FICTION: Muse by S. D. Jones

Okay. Tell me about it. Start at the beginning.

It started with Cat. With Catherine. But it’s more than just her. It’s about the music too. Though I know now that the two are so intertwined that there isn’t the one without the other; without Catherine there wouldn’t have been the music and without the music there wouldn’t have been Cat.

She was Catherine to the others but Cat to me. Always Cat.

How can I explain?

Do you know the story of Ariadne? She gifted Theseus a ball of thread and a sword. Then he killed the Minotaur. She gave him everything and in return he abandoned her on the island of Naxos.

I suppose you can’t fault the Australian education system. I mean you wouldn’t think it from how I look and what I do, but I am well read. I understand the balances in life, the iniquities of our society, and the necessity of creating a certain world-view. Not that education makes all that much of a difference. Even if I were illiterate I would have found a way through. There are just some things you have to do.

So who is Catherine?

It’s difficult to say. Do you have time?

Right.

Her father named her Catherine. He was a minor academic at the University of Wollongong. He held her in his arms, on that first day, and said: She’ll be devoted to me.

But when, as the years went by, he saw her blooming intelligence and curiosity he was frightened by it. He could see that she was already so much more than he ever was.

He decided to do something to kill the joy of growth.

By the time she was fourteen she had grown used to his abuse, to the frustrated tirades, the shouting. She saw through his posturing, to the weakness at his core. But it must have hurt her, that first disillusionment in someone she had trusted.

Not that it was all bad. There was also the ocean, and the beaches. The warm-yellow sand and the deep cerulean water. Sometimes there would be dolphins, out beyond and across the waves, their dark fins breaching the surface as they swam and rolled and dove.

How do you know all this?

She told me. Though maybe I’ve imagined some of the details over the years. It’s just such a vivid picture. It must have been that way.

Then what happened?

She still wanted to leave, to get away from the confines of her home town. She was happy when the time came when she could leave the coast and travel the two or so hours up to Sydney to attend the University. Her grades were good, and she had always worked hard. She moved into on-campus housing and started to meet new people. Which is where I came in.

There was a party. There were always parties in those days. It was at the apartment that I shared with a few mates, just down the road from the University. One of them was DJ Irk, though we just called him Greg at the time. There was beer, some music playing on the loudspeakers. A neighbour had already complained, but we had a few hours until the cops would show.

She walked in with a friend. For the life of me, I can’t remember who it was. I just see a black t-shirt and a blur where a face should be. All I saw was Cat. And she was Cat then; bright eyes and a sharp smile that made my mind ring with music. She sucked the air out of the room, so that I was suffocating just looking at her. She had a ring high on her right ear. It seemed to glint in the dim lighting, when she tucked her hair back with the forefinger of her right hand.

I turned and she wasn’t there any more. The music kept playing.

Irk started to play and a stage formed, an empty space. I joined him and we started a set. I thought I was good in those days. It felt good too, there wasn’t much self-consciousness in my singing.

But I see now that it was all pretence. The lyrics were just variations of the things I had heard, things I thought the others would like. There was too much unjustified anger. Still, I had a couple of songs written and a few of my friends thought they were pretty good.

That night when I sang to my friends in that room, alternating stuff I’d already written and improvisations, off the cuff rhymes, something felt different. I wanted to impress the girl who had suffocated me with a smile. When I was done the people in the crowd smiled and laughed and some even clapped. It was enough to make me feel light and warm, as if there were a fire burning in the cavity of my chest. Someone else started to sing. I went to get a beer.

There was a man there who introduced himself, a bloke who had worked with a few of the bigger bands. Irk knew him through work somehow. You know how these things happen. But he was in the industry, he knew the people. He had hung out with the Hilltop Hoods, even knew them by name. He was pretty short, and a little tubby. He looked more like an accountant than a musician, but I was impressed. I drank quickly as we spoke.

‘Hey, that was pretty good,’ he said.

‘Just trying a few things out.’

‘Yeah well, it was pretty good.’

The other singer had stopped now; it hadn’t gone too well for him but at least people were supportive. There were some nods and then the playlist went back on. The man looked back at me. For a moment I thought that maybe he’d say something big, give me a number to call. Instead he stood there with a soft little smile.

‘Yeah?’ I said. He nodded again.

‘You should look at sending something out.’

‘You think?’

‘Just one good song, that’s all you need. Something real.’

I didn’t say anything. Or if I did it wasn’t anything much. The little accountant man looked at me a while longer, then around the room.

‘Just do something okay,’ he said.

‘Right, I will.’

‘Just do something.’ He disappeared into the crowd.

Like I said, it wasn’t anything big, but it was enough. A little push. I went to get another drink.

‘Can I have one?’ She asked. I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I just handed her the beer.

‘So you sing?’

‘Sure.’

‘Hip hop’s fine as long as there’s a story. You need a story.’

‘Yeah?’

‘I like songs to say something.’ She laughed. It was a good laugh, a laugh with heart and joy built in. I laughed too.

‘So what should the story be?’

‘Anything. There aren’t that many good ones. The greeks wrote them all up. Try writing me. Make me happy, but.’

‘I’ll have to get to know you better then.’

‘You can’t know me. But you can try.’

We started spending time together after that. Not an enormous amount — we weren’t dating — but we’d meet; sometimes we’d see each other in an old bookstore, sometimes at a café. She would do most of the talking and I’d listen. I loved watching her eyes when she said something she found funny, the way they creased up at the corners. Slowly I got to know her. Sure, we’d cancel on each other, sometimes I’d been drinking too much, but I always knew that we would reschedule.

There was something about her. Everyone liked her, from the waiters in restaurants to the people we’d meet on the street. A tall sickly-looking man at the art gallery came up to her and spent five minutes discussing the impressionists in Paris in the ‘20s and their relationship to famous writers. When I asked her who he was she laughed.

‘I don’t know. Never met him before. But he was interesting for a moment.’

We moved off to look at the modern art.

And the music?

During that time I was writing constantly. Anytime I could get away I was at my desk or on the keyboard. I usually had a drink, but the coffee would grow cold and the beer would get warm as I ignored it for the words. I kept thinking about what the man at the party had said: Just one good song, that’s all you need.

I was working at a café, but I knew it was just a matter of time until they fired me. The decaf lattes and hipster brunches didn’t matter. I was too distracted; nothing seemed real to me, the world was just shades of grey.

Of course the lyrics weren’t flights of brilliance; I was still working things out. I needed to know how to put into place a framework in which I could say what it was I needed to say. Irk helped me out there, sometimes hearing the music really helped.

What? Oh yeah, I think I’ve got something here. I wrote this song after I spent an evening drinking with Cat in a bar down the road from my apartment:

There’s a place in my heart where I need you to be

A part of myself that I need you to see.

There’s a picture of you that I have in my head

That I’ll carry with me after I’m dead.’

You see what I mean. But it was a start. The song went well with a soft beat I was working with at the time; it started slow then rose to a powerful chorus. But it was too cliché, smacked too much of false romance. The real thing came later.

Cat decided that she was going to cook for me. One evening she arrived at my door with a grey shopping bag full of groceries. Irk had gone to see a gig. She made a salad and we watched tv and drank cool bottles of beer. We were sitting on a stained red futon under a flickering overhead bulb that I’d forgotten to replace. The corners of the room were draped in shadow. Then — as naturally as if we’d discussed it beforehand — I was holding her and she was pushing herself up towards me. There was a rhythm to our movements. She pulled back and I saw that same cutting smile on her face. And it was like I was suffocating all over again. A tune started to play in my mind.

Afterwards, when she was asleep in my bed, I got up and went to my desk. The music was still there and with it came an overwhelming need to write. I drank and I wrote. The song began to take shape, to become more complex. After what seemed like minutes I heard her moving in her sleep. I looked back at my notes and realised that I was done. I took my warm beer and softly lay down on the bed next to her. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get to sleep.

She left in the early morning. Things went back to a variation of normal. We didn’t talk about it. We weren’t dating, though we’d occasionally sleep together.

Meanwhile Irk and I worked on the song. He confirmed what I already knew: it was good. It was the one real thing. There was an excitement to those days that I could barely suppress; I felt giddy, elated. We worked up a few more tunes, but they all came off of the back of that first piece. Finally, after some rented studio time, it was ready. We sent the song — our first single — to a local radio station.

That was the song. I never really came back from that one. It was my first and best. There was something simple, something honest about it. I sang to a beat and people responded. I can only give you a single line, the last one:

Knowledge of you is the knowing myself’

Well you probably know what happened next. The song was good and people wanted to hear it, would pay to hear it. We got signed and had an album commissioned. Irk and I went to work.

All the while I held Cat and that first night we’d spent together in my head. The songs didn’t need to be about her, there just had to be a truth in them that was in some way associated with her presence, with who she was. When there was something of Cat in them things went well.

You were a success?

I became known. Well as known as you can be in the field. I know that Aussie hip-hop has it’s limitations — my brand of music doesn’t have a huge following, especially outside of Australia — but it was enough. I had a voice. Irk too, though he was happy working in the background, he didn’t want to share too much of the limelight. I worked under the stage name Faux Us, pronounced Faustus.

And Catherine?

The album had just come out. Irk and I were happy, ecstatic even. We drank with new friends and supporters every night. Then, suddenly, Catherine disappeared. It was as if from one day to the next I had lost the most important part of who I was. You’ll think I’m lying but I just didn’t understand what had happened. There was no fight, no explanation. She stopped seeing me. Stopped taking my calls. She had vanished from my life.

I tried to find out what had happened but to search, to beg, well it seemed like too much of a blow to my newfound sense of self-worth. My pride stopped me from physically seeing her, from showing up at her apartment. Anyway, I was busy consolidating my unexpected success.

Did you ever discover what had happened?

Later, much later. I asked her. We were sitting on the sofa in her house. Her house that felt so much like a home with its children’s toys and throw pillows, that was everything I wanted and could never have. My hands were shaking as I asked, so much so that I was worried I’d spill the wine that I was drinking. I ended up staring down at my sneakers. They were nice sneakers — white with a silver line down the side — but they seemed out of place. I felt suddenly far too old to be wearing them. And from that thought I asked her what had happened.

‘What do you mean?’ she said. Her eyes opened a little; they were still beautifully honey-coloured, though now there were a few thin lines running from their edges. Years of laughter that I’d missed.

‘Why did you leave?’ I asked. She looked at me as though I had said something completely unexpected, something incomprehensible. I took a sip of wine. It tasted oddly metallic.

‘I didn’t leave. I thought you knew that. I hadn’t thought it was a big thing, what we were doing. Then I realised that you did. It was just that you wanted something more and I couldn’t be that. I thought you understood that, Michael.’

I hadn’t known what to say. We sat in silence for a while. Outside I could hear a police car’s siren. There was a shout from one of the children playing in the street. Her husband walked back into the room and I was happy to stand.

But that was later. Much later. I was talking about when the music took off.

Right.

Like it or not I was too distracted to think about having lost Catherine. We had started to play small venues: Sydney Uni, the Marlborough Hotel…We played the Alexandria and it was the first time I looked down on a packed room; I could see dozens of mouths open, red and spittle flaked, opening and closing, soundlessly singing the verses with me. We had fans, actually fans, and that validation meant something.

We kept playing, kept touring, and when our album was released a few people bought it. I had a career, and it was all based on her. We played bigger venues, travelled farther. I rented a nicer apartment: three rooms and a balcony. All of a sudden it was okay that I didn’t have another source of income.

But I still missed her. I missed our connection. And there was a need to continue producing. I had only just had a taste of what it was to create, to do something that felt truly worthwhile.

There were others that wanted me to keep on making music. Triple J invited us to interview and the interviewer — who looked so young in that studio— asked pointedly when the next single would drop. But without Catherine what could I do? I tried to write. Irk pushed me along, stood by me, but nothing that we had experienced, none of the excitement or the respect came close to providing me with the same creative flow that I got from Cat.

What happened next?

During that time, after the initial exhilaration of success, when I was struggling to consolidate our new role as professional musicians, I lost all track of her. She had quit her studies and had moved, I didn’t know where. I wanted to respect her privacy, and maybe I didn’t want to know what had driven her away.

After a while I broke down, I found her on Instagram. It felt wrong, but I needed that connection. Something to link me to her. There were a few photos but nothing much. I couldn’t get any feeling from them of how her life was progressing; I didn’t know whether or not she was happy. She was the same person, there was still the same smile, the earring, but something wasn’t quite there; I didn’t feel that indefinable magic which had so inspired me.

Instead I internalised Cat, started thinking about her more often, picturing her in my head. I would see her reacting to the things I said, smiling when I made a joke. She was the invisible spectator to all my conversations, watching and assessing what I was saying. I made sure that whatever I did, whatever I said, would please the image I held of her.

Meanwhile I would try to create, but the only songs that worked — the only songs that made it off the page — were the ones that tapped into that idea of Cat. Something worked and we released another song. Our fans seemed to respond.

What was it called?

Reminded of You. You don’t know it? It started like this. Mind if I hum?

I saw your smile in a crowd today

despite the distance and the years,

though you’re no longer in the land of the red clay,

and in her smile there were none of your tears.

You were a little younger back then

and maybe she doesn’t share your fear,

but still it makes me happy to know

that you survive though details disappear.

That’s not to say I miss your touch,

This ain’t a damn, romantic line;

I just have trouble picturing your face,

So I like seeing it from time to time.’

It seemed to say something. I kept imagining that — wherever she was — Catherine would hear it and know that I was still thinking of her.

But the inspiration didn’t last. I had wrung out everything I could from myself and from my memory of her. Without Cat, without her physical presence, I was nothing. The image I had of her had lost definition; I’d lost the tune of her that I’d carried with me those past years.

The music flagged to the point that people forgot who we were; our songs weren’t played on the radio anymore. Whenever I met someone new they would invariably say something along the lines of: Oh, I remember.

Irk left the band. He moved up north, got a job as a PT. He surfs on the weekends. Has a kid too, if you can believe it. Occasionally he’ll mention the music to someone and sometimes he’ll get laid because of it. But I don’t see him very often anymore.

Where was she, Catherine?

Well like I said in the song, she wasn’t in Australia anymore. She was in Europe. She’d wanted to see more, to experience more. I guess it was like when she left Gerringong for Sydney, she had to experience more of what was out there.

I tried to write more songs, but there was nothing left. No spark. I downgraded my apartment, started living in a small studio in Redfern.

You kept trying?

I had to, if I gave up then what was there to show for any of it? My identity, my being was entirely wrapped up in the music. And, by extension, my identity was based on Cat. On Catherine.

I started drinking more. I’d stop in at the pub late most mornings. I told myself that if I could write a few lines while I was there, then it’d be worth it. Mostly I only drank.

Then, one day, after I’d left the pub (the bartender had given me a strange look), I started walking. Street after street I walked, aimlessly, until I found myself standing outside a coffee shop on King Street in Newtown. There was a mural on a wall of the adjacent alley: a beautifully painted woman in vivid colours, holding her hand out to a sparrow with outstretched wings. I stopped, was staring up at the mural, when I heard someone say my name. I turned and found a short, slightly overweight man standing next to me. Around us people walked quickly, occasionally stepping aside to avoid us. The man’s black hair was receding slightly; I noticed the way the sunlight shone on his high forehead.

‘Michael?’ he repeated. I tried to remember who he was. He was familiar but I had met so many people over the years; he didn’t look like a fan, and he had used my real name. I felt that there was an important link here that I was missing.

Then I pictured a sharp smile and delicate fingers pushing back a few strands of dark black of hair.

‘My name is James. You might not remember me…’

I let the years slip away and saw the small man who looked like an accountant in a crowd of jostling people. Write one good song.

‘Yes, I remember,’ I said. I took his outstretched hand and shook it.

‘I’ve heard your music,’ he said, ‘I enjoyed listening to it.’ He turned to look around.

“Look do you want to join me for a coffee?’ I nodded and we moved into the crowded coffee shop. There was a small open table near the window.

‘So what are you up to?’ I asked when he came back with our coffees.

‘I’m an accountant.’

‘Right.’

‘I had to grow up eventually,’ he said. I thought I heard a hint of something in his voice.

‘Right.’

‘Listen, I wanted to talk to you about my wife.’

‘Your wife?’ I said.

‘Yes, Catherine. You remember? She told me that you used to be friends.’ I nodded. I was numb. Catherine. Cat.

‘Sure, I remember,’ I said, after a moment that seemed like an age, ‘how is she?’

‘Better. She’s much better. But listen, she hasn’t been seeing many people since the illness. So I was wondering, would you like to come to dinner one of these nights? I’m sure she’d like to see you.’

‘Dinner? Yes, of course.’

‘Great. That’s fine. What’s your number? Okay, so I’ll text you the address. Let’s say Saturday? Fine.’ He finished his drink and stood. He pulled on his coat and looked down at me so that I could see the long black hairs curling down from his nostrils. He turned away.

‘Wait,’ I said, calling him back, ‘an illness?’

‘Cancer, Michael. See you Saturday.’

It took me a while to finish my coffee. Afterward I went outside and looked at the mural for a time before walking home.

The uber stopped outside a small one-storey Spanish house in the Eastern suburbs. It had a garden out front with a small bicycle lying on the lawn and a bench facing the street. I stood at the door for a long while before pressing the doorbell. Behind me the traffic continued to flow.

I had expected, had readied myself, for her to open the door. Instead there was James with an infant child in his arms.

‘Come on in Michael,’ he said. I stepped inside and stared down at the child in his arms. It had pudgy, round arms. A child that was much more a product of Catherine than my music ever had been. I waved my fingers over his face. He stared up at the wall over my shoulder.

‘Don’t mind him. I’ll just be a second. Down the corridor on the right.’ With that he disappeared. There were paintings on the wall, small depictions of outback scenes. I glanced, unseeing, at them as I walked down the corridor. There was an open door and beyond it, sitting on the sofa reading a book, was Catherine. She stood up when I coughed.

‘Michael! Or do you prefer Faustus now?’

‘It’s good to see you,’ I said. I drowned in the memory of her smell as she kissed my cheek. I felt the same lightly-powdered softness to her skin. Suddenly I was years younger and so infatuated that I couldn’t recognise that I wasn’t really in love.

She stepped back and I saw her whole. She was thinner than I remembered, and perhaps more self-possessed. There wasn’t the same devilry in her eyes. Despite all my rehearsed lines I fell back into the safety of small talk.

‘How are you Cat? I mean Catherine.’

‘You can call me Cat. It’s been a while since anybody has. It’s nice, makes me feel young again.’ She got up and walked out of the room. Somewhere in the house the baby started crying. She came back with two glasses of red wine.

‘Look your – James told me that…’

‘Sit down Michael.’

I did. I could hear the muffled sound of James speaking in soothing tones to the child.

‘Yes I was sick,’ she said. She didn’t look at me as she spoke. ‘But I’m in remission. And I’m happy. I know Jim brought you here because he thought… Well it doesn’t matter what he thought. I didn’t miss out on anything. Not a thing. I’m happy Michael.’

Laughter came from the other room.

‘I know you are.’

I looked around. The room was well furnished, much loved. There was a bookcase next to the sofa with a scattering of worn books and framed photographs. There was a comfort to that room that I didn’t recognise. A comfort I wanted.

‘So you don’t need me here.’

‘I’m happy to see you.’ There was a rustle of wings as a magpie landed outside on the lawn. I looked down at my shoes. I asked the question.

Ariadne married a god after Theseus left her at Naxos, the god Dionysus. Did you know that? The more I think about it, the more I think her story was not about Theseus — it was about what happened after. He was just a means for her to leave Crete. Perhaps, for her, the real story started afterwards. I imagine that she was happier living among the gods than she ever could have been with a mortal.

Why are you telling me this?

It’s just how I felt seeing that house. Seeing Catherine as she really was, after what she had been through, but still happy. She had lived in a way that I hadn’t. I’d been so consumed by this idea of who she was, and what we were, that I hadn’t allowed myself to experience anything. She, meanwhile, hadn’t yearned for me over the years — she had barely thought of me. If she had it was only with, perhaps, a passing fondness. No, she had lived an existence completely seperate from the one I had imagined for her. She had no more connection to my songs than the distorted illusion I fabricated for myself. And she was happier because of it.

We spent the rest of the evening comfortably, making small talk, acting like old friends, knowing that we would probably never see each other again.

I’m not sure why Michael had wanted me there. Maybe he had wanted Catherine to see how far she’d come. Maybe he felt sorry for me.

When she said goodbye to me on the doorstep Catherine had smiled and pulled her hair behind her ear. I thought about kissing her then but it was only a passing thought. My taxi was waiting at the end of the drive.

‘Where to?’ He asked.

‘The pub,’ I answered.

You were drinking?

Yeah. There were a few truths I had to face and I knew that I wouldn’t if I stayed sober. No that’s a lie, I just wanted to drink. But while I was drinking I did take some time to think. Sitting at the counter of the bar I realised then that I’d never write another good song. The ones I had written were flukes, they didn’t mean what I thought they did. It was all a mirage. Which meant that my life was a lie too. All of it was based on a lie. All of it was based on this person, Cat. But Cat had only ever existed in my imagination. There was a very real woman, a beautiful intelligent, extraordinary woman called Catherine, but I had never known her. I had just known the idea of her that I needed her to be. It wasn’t a realisation I liked, and so I did what I had always done in the past, I put the truth to the side. I drank. I drank more. And when I left the bar I went and I walked until I found myself staring up at that mural on King Street. That woman, with her hand outstretched, seemed as real to me as anyone I had ever met. I looked up at her, reached out to her. Then I felt my legs give way as I slid down the wall onto the sidewalk. I rolled by her feet with my face pressed against the wall. A couple walking by asked if I needed help. I guess they saw a drunk and wanted to do something to help. A nice younger couple, he was holding her hand at the time. I shouldn’t have yelled at them, shouldn’t have pushed him. They were just trying to help.

You assaulted him?

Yes. I pushed him and when he tripped I threw myself on him. He tried to get out from under me but I hit him and spit at him. He yelled and I yelled back, incoherent, horrible things.

She knocked me off him then and I didn’t try to get up. Just lay there and laughed as he scrambled to his feet. Then your people arrived.

And that was it?

That’s all that happened. It’s just that she wasn’t who I thought she was. My entire life, my work, was based on a fabrication.

Okay I’ve got all I need. You can head through that door now. Someone will be with you shortly.

I just thought you might need to know. About Cat. Catherine. So you could see why I acted the way I did. I did create Cat, but there was always Catherine too. I suppose I should have allowed her her peace.

Move along.

Where am I going?

Through that door.

glasses

S. D. Jones

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S. D. Jones is a Swiss/Australian writer currently living in Europe. He has recently completed a MSt at Cambridge University and is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University. Examples of his work can be found at STORGY Magazine, Typishly Literary Journal, Short Fiction Break, The Esthetic Apostle, Ink & Voices, SOFT CARTEL and The Drum Literary Magazine.’

You can find and follow S. D. Jones below:

Out Of Sight Speech

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If you enjoyed ‘Muse’ leave a comment and let S. D. Jones know.

You can read more of S. D. Jones writing below:

What Do You Want?

Fish

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Up To You

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Daiquiris:

https://www.inkandvoices.com/new-blog-2/2018/7/19/daiquiris

Nothing You Could Have Done:

https://typishly.com/2017/11/07/nothing-you-could-have-done/

Sara:

https://shortfictionbreak.com/sara/

Full of Light:

https://shortfictionbreak.com/full-of-light/

Neighbour (poem):

https://www.estheticapostle.com/neighbour

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