Maria Ma­jsa’s timely music choices

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This is my first mem­ory. I am 4. I’m stand­ing in a cor­ner of the kitchen. It is evening, prob­a­bly winter, be­cause the lights are on. I’m star­ing at the floor, which is a gi­ant che­quer­board of black and white lino. My mother keeps it ex­cep­tion­ally clean. She gets down on her hands and knees with an old cloth and a bucket of soapy wa­ter and washes it at night. There are jokes about floors be­ing so clean you could eat off them, but my mother’s floors re­ally were that clean. She’s on the floor now, but she’s not clean­ing. She’s ly­ing on her side, eyes shut, wait­ing for it to be over. I want to do some­thing, but I’m scared, so I stay in the cor­ner and watch.

My fa­ther works in a loud fac­tory full of ma­chines. When he comes home he smells like metal and grease and his nails are black un­der­neath. His boots are al­ways dirty and my mother doesn’t like it when he wears them inside, but he does any­way. His fin­gers make black smudges all over the house; on the backs of chairs, on cup­board doors, on han­dles and taps. My mother spends a lot of time scrub­bing the marks off.

I’m not sure where my brother is. He might be un­der a bed or be­hind the couch. Some­times we hide to­gether. Once my brother got him­self in be­tween them, but even that didn’t stop the fight.

The shout­ing has stopped and it’s quiet. I know she’s hurt and I wish I knew what to do. I stare at the floor so I don’t have to look at him stand­ing there; he seems to reach the ceil­ing. Soon he will grab his keys, slam­ming the door on his way out. But he’s not done yet. There’s an ache in my throat like when you’re try­ing hard not to cry. I want to say some­thing to make him stop, but I’m afraid he’ll re­mem­ber I’m there and get an­gry with me and I don’t want him to no­tice me, ever.

In the same kitchen of the same sub­ur­ban house, there is a ra­dio in a brown leather case on the bench. My mother turns it on dur­ing the day when my fa­ther has left for work, and the house feels dif­fer­ent. One morn­ing as I’m get­ting ready for school, a song comes on the ra­dio. It opens up some­thing inside me that feels like an ac­tual place I can go. I don’t know what the song is called or who sings it, but I be­come ob­sessed with it. When­ever I hear it, I stop what I’m do­ing and turn up the vol­ume. I lean on the bench, head rest­ing on my arms, and lis­ten to Penny Lane.

I re­mem­ber the sound draw­ing me in, al­though at the time I prob­a­bly couldn’t have ex­plained why. The music had a whim­si­cal light­ness; it un­folded in a gen­tle, or­derly way, like a walk through town, or a story be­ing told. There was some­thing sad and sweet in its day­dreamy fu­sion of im­ages; a kalei­do­scope of sum­mer and winter, sun­shine and rain, in­no­cence and know­ing­ness, all piled up.

In Penny Lane there were blue skies, pretty nurses and laugh­ing chil­dren. There was a sense of some­thing shared and hu­man. It seemed wel­com­ing. Safe. It sounded like a place I wanted to be.

The song is a mon­tage of mem­o­ries from Paul McCart­ney’s child­hood and the Liver­pool neigh­bour­hood where he grew up. It’s steeped in nos­tal­gia, and that feel­ing is re­flected in the way his voice rises up­ward for the cho­rus just as the key shifts down, cre­at­ing a wist­ful sense of dis­tance. I con­nected en­tirely with that feel­ing, al­though I prob­a­bly ex­pe­ri­enced it more as a long­ing for the child­hood I should have been hav­ing.

Penny Lane al­ways brought up a knot of con­fus­ing feel­ings in me that were dif­fi­cult to un­pick. It still does now. There is a deep sense of in­jus­tice, an over­whelm­ing urge to be else­where, and the cu­ri­ous sen­sa­tion that some­one out there was liv­ing my life in­stead of me; no doubt hav­ing a much bet­ter time.


The pocket of East Auckland I grew up in was a bland new de­vel­op­ment burst­ing with kids. We lived in vari­a­tions of the same tin-topped weath­er­board box on ma­rine-themed streets. We played bull­rush and go-home-stay-home un­der the mor­tal hum of power py­lons; oc­ca­sion­ally some­one would be dared to climb one and have to be res­cued by the fire de­part­ment.

My best friend Tracey lived on the same street as our school. Her house, down a long drive­way, wasn’t like the oth­ers. It was in­ter­est­ing and gen­er­ous and her fam­ily was, too. They threw par­ties and in­vited neigh­bours over for drinks in their lounge with the mas­sive stone fire­place and the pic­ture win­dow. They went on hol­i­days, all of them to­gether, camp­ing and wa­ter-ski­ing. They had dogs, cats, guinea pigs, a car­a­van and a boat. They were ev­ery­thing our fam­ily was not. I spent as much time there as I could with­out arous­ing sus­pi­cion or con­cern.

Tracey had a twin sis­ter, and two older broth­ers who were tanned and hand­some in that tou­sled 70s way. The boys used to chase the twins and me around for sport. When they caught us, they would sit on us and tickle us till we cried, which was quite ex­cit­ing. Oc­ca­sion­ally they upped their game, form­ing a run­way on the lounge floor with cush­ions and mak­ing us sprint down it one at a time while they clubbed us with rolled-up news­pa­pers, which was ter­ri­fy­ing but also ex­cit­ing.

There was al­ways music at Tracey’s house. In sum­mer her broth­ers opened the win­dows, cranked up the vol­ume and played Bowie, Pink Floyd and T. Rex; songs re­bound­ing like a mini-Glas­ton­bury around their gar­den. One hot af­ter­noon as Tracey and I lay on the grass un­der the wil­low tree, I heard the de­scend­ing pi­ano

In Penny Lane there were blue skies, pretty nurses and laugh­ing chil­dren. There was a sense of some­thing shared and hu­man. It seemed wel­com­ing. Safe. It sounded like a place I wanted to be.

Maria Ma­jsa, pho­tographed by her hus­band, Patrick Reynolds, in the gar­den.

The au­thor and her brother Paul, in the 1960s.

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