine Bandorante when it was
fully loaded. In the rainy season, the flights often had to be cancelled because
the unsealed strip became waterlogged. He said the conditions there posed a real
danger to an unwary pilot. Matthew had these thoughts in his mind even before he
taxied out onto the strip.
The shortness of the
airfield was playing on his mind. He had two alternatives: a normal or short
field take-off. He didn’t want to risk the propeller sucking up stones but, even
with the risk of chipping the propeller, Matthew decided on the short field take
off. In the circumstances, he thought it was probably the safest thing to do.
He put down full flap,
stood on the brakes and pushed in the throttle. The engine roared creating a
powerful slip stream that shook the aircraft. The nose of the plane dipped.
Matthew pushed down on the brakes more firmly, holding the plane as steady as he
could until the engine was nearly at full power. Then, in one rapid motion, he
took his feet off the brakes. The plane lurched forward. As it quickly picked up
speed Matthew turned and waved to a few people who’d come to the strip to see
For the first two
hundred metres the take-off went as Matthew expected. Then, of a sudden, and
against all logic, he noticed that the speed wasn’t increasing! Unless the
plane’s speed reached the take-off threshold there wouldn’t be enough lift to
keep it in flight! Matthew, immediately tense with anticipation, listened for
something that would indicate a problem with the engine but its throaty roar was
loud and unfaltering. He looked again at the speed indicator. No change! The
needle was in the same position, just below the green arc. Was something wrong
with the indicator itself? He pushed hard on the throttle for maximum thrust but
it was in as far as it could go. Automatically, with the fingers of his right
hand, he tightened the screw that held it in position. He was at a loss to
explain what was happening! The strips eastern boundary was looming up fast in
front of them! His instincts urged
him to pull back on the control column but he knew such an action was premature.
The plane wouldn’t have enough lift! The speed was still below threshold. Should
he abort now? He was confused. Why wouldn’t the speed increase!? Beyond the end
of the strip Matthew could see nothing except blue sky! With a sick feeling in
the pit of his stomach he realised it was too late to abort! He had no choice!
He had to lift off! Everything in his training told him the needle should be
creeping into the green line on the dial. But it wasn’t happening! There had to
be some calibration error! But what was causing it? Nothing but blue sky ahead!
For a moment longer he held the control column forward to keep the nose of the
plane down. With the authority of experience, Matthew pulled back sharply to
lift the wheels off the ground. The plane trembled like a frail bird and rose a
few metres. Then, it sank back onto the runway! The dial was right! The plane
wasn’t at take-off speed! Nearly all
the strip was behind them now! A silver flash momentarily distracted him. Was it
a reflection from the perspex or engine cowling? He had no time to think about
it! Matthew held the nose down in a last effort to build up speed. The sky at
the end of the strip was a huge, pale blue dome over the engine cowling. There
was almost no strip left! The speed would not increase!! Abruptly, terrifyingly,
Matthew could see the individual stalks of the long grass at end of the runway!
Lift! Lift now!! Matthew jerked back on the control column and wished the plane
into the air! It leapt up over the last few metres of the grassy strip. He urged
it into the sky! In an instant he realised the futility of his hopes as he felt
the plane plunge downwards! He
waited, frozen with shock and fear, for the inevitable impact with the ground!
It seemed inconceivable that he was waiting for his own death! The moment
stretched on and on. He waited for the blackness to consume him! But, as if a
miracle had taken place, they were still in the air! The eastern slope was steep
and the plane was flying parallel to the immense, incline of earth! The nose of
the plane rose as it picked up speed.
The plane was flying in
a great bowl of air. They were in a shallow valley, lined on the far side by a
grey, stony ridge. Directly in front of them was a wall of jagged stone! They
were trapped unless the plane picked up more speed and started to climb! To try
to turn back would be fatal! Even a gentle turn now would wash off speed and
send the plane spiralling to the earth! To the right, over the grassy slopes of
the dugong’s back, Matthew could see a strip of blue ocean. But he couldn’t turn
in that direction! Nothing would save them except more speed and lift! A thick
barrier of trees lined the top of the hills ahead. They were flying towards the
rugged slope so quickly that the green mass of vegetation on top of the ridge
was resolving, moment by moment, into the shapes of individual trees! Matthew
could see the gnarled, twisted trunks! Then, suddenly, in front of him, a thick
web of meshed branches!
On the slopes, just
metres below them, what had been a curtain of grey rock a few seconds before was
now a series of jagged, threatening masses of stone embedded in the earth! He
was staring at his own grave! He mustn’t let the nose of the plane rise too
soon! A voice from deep inside him urged him not to pull back on the control
Dont turn. Keep
going, it said, Without speed there will be no lift.
Without lift they could
not hope to clear the valley rim! The plane bore down towards the line of trees!
The earth was rising up beneath them! Huge, rugged rocks scattered over the
slope seemed to leap up from the left and right! The interlaced trees ahead were
full of shadows! Their leaves and branches moved in the wind. The earth was
closing in, about to swallow the plane as if it was a metal coffin! Matthew felt
a cold chill run through him! They were barely level with the highest branches
of the trees. At that moment, an inexplicable and overwhelming sense of
confidence infused Matthew! Something in the way the plane was handling, a
certain sensation of buoyancy, gave him the assurance it would pass over the
trees! He began to pull back on the control column, gently, firmly, slowly,
fighting the instincts screaming along every nerve fibre for him to yank the
Do that and the plane
will stall, the anonymous voice inside his head kept telling him. Matthew
continued to ease back on the control column pulling it resolutely towards his
chest. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the foliage of the trees. It
was as if they were floating over the tree tops in a balloon! A wave of relief
flooded over him! They’d almost cleared the valley rim. The wide, blue sea to
the east loomed up ahead and below them. Suddenly, a ‘thump’ on the thin, metal
skin of the aircraft brought Matthew out of his trance! They’d hit something! He
could do nothing but wait for the world to explode! He expected the plane to
disintegrate! He imagined falling through the sky to his death! As he waited,
the plane kept soaring upwards. The engine didn’t falter! The sea stretched out
before them, broader and deeper blue in the distant horizons. The speed dial
showed eighty knots. His speed and attitude were correct for the optimum rate of
climb. The plane was behaving normally! Had they really survived!?
Matthew glanced sideways
and downwards. In the sea, just off the island and in a direct line with the
strip, a group of black rocks jutted above the blue water. Their dark forms
temporarily mesmerized him. The rocks seemed to embody the dangers of the past
harrowing moments and, in his mind, they morphed for an instant into the shapes
of sinister demons. Matthew felt a sudden dragging sensation in his stomach! If
the plane had crashed it would have dissolved in a ball of fire! Its fuel tanks
were over half full. The impact and the fire would have killed them all! But
they were alive! The whole episode had taken only a few seconds, and, for
the first time in what had seemed an eternity, Matthew chanced to believe they’d
He looked out the window
again. It seemed to him now that the world had coalesced from a jumble of visual
fragments into a recognisable whole. Just to the right was the dugongs head,
its dark, stony eye just below the summit. Strung out along its body, and
clinging to the ribbon of white beach, lay the village, its houses half hidden
by palm trees. In the hills he could see the light green stripe of airfield. The
slope at the end of the strip held his attention now. That had been their
downward path to almost certain death! He shook his head and glanced towards the
small, satellite islands of Doudi and Waiteer that were lit up like green jewels
in the morning sun. The plane was moving steadily upwards. They’d finally broken
free of the island.
reduced flap to zero degrees and trimmed the ailerons so he could let go of the
controls. His hands were sweaty and he wiped them on his shirt. He was aware of
himself breathing. He looked at the altimeter, eight hundred feet and climbing
rapidly! He started a slow turn to the right over the stretch of water between
Mekea and the other two islands. As the plane banked, Matthew looked down at the
wheel on his side of the aircraft. Wrapped around it, and trailing in the
slipstream, was a three metre length of liana vine! The vacuum created by the
propeller as it skimmed over the tree tops must have sucked up the vine from the
tallest tree! He’d come so close to killing everyone on board! The embarrassment
of explaining what had happened to Tammy and the girls began to colour his
thoughts. Matthew looked out the window again. He scrutinized the wheel and the
strut for any sign of damage. He tried the brakes and felt resistance. The brake
line was intact. There appeared to be no serious problem. In fact, no damage had
been done to anything except his pride! The vine had slapped harmlessly against
the fuselage as it coiled like a snake around the wheel. The comprehension that
he’d successfully negotiated the crisis surged through him as a violent thrill!
he said quietly to himself.
Matthew climbed to
cruising height and set the plane on a course of 210 degrees for Marina Island.
When that was done he began, methodically, reviewing his actions before and
during the take-off. He remembered doing all his checks. He’d even looked in the
engine for wasps’ nests. (He’d got into the habit of looking for them because
the plane was always parked out in the open). The tyres looked intact. The edges
of the propeller blades were smooth and unchipped. And, anyway, the plane was
now performing normally. There was no doubt his decision to do a short field
take-off saved their lives. A normal ground run wouldn’t have given the plane
the lift to clear the hills. He silently congratulated himself that he’d made
the conscious choice to be cautious. That decision had meant the difference
between life and death.
As Matthew thought about
the take off, he became more settled on the cause for the sluggish ground run of
the plane. He remembered the sound of the rain on the tin roof of the guest
house. It had become so loud at times they couldn’t hear the sea surging in over
the beach a few metres away. Matthew recalled the silver flash as they were
half-way along the strip. That was probably a shallow pool of water! And the
grass was long. The airstrip hadn’t been mowed because the ground was too soft
for the tractor. The combination of soft soil and long grass dramatically slowed
the ground run of the plane! He turned to Tammy and told her what he thought had
gone wrong. He hadn’t been negligent, he said. The conditions had tricked him.
After Matthew had spoken
to Tammy and explained what he thought had been the problem with the take-off,
he didn’t speak again for a long time. The
of Mekea slowly
disappeared behind them as the plane continued in a south-westerly direction. In
front of them, the deep, blue sea was dotted with islands as green as emeralds,
each one surrounded by a turquoise halo. It was a stunningly beautiful sight!
Matthew’s senses were heightened by the tension of knowing that all four of them
were lucky to be alive. He pictured their broken bodies floating in the sea or
bleeding on the black rocks that ringed the island or tangled in the branches of
the trees on that wild and stony ridge. He made some minor adjustments to the
trim. The plane’s altitude remained constant without any effort. He had plenty
of time to think. The steady beat of the engine assumed the dynamics of the
blood pulsing through his body. This could have been his last day on earth. If
it had, he thought, it would have been good to die on an exotic island at the
edge of the world. He was surprised by the sense of fatalism in his musings
about his own mortality. The events of the last hour seemed to resonate inside
him as some profound, personal truth. What was it about the islands that
attracted him so much that he was willing to risk his life flying out to them?
From the air their beauty was entrancing and the remoteness, the isolation, of
those tiny fragments of land fascinated him. They were little worlds, each one
unique and full of mystery, floating in the infinity of the ocean. Matthew
recognised that he was looking at them with a vaguely proprietorial feeling as
if he understood the islands connected him in some way with the past; to the
memory and history of his mother’s family. The sight of the islands brought to
the surface of his mind a nostalgia for the old home and the land of his
childhood. His grandmother’s property had been like an island to him when he was
young. As a child, he always thought of that place as separate and removed from
everything else. There, safe and protected on his little piece of paradise, the
rest of the world didn’t matter. It lay far beyond the horizons of the paddocks
like a faraway country.
By the time Matthew was
in third year at university he was coping fairly easily with the work. Living in
the caravan during the week and going home of a week-end was a good balance for
him. He still didn’t make close friends and he was competitive enough to want to
do better than others in his course. He was less tense about trying to do well
but he hadn’t lost his fear of failure. The idea of flunking university, though,
didn’t terrify him as much as the possibility of a poor report had tortured him
in high school. Matthew didn’t want Luke to go through the same experience and
he tried to do what he could to make life easier for his little brother.
When Luke was only about
six years old Matthew started encouraging him to learn general knowledge.
Matthew regularly quizzed him on all sorts of topics from geography to
astronomy. He often insisted Luke write the answers to his questions on a clean
sheet of paper then Matthew would correct his answers with a red pen as if Luke
was a student who’d just completed a serious exam. Luke liked the challenges
Matthew gave him. In a couple of years Matthew had a stock of nearly a thousand
questions on a multitude of topics that he could ask Luke. Luke was quick to
learn and he had a good memory. He rarely forgot anything. He liked to show off
to his big brother. Matthew was immensely pleased to see his self-confidence
One day Matthew
suggested to his mother that Luke should learn music. Mini was half-hearted
about it but Matthew insisted. He didn’t want Luke to grow up like him with no
musical ability. He remembered how capable his parents had been on the piano and
the violin. It made Matthew feel as though he’d missed out on something special.
Luke, he said, should have the chance to play an instrument.
When Stuart and Mini
were courting they often played music together in the lounge room of the old
home. Their shared love of music continued for years after they married. Matthew
remembered his mother at the piano singing, his father absorbed in the graceful
arrogance of the violin. He remembered, too, how he’d felt shut out, extraneous
to their happiness. Music seemed like some beautiful, sacred task that bound
them in an unnegotiable harmony of two. Matthew always wanted the music to stop.
He wanted to run away from it. It was an invisible power that took his parents
away from him. Once, when he was six years old, he became so upset with his
parents as they played music together that he angrily packed his school bag with
a few pieces of fruit and left home to wander along the creek bank. He thought
of running away forever! Even down beside the creek, the sound of the music
followed him like a ghost. Now, his attitude was very different. He saw music as
understand why his mother was so reluctant to find a music teacher for Luke.
Surely she held fond memories from the years when she and Stuart played music
together. Did the memory of the unpleasantness in the church still colour her
thoughts? Though he didn’t know all the details Matthew understood some people
in the church had grown jealous of them. Musically, both his parents were
multi-talented. The family photo-album was full of photographs taken at church
functions. Stuart and Mini stood out as especially good looking. They were a
handsome couple. It wasn’t difficult to imagine the jealousy that enveloped
them. Matthew didn’t know what motivated his mother. He didn’t care. He thought
Luke deserved a chance to learn music. It wasn’t his place to go looking for a
music teacher. He wouldn’t be paying the fees. All he could do was try to
persuade his mother. Mini finally gave in to him.
Alright, if I come
across someone who teaches music I’ll ask about it. If I don’t meet anyone then
that’s it, she said, with a note of exasperation in her voice.
Less than a week later,
when Mini was downtown shopping for groceries, she met Shirley, an old school
friend. She hadn’t seen the woman for years. Shirley was a piano teacher and
Mini remembered her promise. Shirley said she had a vacancy and that Luke could
start piano lessons that Saturday.
Luke was ten years old
when he began learning to play the piano. He had a lesson at Shirley’s place
every Saturday during the school term. Mini was glad that Matthew was usually
home on a week-end and could take him. Matthew would drive Luke over to
Shirley’s house on the other side of town and wait outside in the car until he
finished his lesson.
At first Matthew was
excited by Luke’s attempts at scales and simple tunes resurrected from a bygone
era but, gradually, he couldn’t overcome a sinking feeling in his stomach as he
drove his little brother to another lesson. He got into the habit, as he waited
in the car, of turning on the radio to drown out the sad, dreary tinkle of the
piano keys. On occasions, he’d go for a drive rather than sit outside the house
waiting. He wondered if he’d done the right thing in pursuing music lessons for
Luke. Perhaps his mother had been right all along. After nearly a year of piano
lessons Luke gave up. Matthew consoled himself with the thought that at least
he’d given his brother the opportunity to learn.
About the time he gave
up music lessons Luke became a fan of a rock group called ‘Zrojin’. Two men, Ben
and Billy, and two women, Anna and Amber, formed one of the most popular rock
groups of the time. Like so many other boys he was infatuated with Anna and
Amber. But Luke was also inspired by the story of how the group had come
together. Ben and Billy became role models for him. Luke began to play the piano
again. Soon he was playing tracks from the group’s albums. He had no written
music. He played everything by ear. Matthew was astounded! Luke’s piano playing
was so good the music sounded as vibrant as that on the records! Luke was
excited, too, because he could play like his heroes. Over the following months
Luke played the piano so much that, for hours at a time, the little house
literally shook with a storm of tuneful noise!
Matthew was enthralled
by his little brother’s talent. He’d drive home from Thorntonville of a Friday
evening wondering what new pieces Luke had learnt. Before he’d even parked the
car on the back lawn Luke would be beside the driver’s door impatient to tell
Matthew about his music. Every week, for many months, Luke mastered at least one
new tune. In Matthew’s happiness for Luke there was also a sense of relief and
Late one afternoon, when
Luke was just a toddler, Matthew was playing with his toys on the front path
near the concrete front steps of the old home. Luke was being mischievous by
running up beside Matthew and kicking over the toys. It was getting dark and
Matthew wanted to finish his game. He got angry and picked Luke up. He held him
around the middle with both arms and started to walk up the steps. He tripped
and fell. Luke’s little face was smashed into the concrete! His mouth began to
bleed. He howled in pain. Matthew didn’t know what to do! He ran inside and met
his mother and father rushing in the opposite direction. Mini asked him what had
happened. He told her he’d fallen up the stairs with Luke in his arms. Stuart
held Luke and tried to see where the blood was coming from. They looked for
Luke’s teeth but couldn’t find them anywhere. Stuart said he thought Luke’s baby
teeth had been knocked into his gums. Possessed by anger and panic Mini came up
to Matthew in the lounge-room and, with one sweep of her arm, knocked him flying
under the piano stool.
Stuart rang the dentist,
Bill Bundall, who was a friend of the family. He told them they were probably
correct in thinking that Luke’s baby teeth were still in his gums. He said for
them to go to his surgery and he’d meet them there. It was after working hours
but Bill said he didn’t mind. Mini and Stuart drove into town with Luke
immediately. Matthew stayed at home with his grandmother. When his parents got
home they were calmer. Luke was still whimpering and miserable. A dental x-ray
confirmed Luke’s baby teeth had indeed been driven up into their sockets. He
said there was a chance the adult teeth would be damaged. There was nothing he
could do about it. Only time would tell.
When Luke got his adult
teeth Mini and Stuart’s worse fears were realised. The incisors and eye teeth
were stained with yellow and the surfaces, chipped and broken. Whenever Matthew
looked at them he felt a pang of remorse for what he’d done. They reminded him
of his guilt. As Luke grew older Matthew often noticed the self-conscious way he
restrained his smile. A searing stab of guilt would wound him again. In giving
Luke the chance to play the piano Matthew felt as though he’d gone some way to
compensate him for the suffering he’d caused.