The Instrument

A.S. Patrić

This story has been buried for a long time. Years have gone by, but I know it occasionally writhes six feet under, and I’m sure I’ve boxed something that wants to breathe. This is how it begins:

Shubert Wilkes walks along Mitford Street. He’s crossing from Elwood into St Kilda. His hands plunge in and out of his pockets as if he can’t remember what he’s carrying and doesn’t trust his sense of touch. He pats himself down; can’t find what he’s looking for. Wilkes doesn’t alter his pace and his face is pushed forward. The traffic passes him by. Heads behind the moving glass turn to look at a pedestrian in an Hawaiian shirt walking through a mist of embers.

I should cut the transition between the two Melbourne suburbs. It seems insignificant, yet it’s a clear detail in this buried story. The hands and pockets and movement are less meaningful to me. They are for the reader to see Shubert Wilkes. So that you’ll believe in this man, walking along a street. The Hawaiian shirt should also be revised. It turns Shubert into a joke. It has to be Mitford Street, though for a few moments I wonder, what if it was somewhere else? He might be moving through different worlds, perhaps Mexico and America. And the border between warring countries would have more impact. No—Shubert Wilkes will continue to walk the obscure Sisyphus Street I have put him on, never reaching a destination. Transition is the point. The boundary between two suburbs is the most porous I can imagine.

Shubert Wilkes is bleeding from a cut across his cheek. High on his face, in the soft part near his eye. He doesn’t realise he’s bleeding. Behind him, on the patchy Summer grass of a nature strip, lie the broken pieces of an acoustic guitar. A steel string from the destroyed instrument must have acted as a whip and cut across his face.

The working title (for a story that had little ‘work’ done to it in five or six years) was ‘The Guitarist’. It’s the only thing I knew about Shubert Wilkes for most of the time this story has been buried. Not just that he played; it was the way he defined his life. ‘The Guitarist’ was going to be filled with Blues music, creative ambition and failure, a particular Melbourne community generated by a love of fingerstyle playing, and I would have given him the character details of guitarists I’ve known, as I did with that Hawaiian shirt. The broken guitar on Mitford Street was also true.

There’s one last image. It precedes the story and never would have been described as more than a brief flurry of destruction as this man walks to the side of the road and smashes his instrument to pieces on the curb. A violence that was over too quickly (a guitar is destroyed in one movement—first and final). Shubert Wilkes must have been angry, yet I’ve never been able to work out how he feels walking away from the wreckage. In the last moment of this fragment of a story he feels the moisture on his cheek and wonders whether he’s crying without realising it. And that’s always struck me as a bit much. Of course, little details like this are not what killed this story.

Shubert Wilkes would have been made from truth. The Hawaiian shirt belonged to one musician; there’s another guitarist I would have used to breathe life into Wilkes. An exceptional Blues player, specialising in bottleneck playing. Highly admired among Blues aficionados—he taught me how to play in open tunings, to use a slide and to bend the strings. He was a straight-backed man with a hard voice from Banjo Paterson’s country. All those great Australian myths had been demolished and left him with nothing but a brutal desire to survive. Blues gave him a new legend to invent himself. A way to accept being broken and homeless; living from a van he drove around the continent; looking for gigs to earn petrol money and food; crashing on mattresses thrown on the floor of houses that belonged to friends, here and there, in cities and towns and the scattered places in between—mostly other guitarists who admired him. So Shubert Wilkes is a bluesman, able to quote great poets at length as though he was illiterate and everything had to live in his mind rather than on a page (or what could be stuffed in the glove box of his home).

The metaphor at the centre of this story is the destruction of self. There is that direct meaning—a guitarist destroying his instrument by the roadside. Not an act of immolation made famous by Hendrix in Monterey 1967. This is Hendrix in a London flat in 1970 taking 9 sleeping pills. The desperation of a man who insists on immediate obliteration.

My buried protagonist grew up in Kaniva. A small Victorian town that barely appears on a map. His father was violent. A man ill suited in temperament and intellect for the life of a farmer that he had inherited. His name was Victor Wilkes and he appeared in another story I have written called ‘Scarring Wood,’ so I know him well. Victor had a small collection of records—the bulk of which was made up of music by Franz Schubert. Victor’s son remembered his father stating that Franz Schubert had saved his soul, yet Victor had never spoken those words. He listened to the music rarely. The preponderance of the Schubert was due to a random circumstance. Victor was a lifelong gambler. He played cards with a neighbour and took the record player and collection as a winning pot. Victor Wilkes continued to gamble to the day he died, and while he never bought any more music, he did not put the records back on the table, and indeed, named his son after the Austrian composer. So perhaps he did feel there was some relevance to his life even if he did not believe in a soul to be saved.

I have written that for ‘The Instrument’. Nothing has changed in the other story. It remains in those original fragments. ‘The Guitarist.’ Shubert Wilkes. Mitford Street. Elwood/St Kilda. The pieces of a guitar. A man walking along with a fine cut beneath his eye. A story that I buried and that I’ve now dug up so that it can float like a deformed foetus in a large jar of formaldehyde.

If I wrote ‘The Guitarist’, that false memory that Shubert has of Victor Wilkes saying his soul was saved, came from this unconscious sense that this, for five or six years in my late twenties, was what the guitar had become for me. A way to survive the impossibility of a career in writing. Something to hang onto as the Idea of who I was continued to disintegrate with every passing year that I could not write. Instead, I poured everything I had into guitar playing. Day after day, for years on end. The goal wasn’t to perform on stage. I had a private notion of mastery—that I might, through the instrument, find a way to channel my life into music. I didn’t destroy my guitar like Shubert Wilkes did. Songs wouldn’t open up for me. Instead, words and stories slowly began to make their way to the page. Yet there it is, beside my desk. My guitar sits in a hard case, and when I take it out occasionally, it is to play something for my baby daughter.

I will not attempt to answer why a person would dedicate themselves to an obscure life on the road, living from a van, as broke as Clancy of the Overflow. I wouldn’t want to analyse a man who had developed a personal legend so that he could endure a life as pulverised and dislocated as any bluesman from the American south. Perhaps it’s enough to say that a song can become a way to salvage a fragment of a disintegrating life. So while Shubert Wilkes destroyed his guitar and began a walk that would take five years to move from Elwood to St Kilda, I have been putting together the pieces of another broken instrument. I’m almost ready to watch that guitarist walk away.

Shubert Wilkes is walking towards Barkly Street and he knows that if he keeps going he will cross through Peanut Farm and reach the ocean. The traffic passes along and gathers at the intersection—for a moment letting no one through. There is a machine noise in the world that never quite runs down. His hands have settled into swinging by his hips in a steady rhythm. Shubert doesn’t know what he’ll do when he gets to the sand and water. It’s been years since he swam in the bay. He feels it beginning to emerge in the back of his mind. A refrain attached to a word and he’s humming before he even realises that a new song is taking over again.