First draft of a rewrite of a uni project from last year. Critique centred around not being able to engage with my main character well enough; here I’ve tried a new tactic – writing the story not from my main character’s point of view, but instead focalising via a narrator/observer character – like Watson for Sherlock. Seeing how it goes!
Sevrina was uncontained nervous excitement in the bar’s staff bathroom. I watched her pace back and forth for a while, hands jittering and miming the shape of her ukelele, strumming invisible chords. She peeked out of the bathroom door, making a surprised humming sound at the bustle outside.
“It’s packed tonight,” she said. Her low voice hovered at an uncertain note of hope.
“Ashley’s Bar is always popular,” I reminded her. “It’s Saturday night, too. That’s why it’s so cool you guys got this slot, hey? You’re gonna kill it out there.”
Sevrina turned to me, brown eyes wide, her arm reaching behind her head to pull her mane of blonde braids over one brown, toned shoulder. She had an expression on her face that wanted to turn into a smile.
She’d chosen a simple outfit for the gig – a sleeveless grey turtleneck, ripped faded jeans and bare feet. Melissa had wrestled an armoury of silver chains, shells and beads around her neck, jostling with the white eye-shaped cowrie shell she always wore on a black strip of leather. I’d suggested the bare feet. I knew she’d feel more comfortable in direct contact with the earth.
“One more,” Melissa wheedled, holding up a string of red seeds.
“No, susa!” Sevrina groaned, pushing Melissa’s hands away. Where Sevrina was blonde, Melissa had a tumble of tight black curls, and the differences between the Tolai sisters didn’t end there. Melissa had flown down from Brisbane for a uni thing that happened to coincide with the night of the show, and had decided to appoint herself stylist for the night, aggrieving both Sevrina and Jesse with her costume ideas.
Jesse had been more amenable, letting Melissa dress him in all black with silver chains and hair cuffs. The pale metal against the Oro-born boy’s dark skin and black dreadlocks glowed; he was now peering into the bathroom mirror, squinting near-black eyes in the sickly light as he outlined them with eyeliner. Melissa had even coerced him into brushing silver glitter on his cheeks.
“Put those on Jay,” Jesse suggested, turning to me with a cheeky grin.
“No!” I exclaimed. Melissa ignored me, letting out a little squeal and skipping across to where I sat on one of the spare amps. She batted my hands away to loop the red seeds around my neck.
“But they clash with my hair,” I protest. Melissa snorted, grabbing a longer tuft of my short blue chop and giving it a gentle tug.
“Blue and red don’t clash,” she insisted. “You can’t wear only blue and black. You need more colour!”
I gave up. Most of my outfit was black anyway – black v-neck sweater, black jeans, black coat. I was pretty one-note when it came to the colour of my clothes. I could put up with a single red necklace for the night.
“Yu orait, lewa?” Jesse asked. Melissa and I turned to look at Sevrina, who was still by the door and air-strumming. Her near-smile had gone, changing to that look that meant she’d gone inwards.
She blinked. “Mi orait,” she said, turning to Jesse and smiling again. “Just nervous. Excited, though. You feel like a rockstar yet, Jesse?”
Jesse laughed, the sparkle of his eyes echoing the glitter. “Lewa, I am a rockstar. Look at me!” He finished with the eyeliner and blew her a kiss. “No nerves for you, girlie. We’re going to kill it tonight.”
“You both look brilliant,” Melissa piped up. She’d now perched herself on a stool near the hand dryer, sorting through jewelry with her fingers. “You sure you don’t want the kina shells, susa?”
Sevrina shook her head, hand automatically reaching to the cowrie shell. “I don’t want to overdo it! I want to keep it simple. Besides, I look good, right?”
Trixie’s disembodied pink-haired head appeared in the bathroom doorway. As the bartender, she’d become the band’s stage manager for the night. “Five minutes to soundcheck!” she announced with a cheeky grin, before disappearing back out of the bathroom.
“Time to go,” Jesse said, heading to the bathroom door. “You ready?”
I watched Sevrina finally pick up her ukulele, clutching it to her chest. Their equipment was all already onstage, but the ukulele rarely left Sevrina’s side.
“Yeah, of course,” she said. Her eyes darted to me. “You’ll stay for the first few songs, right, Jay?”
“Absolutely,” I promised. “I mean, why would I make the effort of leaving the house if I wasn’t even going to stay for the set? C’mon, dude.”
Sevrina laughed. She had a full, deep laugh like water over smooth river rocks, settling my own second-hand nerves. This was the first big gig she and Jesse were performing, and I’d been quietly anxious even as I’d reassured Sevrina they’d do fine.
We left the bathroom single-file, Melissa and I bringing up the rear as the performers headed towards the stage. Leaving the dim, quiet bathroom felt like waking up to a loud alarm – the bar was as packed as Sevrina had said, the space reverberating with music over the speakers, bodies and heat pressing around us. The deep bass of some alternative crooner thrummed in my throat, and blue and yellow light flickered over Sevrina’s braids as I squinted, trying not to lose her in the crowd.
Melissa motioned for us to head to the front of the stage, splitting from Sevrina and Jesse. She took my hand and wove expertly between revellers, filing through with bright declarations of “Sorry!” and “Excuse me!”.
We jostled to the front, where Ash stood, surveying the stage with a somber gaze.
“That’s him,” I said to Melissa. “The bar owner. He asked Rina and Jesse to perform.”
“Oh, really?” Melissa asked. She tilted her head. “He doesn’t look happy to see them onstage.”
“He always looks like that,” I explained.
I’d met Ash the same night that Sevrina and Jesse had, when he’d asked to book them for Ashley’s. They’d been having a slow night at a no-name pub in Strathfield, populated only by a small collection of middle aged white men nursing beers and shooting confused looks at the young black pair in the corner of the room near the window.
Ash had stood out nearly as painfully. He was incredibly tall, sloping up to meet the ceiling like an old willow, dressed head-to-toe in black and shrouded by a long jacket. He had inky dark hair shaved on the sides, the middle length pulled into a shoulder-brushing braid. Silvery metal glinted all over his pale, somber face, and in his ears, with little cuffs capping his helixes. Brown eyes seemed to stare into history, even though he didn’t look older than thirty-five.
He’d watched the pub set in unmoving silence, not even sipping his drink or clapping. Then, after the show, he’d approached the pair with a graven offer to play at Ashley’s.
Everyone knew Ashley’s. Ashley’s Bar was a hole-in-the-wall hidden in the rabbit’s warren of Sydney’s The Rocks, requiring a suited doorman to stand at the sandstone staircase above the bar and direct lost newcomers to the entrance. People were drawn through the warren towards the scalp-scraping ceilings and tucked-away booths. There was an ancient, rough-hewn quality to the bar, and the ambience came naturally without needing kitsch or novelty to draw customers. It was a brilliant opportunity for exposure. How could Sevrina and Jesse refuse?
I explained a heavily abbreviated version of this to Melissa, who continued staring at Ashley with her mouth pulled to the side in a doubtful expression. She shrugged. “Well, so long as he pays them for the set,” she said, and pranced over to greet the bar owner.
He greeted us with a severe gaze. “Jay,” he greeted, “and you must be Melissa. You and your sister look so alike.”
“Hey, Ash!” Melissa bubbled. “It’s nice to meet you! Are you excited for the set?”
Ash nodded slowly, eyes scanning as Sevrina and Jesse set up onstage. Sevrina was adjusting the mic stand as Jesse tapped on his drumset. “They’ll mesmerize this crowd, I’m quite sure,” he said in a tone that made me wonder if he thought that would be a good thing.
He looked at me. “You’ll be wanting a drink,” he said. “What would you two like? On the house, since you’re with the band.”
Melissa beamed. “I’ll have a vodka orange!” she declared. “Jay?”
“Just a whisky Coke, please,” I said. Ash nodded. “I’ll be back before the show starts,” he said, and turned away, disappearing into the crowd.
“What a downer of a dude,” Melissa snorted once he’d gone. “He seems nice, though.”
Onstage, Sevrina strummed her uke, and Melissa fell silent. The coloured lights glittered in her eyes as she watched her sister. I realised I was holding my breath.
Sevrina inhaled deeply, the sound rushing through the mic. She cleared her throat, and I saw heads turn in the corner of my eyes. My heart pounded; I couldn’t imagine how nervous she had to be.
“Hello,” she said into the mic. Loud feedback pierced my ears, and as I winced, I saw Sevrina grimace slightly. “Hi,” she tried again, and her voice sounded stronger. “My name’s Sevrina, and this is Jesse, and we’re going to play a few songs for you.”
Jesse, sitting towards the back of the stage, picked up a Kundu drum and began humming lowly into a mic. Sevrina stood, waiting for the right beat.
She strummed the ukulele, took a deep breath, and sang.
This is what Sevrina sounds like when she sings:
She sounds like home.
When she sings, I am brought back to steaming heat that drenches bone deep. I feel prickly grass under my crossed legs, the full body itch that comes with constant sweat. I breathe deep and smell wood smoke, cigarette smoke, coconut oil. The heat of a loving sun envelops me, buffered by swaying green. We are full of sunlight.
She plays the same uke, sings the same way. I first heard her sing in churches when we were both too small to even read the tiny smudged print in our Bibles, voice lifted high by our wantoks, trembling with reverence. Even alone, her voice echoes our community, and my heart hurts.
The crowd in Ashley’s don’t know or remember any of this, but I felt them fall silent and turn to watch the stage even so. Sevrina’s voice was like a spell; it was full and round, while also high and piercing. I’ve never known how she was able to sing so high-pitched without sounding nasally or losing her voice’s rich depth, but she managed it. Her eyes closed, and her face was serene and blissful, showing none of the effort or concentration it took to hit the right notes or maintain the right breath. Her hands were warm elastic over her uke, strumming it and picking at it with expert ease.
She looked ethereal on the stage, even as a simply dressed barefoot woman. She was barely five foot four, but onstage she was a giantess.
“How does she do it?” Melissa murmured as the song ended. “She’s amazing.”
“I wish I knew,” I whispered back. We started clapping, and I brought my hands together hard enough that it stung. “Look – everyone’s already mesmerised.”
A spectre appeared on my left, and I jumped. “Sorry,” Ash said. He held up two glasses. “You were the whisky Coke?”
“Thanks,” I told him, taking my drink and passing the vodka orange along to Melissa. I sipped my drink, and frowned – the alcohol burned more than I expected. Had Ash made it a bit strong?
“I got held up at the bar,” Ash explained. “I could hear them, though. Sevrina is amazing. I was totally spellbound.”
“Sshh!” Melissa hissed, pointing to Jesse – now swapping the Kundu drum for a keyboard and MIDI pad. He held up a separate mic. Sevrina stepped back to watch him, and the two spent a few moments building up beats and harmonies using the electronics.
She stepped back to the stage, and began to sing again.
I shut my eyes, absorbing the music. This was a new song. I struggled to catch the lyrics – I always did on the first listen – but what I could catch spoke of something about eyes opening, true sight. It was more metaphorical than Sevrina’s usual lyrics.
Someone’s shoulder bumped into mine; I winced, feeling spikes jab into my skin. I glanced down, expecting to see obnoxious metal embellishments or spikes on a jacket, and jumped.
The man had green skin, and short spines jutted out of his shoulder, bared by a simple white tank top. I stared, confused – what I was seeing couldn’t have been real. I rubbed my smarting shoulder.
I looked at Ash; he seemed totally unaware of the spiky green man behind us. My skin crawled.
I looked around, and gasped.
A woman behind me to the right who had been swaying behind us had changed. She was still tall and willowy with cascades of black hair, but her skin was purple. Long antennae rose up from her forehead. Her half lidded eyes were mismatched – blue and purple. Her ears were pointed.
Something shot over my shoulder; I ducked, seeing a flash of blue light. What looked like a pixie zoomed around Sevrina, cooing at her ukulele. Sevrina didn’t see it.
I looked at Melissa. Her eyes were closed. She couldn’t see what I saw.
I stared into my drink, swirling it. What had Ash put in it?
“Are you alright?” I jumped when Ash touched my still-sore shoulder.
“S-sorry,” I said. I looked around again, and shuddered. Everyone was different. The crowd was a blue of unnaturally coloured skin, glowing eyes and wings. What was going on?
“Something’s wrong,” I said. I gripped Melissa’s hand. She opened her eyes to look at me, brow furrowing in concern.
“You’re pale,” Melissa said. “Even for a white meri, haha.” She pressed a hand to my forehead. “Do you feel alright?”
“No,” I said, glancing at Ash again. “I… what’s in this, Ash?”
“Whisky and Coke,” he said, his expression matching Melissa’s now. He took my glass, frowning at it. “I’m certain it wasn’t tampered with, I poured it myself. Can’t trust Trixie to make a decent vodka orange. You haven’t taken anything?”
“God, no,” I said, but lights were dancing in the corners of my vision. What the fuck was happening?
The song ended. The lights disappeared. I looked around, and to my relief everyone was unmistakably human. No odd eyes or pixies.
A man caught my eye in the corner of my vision. A blonde man.
He was pale with ashen hair pulled in a loose ponytail, dressed in a void of black. He stood near the back of the bar, nursing a rocks glass and staring at the stage with his glass resting on a high table. He was eerily still, and his eyes were blue, so blue. I couldn’t shake the notion that perhaps they were glowing, cold against the dim warm light in the bar.
I shuddered. “I feel better, but I think I need to go home,” I said. “I don’t feel right.”
“Of course,” Ash said, gently cupping my elbow. “I’ll get you an Uber. Melissa, are you staying, or do you want to go with her? I’d rather she didn’t go home alone.”
“I’ll go too,” Melissa said. “We were supposed to leave early anyway, remember? I have to get my stuff from your place, then head to the airport.”
She grinned. “You were going to drive me, if I recall!”
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I don’t think I trust myself behind the wheel right now.”
“That’s so fine,” Melissa said, rubbing my arm reassuringly. “I’m happy to take an Uber if it means you’re safe.”
“Let’s go say goodbye to the others first,” I said.
Mercifully, my dizzy spell had happened on the last song before Sevrina and Jesse were supposed to take a quick break. Jesse was tossing Sevrina a bottle of soft drink when Ash and Melissa frogmarched me to the side of the stage.
“We’re going to head off,” Melissa explained. “Jay’s not feeling right, and I’ve got to get to the airport anyway.” She smiled apologetically, pulling Sevrina into a hug. “I’m sorry not to stay for the whole show. You two are simply amazing.”
“It’s alright,” Sevrina said, softeyed as she held on to Melissa. “I’m just so glad you were able to be here. Text me when your flight leaves, okay? And when you land. And when you get the taxi. And -”
“And when I’m home safe, I know!” Melissa laughed. “I’ll be fine, Rina. Enjoy the rest of your night, okay?”
She hugged Jesse as well, and then Ash led us through the sandstone warren of the bar and out into the autumn night air. The suited doorman nodded at him as we passed; I still wasn’t a hundred percent, because tusks seemed to shimmer around the burly man’s mouth.
Even in March, it was brisk enough to see my breath. I shivered, pulling my jacket tighter.
“I’ve called the Uber, it should be the next street over,” Ash said. He wrote down a registration number and handed it to Melissa. “Make sure you both get home safe, alright?”
“Thank you, Ash,” I said. He looked at me for a long moment, with a somber look on his face. I wondered if it was more solemn than usual.
“Take care, both of you,” he said. A car pulled up, and Melissa pulled me to the door and bundled me into the back seat.
The Rocks blurred away in orange lamplight. The trip to Paddington seemed to take forever; as the car floated past Saturday night revelers, they kept floating in and out of normalcy. The Uber driver had cats’ whiskers and little horns.
Melissa ushered me to the door of Aunt Meredith’s house. “Aunty’ll be asleep by now, won’t she?” she asked, and I nodded. I unlocked the door to the shabby terrace, and we went inside. Melissa’s suitcase was already by the door.
“I’d better get going,” she said, half-smiling. “I’ll call the Uber now.”
“I’m so sorry I can’t drive you,” I said, chewing my lip. “I just feel so weird.”
“Stop apologising,” Melissa said, giving me a hug. She squeezed me tightly for a moment, before pulling away. “Will you be okay?”
“I’m fine now that I’m home,” I said. “If anything happens, I’ll wake Aunty. You go, alright? Don’t miss your flight.”
“Lord, then I’d have to stay in grizzly Sydney,” Melissa laughed. “It’s already so cold here! I thought Brisbane was too chilly.”
“Take care, okay?” I said. “Have a safe flight.”
“I will,” Melissa said, smiling. Her teeth were a perfect white flash in her warm face. She hugged me again, then took the handle of her suitcase, dragging the wheels over the Persian runner in the hall.
After she left, I showered, then went to bed. I wondered if I should call Sevrina, then decided against it. She’d be home soon, too. The noise of the floorboards in her room above me would wake me and let me know.
I began to feel better. My eyelids felt so heavy. I realised I’d forgotten to take off the red seed necklace, but I was too tired to remove them now. My shoulder still hurt. In the shower, I’d seen the pale skin was dotted with red welts.
The sleep I fell into was filled with images of fairies.