Four Doors Down
A short story by Kay Scherpenhuizen

I heard a band of angels while sitting in our outside toilet. It wasn't an ordinary host of angels. There were no sopranos, altos or tenors, hallelujahs or four-part harmonies. This was a pub brand of choir with a 'let it all hang out' attitude. Masculine, meaty, loud, and strangely, balladeers of Irish song. Of course, I didn't know they were angels at the time. It wasn't as if I'd actually seen them floating through the air with harps, golden tressed, and robed in white. But angels come in all sorts of packages and they'd turned up in Glebe, four doors down…

We had moved to Sydney on a whim several months earlier because of one of those 'feelings' I often have. I'm not exactly what you would call clairvoyant in the crystal ball sense, but I do exercise my intuition regularly and every feeling I've had or prediction I've made, has eventually turned out to be accurate. I just knew we had to go to Sydney. We looked upon this safari north as an adventure and ourselves as pioneers. So we closed our gift shop by the sea, packed the trailer, loaded the animals, and headed off.

We camped at an inner-Sydney-suburban caravan park where we'd arrived on the morning of St. Patrick's Day. It was a sign. I just didn't know it then. It was 7am, sunny, hot, and humid. I was more concerned with a fretting cat, a wandering dog, and making friends with the big, pony-tailed bikie who ran the place.

My boyfriend, Poss, put together a makeshift gypsy kitchen at the back of the trailer and we all slept in a four-man tent. Conditions seemed less than satisfactory if one forgot that we were adventuring pioneers.

After five days and nights and no luck in searching for a new abode, the cat got squished under an anonymous tyre. She was pronounced dead, dead and squished, when I found her on the sixth morning. Another sign surely but what did it signify? She'd been my little baby, my pal. My partner in debate. And now here she was, lying on the side of the road. Squished flat. How humiliating for her. Our puss Pushkin. This was no demise for such a grand cat. I wanted to send her off in the finest manner. But I couldn't see why she chose to perish now, just when friends were so scarce.

I decided that a ceremony 'at sea' in the back canal that ran along the edge of the park was appropriate for this refined, furry lady. She would find peace in a watery grave. With Poss away at work, the dog and I stood over Pushkin, blessed her little heart, and then I threw her across the fence to her final resting place in the Rockdale Canal.

But alas, cats don't sink. They bloat. I know that now. And canals have nets draped across them so that debris can't be swept out to sea. I learnt that too. Our fabric abode on the banks of the canal with the bloated cat had now greatly lost its appeal. The rain had set in. We needed to find a place more habitable than this. I prayed to Pushkin for help.

Pushkin, I reminded myself, was my friend, albeit a dead, floating, feline one, and with her newly acquired angels wings, I was positive she could fly over Sydney and find the home destined for us. After all, why do our loved ones pass over if not to help us in some way? Well, I was eager to try out my theory at any rate. It helped make her death feel less senseless. Quite soon after I'd made my request to my new patron saint Pushkin, we found our place in Glebe. Another sign.

The house was a dive, in terms of what we had been used to. But the two-hundred-dollar-a-week unrenovated, single-story, cold water, one-bedroom, outside-toilet, terrace house complete with roaches and other assorted wildlife, was a bargain for Glebe, which is where we wanted to live. So thank you Pushkin. At least it had sturdy walls, no leaks in the bedroom, and a backyard for JoJo. We were grateful. We were home. We were where we were meant to be.

And so it was there that night, sitting on the drop toilet, that I heard the voices of the manly, angel choir echo and bounce around the brick-fenced, courtyard. The dog pricked his ears and turned his black head sideways. I listened. Curiosity may have killed my cat, but it was time for me to see the faces behind the voices. I tuned into the direction the sound was coming from and followed it to a pub four doors down.
I had often passed by the mint-green and glass doors of this corner pub, but failed to find the courage to step inside. A shy stranger in town, the stares of men in overalls intimidated me. And men in overalls seemed to be the main clientele of this particular establishment - at least through the day. I also harboured guilt from the recollection of too many beers and bourbons swallowed in too many hotels in my wicked youth. I was just not used to being by myself in a pub anymore. Long gone was the call of the whiskey fairies beckoning me to enter their dens of spirit and trickery. Long gone was my allergy to alcohol. The only technicolour yawn I was used to these days was the type brought on by watching Elvis movies on Saturday afternoons.

Nonetheless, this evening, I found myself standing outside the pub alone, the closed mint-green doors before me, peering through the glass at the fearless. I pushed through. Once inside, the faceless manly voices lurched higher and louder, reaching for an impossible note in the chorus of Waltzing Matilda. I grimaced. I found myself a spot at the bar and wedged myself in. I was still scared. I would not have been scared if Poss had come. But he was busy. Busy Poss.

I ordered raspberry lemonade. Taking my first sip, I nervously eyed the room, peeping over the edge of my glass, hiding behind its rim, imagining myself invisible. And I watched. 'And waited 'til the billy boiled…'
I wondered where the singers that belonged to the voices I'd heard in my toilet were, when a parting of the ways revealed a circle of guitarists seated on wooden café chairs. And there was my band of angels. I still didn't know they were angels then. But by night's end I would.
There were seven of them - six boys and one girl. I say boys and girls because, despite seeming to be aged between twenty and forty, all had an innocence about them usually reserved for children. One guitarist - the announcer - was Irish; another seemed an exotic human concoction; two were very Australian - singing bush songs, one appeared to be an olive-skinned Italian; the percussionist perhaps also Australian, and the girl just seemed like an angel to me. She certainly sang like one. Wherever they were from, it was obviously a melting pot of ideas and cultures.

They didn't place themselves high up on a stage as some performers prefer but rather, on the ground level with their audience. At first I thought this was strange, because I'd never seen it before, but then I realised that the musicians had no desire to be apart from their audience because the revelers were a collective member of their band too. They showed an open and welcoming display of generosity. At least it explained the footy-club choir - there were more than just seven people singing at any given time.
Each of the seven guitarists took it in turns to sing. As unique and individual as their styles seemed to be, their unmistakable passion was shared and it pulsated through the crowd like a strobe light on a disco floor. They didn't mind if somebody occasionally sang out of key or strummed an odd bum note. Musicianship didn't matter. What mattered was that they were translators for mankind through their music. These songsters had shifted the perceptions of a cross-cultured people and for a moment, unified them. The pub was playing host to a dozen nationalities, creeds and cultures, but the musicians marched their audience across the borders of nationalism and for one night, all became citizens of the world.

I had a coat-hanger smile. I could not say how I was feeling at that moment. I felt joy and pride, for sure, but pride for what? For being an Aussie? For being a fellow singer (although an altogether jaded one prior to this night)? Or for living four doors down from an amazingly happy place? I felt deep rumblings of excitement emerge from within. I wanted to be a part of this happening, to sing with them, to celebrate like them. I may have retired from my own musical career four years earlier, but I did not feel like retiring tonight. I knew I'd been led to some good medicine, but scars from the past were inhibiting my desire to join in. Perhaps I did need an angel or seven…
Yes I'd been a singer all my life. Until I turned thirty. My father had said, in short, 'get a haircut and get a real job' when I'd announced my foray into professional singing. Their echo had seemed to try to convince me over the years. And I thought that voice of reason had finally won. I'd been happy. Content in my little shop of gifts. Before I moved on. But maybe that contentment had existed precisely because the desire to create music had been buried sufficiently under a pile of weedy rubble. Nowhere to be found. Hidden under rocks. You can't know what you're missing if that desire is concealed deep, deep underground.

But now, standing here in this pub, toe-deep in broken glass and shoeshine beer, something told me that this world - the world of music - was something I needed to be a part of again. The search and rescue mission had begun.
A longhaired, ruby-cheeked girl bumped into me and jolted my thoughts back to the present. With a beer in one hand and her best friend in the other, she turned and said with a strong, Irish lilt, 'Hi! Sorry about that. The band's great aren't they. Friends of mine. I sing with them occasionally. I play in a duo with the girl in the band. I'm travelling out here at the moment. What do you do?'
'I'm a singer.' I answered simply.

There. I'd said it. Kay's a singer. And the butterflies unfolded from a long-cocooned sleep. It was almost as if God had led this Irish songstress stranger into the ruins of my abandoned inner-apartment, and she'd carried me out into the light single-handedly. It was another sign. The truth about my self could no longer be hidden from myself. Kay's a singer. Good Lord, I'm a singer! And this Irish girl had managed, in one small bump, to force me to admit what I'd long denied. The luck of the Irish.
She spoke again, 'Why don't you get up and have a sing with these guys?'

I mumbled and ummed my way through a collection of excuses until I finally responded with an audible, comprehensible, 'No thanks.' It was one thing to recognise a desire, it was quite another to do anything about it.
'Oh go on! It will be fun. These guys will let you, you know. Anybody is welcome to get up and have a go here. This is a session. They play here every week and they invite people to sing with them. That's what it's all about. People love it. Why don't you get up? Come on, have a go…'

My pounding heart shook the foundations of the pub and drummed out the girl's pleadings. I wanted to sing. I didn't want to sing. I couldn't even think what to sing. I just stood still, too scared to open my mouth. It was birdcage-floor dry. I needed a whiskey. A seat. A bridge to jump off. A prayer to Pushkin.
I replied, 'Maybe next week.'

The Italian-looking man with the microphone stood on his chair. He was singing.
'When the night has come, and the land is dark, and the moon is the only light you'll see… no I won't be afraid, no I won't shed a tear, just as long as you stand by me…'

His voice was honest and strong. He commanded people watch him. His chest heaved with each heartfelt breath he took. He was singing the only way he knew how - straight up and as it comes - like bourbon swigged from the bottle. No measured delivery, just an out-pouring of the spirit within. It was brilliant to watch him. A brilliant spirited storm.

I was once told that I sang with a storm inside, but I'd always been in the eye of the storm, inside looking out. At times I was a hurricane, demolishing everything in my path, hungry for approval, admiration, and new conquests, never stopping to see the trail of destruction from riding roughshod over everything - and everyone - around me. I was blind to my actions, asleep. But then one day the storm was over. I made sure of it. I didn't want to be a storm anymore. I didn't want to crave for success and acclaim so badly that it hurt. My passion had consumed me. I didn't like what I'd become. It was time to finish it. I couldn't see a way to sing and feel joy at the same time. I'd lost the point of why I'd become a singer in the first place. So I retired. Joyless. I shoved all musical memories, all desires underground. No gravestone. No funeral. I had wanted to be a singer at all costs and that was at odds with my basic happy personality. I'd been at war with myself.
My friends and family will tell you how I changed over time; that I'd missed birthdays and celebrations in order to gig; that I distanced myself from relatives and childhood friends because they were no longer cool; that I wore what people told me to at the demise of my own style; that I was continually grumpy with rage; and how I ended up at the psychotherapist's pissed-off and mentally paralysed. I was unable to move forward. I could not go back. Checkmate.

I'd never forgiven myself for not being the kind of rock-goddess my songwriter friends were inventing. I'd never forgiven myself for not being the country and western singer my parents had hoped I might be. I'd never forgiven myself for not being just plain old me. But watching this boy sing, so natural, just happy to be, with no pretensions, was like receiving a vitamin B shot in the arm.
And the others in the band were the same too. They played with such inner harmony, completely comfortable and aware of what they were doing - just having fun. Nothing more, nothing less. This was streets and pathways from where I'd traveled. It was like reaching an oasis and finding a full, fresh-water well, after months, years even, trekking across baron sand dunes on a camel, by your self, in a deserted desert.
This was an important discovery for me. I'd been so used to egos trumpeting and mouths blazing self-glorification. But there was no room for that here. The place was already full and a no-vacancy sign hung on each chair. It was full of love. Love for just being able to pick up a guitar and have a sing. Love because they were sharing ideas. Love because they were not alone in uniting their audience. Love because they were at ease with themselves. And they said to the audience, 'Don't put us on pedestals. We're just like you. The common man just having a go, doing what we do, slurpin' on beer at the end of a work day and having fun. Join us won't you?' And I wanted to.

The Italian pointed his microphone to the squawking open mouths of the chicks in the audience. I could see the Irish girl and her friend, arms flailing about like octopuses in a whirlpool, trying to catch the singer's attention. In a millisecond, I suddenly found the microphone shoved into my gob. Gob-smacked. The chicks chirped, 'Sing! Sing!' And so I sang.

I sang like a southern mammy in a Baptist church on Sunday. I sang out so hard that the bottles of liquor lined up along the bar tinkled. I let out that storm hiding inside of me and watched it swirl up into the smoke-filled ceiling above and rattle the chains of ghosts from a hundred Christmases past. I hollered out my hallelujahs. I sounded my horns. I waved my 'get out of jail free' card to the prison guards who had kept my passion for singing under lock and key. Full tilt boogie. And the people cheered. And I was home. Healed.

We went to Sydney on a hunch. I didn't know where the gypsy caravan of adventure would lead us, but Pushkin did and that's why she had to die, to help me read the signs that were there. It was she who led me to my destiny on the wings of a prayer. She knew where to find the music angels - a band of healing angels that rescued me in a pub four doors down.


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