Memory’s a trickster, just not a very good one. It meddles with the mise-en-scéne of the music awards, faithfully recreating the tables and stage but inserting a children’s swing and climbing frame. It cut-and-pastes a sunbather plattered on a towel. A couple picnic on a rug. The smell of trampled grass mixes with the funk of booze and fumes of… well… grass. More than a few of the invited guests are brazenly toking.

The respectability of the venue is compromised by the motley of musicians slouching, slurping and smoking. Photographers scurry, ordering people into tableaux, hoping for something salacious to snap. The event has, after all, been arranged by a magazine as a photo-op for infamous rock wannabes. One paparazzo squelches a cigar of dog poo and pauses to accuse the sole of his shoe. No, that doesn’t happen. The trickster smirks, then conjures an ice cream van that cruises the periphery, pumping out Greensleeves.

I wish my subconscious were enigmatic, posing indecipherable conundrums, but it is disappointingly patent. Self-analysis is one of my suite of addictions and I am adept at interpreting my own psychoses. The trickster is conflating two incidents: the awards ceremony with the public park in which my father read out his only published short story. It’s a memory alloy, a ham-fisted mashup devised to deprecate my accomplishments. Subconscious as satirist.

I scan to locate Mia. She’s deep in conference with the drummer of The Belle Jarrs. She’s energised. Her hair, shorter since she left me, bristles and sparks. Commentators branded her as my muse but the appellation belittles her. The drummer, all insolently-angled pigtails and slashed lipstick, says something into her ear and Mia tosses her head with laughter. It’s overdone: she’s acting. Our gazes meet and neither of us reacts. I tamp regret until such time as I can resurrect it and transmute it into lyrics. Her duties as muse are not yet exhausted.

The Unsung Awards is a tawdry affair concocted by journalists to celebrate mavericks and the underground. It’s a calculated scrabble for street cred. I’m nominated for Most Underrated Composition for Attest. Spoiler: I win.

I’m disgruntled they didn’t select a more famous actress to present my trophy. When she recites a couplet from the chorus, I wince. I swivel to Mia and catch her miming the lyrics back at me. Every word of that chorus is hers. She came up with the concept: a character-study of a man whose nature embodies the Old and New Testaments. The soppy sacrifice and redemption of one abrading against the smiting and wrath of the other. To be fair, I composed the accompanying verses—the material the actress declines to quote.

Will Mia betray me? Lay claim to authorship?

A brooch dangles awkwardly from her bodice. A ruby on a tarnished inset that is either fanned wings or a shield.

The actress announces my name and a clutch of my fellow troubadours neglect their drinks long enough to applaud. I saunter stagewards, exuding ennui. The trickster places obstacles: a flowerbed, a dying shrub.

I was twelve when my farther narrated A Test, his only published fiction. It featured in the kind of journal whey-faced academics store on their shelves but never open. He’d always cherished novels and novelists, sitting at my bedside reading excerpts of Bellow and Faulkner. We’d giggled over some naughty passages from Phillip Roth. His evenings were spent scribbling and typing, a drawer in his bedroom choked with notes and abandoned chapters. His fear of his perceived lack of talent metastasised, eating him away from within. One night, stony-faced, he burnt reams of paper in the bath.

As he orated, his body ducked and weaved to the rhythms of his prose. Passing families proffered greetings which he acknowledged with a bow or wave. He was a popular teacher, active in the community. A weak sun edged him with ephemeral gilt. Behind him, rambunctious children squeaked down a slide. The swings made rhythmic metallic whelps. Beyond the playground, two schoolgirls on a park bench blew recorders while a woman sat between them, knitting with two balls of yarn. The eerie, syncopated fluting unnerved me. The woman fixed me with a Delphic grin. Was she the trickster, knitting time into patchwork?

The park was a neutral Switzerland that could accommodate Mum, Dad and me. He was no longer welcome in our flat. That’s where the hollering happened. Crockery dashed on the floor/Neighbours pounding on the door. One night he’d removed their wedding photo from its frame and repeatedly punctured his own image. He used the pin of a brooch belonging to my mother: a ruby on a tarnished inset that was either fanned wings or a shield.

On the day of the reading all recriminations were postponed. Our smiles may have been grafted but they defied hypocrisy. We were briefly restored as a family, overjoyed he’d finally been anointed as a writer. He popped a bottle of bubbly—non-alcoholic to signal he was controlling his demons. We toasted him with the foul-tasting sham-pagne. Uncannily happy, chinking the ice in our drinks on the deck of the Titanic.

As he read, Mum gasped at his adjectives and applauded his turns of phrase, despite the fact that the manipulative harpy at the centre of his plot was a thinly-veiled caricature of her. Hyperbolic as her reactions were, the generosity was real.

The piping recorders and Greensleeves entwined into an unholy fugue. The woman knitted feverishly, fixing me with intent. As I chomped into cake, struggling to process the occasion, it was those other families that mystified me. They had none of the volatility of mine but seemed hokey as a sit-com. Where were the contradictions and mutated affections? Where the love and resentment interlocked in a terrifying death grip? It was only later, after I’d spent time at friends’ and girlfriends’ houses, that I realised we were the aberration.

Mum clapped as the harpy received her humiliating comeuppance. My father had wrought the chaos of his life into a concise, tightly-structured narrative and my mum, the victim of his imaginative ferment, was lauding his efforts. Later, I asked if he was proud of his achievement and he barked a humourless cackle. He told me he wished he’d never been able to conceive the fucken thing. He resented the crucible that had enabled its inception. He sustained his grin but his eyes were sunken.

Then and there I vowed to never yoke myself to domesticity. I would fulfil myself artistically. I would best my father.

Years later, when The Throes’ debut album was released, he took me aside and dissected every track I had penned. He condemned them as derivative and lurid, while praising the evocative imagery of Hugh, my songwriting rival in the band. But he couldn’t meet my gaze. His eyes were dulled by defeat while mine blazed. I’d vanquished him in every arena. His artistic output had been ignored while my music was eulogised. His dissolution via excessive drinking tarnished his reputation, while I’d achieved the status of legend by juggling booze, amphetamines and narcotics. He’d traduced his wife in a short fiction buried in an academic journal while I’d exploited a bevy of girlfriends in a series of semi-autobiographical tunes exploring the nexus between desire and violence.

As I accept the accolade for Most Underrated Song, a photographer crouches, squinting through the lens and fiddling with the settings but never managing to click the shutter. Trust me to get the work experience kid. I reel off a short cynical speech decrying the significance of awards while the trickster clogs my nostrils with the whiff of dog ordure. A critic careens down the slide with a whoop. I pinpoint Mia, expecting her to storm the stage and demand recognition of her contribution, but she’s not paying attention. The drummer is slapping a beat on the tabletop and Mia is chanting lyrics from a crumpled sheet of paper. Is she auditioning for The Belle Jarrs? No, the remainder of the band is elsewhere. Mia and the drummer are cooking up their own project. The schoolgirls from the park bench approach the duo and huddle in close, setting up a funky toot on their recorders. Mia grips the drummer’s jaw and pivots her head towards her. As they smooch, photographers flock. Yes, I know, but back then that sort of thing was still an edgy novelty. Even the work experience kid forsakes me.

Mia’s other hand fiddles with the awkward brooch.

My father gave it to my mother during their engagement. When my mother met Mia, she handed the bling over. It’s a kind of talisman. A charm. From this distance, I still can’t tell if it’s wings or a shield.

Colin Varney

Crime writer and Oz-rock legend Dave Warner said of Colin Varney’s novel Earworm: a Tale Told by a Love Song: “Hark! The rarely heard tune of real Australian originality.” Colin's short fiction has featured in Meanjin, The Big Issue, Kill Your Darlings and elsewhere. He completed a Masters in creative writing at the University of Tasmania.

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