It’s a Sunday night and I’m walking back towards Lygon Street after seeing a friend’s show at La Mama.
There’s a double-bass player busking, still playing from when I’d been heading towards the theatre several hours earlier.
What is he playing?
Camille Saint-Saëns The Swan.
It is sometimes a terrible thing that sound travels. The song floats after me as I walk towards the Melbourne Uni tram stop.
My grandfather died when I was 15. ‘A good and gentle man’ is written on his headstone.
He was old Labor and taught at the Teachers’ College behind UTS. He had four girls with his wife Jean – Jane, Susan, my mum Anne, and Megan.
His name was Robert Gordon Martin. Bob.
He was one of those men who stopped aging at 50, with the same narrow face, long nose and combed-back hair at 90. There was always a plate of loose change on his bedside table that would be halved between my sister and I when the coins reached its lip. He ate half a paw-paw every morning for breakfast and it smelt disgusting.
I loved him.
The last time I saw him, he’d been moved to the Sacred Heart Hospice in Darlinghurst. The staff had brought his bed into the family room so we could all fit in with my cello. All his daughters were there. I played every sheet of music that I had with me. When the sheets ran out I continued to play the one piece I knew from memory; Saint-Saëns The Swan. Again and again, like a skipping record. Everyone was crying. I put my cello down and went over to his bed and he whispered ‘You’re a good girl’ in my ear.
I played at his funeral with my cello teacher Clara. A Vivaldi duet. You can still see the stains on my cello from where my tears corroded the varnish. A topography of grief.
It is rare for me to hear The Swan playing on the radio, or on a street in early spring, but if I do I have to walk away.
That music – the cello itself – is too closely knotted with his death to be untied. My ability to play has shut itself off, like a valve in my heart has gently, determinedly, refused to let blood in again. It is no great loss, I do not pretend brilliance – I did not have the skill or natural flair. But I did love to play. There were some rare moments, particularly playing Bach’s Prelude, where it felt like the wood had fused onto my sternum, or the wood and bone had vanished altogether and I was inside the sound and the sound was inside me.
It makes sense to me that we lose parts of ourselves when those we love die. The loss must stamp itself in and if it cannot do it to our bodies then it settles for the mind. We stop playing, or singing, out of respect for the person no longer with us (and because we have tied the euphoria of creating to our love for them).
Part of I sat and waited but you were gone too long examines this relationship between grief and music. The character Ellen is a songwriter but she can no longer sing for other people. The depth which music is embedded in her love for her Mum, who is now gone, is too great. The play considers the circumstances necessary for her to allow herself to sing again – for how we might extricate a sense of betrayal from our ability to create.