It’s spring here in Adelaide. Without a doubt, this is the prettiest time of the year. Everything comes alive – the sounds and colours are most vibrant in October and November. A few weeks earlier, the birds returned from distant lands; their tweets and chatter transform the park across the road from me into what sounds like a busy market place. Almost Vivaldi-like. The music of Antonio Vivaldi sometimes gives me that impression. Italians are super romantic and passionate. Wild hand gestures punctuate almost every sentence. I have yet to meet an Italian who keeps his hands still during a conversation. They must gesticulate using a lexicon of signals and gestures that are interestingly descriptive and entertaining. I have a friend whose favourite gesture is probably the Italian salute, and as if to avoid penance, he will immediately follow it by placing both hands in prayer. He is also prone to swipe the back of his hand against his chin and aggressively flick it forward to mean “I don’t give a damn!” Italians love to cup their fingers into the shape of a beak and shake it. This gesture is not to be confused with the frantic fluttering of wings that birds do to signal heightened sexual activity. Before too long, the loud chirps of their hungry babies will add to the din that greets me every morning. I mean the birds, not the Italians.
Mother Nature chooses this season to be the most rewarding. My house may be just fifteen minutes to the city, but the bucolic setting of my immediate surroundings gives me peace and joy. It wasn’t that long ago that I was pruning the fruit trees and rose bushes. To prepare them for a change of season, I generously shovelled heaps of chook poo at them. All done carefully, of course, for I could not risk the nearby fish pond to be contaminated with wind-blown poo. The cherries are early this year. Normally fruiting in December just in time for Christmas parties, I have already been plucking them from the dwarf tree. It is still the most useful tree that is less than a meter tall.
The most stunning are of course the roses. They are head turners, so showy they stop cars on the road. It would be remiss of me not to mention that the garden isn’t mine. It belongs to my next door neighbour. They are hardly here, so I could be forgiven for treating it like it’s mine. The Mrs and I do all the work, so I think it’s alright if we enjoy it as much as we can – and that includes posting photos and bragging about them. Did I say bragging? No, a school friend said so. It was quite shocking for I did not expect to be accused of showing off what the garden is more than capable of showing off its own glory. A few months ago, a retired horticulturist could not resist knocking at my neighbour’s door to offer advice on how to prune the roses. He also asked for permission to return to take photos of the roses when they are in full bloom. I wonder if he has secretly returned to do that and shared the photos with his friends. Why else would he ask to take photos of them? There was a knock at my front door just then. You won’t believe it, but that was John popping in to ask for permission to take some photos!
There is a problem with spring though. Hay fever and fickle weather! My itchy and swollen eyes feel like they have almost completely been rubbed out, yet the itch drives me more insane. My nose no longer look like my nose, bulbous and red and it feels like it needs a new washer. The constant dripping drives me mad and I am out of tissues again. The violent sneezes are as exhausting as an intense spinning session in the gym. Each bout of sneezing seems to get louder and louder and more violent. By the end of the day, I feel pooped even before I take Murray, my son’s dog, for a poop in the park. Well, I say I take him but he actually takes me wherever he fancies. The leash may be hooked to his collar but there is no doubt I am being led by the dog. If his mood takes him north, he will have no qualms about crossing the busy main road, no matter if it is peak hour’s traffic. If he wants to visit a reserve in the east that’s got a creek and three mini waterfalls, I go along. The good thing about him taking charge is that I have discovered new places and streets that I had no reason to go to before. “Before” represents the last twenty six years of my life. A win-win situation, right? We took an especially long walk last Sunday. After a few detours, he took us almost to the shops a good forty minutes away. The clever dog knows where the tap is in another nearby park. If he is thirsty, he will lead me there even if I am not in need of a drink. He never asks me if I am tired or thirsty. Between the two of us, I am definitely the more considerate. It was one of the longest walks we had that day. I had plenty of time to think and reflect on life. Somehow, my mind wandered to the distant past. A time when my three sons were little boys, just discovering the big world of classical music. The eldest was seven and the other two were five and a half. (Strangely then, halves were important). It was a time when there was very little need for inhibitions. They would skip and prance to happy music, dance to lively music, hide under their blanket to scary music, jump and chortle to grand music. When there was melancholy music playing on the radio, their mood would turn funereal. Their innocent mirth was a joy to witness, and if music had such wonderful powers to give them the gift of joy and wonderment in life, then music should be a part of their lives. It was a no-brainer to me that all my sons would learn music. During the long walk, Mrs Yelland came into my mind and we had a long chat together. She was their cello teacher. No, more than that, she was their cello mother. I made a mental note to write to her daughter who now resides in Wales. Since Mrs Yelland was my sons’ cello mother, Sophie has to be my cello daughter. Warped, convoluted, but please keep up with me. Sophie is dear to me, as dear as a filial daughter is to a father. She has grown into a wonderful and most considerate person. I wanted to apologise to Sophie that I have not been visiting Mrs Yelland – the very good excuse being the pandemic; it would be wrong to risk the well-being of the nursing home residents there. The borders of South Australia will open up later this month. So, I told Mrs Yelland I must visit her before the risk of contagion increases.
First Son learned the piano from an early age. By the time he was seven, he was very good at piano and violin. He had all the attributes to be fantastic as a musician, with perfect pitch and a set of golden ears that could discern every subtle change in sound and rhythm. The twins were even more precocious and composed a rather delightful short piano duet one Sunday morning whilst The Mrs and I were still in bed. I called it “Morning Glory”, so glorious was their music that morning. They had just turned five and had not received any music lessons directly. They did tag along to their brother’s music lessons and I can only assume they picked up some knowledge from them. If the violin and piano teachers knew, they could have reasonably asked to double their fees. I nudged at The Mrs and whispered softly to avoid spraying my early morning bad breath on her, “They must learn music.” The violin teacher, Mrs Tooke, looked like a young Maggie Thatcher. A Pom, her accent was definitely BBC English. A beautiful blonde, she always appeared with a neat and proper coiffure, with every curl in its right place. The nude-pink lipstick on her mouth somehow complemented her stern ocean-strong blue eyes. Upon First Son discovering his violin was not in his violin case, his lesson was immediately over. Mrs Tooke said, “You forgot to bring your fiddle? Pack away your empty case and I’ll see you next week!” Needless to say, there was no discount for her tuition fees that month. We didn’t ask and we didn’t get. So, it was no surprise to me that Mrs Tooke informed us she had no room to take the twins as her students.
The Chinese word for ‘crisis’ has two brush strokes. 危机 One stands for danger, the other represents opportunity. In a crisis, be careful but look out for the opportunity. It was only about three years earlier when we left Sydney and made Adelaide our home. In those days, finding a music teacher was by word-of-mouth. Yellow Pages, a business telephone directory, did not list music teachers. So, we were almost desperate for the twins, not knowing who to approach. Of course, I now know the most sensible thing to do then was to enquire at the Conservatorium of Music or attend an ASO concert and randomly ask a violinist of Adelaide’s symphony orchestra after the concert to recommend a teacher. But, opportunity came in the form of a woman who was visibly late, rushing towards her old yellow bomb in the school carpark – her long strides and quick pace somewhat slowed by the burden of a cello strapped on her shoulder. A cello! “She must be a cello teacher!” The Mrs cleverly deduced and chased after the woman who was quickly disappearing amongst the cars. Even though Mrs Yelland was clearly in a rush, she kindly stopped for The Mrs who was trying to catch her breath as she chased her down. “Excuse me, excuse me!” The Mrs yelled across the carpark. “Will you teach my sons?”she asked. “Twins!” Mrs Yelland’s eyes sparkled. She already knew they were twins because in that school in 1989, they were the only three Asian kids, one older brother and two twins. “They are good kids, and they lurrrve music!” “Their brother is already learning the violin and piano,” The Mrs continued to sell her kids. “Let me think about it, but first I will give you a tape of Suzuki’s music for them to listen to,” Mrs Yelland said. The Mrs persisted. “If you say you will, I will immediately buy two new cellos for them,” she assured Mrs Yelland. Mrs Yelland said in her usual infectiously enthusiastic manner, “No, I will go to the shop and pick two good cellos for you.” It must be an Irish way of saying yes. The Mrs later found out she was the talking point in town; everyone knew about the Asian woman who bought not one but two cellos from the music store. Each ⅛ size cello was $800 and by the time she paid for the bows and soft blue cases, I was a month’s salary short in my bank account. “Years later, Mrs Yelland told me there was no doubt she would teach them. She was curious to discover how to teach twins.
My three sons loved The Four Seasons. Vivaldi’s violin concerto was written three hundred years ago and it still rocks today! It actually comprises four concerti, there being three movements in each concerto and each concerto vividly describing each of the four seasons, starting with spring, and ending with winter. I have seen many paintings that capture the four changing seasons but Vivaldi’s Four Seasons stands alone in the great repertoire of classical music to describe the changing seasons using musical notes. But, it isn’t in the classical period, baroque in fact. Nigel Kennedy’s interpretation of ‘winter’ for me was the best. His relentless piercing sounds of dagger-sharp shards of ice, and evil sounds of a horrible storm give the feeling of destitute and death. Spring gives us singing birds, soothing streams and happy feelings. Summer is harsh music, stifling heat followed by a late storm in the form of wild arpeggios. Autumn is to be played ‘drunk’ as marked by the composer. Drunken peasants and their hangovers are cleverly depicted in the slow movement.
Mrs Yelland taught the twins till they were twelve, apart from a short stint of about six months when she joined the ASO as a full-time cellist when they were about six or seven years old. Her absence dramatically showed what a great teacher she was. The contrast in her teaching methods and their pace of learning was like night and day when compared with the other teacher’s output. When she asked to return to teach them, our celebrations were loud and long. The other benefit she gave them was she came to our home to teach, negating the cumbersome task of packing and transporting the instruments to school. Not that there was any risk of the cellos being damaged in transit, the boys treated them like their most precious belongings. You see, each son had his own cello. His own. No need to share, and wait their turn. Unlike everything else. They had to share, even the hand-me-down clothes and the few toys we bought for them. “Can you get us this, ba?” one of them would ask. “Can you get us that, ba?” the other would chime in. My standard reply was “Get? You mean buy! We don’t have money.”
Friday nights were special. Mrs Yelland came at five pm. The angry exploding sounds of her yellow bomb never failed to announce her arrival. By the time she and Sophie stepped into our driveway, the boys would have opened the door. Mrs Yelland never parked her yellow bomb on our driveway, even if it pelted hail – it leaked too much oil and there was no guarantee the engine would start again. Although Mrs Yelland made it a point for the twins to take turns to start each lesson, there would be the inevitable jostling and subsequent pouting by the one who had the second lesson. In actual fact, they each had two lessons, as the one who had to wait would still be observing the lesson. It was quite common during a lesson for the twins to suddenly scream out “The chicken! The chicken!” Mrs Yelland had tears in her eyes as she told us how hilarious it was to witness the panic in the boys as they stopped the lesson abruptly to rush to the kitchen. Their mother won’t arrive home from work till six thirty, so it was their responsibility to get dinner ready. “Sorry, Mrs Yelland! We have to clean the chicken and put it in the oven first!”
Dinner was usually at seven, during which the adults’ conversations would veer perilously from religion to politics to refugees and even the environment. Our dinner conversations can be best described as lively and boisterous. On a few occasions, I had the insensitivity and temerity to cause her to storm out of the house midway during her meal. Sophie would follow her out too, of course. But, that is why we are a close-knit family. Mrs Yelland would always return, calm and collected after furiously puffing a cigarette. The wraith of smoke that followed her inside told me she had been smoking again. Mrs Yelland was proud of her Irish roots and very much a romantic humanitarian. A single mother, on a single income, she had no qualms about helping others. Her political leanings were the opposite of mine and her strong sense of social responsibility, I now should acknowledge, was right and I was wrong. Mrs Yelland’s kind heart ranked highest despite her modest economic means. She supported and even provided shelter for two very unfortunate Sri Lankan young siblings fostered by a rogue who abused them violently and sexually.
Lessons would resume at eight and not finish until eleven. It was not unusual to find one of the twins quietly crying on the staircase. I did not have to ask to know that he felt aggrieved that his lesson was shortened by dinner, and he was not compensated with any extra time. They were both happiest when Mrs Yelland asked them to play cello duets. It meant no one missed out on playing time! Mrs Yelland called them “My boys”. “My boys should compete in the Eisteddfods!” My boys this and my boys that. It is no wonder they loved her so much. Mrs Yelland asked The Mrs to enter their names in the local competitions. The Mrs refused. She was too scared of failure. She didn’t want the boys to be scarred so young. “No, my boys will learn a lot from it,” Mrs Yelland countered. Their cello mother entered them in the Eisteddfods instead. They won. First Son won a bronze in his violin section. The twins came first and second in theirs. I was asked to buy some gold paint so they could spray it on the silver medal. My boys were already showing their competitive streak! Before the youngest turned ten, the brothers won gold in the Eisteddfods playing Beethoven’s Ghost Trio. A devilishly difficult piece. Especially the piano part. Only Mrs Yelland had such confidence in her boys to pull it off with that!
Music has enriched our lives beyond what I could ever imagine. Initially, my intention was for my sons to enjoy making music together and experience the fun of playing in their local orchestra. I was a violinist in the Penang Philharmonic Orchestra, a gang of amateur musicians that met every Friday night for practice and supper after that. Maybe it was the supper that I enjoyed as a young teenager, but the fond memory of playing music amongst friends was indescribable and indelibly stamped in my mind. Instead, my sons and Mrs Yelland took The Mrs and me on their amazing journey, traversing the music world and meeting so many interesting people and places. There were so many highs we enjoyed together and not a single low. We attended so many competitions and won them all. We attended so many concerts together. Mrs Yelland traveled with us to Hobart as well, to attend a national competition. Our last concert together was at a lunchtime concert at the 2014 Adelaide International Cello Festival. Mrs Yelland was already suffering from early Alzheimer’s but she enjoyed the twins’ concert so much that day. She was especially proud to see the long line of fans waiting patiently outdoors to get into Elder Hall as the queue zigzagged and spilled onto the pavement on North Terrace. After the concert, Mrs Yelland and I stopped by a cafe and had cappuccino and cake. A great moment that makes a lasting and permanent memory. Sadly, Mrs Yelland passed away in the wee hours of Thursday morning. I will miss you forever, Mrs Yelland. Vale, Barbara.