MAJELLA CULLINANE is originally from Ireland and became a New Zealand resident last year. Her poetry, short stories and reviews has been published in Ireland, the UK, and the US [forthcoming JAAM 27, New Zealand]. She has won a Sean Dunne Young Writer’s Award, an Irish Arts Council Award, The Sunday Tribune/Hennessy Literary Award for Emerging Poetry and been long-listed and short-listed for Fish short fiction prizes. In 2006, she completed an MLitt. in Creative Writing from St Andrews University Scotland. She recently moved to Wellington.

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VOICES


JOSEPH felt the strain in his calves as he stretched to grip the icy window with his fingertips. His tweed coat flapped in the wind and although he was tall, he couldn’t see her face, only objects – a music stand, a large wood-panelled door, a piano forte. He considered climbing a nearby tree but then thought it might look odd some undergrad gawking in a rehearsal room window. As he stepped down and rested against a wall he decided then he would wait outside every day until he found out who she was.
After a few weeks, Joseph was familiar with her rehearsal times and repertoire of songs: Faure’s Pie Jesu, Donizetti’s Ave Maria, Bach’s Bist du Mir. He hoped he might see her as she emerged from the music hall, but as he watched students and lecturers come and go, he could never be sure which one she was and he was too shy to ask. When he saw a poster in the university library advertising a concert with her songs he thought it must be her and repeated her name to himself silently – Anna Olla. Olla, It sounded Italian. He wondered what she might look like, if she were tall or petite, had large breasts; sopranos usually did. He imagined himself as a fish diving into her inky hair. There was something in her voice that made him feel as if time had rolled into the sea and the universe was an empty stage without perimeters. Cliché, cliché, his writing professor said, returning his story to him covered in red. The oldest feeling in the world son, … he said dryly, and difficult to render original I’ll admit, but, it might help if you came to a few more classes.

*

Difficult to render original … like the fools in his flat who thought they were so original with their trendy music and starved, badger-eyed girlfriends, their limp hellos and goodbyes. All frauds Joseph thought as he collapsed on his bed. Behind their Greenpeace flags, Save the Whales posters and Free Iraq fridge magnets – intolerance. Where was the sign – Save the Anachronism, for those like himself who believed they’d been born in the wrong era? Of course the oldest feeling in the world was a cliché but it didn’t lessen the feeling. What was original anyway he thought.
Save the Anachronism he repeated aloud. Our kind – men and women alike – we’re all clichés. We’re got hollow eyes from reading too much about life and not living enough; we’re weak from chanting Latin declensions in dusty halls and walled gardens – the present past future, all perception – percipio, percepi, perceptum. We’re that confused Scrooge look-a-like whose lost his boxers down some mattress in 21st century London, or that woman incognito, in hipsters and cropped top parading her sagging mid-rift, who secretly dreams of corsets and petticoats and long elaborate gowns to cover her; the very same woman who’ll never admit to her feminist friends she’d love Heathcliff to save her. Oh Cathy… No, No… Anna, Anna, save me?
Joseph fell into dreams like newspaper cuttings – muttering scattered sentences through corridors of voices directing him back and forth, left and right. Musical scores beat inside pockets of sleep, hard and vibrant in his eardrums, moving in time behind his eyelids.
Next morning when he drew the curtains, his dreams evaporated and he was left with random images flickering in and out of his mind throughout the day.

*

Joseph’s grandmother came to mind as he looked up the spiral staircase of the musical hall. He was like one of those lice victims she’d said when he went home one weekend with his hair shaved off. Putting her hands on his scalp and wincing at the stubble on the tip of her fingers, she asked why he’d cut his lovely curls? The oldest feeling in the world, he’d said. His grandmother would’ve liked the stairs; the banister was the same colour as his hair.
He thought he heard echoes, past voices seep through the walls of the music hall, bounce off the marble floors and follow his heels as he walked up the stairs. Cob webs stretched over the embossed roofs like ghost’s arms. He reached the landing and looked down. The evening light cast shadows like half-moons on the stairs. The corridor was empty, the only sounds now – his short, excited breaths as he listened to Anna Olla’s voice drifting to him, its mellow tone like caramel in his mouth.
He walked down the corridor slowly as if he were trying to savour the opening of a gift, gathering small details – the fleck of grey in the marble, the edge of the doors with the light sneaking through, the wilted leaves of a rubber plant. With each step, he tried to unwrap the fullness of her voice.
The door concealing Anna Olla reminded him of chocolate. He put his ear against it, smelt the wood; he wanted to lick it. He bent down and put his eye against the key hole.
The piano stopped and he heard two voices; one asking the other if they could go over the last line again. Joseph glimpsed the hem of a blue skirt, a slim ankle, petite feet. He was moving closer to the key hole when the angry voice of a man startled him.
What the hell do you think you’re doing?
The man grabbed him by the arm and pulled him up. He asked for his name but Joseph loosened his grip, stamped on his foot and ran away. He raced down the stairs and out onto the street.

*

In the days after, Joseph stayed in his bedroom with the curtains closed. Anna Olla probably thought she’d some psycho after her now and the man, he could only imagine what he might have told her? Something like what his grandmother always said … the youth of today …they’re all on drugs … the lot of them should be locked up, and then … except for my Joseph of course. But what would she think if she saw him on a wanted sign – bald peeping tom stalks university music hall. He wept in frustration, collecting his tears in a saucer. He thought of watering his begonia with them, but supposed the salt might kill it. He hated the way his grandmother’s hard-nosed one-liners came to mind when he was trying to be irrational. Like now, he could hear her clearly in the dark room, her high-pitched shaky voice – Oh pull yourself together Joseph. No woman is worth that amount of bother, your mother certainly wasn’t.
Joseph took a small notebook from under his pillow, and canopied under his bedclothes he turned on a small torch and began to write:
Dear Anna,
What can I say? You are like a siren to me and yet unlike Orpheus I have never wanted a lyre to drown out your voice. Although maybe this is why I feel I am being lured towards the rocks and nothing stops me. Nothing stops me, but yet I cannot go to you and tell you what I feel, who I am.
You do not know me and I imagine what you have heard is false. Yes, my methods are a little peculiar, but love does strange things to us. The oldest feeling in the world has many stories. Have you read about Francesca and Paolo? How brutal of Dante to put those two lovers in the Inferno… and Cleopatra she killed herself with an asp when she discovered Anthony had been mortally wounded…and Hero and Leander…

Joseph paused. It occurred to him then that even though these lovers’ tales had tragic endings; they’d all met and fallen in love. He hadn’t met Anna Olla. They didn’t have any story, happy or otherwise. What if she didn’t look as he’d imagined? What if she didn’t like him, or already had a lover like one of those actors his flatmates’ girlfriends swooned over – Clooney or Mooney he couldn’t remember. He felt panicked then. He’d never considered how he’d looked to the outside world. He’d spent most of his time in school staring out a window, his mind elsewhere. His grandmother had brushed off his various obsessions – Tasmanian Devils, monocles, pocket watches, snowflakes, and all things arctic. There were places so far north, you might fall off some iceberg and into someone’s Martini in Buenos Aires he’d told her. She called him her mad hatter; so like his mother. When Joseph asked about her, his grandmother always gave the same answer – left you here one day, didn’t come back.
Joseph got up. He looked at his pocket watch; just after eight. Around this time tomorrow, Anna Olla would be performing on stage. He wondered if he should still go. If only he could speak with his mother he thought, she might be able to help.

*

‘Well if the dead hasn’t arisen!’ one of his flatmates said when he saw Joseph. ‘You all right mate?’
‘Fine.’
‘What’s up? You look like hell.’
‘Nothing, I would rather not discuss it.’
‘Well, would ye listen to him.’
‘Leave him alone Alex?’ his girlfriend said.
‘Should I leave you alone then Joey?’
‘My name is Joseph for the hundredth time!’ he said angrily.
‘Well, mine is Alexander the Great.’ Now, pull up a chair here Joey and take a load off.’
‘I told you, I have no wish to discuss my private matters with you Alexander.’
‘Well who the hell are ye going to talk to? Yourself? Yes Joey, we’ve all heard you.’
Joseph put some bread in the toaster, tried to ignore him.
‘You complain about our music, but you’ve kept us up half the night pacing and talking to yourself. We’ve heard you rave about some woman. Anna?’
Joseph turned and glared at him.
‘Yes Anna, now who would Anna be Joey? A figment of your Wordsworthian imagination?’
‘She is real, she is very real!’ Joseph shouted, immediately regretting his outburst.
‘Ah ha, didn’t I tell you Lisa, and you wouldn’t believe me. Our Joey is in love!”
‘Are you Joseph?’ Lisa asked.
‘Lisa, I do not want to talk about it.’
‘But maybe we can help.’
‘I doubt it. What would you know about love?’
‘A lot more than you Joseph,’ she said looking offended. ‘I love Alex.’
‘Steady on Lisa.’ Alex said stirring his tea vigorously.
‘And he loves me, he’s told me so.’
‘What do you do if you want to meet someone?’ Joseph mumbled, his back turned to her, busy buttering his toast.
‘Jesus, he’s an amateur.’
‘Shut up Alex. If we’re going to help, you’re going to have to be
more sensitive.’
‘Right so Lisa, sensitive … yes… getting in touch with my feminine side now, though it’s not easy when you haven’t a wink’s sleep.’
‘Well, you just find a way to talk to her, get someone you know to introduce you.’ Lisa said ignoring Alex.
‘Ah ha, that’s the first problem Lisa, I don’t think our Joey knows anyone, too busy burrowing a hole in that room with books and dead composers.’ Alex said.
‘He knows us doesn’t he?’
‘Well … I suppose.’
‘Would you like me to introduce you Joseph?’ Lisa offered.
‘No, that will not be necessary. I know a way I might win her.’
‘Jesus Christ, what century does he think this is?’
‘Alex, shut up.’
‘How?’ Lisa asked.
‘Well…’ Joseph hesitated.
‘You haven’t a clue Joseph do you?’
‘Well… actually, she is singing in a concert tomorrow night.’
‘Oh wow, a singer Joey. Cool. Who does she play with? Alex asked enthusiastically.
‘Not that kind of singer Alexander. A soprano, with a voice to die for.’
‘Oh, of course,’ Alex said sarcastically.
‘Well, I could go with you. We could talk to her after the concert.’ Lisa suggested.
‘Oh, no, we could not do that.’
‘And why not? You want to meet her don’t you?’
‘Well … yes, but what if…’
I hold it true, whate’er befall, I feel it, when I sorrow most. Tis’ better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.’
‘Tennyson.’
‘Yeah, don’t look so surprised Joseph.’ Lisa said. ‘We do read.’
‘Beano mainly,’ Alex said.
‘Right then I’m coming to the concert.’ Lisa said.
‘And me,’ Alex said.
‘No Alex, I don’t think this would be your thing, we can meet you after.’
‘Way to go Joey, run off with my woman why don’t ye?’

*

Joseph and Lisa sat near the front. She put her hand on his knee a few times to stop it vibrating nervously. It was the first time a woman had touched him aside from his grandmother and the teachers at school who used to slap him for daydreaming. He smiled at her. She told him he looked handsome, but he wasn’t so sure. She’d made him buy what she called a trendy shirt and jeans, new shoes. He’d never liked the feel of denim on his skin, couldn’t understand why they were so popular. He felt naked around the neck without his starched collar and bowtie. She’d taken time to go shopping with him and he didn’t want to seem ungrateful by refusing her suggestions. She was a woman, she must know what women like.
‘So Joseph, how do you feel? Won’t be long now.’ He took out his pocket watch.
‘Yes, in just five more minutes I will see her.’
‘Nervous?’
‘A little. Wait until you hear her voice Lisa. She sings like an angel.’
‘Well, I don’t really know much about opera Joseph.’
‘It does not matter. Just listen to the music.’
‘Well, I’ll try.’
The concert hall quietened down. The lights went out. The orchestra began to play the prelude to Faure’s Pie Jesu.
As the red velvet curtains went up, Joseph adjusted himself in the seat, tugged at his jeans. His hands were damp and cold.
A slight woman in a midnight blue satin gown moved towards the front of the stage and began to sing. It was her, Anna Olla. Lisa turned to Joseph. His mouth was open. ‘Is that her?’ Lisa whispered. Joseph didn’t answer.
Anna Olla, the woman he’d listened to, dreamt about, pined for had short grey hair framed around her head like a helmet.
‘That’s not her is it Joseph? She’s at least sixty.’ Lisa said.
‘Yes, that is her. Joseph answered flatly. ‘Have I not told you before? I was born in the wrong era.’