Song and dance

Unlike her contemporaries, who favour a display of technical fireworks over emotional honesty, Miss Clara O’Brien is a rare practitioner of ‘miniature’ piano music. Her Chopin preludes are among the finest ever heard in this country … it is our great privilege and good fortune that she has brought to her repertoire a cycle of Fauré’s nocturnes, in addition to her enduring mastery of Bach, Schumann and Grieg … performances that are filled with effervescent joy, yearning and melancholy … and careful attention to detail. She is a national treasure.

The Sydney Morning Herald, August 19—


She was forty-seven when it began.

Her head is locked towards the timber casement windows. Beyond the glass, a lake spreads out. A breeze rattles the shutters. It could be morning. Or late afternoon.

Look, a mysterious orange hue appears. What a hoax, for lakes should be blue as ink. Someone has been up to mischief. Someone has dumped such obnoxious colour, contaminating the lake, transforming beauty into farce. Will someone please restore the lake to its natural colour?

Her eyes follow the delicate outline of the sailboat, shaped like the paper ones she made as a girl. How lonesome it is. She holds her breath, wonders if it’ll sink as it draws circles in the lake—such meaningless repetition—like a Czerny exercise. She concludes that it is sturdy. It will stay afloat.

But it is trapped.

As she is.

At least the boat is alone in its captivity. Someone—she isn’t sure who although she has a strong suspicion—has allowed intruders into her bedroom. Someone sneaked them in while she was napping, seizing her moment of weakness. Someone arranged for these three beds, furnished with occupants, to be installed without her permission. She should have been consulted. Should have been allowed to object. One’s bedroom is private. Is that not the case anymore?

Here they are. All women, thank goodness. Stuffed inside their metallic cages as she is, parked in the other corners, consuming her space. They blab Royal Family gossip. Apparently the Queen loathes her daughter-in-law. Why is that a revelation? They should get their mouths corked. This competition of brassy voices, the equivalent of three Shirley Basseys blaring against each other, induces a splitting headache. Each rises to the challenge until they are speaking simultaneously, demolishing all spaces of silence between them.

Oh, how she longs for stillness. That lingering peace. There was a time …


There was a time.

Not long ago—she isn’t sure when—she had lived within the stillness of the Blue Mountains.

The French windows of her hotel room framed the clouds. Each window captured a blossoming of jacarandas and golden wattles. The purples and yellows dotted on the fuzzy green landscape as Seurat may have painted them. A sprinkling of lilac haze, perhaps a storm of fluffy seeds, made its pilgrimage across the mountains. Some evenings, a rainbow dived from the clouds into the valleys. She witnessed all this from her suite at the edge of the precipice. When she frolicked in the woods, she embraced the mountain air and swallowed its crystalline blueness.

Within the arches of her suite, that Steinway unleashed a voice of sonorous tones; surely angels resided within its black armour. It had been transported there solely for her by the manager of the hotel—Mister … Mister … something or other—a champion of her work. The piano and her. Both had arrived simultaneously at the hotel. She cowered at the top landing, held her breath witnessing the piano’s perilous journey up the spiral staircase, for this was an old, majestic hotel that did not trust such modern machinery as elevators. When she peeked through the net of her fingers against the bannisters, the Steinway appeared like a faraway black seashell. It took the quartet of men an hour to float it into her suite, resting between floors. To their credit, not a single key went out of tune.

How unfair! That in the midst of her communion with the clouds, her decline would manifest.


She mistrusts her sense of smell: it has forsaken her.

She detects whiffs of something sour. Someone has made her sit on a wet cushion. Another nasty trick. This damp! Should she inform someone to do something about this? But she knows she is defeated before she attempts. No-one bothers to understand.


Here comes trouble. A girl, no older than twenty, announces her arrival with dissonant whistling. Pity the poor thing wrapped in a blinding white uniform hardened with starch. The girl squats. Her knees crack, sharp as castanets. For a moment, she fears the buttons of the girl’s blouse and skirt will surrender to the strain. The girl places an icy hand on her neck and mutters words that float around like milkweed butterflies in a sanctuary.

… time …



… 2

                                                                 … meds …





Miss Clara



                                              … right








The girl feeds her turmeric communion wafers. She remembers them in white but now they are purple, yellow, red and green. They don’t melt on her tongue. Of course, another trick.

When her throat is tickled, her head jerks back. She chokes and swallows. The girl waits patiently then pushes a straw against her teeth. The girl pantomimes sucking, making pffff … pffff … sounds. How irritating. She clamps her mouth shut. Damn that straw poking at her lips. Another tilt of her chin and accidentally she gulps and feels the wafers slide down her throat.








The girl tips over the empty container and displays their collaborative triumph. Nothing remarkable about an empty container. The fuss this girl makes is ridiculous. The girl shows an array of uneven teeth, tilted like fallen dominoes, and sweeps away.


It announced its arrival as a tinge of defiance in her left hand: the fourth and fifth fingers lagging a fraction behind. She could muster through the intricate allegro passages of Scarlatti but she had never required such concentration, forcing her fingers to obey.

Initially, she attributed this minor decline to arthritis. In her circle, careers slipped away when fingers could no longer bear the demands of punishing octaves, trills, tone clusters and devilish hemidemisemiquavers. The erosion of bone was expected, just as waves consume rocks to sing their melodic splashes.

It occurred to her that perhaps the vigorous practice sessions learning new repertoire were etching towards detriment.

And then there was the issue of nerves. Wasn’t her retreat to the mountains, on doctor’s orders, supposed to alleviate her mysterious onset of stage fright? How did it seem to have the opposite effect?

She wondered if the mountain draught was responsible and chastened it with sealed windows. She built a fortress of logs in her fireplace and summoned their spirits aglow. She married her fingers to mittens and swore them never to part. As if a blight had descended upon them, another finger and then another and another … until all had been infected by this … thing.

This dance.

A phrase here, a two-bar measure there, during the andante of a Mozart sonata, she lost control. She faltered even with the simplest of passages. The dread that accompanied her dancing fingers sickened her. Confiding in no-one, she disciplined the culprits by thrusting them into beakers of boiling water medicated with eucalyptus oil.



She let her hands scorch. She assured herself, whispering mantras just a case of nerves, a case of nerves, nerves, nervesnerves nervesnerves … as if scalding were a penance that would restore her abilities.

It seemed absurd that the dance manifested itself as heaviness, bordering on clumsiness really. Who had ever heard of a dance for klutzes?

Once her fingers had learnt the movements of heaviness, they took off in the opposite direction: they performed the shakes. Sitting down, walking, talking, her hands would dance, regardless of venue or appropriateness. They were impatient. Brats. Show-offs. And a source of embarrassment. When she was excited, her hands would seize her cue and erupt in bursts of trembles. Only at night, in exhaustion, would they abandon their wretched performances.

Later, when her physician examined her, the written word had also succumbed. She would pick up a pen to compose an invitation but deliver instead a monstrous family of letters. Giants and dwarfs alike, some possessed swollen bellies, others had twisted spines or dislocated arms, and many were robbed of their crowns of dots. Soon, these would be replaced by jagged, spidery strokes, like the maps of an epileptic brain, and she would write line after line of incomprehensible prose, sculptured like the rise and ebb of waves. And hidden among the tides: her true meanings. And then, further along, her letters—if they could still be called that—became Lilliputian. Whenever ink touched paper, her letters curdled.

Her legs also learnt the choreography. ‘Clara … please. Come to me,’ her physician said. From the medical texts, he knew all her steps. His role, it seemed, was to provide a verdict and to determine what treatment, that is, what torture, she should endure for a modicum of benefit.

By then, she was dancing with the tiniest steps, timid as a traditional Japanese bride.

He said in the kindest way he knew, We can only delay the inevitable. Once learnt, never forgotten.

He promised a temporary exorcism of her movements.

‘For how long?’ she pleaded.

‘Maybe, urm … five, six years.’

She thought it miserly of him.

But her body, impatient and even less generous, allowed her only three.


‘Clara! Clara!’

What a familiar sound.


A contingent of young, eager faces swamps around her, the way children might gather to entice a bunny to hop for them. She cannot fathom what they might want. What have they come to witness? A circus act? She will hop for no-one. A bald man, neither young nor eager, holds court in a long white coat smudged with rust stains. He grabs her arm. She tries to pull away but her limb refuses to budge. He latches onto her wrist.

‘May I have this dance?’

Hers is now a dance of granite. He knows the steps. He wades her arm like a heavy oar, acknowledges the stiffness characteristic of these terminal stages.

‘The rigidity of a cogwheel,’ he says. His entourage scribbles in their notebooks.

He tries to uncoil her legs that have twisted around each other, clasped together for support. Her neck is locked to the left, her chin held high. Her face, mask-like. The only hint of her past is her right arm, held away from her body, suspended in air, fingers spread out but curled, as if she had just completed a chromatic phrase, her fingers hovering above the keyboard.

If legends were true, one would say Medusa had gazed upon her.



Why was Clara O’Brien giving up the concert halls? they asked.

She was moved by their telegrams, their letters urging her to the ride of a rhapsodic farewell.

What about one final national tour, in each of the major cities, with full orchestra? bargained the influential patrons of the arts. Then they requested a series of solo recitals, in your favourite concert halls, Clara, just ask. When they realised the steadfastness of her decision, they conceded but added a plea for one final concert.

At the Sydney Opera House. Within those ivory-coloured shells.

For days, she allowed herself to consider the proposal as if she were altogether normal again. She began planning a program of her favourites: the Norwegian lyric pieces of Grieg that she felt so comfortable with, as if they had been written solely for her. The complete set of Chopin preludes. She had been sixteen when she discovered them; they were a hundred and twenty years old. It was love at first sight and always would be.

By then, there were no more decisions that depended solely on her. As ancient kings cupped their ears upon the lips of those who dispensed the readings of stars, she requested a foretelling of her future.

Could I be well enough to perform a final concert?

She confided in several neurologists who were unanimous in their promise of uncertainty. Unlikely to happen, Clara, but who knows? What if the dance manifested itself on the day of the concert? Or horror of horrors, proclaimed itself in the middle of the recital, her misfiring fingers striking the wrong keys? What if her memory fizzled out and left her in darkness?

She dreamt that for one last occasion Clara O’Brien’s steadfastness and the outpouring of love from her audience would sustain her. Her final ninety minutes on stage. A monumental triumph. Befitting an artist of her stature.

A romantic! She was always a romantic. Among all the changes she was forced to make, what she found most difficult was to rein in her impulses. She must think strategically. If she returned to the concert stage one more time, she would risk destroying her legacy.

There was no shame in surrender.


These faces.

Where there were six or seven before, only two remain. She could swear this woman resembled a child she once knew. And that man. Lined. Stooped. Burdened with a lifetime of memories.

She stares at them. Tries to remember.


The name of the dance.

Sometimes she feels that this is a curse, easily broken with an utterance of its elusive name. If she could only remember. Then all would be restored.

What is it again … something about the bark? Park!

In the park?

Park-in …

She steers her neck when she feels her muscles loosen a fraction, trying to meet the gaze of the child-woman who has now buried her face within the wreath of her hands.

Awww, she says. Awww. Awww.

The woman looks up.

She remembers. Of course! Would a mother ever forget? I know, I understand. Of course I’m here. How else could you possibly manage, my child? Aawww, she manages to say one last time.

And then she slips

she falls …

she sinks …

deeper and deeper as the currents swirl, another whirlpool of forgetfulness drags her in until she lies submerged in its depths where she hears music and continues her dance, wondering when this will ever end.


Sik Chuan Pua

Sik Chuan Pua is a playwright and fiction writer, originally from Malaysia, now based in Sydney. His short fiction has appeared in Washington Square Review, Willow Springs and Gargoyle. He was a finalist in the Patrick White Playwrights Award and the Griffin Award.

More by Sik Chuan Pua ›

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