EXTRACT: Isla's Song


The first chapter excerpt from Isla's Song.

Like a conductor, the chestnut metronome commanded centre stage on the antique grand Steinway, continuously moving its arm from side to side, tick-tack, tick-tack. It was surrounded by a timeless mahogany bookshelf filled with stories of composers past and present, volumes of sheet music, glass figurines, trinkets from overseas adventures, photos of happier times and a complete edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Nearby, a well-worn Chesterfield decorated with assorted plush velvet cushions occupied a California-bungalow-style bay window. Specks of dust floated in the light emanating from the rear French doors.

A beam of light appeared as a spotlight on the walnut instrument.

In the spaces between the metronome’s timely rhythm came the giggles of a little four-year-old girl. She was sharing a rickety piano stool with her father.

‘Show me again, show me again, Daddy!’

Oliver smiled, consumed by the joy of the moment. ‘Okay, okay, l’il one.’ He directed Isla to the manuscript. ‘You see, C, E, G, C, F sharp, G. The start of your song.’

Isla grinned with delight. Her brow furrowed as her concentration intensified. She was determined to make her father proud and carefully placed her small fine fingers on the ivory keys, ensuring her playing kept to the timely beat of the metronome.

Upon successfully completing the first two bars of music, she turned and gleamed at her father, seeking his approval.

‘You have done so well, l’il one! I do believe you’ll be a famous pianist one day.’

In the stillness of the drawing room a special memory was created. They glanced at each other, their strong attachment evident. Nothing needed to be said, they just knew.

‘Okay, l’il one, that’s all for today. You have a big day in front of you.

Time to put on your favourite party dress. Our special guests will be arriving soon.’

‘With presents?’ Isla said cheekily.

‘Only if you’re a good girl. Now off you go!’ Oliver smiled. ‘Catch me! Bet you can’t.’

Isla scurried off down the wooden hallway to her bedroom.

Oliver stood there watching her disappear into her room. Sitting on the piano stool, breathing in the room’s serenity, he took out his pencil and wrote the words Isla’s Song at the top of the music sheet. He sat back grinning, scratched his curly brown locks and smiled, whispering to himself, ‘That’s my girl.’

In the kitchen, Jess, Isla’s mother, could hear what seemed to be laughter emanate from the drawing room and the scurrying steps of Isla down the hallway. There were no clear sounds, simply white noise.

Jess had not been well. She was absorbed by a hovering blackness from which she was unable to escape. There were no exit doors, no lifebuoy, and she stood at the kitchen sink staring out the window into a grey void, grasping onto a tea towel, alone and consumed by feckless thoughts.

Wearing a dusk-pink pleated skirt, beige silk shirt and a single string of pearls, Jess’s haute couture façade was at odds with her thin frame and battle-weary appearance. Her bent figure hid her previous model stature, and her once reckless flowing blonde locks were pulled back in a severe netted bun.

Looking into the yard, she spied her previously thriving vegetable patch now crying out for attention. The flourishing tomato plants had withered on their wooden stakes, lettuces were half eaten by armies of snails and her prized lemon tree stood sadly undernourished displaying one sad piece of fruit.

Her racing thoughts consumed her. Every so often, she reminded herself that guests would be arriving soon. I must get moving, she thought.

The freshly baked chocolate cake sat alone on the Laminex kitchen table, awaiting icing. Any effort was a struggle. She pushed herself away from the sink, feeling ashamed of herself in her struggle to shake off her gloom, but the monkey was firmly attached to her back. Tiny things would niggle at her, people would annoy her and her patience was short.

To cheer herself up, she tried recalling happier times: the first time she met Oliver at the university cafeteria; his dreamy brown eyes; his maroon and olive-green uni sweater; the smell of his pipe tobacco; their heated philosophical arguments; and their passionate embraces. She recalled their first real kiss under the clocks at Flinders Street Railway Station during a typical stormy Melbourne downpour. Most of all, Jess recalled Oliver’s cheeky smile and the way it lit up his face. She loved him so much but try as she might, she was unable to reignite the flame. More and more, a great sense of loss overwhelmed her memories of the good times and failed to appease her anxieties.

In the midst of this miasma, Jess felt her knuckles whiten as she gripped the tea towel. So afraid, she was trapped in life’s pressure cooker with a lid about to burst. At times, it was hard for her to contain her anxieties and she had to call on her every strength to put on a happy face for the sake of her family. Each day became more difficult.

As she attempted to shake off her blues, Isla crept up behind her without warning, holding up her party dress. Tugging at her mother’s pleated dress, she said, ‘Mummy, Mummy, can I wear this dress?’

‘Ah… yes, Isla, and you know what? You look as pretty as a picture. Now let me put some red ribbons in that golden hair of yours. You are so beautiful and Mummy does love you so much. You know that, right?’

Isla threw her arms around her mother’s legs and replied, ‘Yes, I love you too, Mummy.’

For Jess, the comment was so simple, so honest and yet, she found it difficult to decipher in her sea of confusion.

After she placed an apron on Isla, they both iced the chocolate birthday cake that had been left cooling on the kitchen table. Isla loved decorating cakes and her favourite part was tasting the icing.

Once the cake was covered with her favourite peppermint chocolate cream and decorated with coloured chocolate smarties, Jess gave her some candles. ‘How many candles should we put on this cake for you, Isla?’

‘I think five candles, Mummy, ‘cause I’m a big girl now!’

Jess dipped her finger in the icing and placed a small dollop on the tip of Isla’s nose. ‘Yes you are, you are a big girl now!’

They both laughed. For a moment, Jess felt present in the eye of the storm. She captured that flash and held it close to her heart, despite being weighed down by her debilitating emotional malaise.

She remembered when she’d first discovered she was pregnant with Isla. The birth of their daughter was a unique and joyous occasion and although she was without her London family, she had felt secure with Oliver and supported by his family members. For her, Isla was like a special gift from heaven. Despite her current state, Jess was determined to be the best mother possible.

Mixed feelings and guilt had plagued and burdened her after the birth. She had always thought that after giving birth there would be a natural attachment to her baby. However, she had struggled.

Breastfeeding was a chore at first and then totally impractical and worst of all, she was crushingly tired all the time. Despite her

efforts, nothing seemed to make a difference. Her doctors prescribed hormonal medications and even sleeping tablets, but her lethargy gained momentum and she struggled. No-one really listened to her or understood her predicament, not even Oliver.

She felt as if she was drowning in expectations. They needed the money and although she was only working part time as a nurse, she resented not being able to prioritise being a mother. She was like that lemon on the backyard tree, lonely and unsupported.

Jess’s reflections were disturbed when Oliver burst through the kitchen door. ‘There you are, covered in icing, I’m going to eat you all up… hmmm yum yum!’

Isla screamed for joy, trying to escape her father’s reach. ‘I’m coming to get you, li’l one… here I come!’

‘Enough, you two,’ Jess chided, ‘the guests will be here and there’s so much to do. Oh please, don’t get her riled up, Oliver. Do something useful to help me, for a change.’

Oliver went to reply but thought better of it. He could see and hear in her voice that Jess was not quite herself.

‘Alright then, how can I help?’

‘You shouldn’t have to ask, Oliver, just look around!’

Isla didn’t like it when her parents spoke like this. After all, in her mind she was made up of her mum and her dad and she felt sad when they were critical of each other.

More frequently, she had become clever at managing their conflict by diverting their attention. ‘Daddy, let’s make the fairy bread.’

‘Good idea, princess, my favourite job!’

Before long the kitchen table was laden with all sorts of wonderful treats: coloured fairy bread, sweet biscuits, a multi-tiered cupcake stand, bowls of treats including frogs in red and green jelly ponds and plates full of warm party pies, sausage rolls and frankfurters. Soon after, the joyful, happy cries of children bearing gifts for Isla engulfed the kitchen.

Whilst Oliver was at the front door greeting guests, his sister Olivia and her husband Richard rolled up in their brand-new 1955 Chevy Bel Air. It was a stunning piece of machinery with a fetching red duco, quite the addition to the streetscape on Stradbroke Avenue. Olivia alighted from the vehicle wearing a form-fitting apricot sheath dress, finished with a pearl necklace and a turtle brooch. Arriving at the front door, she peered over her turquoise horn-rimmed sunglasses, air-kissing Oliver’s cheeks. ‘You know that I’m here for Isla, darling, after all, I am her favourite godmother.’

Richard raised his eyebrows and smirked at Oliver, tipping his grey Akubra hat.

‘Fancy set of wheels, old boy!’ Oliver ribbed him.

Richard smiled, ‘Well, you know we real estate agents need to look the goods and after all, I am the primary breadwinner!’

Olivia scoffed as she headed into the party, ‘And the primary spender, it seems!’

‘If only,’ sighed Richard.

Isla immediately spotted her aunt and uncle in the hallway and dashed up to Olivia, hugging her legs. Olivia crouched down, giving her a warm embrace. ‘Happy birthday, beautiful girl! You are so grown up.’

Isla smiled. ‘You know, Aunt Ollie, I’m going to school this year and I’m going to learn how to read and write properly.’

Oliver butted in, ‘And learn piano, li’l one!’

‘Yes, yes, Daddy, I promise, I am going to be the best piano player ever.’ Jess navigated through the army of children and greeted Olivia and

Richard, who had made it as far as the drawing room. Although Jess appeared warm and inviting, Olivia could tell by her strained features and puffy eyes that something was not quite right.

Oliver provided drinks for his guests and clapping his hands to gain attention, announced that a game of pin the tail on the donkey was about to commence. Isla was first to play and caused much laughter when she managed to pin the tail on the donkey’s nose.

‘You made me so dizzy, Daddy!’ she said, removing her blindfold. Oliver laughed, giving her a big hug. ‘You are too funny, li’l one.’

The sounds of shrieking children were silenced by Jess ringing a small service bell.

‘Everyone, into the kitchen, it’s time for food!’

The tidal wave of children approached the kitchen, all vying for spots next to the party girl. A sea of hands clawed at the carefully designed party plates of food, amidst much laughter. Jess and Oliver dutifully assisted the children with their food and soft drinks, whilst Olivia took charge of the Kodak Brownie. Richard located a spot in the kitchen corner, sipping on his malt whisky, wishing he were at home listening to his favourite radio show, HSV-7’ s weekly sports program. Aunty Elsie snuck in late via the back door, sidled up to Richard and commenced chewing his ear about the coming football season and her favourite Collingwood players. Richard pretended to listen intently, whilst knocking back a few mouthfuls of scotch.

‘Smile,’ said Olivia to the children gathered around the table with cheesy grins and mouths full of sugary delights.

‘I bet you wouldn’t give up your day job for this, sis,’ smirked Oliver.

Olivia retorted, ‘Give me obstetrics any day, little brother. However, I am quite an accomplished photographer, if I do say so myself!’

Once the first wave of mayhem passed, the next one followed. Time for the birthday cake. The children gathered around Isla whilst Oliver carefully lit the five candles on the decorated cake. Silence momentarily captured the room. Each child watched the flickering flames, the magical lights bouncing off Isla’s face. The flash of the camera added to the atmosphere, and Oliver sang happy birthday with a chorus of Isla’s friends. Filling her lungs, she blew out all five candles in one hit, looking up at her parents proudly.

Oliver and Jess crouched down beside her and Jess whispered in her ear, ‘Here is the fun part, Isla. Now be careful. Cut the cake but not right down to the bottom, and then make your special wish. If you touch the bottom, your wish will be broken, so be very careful.’

Isla glanced at her parents, feeling safe and secure. Everyone watched on in silence, waiting for her to cut the cake. She squeezed her bright blue eyes tightly, looked up to the heavens, took a deep breath and made her wish.

Opening her eyes, she smiled at her parents. ‘You know if I tell you, it won’t come true?’

Oliver kissed her on the cheek. ‘We know, li’l one. We know.’