Still Life in Forward Motion: A Rock Memoir – #2 Precious Cargo

Precious Cargo.

The day I met King was a grey one. The flight from Australia was longer than either I or my Mother who insisted on chaperoning me had imagined. My fourteen journeys around the sun hadn’t yet granted me the right to travel alone. While the outer embarrassed teen didn’t want his Mother anywhere near him, the scared inner child was glad she was there. A man who I’d later learn was named Dayton, was our escort to the big white mansion on top of the hill in the smaller of the two parallel pair of cities. We were escorted to a nondescript motel with a french name to make it sound classy. The advertisement exclaiming the “Color TV” and the “Pool” said otherwise. Mum and I had been in countless places like this before on our trips between Newcastle and Melbourne via flea-bitten roadside dumps and put-upon family members.

One of these put-upon family pit stops housed one of the somewhat hidden members of my band, Natalya. You might know her as the lyricist for our french-language songs, and some of our punkier, more artistic “indie” songs. The kind that college radio and Triple J were willing to play if we’d send the singles to them with brown dust-jackets that didn’t have our names on them, or pseudonyms. They’d always ditch the songs as soon as it was revealed that we’d made them. Usually we’d put Lucy Frost on lead and me on backing vocals, and they would think they’d be listening to a new band. Eventually, Lucy became popular in her own right, so we started living out the dream of a band with more than one lead vocalist. It makes it more dynamic, and gives us a bigger range of songs we can record. It’s very limiting to just have one lead and have to mould the playlist to showcase just one person’s talents. Thanks to this range, we were able to be played on both commercial and independent radio. The great thing about indie radio – no payola. The downside – you had to be effortlessly cool, and “authentic”. But, the kind of “authentic” that was cool. Thus, very few of us that got picked for the hottest one hundred were ever authentically cool. That person was King. Ironically, JJJ refused to play King, despite him sticking it to the man (the record label I was then contracted to) and being fiercely independent. Ah, the irony of youth culture, where image is everything, and substance is nothing.

None of that would be possible without Natalya. The redheaded middle child of my Mother’s cousin. Who, despite living in the middle of nowhere, had her finger on the pulse of what was current, and cool. But, before she was cut down on the cusp of success, she was just my cousin. The coolest girl I had ever met. I was just a bratty kid, but until I met King, she was the biggest star I’d ever met. Even before I met her, she was talked about breathlessly as if she were a big name. And she was. The moment she was born, she’d ousted her Aunt as the Golden Child. The position which the Aunt had held since she was born. The matriarch of their family (my Great-Aunt), really only had enough room in her heart for one person, and that person was my Cousin, her one and only Grandchild. There’s a story that epitomises this. One day, we were at the farmstead, which by the way, had an oasis of a garden, and all the family was there. So many of us, that not all of us got seats. My Mother, my sister, and I were all seated on the day bed, not the actual kitchen table. There were Uncles and Cousins, and well, everybody. It was around lunchtime, and my cousin Natalya mentioned that she was hungry. Well, my Great-Aunt stopped what she was doing and started cooking baby potatoes. Gosh, I was so hungry myself that when those baby potatoes were served for Natalya, I said to my Mum, I’d like some potatoes too. My cousin offered to share, which now that I think of it sounds like I cornered her into it. Well, my going deaf Great-Aunt heard that remark and declared that there were “only enough potatoes for Natalya.” Well, my stomach was very disappointed, but poor Natalya was mortified. It was a moment, but then the family moved on. This was not uncharacteristic for my Great-Aunt. Everyone knew that she played favourites. While she would cook a steak dinner for my father, she felt that my Mum should be the one to cook for my sister and I. So, a visit to their house generally meant sandwiches prepared by my Mother while watching my father eat the aforementioned steak dinner. Just so you know, that steak dinner was not a euphemism.

The best part of being at my Great-Aunt’s place was seeing Natalya, that’s why we’d get excited every time we visited. Usually she wouldn’t be able to see us as soon as we arrived, because she always had homework that needed finishing before she could see us. But, when we finally did get to see her, we’d be in her room, singing into hairbrushes to The Bangles and Bananarama, looking at all the posters of Magdalene. Trying to figure out what her secret middle name was. It was Michaela – we only found that out after her death. I thought it was beautiful, nothing to be embarrassed of (or “barra” as she used to shorten it to). Or talking about what we wanted to do in the future.

Being a couple of years older, she was always ahead of me. A little budding Dorothy Parker. We used to write back and forth. Sometimes we’d send song lyrics, or stories we wrote. I once sent her the survival story I had to write for English Class that got my parents called. Everyone wrote about being stranded on a desert island, which was my first thought too, but I decided to go for something different. A story about sexual assault of a Nun by a Priest and her eventual escape. I wrote this at thirteen from my imagination, not from the forthcoming investigation into the Vatican that would prove my fictional story right. But, I guess they thought it was a cry for help. It wasn’t. I was never sexually abused. Well, not until later. But, at thirteen, that was something for me to not look forward to.

We had our own little survival story. I was too young to realise what was going on. But, we were walking around the farm, Natalya, my sister (Leah), and I. We were in a large empty field, near the road, but far from either her parents house, or her Grandparent’s house. Still on the property. My sister noticed a car driving slowly by. There was something a bit menacing about it. The driver was checking us out. We slowed down, and moved away from the road. The driver turned around and drove back towards us. My sister or Natalya (I forget who) cried out run! And, we all ran back towards the house as hard and fast as we could. We were all just kids. Ripe for the picking. I had no idea then, but I knew something was up. There was something weird in the air. Thinking back, it’s more scary than it was to me at the time.

When we were kids, I told her I wanted to be a hairdresser when I got older. She said I’d be on my feet all day. That’s the kind of thing we’d talk about on those walks. I’d try and pretend that I knew the music she was talking about and act cool. Pretend that my favourite artist wasn’t Tiffany. She saw straight through me. She always wanted to be a writer. My goodness, she was talented. I’ll never have as much talent as she had. No wonder my parents used to call her, precious cargo. She was after all the beloved only child and only grandchild, so the countless invitations my sister and I sent her were always turned down. What if something happened to her? Well. Something did happen to her. She went to a University surrounded by power lines, and somehow she, and a bunch of other students who also went to the same university got cancer. I didn’t hear from her one Christmas. Which I remember thinking was strange, but I hoped that a letter was coming soon. We’d been writing since I was seven, which was only eleven years, thinking back, but they were eleven important years. Next thing I heard, she was being flown by helicopter from her country town to a hospital in Sydney. We always wanted to meet in Sydney. Not under these circumstances. We weren’t allowed to see her in hospital. We just waited out in the waiting room. My Grandmother, Mother, Sister, and I. Plus, there was a hanger on. Josephine, who liked to call herself the “countess”, she was the mentally ill hippy step-second cousin of ours. She was the kind of person who’d barge in and place flowers around Natalya’s hair. Natalya’s Mother was in too much of a state to say anything, but she hated Josephine with every cell of her body. We didn’t know it at the time. We just thought that we, who knew Natalya, weren’t being let in. But, this girl who had never met her was. She just couldn’t read the cues.

We went back up to Newcastle, but left a card, which I didn’t know what to write in. Just, “we always wanted to meet in Sydney. Get well soon.” I didn’t realise that she was no longer for this world. Her mother read our card to her. She asked to see a priest. No matter how far a catholic might stray, they always return to the fold. Her last rites were read. The next day, we were told to come quickly. Leah and I kept missing the train. By the time we got there, she’d already gone. When we saw her, she was blue.

I’ve never stopped missing her.

She really was precious cargo.

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