Mish Damstra

Singing

A plait hangs down her right shoulder, the hair no longer as coarse or curly as in previous years. It’s the colour of storm clouds threatening rain. Outside, the aloe garden is tweeting with sugarbirds dipping for supper. Inside, the notes of a Françoise Hardy song. Kathleen sits at her imbuia writing desk, teacup in saucer, bathed in buttery ‘golden years’ light. She opens the notebook and writes.

2025, February 21
I did it. I got on the bike behind Garth. Left Brian wincing on gout knees to the kitchen in search of a snack, and Sheldon gaping at his mother about to ride pillion on his work buddy’s Harley Davidson.

I was crisp with Garth – no speed, no testosterone pranks. Just a sedate putter round three blocks please, and take it especially slow passed big-mouth Martha’s place. The world must know I squeezed in behind a 24-year-old in chains, a buckle-bedecked leather jacket, and a ponytail.

I bossed at him to take the jacket off – a dragon tattoo belches fire onto his biceps. But he said No, it’s not cool.

Kathleen lifts her pen and cocks an ear to the music, her eyes seeing back into decades past.

…She’s so beautiful, Françoise Hardy. So exciting. I sing ‘if we are only friends why do you hold me all night through?’ I go to the player, lift the record off, turn it over. I’m singing ‘only you can do it’ to the black circle with the smaller pink and white circle in the middle when my brother and mom walk in. My brother says, Ag that sounds terrible. My mom says, You’re singing flat. I say, What does flat mean? Mom says, It’s when you’re not hitting the right note.

My brother fetches his guitar, I put Françoise Hardy back in her cover and leave the room. ‘No one can break this little heart of yours’ was on the first side.
2025, February 22
Garth came in and wanted to know whether I’d like another ride today. He suggested we rev around the block twice and stop for a kiss outside big-mouth Martha’s cottage. I said I’m getting my kicks with Brian and Françoise Hardy today, so would he please go back to Sheldon in the kitchen. If they make tea they can bring Brian and me a cup. Garth said How the knees today, Brian? And Brian said Strong enough to kick Martha up her fat backside and you back into the kitchen.

I turned the volume up with my remote and Françoise now tells me ‘a lifetime comes and goes.’ Brian has fallen asleep over his family tree file, and I love that we sit like this, two people with the comfort of memories.

…I lift the saucer out of the hot, soapy water and sing to the foam dripping off the bottom edge, putting everything into the mockery of what is, essentially, mom’s domain. I hit a high note and shiver at my own daring. I laugh and plunge into another operatic lift-off that sends my mother and brother into eyeball-rolling mode. But they’re smiling. Big brother opens the fridge for milk; I open my throat for the best blast I can summon. Mom’s lips are pushed together, holding in her smile. Actually, she says, that’s not bad. So I hit her with another bit of acrobatic vocal clowning, and she’s laughing and I’m putting a cup next to the saucer on the draining board. At sixteen I’m quite the comic.
2025, February 28
Guess who rang the doorbell ten minutes ago? Big-mouth Martha. Her bullmastiff cheeks quivered with disapproval. The pouches under her eyes are dotted with brown, pinhead bumps. I looked at them and sighed.

That boy, she said (she emphasized ‘boy’), who rides the big bike, is he from around here? Because, if he is, I want him to know we don’t behave like he does in this place. We’ve got standards. Morals.

Tell you what Martha, said Brian (he hobbled from the kitchen and stood beside me), I’ll send Garth over to your place. He can only talk if he’s biking and he’d be happy to offer you a ride.

We stepped back in unison and I closed the door.

To me Brian said, Better warn Garth to put extra air in the back tyre – she’ll have him riding on the rim.
Martha stands shocked immobile on their stoep for a good two minutes. Kathleen hears the gate being swung closed with unnecessary force. The metal vibrates in the air.

Then she hears birds. So many, many birds. Kathleen reaches for her teacup, sips, lifts the remote control, aims it at the micro hi-fi and ‘only you can do it, ah-ah ah-ah’ settles around the room and the buttery ‘golden years’ light.

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