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OUR BOOKS > MINI–MAGS > SO BITTER WAS MY HEART

So bitter was my heart
Memoir (Mini-Mags)
Written by Chester Eagle
Design by Vane Lindesay, cover image by Rodney Manning 2008
DTP by Karen Wilson
Circa 7800 words
Electronic publication 2008 by Trojan Press
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Learning to sing, learning to love
Where were you last night?
This sing-song bullshit
The unmarried, and the married
A mixed report
So bitter was my heart


To read about the writing of this memoir click here.

Learning to sing, learning to love

Every time Trevor sits at the kitchen table, and Eva is standing at the stove, she tells the young teacher, whom she knows is keen on music, about her lessons, particularly the mistakes. ‘Madam stopped playing, Trevor, she stared at me, and she said, What would you be feeling if you’d just done that in front of the audience in Sale?’ Trevor grins. ‘What did you do?’ he asks, and Eva tells him. Mistakes, breathing problems, misreading the score, leaving out a bar … all the accidents of the barely competent. ‘It’s all very well for Madam,’ says Eva, ‘but what else has she got to do but criticise people who’ve got other work to be done. If I spent all my time up there in the lounge, practising the way she says I ought to, there wouldn’t be any meals to put on the table!’ If Clarry is in the room she may add, ‘And Clarry wouldn’t get his socks darned!’

Clarry, who could buy socks if he needed to, allows a watery smile to cross his face. ‘Madam’d have us all barefoot if she had her way!’ Eva rushes to defend her teacher. ‘Oh Clarry, you love to make a mockery of things, but what if …’

Trevor tries to evaluate the contending energies of the situation. Can Eva sing? He doubts it, but he’s never really heard her. He knows that Clarry thinks his wife is ridiculous but senses that there’s a well of loyalty there, forever full. Trevor scoffs at the household that shelters him at least as much as the young plumbers do, but he knows that he can’t separate himself from Eva, foolish as she may be, because he too thinks that music alters the world and that humans need things to lift them, or else they’ll …

At the bottom of his thinking, at this stage of his life at least, is the European idea of mankind’s need for redemption. Without something to give us meaning, we’re lost. He has his work, he has an attachment in the city far away, and he, like Eva, has his music …

A new couple come to town, a radio repairman, his wife Teresa and two children. Trevor has known them in Melbourne, where they are on the fringe of the circle that Trevor mixes with. Teresa, to his surprise, wants him to tell her about the town, and show her where things are. He does this willingly enough; it makes him realise how much he’s come to know. She asks him if he’s interested in seeing films; he isn’t, because the theatre never shows anything he wants to see. ‘I need to get out,’ she says. ‘I’ll meet you at the theatre …’: she names a day and time. He drives to the theatre at the appointed hour, sees her car, and parks beside it. In a moment she’s in his car. He’s not very experienced but he’s not so silly that he doesn’t know what to do. They drive to Reardon’s Folly and walk through the garden to the room downstairs, overlooking the valley, which is his. They hurl their clothes on the floor and they cling to each other in the urgency, the extremity, of desire. A minute later they are holding each other loosely, passion exhausted. ‘I should have worn a contraceptive,’ he says, fumbling in a drawer, meaning to be ready for the next rush, but she tells him no. She wants their lovemaking to be unprotected, and she will come to him when her period’s arrived and again a few days later, when she’s sure they’ll still be safe. This puzzles him, but it’s part of her mental arrangement for allowing herself to do what she’s going to do, twice a month, and he’s so pleased to have the satisfaction of his desires brought to him, on a plate as it were, that he’d agree to anything.

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Where were you last night?

Weeks pass, then one day after work, Trevor runs into Les, who tells him, ‘Where were you last night? Ya shoulda been around.’ Trevor tries to remember, but Les is going on. ‘We were in the lounge. And Beryl comes in. I’ve just run a bath for Mrs K, she says. We ask if the old girl’s in the bath and Beryl checks. She is. She usually takes a good twenty minutes, she says. Then Tom says, What’re you going to do till she needs you? Beryl says, I don’t have any idea. Tom says, I’ve got a really good idea, Beryl, if you feel like it. Beryl says What? But you can see she knows what he wants. Next thing she’s on the sofa with her pants down, and Tom’s in her, going for his life. Leo’s at the door, keeping watch.’

It occurs to Trevor to ask, ‘And what were you doing, Les?’

Les has a girlfriend, the daughter of a local plumber, and the family are very protective of her virtue. Les is always saying, ‘They want me to marry her, but what they don’t realise is that no matter how they dress it up, it looks like a trap. Know why? Because it is!’ He laughs at this point, too smart, he thinks, to get caught in that one!

Trevor adds, ‘If she had Tom she probably wanted you to go on with?’

‘She did, but I wasn’t getting caught in that one either. A man’s got to keep his head above water, sometimes.’

This engages Trevor’s mind. A man’s got to keep his head above water. Is he drowning in his desire, or is it under control because Teresa only allows it by arrangement? What he feels is not exactly insecurity, but he knows he doesn’t know enough yet to be beyond surprise; in Les’s terms, he’s not beyond being caught in a trap. He’s far from knowing all the moves in the sexual game and he doesn’t know anybody who does.

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This sing-song bullshit

So Madam has her way, Eva practices, and never stops talking about it. Trevor’s the only person who can stand her because he’s interested in what she makes of Schubert, the greatest song writer of them all. ‘Madam says I need to manage my legato better,’ she says to her boarder. ‘What do you think she means by that?’

Trevor’s a teacher, he has words for almost every situation. ‘When did she say it, Mrs K? Sing me the phrase before she said it. Now the one that follows.’ Mrs K sings in her awkward way the lovely phrases of Schubert, and Trevor thinks, at one and the same time, that she’s hopeless, and that she deserves some success because she’s striving to reach the top of a minor foothill in a range that’s splendid in its peaks.

Most of the singing lessons, the rehearsals, take place at Madam’s, and Clarry is required to take his wife there, and pick her up at the end of an hour and a half. ‘He doesn’t have to go away,’ Mrs K tells Trevor, ‘but he insists he won’t stay and listen.’ Whether this is an accusation or an expression of gratitude is an open question, but Clarry, if he’s there, says something like, ‘I don’t know head nor tail about it, I’d only put you off if you had me sitting there. Besides, I’ve got things to do!’

Clarry is one of those men who think that houses are the preserve of women. ‘I tell Eva,’ he tells Trevor in his garage one night, while he’s getting his rods and reels in order, ‘you can buy whatever you need, but don’t ask me to choose it. I wouldn’t have a clue.’ Trevor isn’t made this way; he thinks there are large areas of overlap between the worlds of men and women, but Clarry is another sort of man, and he’s generous to a fault …

… yet the strain inside is making him break loose. He starts to drink, and this shows when he wanders into the house after a couple of hours in his garage, and cracks jokes of the men-only variety to Tom, Leo, and Les. The boys think the jokes are corny, but Clarry’s irresistible, and the laughter is more raucous than the lounge is ready for. If Mrs Kracke hears the noise, she enters with a rebuke: ‘Clarry, you let the boys have their evening to themselves, I want to talk about business with you. I got a statement from the bank today.’ One evening, when Trevor is in his downstairs room, wishing Teresa was with him, he sees a lantern moving among the fruit trees. He goes out, but the lantern’s gone. Then he hears a voice. ‘Trevor, is that you?’

‘Yes, Mrs K.’

‘Do you know where Clarry is?’

‘Not really, Mrs K, but I saw a lantern out here a minute ago.’

‘He’s out of control, Trevor. I’ve got to find him!’

Trevor thinks. ‘Why’s he in the garden? Are you sure he’s not in the shed?’

Her voice comes out of the dark. ‘He’s been in the shed, the light’s still on, but he’s wandering around with a lantern. He blew it out when he heard me call.’

‘You saw him blow it out, Mrs K?’

‘I saw him. Then he disappeared. If you see him, Trevor, let me know. It means he’s drinking, and he shouldn’t. It’s getting very serious.’

‘Yes Mrs K.’

A few minutes later, Trevor runs into Les, who says, ‘Clarry’s out of control. Pissed as a newt. Mrs K’s out there trying to find his supply.’

‘Has he got a cache of grog?’

‘Must have. He didn’t get like he is by drinking water!’ The two of them laugh. This is better than listening to Mrs K talking about Madam. Les says, ‘He’s cracked up. All this sing-song bullshit has got too much for him.’

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The unmarried, and the married

Sometimes Madam’s at the piano in the lounge, sometimes Mrs K is trying things out in the kitchen. Beryl does more of the cooking because Eva’s distracted. Then the day dawns. Mrs K tells Trevor, over breakfast, that Beryl will be cooking the roast lamb that night, because Clarry’s driving her to Sale. And when Trevor gets home from work, Clarry’s in a suit, and new hat, looking better than Trevor’s ever seen him. He speaks to his wife respectfully, lists the things she’s told him to make sure they take, and they agree that everything’s in the car. ‘The Trout!’ says Clarry, with a smile. ‘We couldn’t leave that little fella out!’ Mrs K says, ‘I know it off by heart, Clarry, we probably could!’ He pats her arm. ‘Come on Eva, into the car. Off we go!’

Beryl looks at Trevor when the owners of the house are gone. ‘He’s very good to her, isn’t he?’

‘One of nature’s gentlemen,’ Trevor says. He starts to add, ‘I don’t think I’ll ever be like that …’ when Beryl jumps in. ‘I know I’ll never find anybody to be as nice to me as he is to her.’ They look at each other, something tender, and huge, flooding out of her, something tender, and respectful, rising in him. ‘You might be surprised, Beryl,’ Trevor says. ‘If we get what we deserve, as people say, you might do very well.’

Trevor’s begun to feel that his liaison with Teresa can’t go on forever, and is beginning to think about an end. If she can draw his strength and his tenderness into her enjoyment, as she does, then shouldn’t he be making this permanent, and if he can’t do this, as he can’t with someone who’s married, then with someone else? The truth is that she’s developed him, and to his amazement, he’s ready to do as much for someone else. Or something of that sort. And yet he doesn’t want a break. He decides to let circumstances decide. Her husband might get another job, he might be transferred, perhaps if Les is right and he’s to be shipped out of Kracke Mansion … that might be the time.

Time is suspended.

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A mixed report

Time is suspended.

But not for long. Clarry’s quality clothes have been replaced by his overalls and battered felt when Trevor comes into the kitchen for breakfast. Mrs K has her back to the stove, warming herself. Trevor looks at her, and she looks at him, with amusement, humility and foolishness in her eyes.

‘How did it go, Mrs K?’

‘Oh Trevor, you’ve no idea what I did!’

He has to find a way. ‘Was Madam happy, after all the work you did together?’

‘Well,’ she says, ‘Madam gave me a mixed report.’

‘Some good, some bad?’

‘She did say, that if I want to enter again next year, she’s prepared to coach me. She believes in me, she said, even after what I did …’

There’s no avoiding it: ‘Something went wrong?’

‘I was so nervous, I felt this strain in my throat. I sang the whole of the first song a semitone high.’ Her eyes expect condemnation, but Trevor says, ‘It’s an easy mistake to make,’ and Clarry, listening, says, ‘It didn’t sound wrong to me. It sounded very good. Remarkably good,’ he says. ‘I was proud of you.’

Beryl, who is also there, catches Trevor’s eye; he’s starting to feel they know each other. Trevor tries to think of something to say. ‘They say if you fall off a horse you should get straight back on.’ Clarry, he sees, is waiting for his wife’s answer.

‘That’s very nice of you, Trevor, and I know I should think for a while, but I’ve made up my mind. I won’t sing again. I love working on my music, but there were so many people there last night who were so much better than I’ll ever be that I need to find something else.’

There’s a silence, and they know it’s final.

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So bitter was my heart

When Trevor gets home that afternoon, Beryl intercepts him before he goes downstairs. ‘We’re having dinner a little later today. Clarry and Mrs K have just got home. With a big catch. Six thirty instead of six.’ Trevor nods, his thoughts somewhere else, and he’s still a little abstracted as the household – the Krackes, Beryl, the plumbers and he – assemble at the table. ‘I’ve got some in the oven, I’m steaming some, and I’m frying some,’ she announces. ‘Clarry says each fish should be cooked in the way that suits it!’ This is too solemn for any of Les’s jokes, so he, Tom and Leo drop into their seats, Mrs K serves up, and the household finds itself staring at a feast, with chips and salad in huge bowls beside the fish. Trevor says, ‘This is marvellous, Mrs K. It’s not every day we get something like this …’

… and then the room, the air itself, presents them with another surprise. There is music, the strings of an orchestra playing gravely, and a tenor with the sort of ringing tone once described as ‘manly’. Trevor is first to realise, because it’s his music, but even he falls under the spell. As Shakespeare shows us in The Tempest, unexpected music is like a change of soul, or its first arrival. The Kracke household is united under the spell. Then Trevor remembers. He’d forgotten his friend Richard in the change of dinner hour, and the librarian has arrived punctually, for him, too early for his host, and, finding the room empty, has put on Nielsen. ‘So bitter was my heart’. The singer is another Dane, Axel Schiotz, and Richard, unaware that the whole household’s above him, turns the music up. High. Loud.

‘So bitter was my heart,

So tired was my foot …’

This is sung gravely, then there is a burst of energy:

‘Come spring!

Come Denmark’s gentle summer …’

The strings rise with the voice, then the horns enter, like an aurora, golden as they pursue their mission of happiness, their discovery of peace … As the second verse begins, Trevor explains:

‘It’s a friend of mine. We arranged to meet this evening. He’s on time, you see, but we moved our dinner hour. This is a song that he likes, almost more than I do. It’s Carl Nielsen, Mrs K, you’ve heard me talking about him …’

The horns come in for the second time and the kitchen fills with glory. Dah, dar dar dum! Trevor realises that although he’s given the Krackes and their boarders all the explanation there is, he’s explained nothing, or rather, he hasn’t explained anything away. The magic is still magical. Axel Schiotz, on the other side of the world from his tiny country, starts the third verse in the same solemn way, then rises to his moment with Carl Nielsen, a man who loved the people’s voice in song. The horns rise and fall, lifting a room full of people all unexpecting. Trevor knows that when the song ends Richard won’t play anything else, and he doesn’t. Trevor eats fish with the Krackes, with Beryl and the plumbing ‘boys’, his friends by now, who’ll soon be returning to Melbourne, then he excuses himself to go downstairs. He’ll move out of Reardon’s Folly as soon as it’s no longer Kracke Mansion, that is, when the boys finish their job. He’s offended by bringing a lover to the house, and a married woman at that. Mrs K, like everyone else, has lines drawn where she thinks she can sustain them and he’s been crossing her line. It’s more than a matter of propriety, it upsets her pride in her house and the way she runs it. It’s strange, Trevor thinks, as he stops halfway down the stairs, before he faces Richard in the now-silence of his room, I’m going to remember this house for Mrs K, not for Teresa that I’ve made love with here.

That was what the young man thought, but as you see, dear reader, the old man remembers them both, and Beryl, Clarry, the kids, Tom, Leo, Les, and most of all he remembers the young man he was, he gives thanks for some things, he shakes his head at others, and he senses that if time carried him back and put him through the same events, there isn’t much he’d be able to change.

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The writing of this memoir:

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