Hubble rolls in Earth’s deep shadow. Its gossamer tiles cool taut. As one city after another sets up its canopy of light, the high sentinel reaps its wings’ brief harvest of sun: a night half an hour long, no sleep, all dreamlike recollection of light millennia old, and silence.
Around the restaurant the bell’s waves wash over ears not trained to hear them and mix into the din of the dinner rush.
Three quarters of their range stick in the chef’s fat fist. The rest shoot forth past the couples book-ending down ‘Lovers’ Lane’, out into the main dining space to be tossed in the turbulence of knives striking plates and high shrieks meant as laughter.
A part of the sound arrives in the jaw of a waitress and tightens her smile round the specials.
He touches that bell one more time I’ll shove it so far up his arse...
Each worker accepts their share of alarm and lets the rest fall out the door.
...he’ll have to wink to ring it. ‘And finally, the fish of the day is whole roast Baby Snapper, served with crumbed broccoli, citrus vinagrette and petit herb salad.’
‘Thank you, miss...?’
‘Penelope, I’m Edgar and this is Nancy and Frank. May I call you Penny, Penelope?’ Stay. You’re so beautiful, so bright. Distract them. Take their eyes off me.
‘If you like, Eddie.’
‘Is that what your friends call you?’
‘Yes, Edgar.’ No, they call me Scorpio.
‘You seem so intelligent. What do you do aside from this? I mean, surely this is just to pay the bills. Let me guess, you’re an actress.’
Frank inhales deeply, ‘Let the girl get on with her job, Ed.’
Cheers, Frank. Smile, Pen. ‘I’ll check back with you folks in a minute.’
‘Thank you so much. Ahh, I do miss the restaurant culture in Melbourne, Frank.’ The intimate epithet stiffens his father’s shoulders flat. ‘The staff are so much more…present, than in Vienna.’ And his son cringes in his gin, thinking, God, is this how I talk now?
‘Well, you should come home more often, Edgar. This,’ his mother waves the slender wands of her fingers at the Arts Centre spiring into the night above, ‘Is your church. Where you were baptised. Remember that first recital Frank?’
‘Not as grand as the cathedrals of Europe,’ her husband grumbles into the table. ‘I s’pose if you were a cricketer you’d play for England. Bloody brain-drain’s what’s killing this country. Don’t worry. I get it. Bigger market, more prestige, more pay. But it’s like you’re only respected here once you’ve left.’
But his son is listening to a tuxedoed admirer calling him maestro and phrasing as much of his praise as he can in the language of tonight’s performance. ‘Your Scarpia is mag-ni-fi-co, magnifico! It’s true that Puccini’s libretto is, well, not his best, but chi musica, chi profundo the…’ he fondles for the word in the air before his pursed up face.
‘Emotion?’ Edgar offers.
‘Si, si, maestro, la e-mo-ti-on!’
‘Well thank you…’
The fevered punter echoes Edgar’s stance from an hour before, fists raised to the heavens, and translates Scarpia’s words, ‘Tosca, you make me forget God!’
‘That’s it, but I mustn’t forget to order. Enjoy your evening.’
Nancy takes Edgar’s hand and watches the fan flutter and wave in deferential circles down the aisle. ‘Do you ever get sick of it?’
‘He looks like he just found something under his shoe.’
‘Get a better class of toady in Vienna, do you?’
Well at least they know what they’re talking about, Dad. Their praise means something. ‘I feel at home wherever there is music, Franklin.’ It’s just so difficult to hear amid voices so tinny and rough.
Nancy’s titter tinkles between the bright wine glasses.
Terra Australis is a hole burning in the ocean. Along the embering edges of its eastern shore the telescope two-steps southwards toward Melbourne, arms wide, gaze aloft in a long, slow pirouette, its heavy eye fixed on a single point in the pause between two stars.
‘What’s with you lot tonight? Oh, that’s right. You’re always useless.’
‘Table number, Chef?’
‘It’s on the bloody docket.’
‘The one in your hand?’
‘It’s on the spike now, Pen, innit?’
Scorpio, pronounced Penny, moves down Lovers’ Lane in and out of the bubbles of talk couples make to insulate themselves from the babble of strangers. Some are thin and pop at the slightest distraction. Others are planets of alien atmosphere through which a waiter’s hands, like the unseen hand of God, lay and clear manna.
... or chords strung out along a staff, Scorpio thinks. Each couple’s got a low and a high note. I’m walking up and down a melody. ‘Here we are guys,’ Penny chirps. ‘Who’s having the gnocchi?’
‘That’s me,’ delights the tall blonde dripping scarves and eye shadow.
‘That makes you the steak?’
‘Meat for the lion,’ the tanned man with bursting sleeves offers sheepishly.
‘Sorry, we’re talking astrology. He’s Leo.’
‘And I’m Celeste.’
‘I bet you’re Scorpio.’
‘Ha. Sorry, have you seen me…’
‘Your sign. Very powerful,’ Celeste confides in her date. ‘Also represented by the eagle and the phoenix.’ And to Penny again, ‘It means you risk destruction for the sake of the highest spiritual rewards.’
‘Well, I…,’ This has got to be the first date. ‘…Thanks Celeste.’ Out of tune. Come back when the wine kicks in. ‘You guys enjoy your meal and I’ll get on with my spiritual odyssey.’
His half-full glass of water clunks against her half-empty pinot noir. The hum envelops their kiss. It fades and he’s left arched over the table.
‘Waitress, hi, we’ve finished.’
Now hollow scrapes of cutlery on ceramic load into the pause.
Scorpio’s recording. You’re not talking, but I can hear you. She’s tapping her nail down around A and you’re banging with both fists five octaves up.
Penny does her job, ‘Dessert list?’
‘No,’ the girl says too quickly.
‘Oh. No. Thanks.’
‘You can have one if you want, Theo.’
‘How ‘bout we share?’
Laura sighs a thin smile, ‘Fine.’
Ouch. Walk away, Scorp. ‘I’ll bring it back in a second.’
‘Take her for instance, Franklin.’
Frank follows his son’s gaze across the lamp-lit and white-clothed table tops Scorpio smoothly articulates with her slender limbs.
‘Like the look of that one, do ya? What do ya reckon she is?’
‘She is all music.’
‘Touch of the tar?’
‘The best waiters, all over the world, are like her. They are dancers. See how she humbles herself to the rhythmic pulse of the dinner rush. Turning this way and that, all motion quick and precise, made elegant by the press of time. See how she listens to the particular pitch and timbre of each person she meets and waits to play the proper note to make harmonious this room’s cacophony of moods.’ His posture remains fixed upon her as he turns his eyes back to his father and says, ‘I need not have left to find it, that grace. But until I did I couldn’t tell what I was missing.’
‘Now, how are our meals going, folks? Is the lion purring?’
Yum-yum-yum. ‘Yum,’ chews Steve. Yum-yum-yum.
‘It’s great, Penny. Thank you so much. So what was I saying? Oh, ok. So I never used to believe in astrology either. But then I thought about it.’ Really, Celeste? You just met this guy. Screw it. Summer Solstice. Be bold. ‘I thought, if, at the moment you were born, you could draw a line from that square foot you were born on up into space, it would string so many forces together, like so many planets and stars, how could they not have an effect on us?’ Oh God, he’s stopped chewing. ‘I mean, the gravity of that moment is intense, you know, literally.’
The two hemispheres of Hubble’s brain sit either side of its long eye. The East connects it to its sibling satellites. Tells them what it sees. Receives from them the steps for each new dance written by its fathers in Maryland.
The West looks out. It dons the coloured veils that stretch its vision out across the spectrum to infrared and ultraviolet, sifting light from deepest night. It is this that looks into the darkness that down Hubble’s drum of mirrors splits.
This mind made only for the looking glass is deaf. It does not hear the long slow wave, swelling thirty octaves broad from that deep distance. East and West can only agree to record and transmit their impossible telemetry: three and one third minutes staring at a hole in heaven, transfixed in static orbit over Melbourne.
Tyson sweats over the kitchen bin, mouthing Bom, bom, ba-lom-bom.
Bom, bom, ba-lom-bom. Scrape off the-dishes. Knives, forks and-dishes.
At his shoulder Penny sees him bopping and mocks a baritone, ‘Ain’t
no big thing, to wait for the bell to ring.’
‘Is that what I’ve got in my head?’
‘Ain’t no big thing, Ty.’
Together they sing, ‘The toll of the bell.’
‘Did you put it in there? I love Roxy Music.’
She shakes her head and stacks the plates in time to the hidden 4/4 tempo, singing, ‘Aggravated – spare for days.’
‘I stroll downtown back to table eight.’
‘Ha-ha. Jump up bubble up – what’s in store?’
‘Love is the drug and they need to score.’
‘Tyson, Penny, get out of my fuckin kitchen,’ Chef spits from inside the smoke and fizzle of the stoves, thinking, Pan sear the-Dory. John to help-Pastry. Long spoon for-tasting. Three ta-bles-waiting...
‘What are you crapping on about?’
‘What I have always been crapping on about, Frank, yet you
continue to choose not to listen. On stage, it’s not the audience I’m
singing for. To me they’re only there to pay to keep the power on. I
don’t want all the acclaim. It’s only purpose is to let me be up there
surrounded by the best musicians in the world, in the rooms built by
the best minds in history to concentrate all that beauty into as small a
space as possible, the spot I get to stand on. You have no idea what it
means to be inside of that …’ he reaches for the word from above his
head and finds it, ‘rhapsody! To vibrate with it and to add to it with
what comes from inside of your own guts.’ He turns from his father to
look out the window at the city, rapping his knuckles on the table, ta
ta ta-ra-ta, ta ta ta-ra-ta. ‘So when I see someone who has it, who
carries it around with them, it makes me hopeful.’
‘Of what, dear?’ wonders his frightened mother.
‘Whether I might stop travelling city to city for a few mere moments of
it. Whether I might find more of it in the real world, in another
person. Whether I might find a home.’
‘Have another drink, mate.’
Oh oh, catch that buzz.
‘Yeah...’ Play along, Steve. ‘Yeah, I see what you mean.’ She’s weird but she’s not dumb. And those tits. Are they real? ‘But I don’t get how that makes you one way or another. You know, personally.’
Yay! ‘Ok, so the alignment of these massive planetary bodies and their gravitational pull acts on us at a quantum level. See, I told you this was scientific. At that level it coll.. what is it, it collapses the probability that our genes will activate one way or another.’
Love is the drug that I’m thinking of.
‘I got the peach sorbet cos I thought we were sharing, Laura. You love peaches.’
‘Ok, thanks, Theo, but I don’t want any. You finish it.’
Come on, last bite. Finally, she relaxes and feels in her mind for her bag, he’s put the spoon down.
‘Remember that Grace Jones concert we went to? We’d only been going out a few weeks and I scored the tickets from Dave at the last minute.’
In her mind she sighs and retracts her hand from the bag, ‘Yeah?’
‘Remember the encore she did, that version of Love is the Drug?’
‘That has to be the best concert sing along I’ve ever been in. I mean, the Palais was only half full and remember she didn’t come out for so long because she was pissed off she hadn’t sold the place out, but then she made us feel like we were a part of something, something special. Remember? She got us singing ‘oh-ho, oh-ho’ for what seemed like ages – ‘oh-ho, oh-ho’ – and then she started singing over the top of us, goading us on, telling us, ‘Melbourne, you’re beautiful’. ‘Oh-ho, oh-ho.’ And the band’s really in it’s groove and it’s like this is where it’s at. This is the best place on the planet to be right now. This is the centre of the universe.’
Oh-oh. Can’t you see? Love is the drug for me.
‘So, when you think about it, Steve, evolution is driven by astrology. Mutations are created by the stars. We’re made in the image of god after all.’ Yes, it’s never made so much sense to me. It’s because he’s listening to me and understands me. He really understands me.
Over the table he’s thinking, They are real. They’re really that big and round and...gravitational. She’s right. It’s all about gravity. I think she could be the one. ‘Yeah, Celeste. Yeah. I think know exactly what you mean.’
OOOOOOOOOHHHHH, OH-OH-OH. LOVE IS THE DRUG!
Boy’s nearly crying. ‘You ok, son?’
‘But I can’t come home. There’s only the tour, the seasons. It never stops. You keep being raised higher and higher and to look down makes you feel like jumping but you never do. Cos I’m in orbit now. I’m an astronaut, strapped to the fuselage of this rocket, and if I get off I’ll just float away. And there’ll be no sound and no music any more.’
But all his dad can say is, ‘Have another drink, mate.’
OOOOOOOOOHHHHH, OH-OH-OH. LOVE IS THE DRUG!
‘Well, it felt like a ceremony and she was our priestess. Like it was one of those mass weddings the Moonies do in China.’
‘I think it was in that moment, singing with you, I decided to…be your man, and become a better man, for you.’
‘I know things haven’t been perfect, but every time we’ve had a problem we’ve worked on it.’
You’re the one who’s needed working on.
‘I’ve changed things about myself I thought I never could.’
‘Like your drinking,’ she says, taking a long sip.
‘Right, and I don’t even miss it. I like who I’ve become. I know I resisted at first. I thought you were just trying to tame me.’
I loved going to bed with a lunatic. I just hated waking up next to a zombie.
‘But then I realised that the person I was becoming for you was actually the person I wanted to be.’
But I don’t recognise you anymore. Where’s my rockstar? I want my rockstar back.
OOOOOOOOOHHHHH, OH-OH-OH. LOVE IS THE DRUG!
‘’But darling,’ Nancy says, taking her son’s rapping fist in her hand, though the tempo simply bubbles up out of the other, ‘You’re right here. You are home.’
‘For now. It’s like the Voyager probe. Dad, you know the one, out in deep space, out beyond the limits of our solar system: it’s carrying a record. It’s got everything from Chuck Berry and Beethoven to whale song and African tribal music. It’s a bloody demo tape. We’re trying to get the attention of the Great Impressario In The Sky so he’ll give us a contract and take us up. TAKE US UP AND AWAY, YOU BASTARD! TAKE ME TO THE PLACE WHERE ALL THE MUSIC GOES TO ONCE IT SUNG!’
What I mean is, Laura, I believe in you and in us.’
You do? In me? But I’m so mean to you? What do you see in me? Show it to me, please. ‘Okay,’ she says, carefully trying on old feelings.
‘I mean I really love you, Los.’
Oh shit. ‘I really love you too, T.’ The words thrill through her nerves like the bliss that comes after pain ends.
‘I think we’ve got what it takes.’
‘Me too.’ And I mean it. ‘Do you mean?’
‘Yeah, I do.’
LOVE IS THE DRUG!
The last ripple of the song shivers down Hubble’s spine, shot three hundred and fifty miles austral to chime through the concert hall, from spire to foundation. From the crest of the river bank it breaks north over the bridge through the old buildings, west through the new, east through the gardens and south down the road to the ocean. It radiates through asphalt and brick, teeth and bone, water, synapse, wood and plastic. At the speed of sound it crosses verdant hills, salt flats, mountain, forrest and sea. The pulse dilates over the globe, up through Africa and the southern Americas – wailing dogs, crowing birds, opening flowers at the moon. At its widest yaw it pauses as though gathering momentum for the downhill run. The tempo of Bogotan foot traffic slows to the pace of Mauritian dreams. A diaspora of sleepwalkers dances in unison. And then on into day it races, drawing itself back in across the dunes of the Sahara, writing names in the sand. Through the belfries of Europe it rings, reminding old bones of feast days. The steel and glass minarets of each United States metropolis hum briefly in unison.
Across the face of every instrument - every horn, string and drum - moves a breath.
The polished boards of the restaurant floor still. The tableau of waiters and customers pant in their positions like performers awaiting the relief of applause or lovers squeezing the last drops of joy from their moment of rapture.
At one end, a mother and father are on their feet. Each anchor of a leg of their son who strides the table, arms upstretched to the ceiling. The party of eight in the booth are a tangle of secret yearnings now explicit. And down Lovers’ Lane the couples read like a step by step guide to courtship, from one man lost in his lover’s scarves to another genuflected in expectation.
Except now the music is over, and forgotten. Like the shape of a cymbal after it’s stopped sounding, the illusion of constant form returns, and the soul retreats back into matter.
‘Sorry. What did you say?’
I said, “Laura, will you marry me?”
The words fan out over her face, widening her eyes, dragging her lips out and down. They catch in the tendons of her neck.
A champagne cork thocks and the bright spume gushes from a bald head to a face and shoulders to finish in a drizzle round chair eaves, puttering in the silence.
Smoke. I smell smoke. Something’s burning? What? What the.. ‘Fuck! Get those steaks off the grill, you cunt!’
‘Edgar, son, come down from there, mate.’
‘Steve! Get your shitting hands out of my dress!’
‘Waiter, this man is….!’
‘Waiter, can we please…?’
‘Waiter, get out of my lap!’
Inside of this, The sounds from the bar and the kitchen, the hissing and banging and clinking and talking, Scorpio is calm. It all sounds like noise again. But for a minute there it was like music. Ohhhh, oh. Ohhh, oh. That song. But not that song. Ohhhh-oh. Ohhhh-oh. Something else. Something I haven’t heard before.
‘Penny! Move your arse!’
‘But a second ago...’
‘I dunno. I’ve drunk too much, too quickly. But no, Theo, no.’
‘But why not? I’ve done everything you asked me to. I quit drinking. I left the record shop. I got my Dip Ed. All for you.’
‘I know. But you’ve gone too far.’
‘You’re so obnoxious now. Always so healthy and energetic and positive. Always going on about how much you’re learning about yourself and other people. Lording it over everyone. Like we should all be patting you on the back. I prefer the drunkard. He was funny. I’d rather you moaning on the couch all Sunday instead of bugging me to get up and come for a run.’
He becomes aware of the noise filling the restaurant. He gets off his knee and sits back in his seat. He picks up her glass, flicks it with his nail, and closes his eyes around the sound.
Open your eyes, man. Take one last look at her. ‘Excuse me, waitress?’
‘Would you mind filling this?’
‘This bottle isn’t the same wine she was having. I’ll go get...’
‘That’s alright. Just fill it up, please. Thanks.’
Ghung, ghung, ghung, ghung. Each gulp booms down his gullet and up into his skull. Each beat hammers the perfect image of her he’s been holding onto so long into an iron relief of this moment.
‘Yeah. Another please?’
‘There you go. That one’s on me.’
Laura glares Penny away and resumes with Theo. ‘Well? You just going to sit there drinking?’
‘Yep. The wine’s good.’
‘And I’m supposed to watch you?’
‘No. You should go.’
‘Fine. Good. Great! I guess this means that you’ll be...’
Ghung, ghung, ghung, ghung. Ghung, ghung, ghung, ghung.
‘Relax, Celeste. Most of what I felt was padding anyway.’
‘Maybe, and I may not have read as much as you, but I know that shit out there you can’t even see doesn’t have any effect on who you are.’
‘Well it affects me! Waiter, can we please have the bill?’
‘Waiter? Can we please...?’
‘Ahhh, Chef? Can we please cancel table five and eleven’s mains? They want to leave.’
‘What? What did you fuckin say to them, Penny?’
‘It wasn’t me, Chef. Everyone’s losing it.’
‘I’ll fuckin lose it with you in a minute.’
‘Yeah? So what’s new?’
‘Right, that’s it. You’re out.’
‘Really? You mean it? Bless you, Chef. I’ll just leave these plates here on the pass for you to clear. You’ll want to get five and eleven’s bills ready and make sure you keep table ten’s glass topped up. I think he’ll be here for a while.
‘Get fucked, slapper!’
‘Sorry Chef, I can’t hear you. I’ve got a tune in my head.’
‘I said you’re a cunt.’
‘It’s right on the tip of my tongue. I’m gonna go now and figure out how it goes.’
‘Noo-ope. That’s not it. Merry Christmas, chef!’ Down the aisle, Scorpio sheds the trappings of Penny and slips into other covers of the song in her head. Oh-ho. Ba da-da bo. Oh-ho.
‘Now, Eddie,’ she says, sitting down across from him, between his flummoxed parents. ‘To answer your question, yes, I am something else. Like you, I’m a musician. Unlike you, I don’t have a great pair of parents to put up with my whining, so all I can do is get fucking on with it. May I, Frank?’ He nods at his glass as she picks it up and sips. ‘Opera is fucking dead. It’s amazing, but for a talent like yours, it’s a straitjacket. Hip-hop my friend. No barriers. No limits. You can build your own rocket and go wherever you want your voice to go.’
But Edgar’s already himself again. The maestro’s right eyebrow arches above the mention of hip hop and the thoughts it conjures of track suits, medallions and strippers. Scorpio sees it, stands, and pierces the restaurant uproar. Her voice stills the patrons like hounds brought to heel. She lofts Tosca’s tragic aria up through their tingling flesh, calling, ‘Vissi d’arte!’ I lived for art. ‘Perche, perche, Signore?’ Why? Why, O Lord? And once the adagio melody is hanging there above them, filling the air with succulent lamentation, she lets out a yell that bursts it over her listeners’ heads. She pounds her fist on the table and raises another line, parallel to Tosca’s. A darker, stronger sister. It does not ask God why fate is cruel. It does not ask why her faith has been rewarded with misfortune. The melody she builds declares independence from any divine source of justice or reward. It is driven on by her fist and by the customers compelled to beat and clap along. She takes them all with her up the steep side of a mountain in the night. At the peak she lets twist in the cold air a strange descant. Wordless, it echoes something they know in their bones but cannot say.
And that is where she leaves them.
Only the great glass doors applaud behind her.
The maestro is mute.
The lover is deaf. He dissolves his heart in a red, ringing glass.
And above, unmoored from Melbourne’s lighthouse, Hubble swoons southward towards Antarctica, down into lower, faster orbits: the first of its shortening days.
About the Creator
I'm mostly a science fiction writer who wishes he were a musician, so my work is almost always speculative and either features music as a theme, a plot imperative, or - and this is my most fervent wish - sings through the language.
Very well written. Keep up the good work!
Original narrative & well developed characters
Expert insights and opinions
Arguments were carefully researched and presented