Laura Jean McKay is an enigma. Her performances are an enchanting and chaotic mix of cabaret, short story reading, song, spoken word, and high-level wrongness. She performs around Australia, often under the guise of her unwitting alter-ego, Gloria Morning. Sheâ€™s been heavily involved in the National Young Writers Festival, and ran one of Melbourneâ€™s stranger performance nights, Cabaret Diablo. Contrasting with this, sheâ€™s also a page writer of great class and repute, having been published in Best Australian Stories 2008, Big Issue, Sleepers, and broadcast on ABC Radio National.
She says she draws her plots from dreams. While awake, she thinks about dreams and while asleep, she dreams of what she might write. She has just completed a young-adult fiction novel based on â€¦ a dream â€¦ and has been awarded an Asialink Residency to work on a grown-up manuscript set in Cambodia.
First of all you hear a sound. And then itâ€™s all lights and lights and muzak and â€˜Oh!â€™ look at her now! And this is the show, this is the cabaret, where the muzak centres and the light is on each little bit of song and on the upturned eyes of you guys swaying with the mimic show. Oh! Song. Song! Sing me another, eh? Sing me another until the music fills my bones, till the sound is in me eyes â€¦
â€¦ and do it my way.
Stopped and then started. Well she started out ok, but sheâ€™s wishful now, wizened and wanting. Singing alone now. Whereas once! Once she was a â€˜duoâ€™. A soloist they call â€˜er now, but. Isnâ€™t she pretty out there? Isnâ€™t that mascara lovely? Look at all them wild ways. And this is a favorite. That one and this. Sing the oldies, eh? Thatâ€™s how they say.Â This is how they do it.
Oh go on songstress! Play us another. Play it like we used to in the old ways. Iâ€™m not against the new ones. Iâ€™m not against a little birdy in a cage in a room full of them. They drink donâ€™t they? They pay to get in?Â You know how it is to be a singer while itâ€™s dark. It can tear you apart, those songs can. I know. Iâ€™ve sung a few â€¦
â€¦ and I did it my way.
Sing it so that the roof melts and the citizens come in from the car parks. Sing it so those that must smoke outside now come in. So those that donâ€™t drink skull the old Bundy. This is the old one. This is the one I like. Let them hear it singer. Let them hear the love in your tone. Let them hear how much they should be paying to hear a voice like yours. Itâ€™s a big one. Itâ€™s a small one. Who cares, ay? Give â€˜em what they asked for singer. Cause hear here we are healers, yeah. Healers all to these singers. All these want to be sinners in this night.
For what are we, man?
What â€˜ve we got?
If not for ourselves then we have nought.
To think the things we truly feel,
and not the words of those who kneel.
The record shows,
Iâ€™ve done the prose,
â€¦ and I did it my way.
The Two Oâ€™Clock
First published in Sleepers Almanac 2007
The house we had in the country. Grandpa slept under the kitchen bench. He was quite deaf but on that night there was too much noise, he said, to sleep there. He had taken his hearing aid out, which bothered us all. When he goes mad, Mum said, and wanders off we wonâ€™t be able to find him. We found him on the veranda, sleeping on the chair. Too much noise, he shouted at us, when we tried to move him. Grandpaâ€™s gone mad, whispered Monkey in Mumâ€™s voice. I heard that, said Mum, it isnâ€™t pleasant. Grandpaâ€™s snores could already be heard from the chair. Itâ€™s late and Iâ€™m tired, said Mum, which is what she always said. She looked worriedly out at her dad. Pointed her matching chin at his. Heâ€™ll be fine, she said, itâ€™s a hot night heâ€™ll be right there. Monkey got him a pillow and I got him a quilt and we tucked it round Grandpaâ€™s short frame. Then we picked up the hearing aids heâ€™d left on the ground and put them in his top pocket so he wouldnâ€™t lose them. They were crusted orange with ear wax that smelled like scalp. Monkey started to write him a note, to let him know who he was and where he was and where his hearing aids were, in case he went mad in the night. Get to bed you two, Mum said, but tucked the almost finished note in Grandpaâ€™s small hand.
I got up to get a drink of water. It was strange not to hear Grandpaâ€™s snores coming from under the bench. To feel his breath tickle my toes. I stood near where he would normally sleep and drank my water and then I drank some more. If I were brer rabbit, I would have said itâ€™s mighty hot in here. But I wasnâ€™t and it was only my bottom half that was hot. My toes and my shins and my knees. I wanted Monkey to be up so we could sing the knee boneâ€™s connected to together, but instead I had another glass of water and then I needed to pee. On the way back from the toilet I decided to check on the heat that had left me when I left the kitchen. It was radiating from under the bench as though something were having a bad dream under there. I worried that Grandpa might have somehow left his hot behind and was on the veranda, cold and frightened without it. But Grandpa was asleep out there. Emitting a soft warmth. I tucked the note that heâ€™d dropped back in his hand and went again to the kitchen. A little look and then back to bed. For itâ€™s late and Iâ€™m tired, I whispered like Mum and it gave me courage to crawl under the bench.
The bed for Grandpa was soft and dippy. On other nights, before the terrible hot, Monkey and I would crawl over the mattress, moving like pandas through the snow so that we wouldnâ€™t tip. When Mum was happy she would crawl under there too and wait and wriggle until Grandpa returned from his night walk and pretend that he didnâ€™t see us as he yawned and stretched and lay on his back on top of us, complaining that the lumps in his bed were getting much, much lumpier. This time I was panda in the desert, clambering over dunes in deep white fur and getting closer and closer to the hot. It was coming from the wall, which wavered with it. And in the kitchen dark I could see the blistered paint and cracks. The wall was swelling.
Mum always came when we yelled. At any time, in any state, eating, showering, and once when we thought sheâ€™d gone away for the weekend. She rounded the corner like a bull or a football player, dipping lower so she could pluck us from the damage. It took only two yells before I saw her feet pounding and her nightie flapping. She skidded and stopped. Pickle? she called fearfully. Iâ€™m under the bench, I answered and stuck my foot out to show her where. Get back to bed, she said crossly, itâ€™s late and Iâ€™m tired. Then she had me by the foot and there wasnâ€™t much on Grandpaâ€™s bed that I could grab on to. Whatâ€™s happening? asked Monkey coming into the kitchen. Mum hauled me out and I saw that Monkey must have wet himself because he had no pants on again. The wallâ€™s going toâ€¦ I thought for a moment. The wallâ€™s going to pop, I announced. Mum let go of my foot and closed her eyes. Pickle … she began. I explained about the terrible hot and the swollen wall and the paint and the cracking but Mum looked like I was about to become a pain-in-the-arse so I stopped. Is that why itâ€™s so noisy? Monkey asked, having gone in to examine the wall and come out again. Itâ€™s not noisy, thatâ€™s just Grandpa beingâ€¦ Mum started and closed her eyes again. But it really is noisy, argued Monkey bravely, and very hot. We all listened hard. There was a noise, so loud it was quiet. Mum sighed. Alright but if I get in there, she warned getting on her knees, and thereâ€™s nothing Iâ€™m going to become extremely cross. Compared to Monkeyâ€™s very small bum, Mumâ€™s was very, very big. But Grandpa had told me that mine would be like that one day, so I looked elsewhere as Mum crawled under the bench. When she came out she looked puzzled. She examined her hand and looked at the wall. There must be something on the other side of it, she murmured, come on you two letâ€™s look – Monkey put some pants on. But he didnâ€™t.
The air outside was cool compared to the kitchen and the moon was bright and waxing. We filed past Grandpa, who was still snoring, into the garden and round the side of the house. First Mum, then Monkey, then me. The part of the wall in question held the rakes and the shovels and some old brooms. Mum pushed them aside and felt it and then Monkey and I wriggled next to her and felt it too. It was cool. Mum stuck her bottom lip out and Monkey did too. Then we trouped back to the kitchen and crouched looking at the wall for a while. I had another glass of water. It was very hot. Mum stood abruptly and left and we followed her. We didnâ€™t know what else to do. When we got to the veranda she was shaking Grandpaâ€™s shoulder. Dad, Dad, she said. Grandpa spluttered with his eyes and his mouth. Monkey put his hand in Grandpaâ€™s top pocket and pulled his hearing aids out. Grandpa blinked like a goldfish. Mum turned the aids on and stuck one in a hairy ear. Grandpaâ€™s foot began to tap immediately to a hidden beat. Thereâ€™s something wrong with the wall next to your bed, Mum said. Too loud, Grandpa shouted. Mum grumbled and moved to turn the sound down on his aide. No, no, Grandpa waved her hand away, too loud in there. Have you stuck something in the wall, Dad? Mum asked, itâ€™s really hot and swelling. Mum thinks Grandpaâ€™s gone mad, Monkey whispered. Mum looked at Monkey as though he were a horrible boy and then turned back to Grandpa. If itâ€™s electrical, we should probably call â€¦ she began.
Itâ€™s late, said Grandpa rocking himself into a stand, but Iâ€™m not tired. He peered at the watch that he never took off. Half one, he announced, itâ€™ll really be hotting up in there. Mum followed Grandpa into the kitchen asking questions like we did to her. The windows had begun to steam and there was a sound. A pulsing. Grandpa tapped his feet along to it. Can you imagine trying to sleep to this? he yelled, crouching down. We crouched with him and saw that the wall had begun to come away from the floor and a hot red light shone from beneath it. What is it? I breathed into the red and the heat and the pulsing. Itâ€™s the two oâ€™clock bop, Grandpa answered. He looked surprised that I should ask. Mum gaped nervously at the wall pushing away from the floor. And at the red light that shone on Grandpaâ€™s bed. What do you reckon, my girl? Grandpa asked her, shall we take a look? Mum stared at him a moment and then, as though her brain went flop, something seemed to slip away. It was late and we could see that she was very tired. She nodded vaguely and disappeared, coming back with a crow bar. Youâ€™ll need to jimmy the wall away from the floor, Grandpa instructed, it should fall away easily. Mum crawled slowly and hesitantly under the bench. Grandpa smacked Monkeyâ€™s bare bum. You go put some pants on, he instructed, they donâ€™t like that sort of thing in there and donâ€™t you own a dress? he asked me. I did have one. I used it for dress-ups. Monkey and I slid to the bedroom and found pants for him and the dress for me. I couldnâ€™t do the zipper up and worried, as we went back down the hall, that Grandpa would think it wasnâ€™t suitable.
There was an enormous rip and we ran to the kitchen to see the wall crumbling slowly away. Mum stood near with her mouth ajar, the crowbar dangling from her hand. I wanted to tell Monkey that she looked like an action figure, but the hot red light had filled the room. Where the bench had been was a hall – bigger than the one in town – with decorations hanging from the roof and a slippery wooden floor filled with people sliding and shuffling in big dresses and shoes so shiny that when the dust had settled, we could see up the skirts. No one noticed the wall or our kitchen or the four of us staring. Clicking his fingers and tapping his feet against bits of plaster and paint, Grandpa picked his way over the rubble. Mum might have been calling, Dad, Dad, but Grandpa had pulled his hearing aids out and tossed them on the ground. Anyway, no one could hear her over the band. She looked at us as though we might have answers. We shrugged. Then Mum came and gripped my hand and I gripped Monkeyâ€™s hand and we stumbled over the debris into the big red room. In the shiny hall, the shiny people in dresses and shiny shoes danced faster and faster. Anytime now, Grandpa yelled appearing beside us, itâ€™ll be two any moment. He looked excited and new. A lady with nice cheeks and familiar eyes pulled at his arm and Grandpa disappeared into the crowd. If weâ€™d known that would be the last time we saw him, we might have given him a hug. As it was, someone else had asked Mum to dance and she beamed and tugged at her nightie and warned us over her shoulder to keep together and not get lost. Monkey and I danced together. He didnâ€™t seem to mind my dress and when he stood with his toes on mine we could almost keep up with the whirling crowd. We danced like that to three whole songs. Then the floor shook with a gonging almost as loud as the terrible hot had been burning. People spun and fluttered. They pointed to a big clock on the wall. Two oâ€™clock, the hands said. The bop began.
The dance was like any other – with feet moves and hand moves and hip moves. But there were face moves too. And no one did the same move as anyone else in time. The music was so fast that there was no beat – just a slanting and a ratta-tat-tat rhythm that shook the walls and made them move so that everyone was juggled in closer together. Some people hopped. Some jigged. Some shook their hair so all their lovely curls came out. Some lay on the floor and spun. Monkey and I clung to the moving walls and watched. We saw Mum using one foot to propel herself and her partner round and round and round. We thought we saw Grandpa doing the chicken dance, but we couldnâ€™t be sure. Once weâ€™d decided that you could do anything at all at the two oâ€™clock bop we thought weâ€™d be polar bears on ice and skidded and slid around the shiny floor, roaring and bumping into legs and feet. We saw other animals there. Some pigs with pretty dresses. And some very happy looking emus that used their bums to knock one another over. The bop lasted for such a long time that the walls ran with water. People collapsed on one another, helplessly. The band broke all their instruments until it was just the horn player, puffing and puffing until his cheeks became see-through and his horn had to be taken away. Then it was quieter, with just some oinking and giggling and sighing as everyone tried to collect themselves and their partners â€“ brushing the sweat from everything they owned. They got up slowly from the floor and hugged and danced around a little more in the hot quiet. The man with Mum gave her a folded note and smiled her a special smile and didnâ€™t seem to mind at all about her nightie. Mum and Monkey and I watched him fade into a curtain by the stage.
Although we waited near the wall until well after the place had emptied and the big red lights had been turned off, Grandpa never came. We climbed back through and searched the cold house. He must have gone to sleep on the veranda, Mum said. But he wasnâ€™t there. When we got back to the kitchen the wall had rebuilt itself. The bench was where it usually was and Grandpaâ€™s bed was underneath it, soft and dipped, but empty. Mum sat under the bench on the edge of his bed and slowly opened the note that the man had given her. Monkey and I watched with out heads on her shoulders. We knew that notes often had love messages on them. But Mum was hoping for a phone number so that she could call the man up and ask about Grandpa. I saw that the paper was thin with blue lines that faded toward the middle. We used exactly the same sort for shopping. You are Grandpa, the note said in big, fat letters. You are on the veranda at home. Your hearing aids are in your top pocket and theâ€¦ Monkeyâ€™s handwriting petered off. Mum closed her eyes. And we all lay down on Grandpaâ€™s bed under the bench.
Photos by Sean M. Whelan.