Story From a Quilt

by Margaret Coulson


Somewhere in the world there is a quilt, patched together with love and tears, weaving the stories of lives cut short. Some of the patches are professional and intricate, hundreds of hours of fine point needlework telling the tale. Other patches are not so delicate, but equally sewn together in commemoration by people who care. Somewhere on the quilt, there is one patch, amateur in appearance, its parts disconnected, the stitching crooked and awkward. The maker of the patch cursed her lack of artistic talent, the collage of simple images failing to capture the complex beauty of her friend. Yet, when seen as part of the quilt, one patch among many, it too exudes a story of celebration and pain.

On the top left hand corner there is a bright, yellow sun, the innocent type of sun drawn by pre-schoolers with its rays shining down. Beneath the sun, the opening bars of "The Old Rugged Cross" are interwoven with tiny zig zag patches of blue. The story of how he radiated light. The man and his music. The church on the sea.

Alton was fragile as glass, his wiry, copper hair forming an unruly halo of curls that seemed somehow too heavy for his slight frame to carry. His skin was pale, almost transparent, yet soft as the day he was born. As if in compensation for his physique, Alton could play Handel so that angels sang. The light where we lived back then was harsh and piercing. Specks of sweat on his knuckles in the midday heat. Ruddy, rich faces of children whose parents were successful farmers and doctors and lawyers staring politely in resistant silence. These successful farmers and doctors and lawyers had built a church which overlooked the ocean. A clear glass window with Jesus on Galilee had been strategically placed so that He appeared to be walking on the water.

Most church musicians accompany the choir, but Alton's melodic playing, the voices of the choir, the gentle lull of the ocean were all one, a single entity, soaring in exultation towards the heavens. The church has extensions now and the pipe organ has been replaced by an electric piano. Salt breezes are not kind to musical instruments. Jesus still walks on the ocean but somehow the building has become colder with age. The bitter sun shines accusingly at the words of the hymns as they are projected onto a screen at the front. I can no longer feel my friend in this place which so willingly took his divine music, yet so cruelly discarded him when his body was spent and he could no longer play. The rejection was subtle of course. A refusal to shake hands. A pointed sermon. Whispers and stares. Throughout it all, Jesus still stared from the window with a faint, half-smile. He never wept.

In the top right hand corner there is a hammer and sickle, with some bars from the "Russian National Anthem" beneath. Beside the hammer and sickle there is a cage. Prison cell when he was arrested. Trapped by the depth of his beliefs. Caged by society because his sexuality did not conform.

Communists were rare in Australian towns which boasted churches that so convincingly depicted Jesus performing miracles. The tiny rooms where Communists met were dark and smoky with nervous-looking people who mostly spoke in strange accents. The piano was always old but Alton would still have been able to reach the angels, if only Communists didn't swear atheism as part of their creed. The songs however, were always spirited and stirring, offering hope for the working classes whose parents couldn't afford to contribute to church building funds. Alton was buried with only one prized possession, a copy of "Das Kapital" I had given him for his twenty-first birthday. It was the second copy he'd owned. I'd first given him a copy for his seventeenth birthday. It had been destroyed in a flurry of batons and paddy wagons during an antigovernment street march two days later. Blood on the walls of a soundproof, padded cell. Rough hands and furtive nakedness claiming his puny body. Even as he rejected the pain, he had been exposed to a possibility that boys from parochial Australian towns did not know existed.

Being a student and a Communist is a good combination. It allows you to feel self-righteous about egalitarianism because you are forced to be frugal if you do not work. It also allows for a certain amount of hedonism without any particular irony. Such is the prerogative of the young. Some of the bars are still there -- bright, glittering monuments to the excesses of cheap wine and youth. The music is techno now and the ubiquitous, revolving disco light has long been replaced by tasteful halogens. The clientele look the same though. Coy, neat young men surrounded by slightly older male poseurs and women in retro furs. Back then, the music had always been live. On days when our student allowance was paid, we would decadently sip liqueurs in that moody half-light associated with cocktail bars while Alton played selections from Neil Young to Berlioz. Later in the month, when our allowance was spent, he would play Billy Joel while I shamelessly begged. It was a fair redistribution of wealth, we both reasoned.

In the end, poverty and Utopia lost their appeal for most of us as we embraced postmodernism, travelling in search of new ideals. Alton, however, remained steadfast in his views. He recited Mao as easily as he interpreted Bach, sometimes even putting "The Little Red Book" to music for the trendy, suited crowds who needed to assuage a little of their guilt at being successful. The belief in sharing worldly goods was equally applied to his refrigerator and his bed, many admirers sharing his manifesto for a while, but none able to maintain the intensity for long.

At the bottom of the patch there are big, childish raindrops falling on top of a cake. The cake has twenty-three candles. Beside the cake, there is a mug, white froth piled high. Singing in the rain. The rain on his parade. Coffee and cake. The lone guest at his final birthday party.

The last time I saw Alton happy, was in the Melbourne rain. It was a light, warm, summer rain that tickled the skin and gave youth permission to splash carelessly through puddles. We ran from coffee shop to coffee shop, savouring the new bourgeois café culture and Brazilian ground beans, high on caffeine and wicked decadence and life. We drove up to the Dandenong Ranges, singing in tune with the windscreen wipers, our mouths still warmed by cappuccinos and melting moments. When we reached the lookout, the shower had stopped. Tall trees dripped with diamond raindrops. The velvet, green haze which makes everything so much sharper immediately after rain cloaked the valley below. A rainbow stretched before us, its myriad of colours defying the usual spectrum. We found no pot of gold.

Too soon, the music for Alton ceased. He lay in a hospital bed, trapped by gnarled hands and a shrinking body. Others in the ward, their minds as decrepit as their wasted bodies, served as a prophecy for his future. It wasn't even a ward as such, just a closed veranda in an old forgotten wing of the hospital. Purgatory for those dying from sin. On a bright, spring day, we escaped like naughty schoolchildren, hiding behind a giant fig. There we ate forbidden coffee cake and giggled. Together we wrote his eulogy, seeking just the right balance of pathos and truth. Enough to make people remember, not enough to make them weep at the wake, plenty to shock the priest. His words. My words. A final composition. My presence wouldn't be required at the funeral he informed me. There would be plenty of neat young men and women in retro furs to share the final parting of his soul. I sang "Happy Birthday" out of tune and left him sitting beneath the fig, a hint of cake crumbs on his thin, cracked lips.

Somewhere in the world there is a quilt. It traverses vast oceans to weave its stories of lives cut short. It has seen opera houses in Rome and blues bars in New Orleans. It travels to all the places Alton wanted to see, absorbing the music he would never hear.

I remember the day that Alton died. I was teaching out west. Low mulga scrub on the flat, red dust. There had been drought for seven years. Suddenly, children ran from the classrooms, lifting their eyes, their faces, heavenward in bewildered joy. I stood outside too, the unseasonable droplets causing me to shiver. And the rain tumbled down.

©2002 by Margaret Coulson

Margaret Coulson is an English teacher in Australia who writes short stories to escape from the literary boundaries that stifle education systems. She has previously been published at Literotica and Clean Sheets Magazine.

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