His Father's Fiddle
Joe Marshall warms slippered feet by morning fire, nursing pannikin tea. “Hot as hell, black as sin, sweet as a woman.” A dawn mantra. Old, alone, in a one-room Turon River hut, life hangs on bones of routine and ritual. The previous night’s call was not routine. Joe grunts, “A visitor…”, unfolds from the chair, cracks cup on laminex, and pulls his cot from the wall, “…man’s got things to do.” He pulls rolled hessian from behind the bed, and tips a wooden case out on the table. Dust mites dance in window sun. What does he want with the old tunes? He snaps the catches, watching old hands - Too old for this nonsense - and lifts the lid. In the rush of deep woody smell, Joe sheds fifty years. Old eyes catch the fire, seeing his instrument fighting fit, despite the neglect. His father’s fiddle.
Joe rosins the bow, and flicks across the strings, coaxing - creak - Come on old girl - crack - back into tune. Lost dreams float in fire haze. Joe’s hands once lifted dancers through endless, weightless, nights - little halls, wool-sheds, river flats up and down the Turon, over to Mudgee, even the big smoke of Bathurst. Made them shift. Now, his workingman arthritic fingers are slow to start, reluctant as his cold old FB ute. Tunes used to flow like the Turon… “Oh, yes…”, a Lazarus melody rises, “…Dad’s ‘Turon Mazurka’.” Joe scratches at the first phrase, grimacing at rusty pitching. Mother Magpie warbles critically from the Wattle, Joe taps her window with the bow, “Enough out of you.” He leans on an old habit, whistling the melody, fingers following. At the end of the first section, he falters - Old fool - whistles a dead end, lifts eyes, bow, for inspiration… Whistles again, and the second part rises like the Turon Sun, bowing growing a big-boned three-four, ancient timbers resonating. By the third time through, he is standing, bum to the fire, a hint of mazurka spring in slippered feet. Joe’s eyes close, watching river flat ghosts dance. Mrs Magpie smiles a counterpoint, and he laughs.
A vehicle sounds at the top gate, dissonant. The smile gone, Joe packs the fiddle and bow, snaps the case shut, and tucks it back under the bed. Just between us and the Maggie, Dad. He swings the kettle back over the fire.
Joe pours tea, “Weak and milky, you say Simon?”
“Thanks.” Simon is young, earnest, pushing “I only have today, Mr Marshall. Your violin tunes are very valuable.”
“I’m sorry, but the Arthur-itis…”
“Hmmm…” Simon is searching, “Do you have any children playing?”
“The second war.” Joe drifts to the fire.
Simon pulls him back, sharp, “It’d be a shame to see the tunes”, he contemplates the ancient bushman, “you know - lost.”
Joe leans forward, “I know where to find ‘em.”
Simon drains his cup, “Just one? Just to capture your style…”, unpacking a video camera, cables sprawling over blotchy lino.
Joe stiffens, “Style? I play like my father, son. What about you?”
“Grandfather taught me - um - fiddle.” Simon, easier, “Pop played the old ones. I’m more of a classical player - when I get time. Maybe just a picture of the fiddle, for posterity?”
“Yes. Well, I s’pose it’s around here somewhere.”
“Oh, that’s beautiful. French?”
“Me great-grandmother was French. It’s came out with her.”
“May I try?”
Simon rips fierce, arrogant arpeggios - corrugated iron screaming reverberant protest. Joe holds thumb, forefinger to temples, shielding his eyes. Simon pauses, pained, and peals a pitch-perfect slow aria, hollow in the little bush hut. He lifts the bow, shaking a lost, befuddled head. He runs four falling notes, falters again…
“I’m trying to remember one of Pop’s schottisches - ‘Click Go The Shears’?”
“Ah.” Watching the young man battle, Joe is back, struggling at his father’s side, learning the same tune. Dad had it as ‘Ring the Bell, Watchman’. He gently whisper whistles, tapping slippered toes in walking four-four. Simon catches the melody, and the care - and his fingers follow. Joe’s eyes smile, hearing the old dance pulse return to Simon’s bow. The walls sing, and Joe stands, bum to the fire.
“It’s a lovely fiddle, Mr Marshall.”
“Joe.” He reclaims his instrument. “Here’s one your Pop didn’t know.”
“But - your arthritis.”
“It eases as the day gets warmer.” Joe points his bow at the video recorder. “Can you use that thing?”
Simon clears cables with his foot, “My fiddle is in the car.”
“I’ll make another cuppa… Weak and milky?” Joe smiles.
“Yes Joe… Weak and milky.”
The fiddlers sit, knee to knee, eye to eye, and Joe plays with a tight mazurka snap. Simon rushes to fudge along, and Joe scrapes to a stop.
“Even Mozart had to hear it once, boy.”
Simon smarts, bow down. Joe’s fiddle flies, and Simon’s sulk falls. He’s lost in wonder. Then, slowly, phrase by phrase, Joe hands his father’s tune to Simon. The Turon hut holds a ritual, now seventy years past. As Simon finds the phrases, the synchronous fiddles swell, rolling the tune around, over and over. In one infinite moment, Joe looks up, hearing a ghostly third part. Ever the dance player, Joe lifts his foot to signal “last time”. Joe follows Simon’s window stare, sees Maggie, returning his gaze.
“It’s - wonderful, Joe.”
Joe turns away, “‘Turon Mazurka’”, wiping the corner of his eye with a cuff, adding split Yellow Box to the fire. “It was - is - me father’s…” He shoulders the fiddle. “…be a shame to see it lost.”