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A Familiar Duet

Long before I dog-eared the sleeves of The Bends or cracked the plastic of Siamese Dream, there was Suzanne Vega. Me, eight years old, curled up with the sleeve notes on the brown living room carpet, dints in elbows. Her, black-suited, bob haired and fringed: a self-conscious stare from a peach coloured LP in my parent’s record collection. It was always a luck of the drawer which record I pulled from the stack. And in spite of their hundred-or-so records - alluring covers of Battersea Power Station or Judy Collins’ eyes - I kept going back to her. Her stories of soldiers and silken robes, of violent fists. Songs crowded with as many peculiar characters as a Carson McCullers novel. My tongue remembering every line and twist of melody. Soaking every strange vowel of her small narrator’s voice into my own DNA. I knew nothing about secrets or romance, but I seemed to be storing her poetry inside myself for a future me to reference. The LP soon went back in the stack and I forgot all about her.


Homesick in Liverpool at eighteen, I suddenly remembered this strange American woman. I unearthed more songs, uncanny stories about Liverpool and the very cathedral bells that woke me each morning. At twenty-six, in Breton stripes as I waitressed in a Glasgow café, being told I had a look of Suzanne Vega about me. She seemed to follow me around. Or I her. I remembered her again age forty-two and found her on Spotify, wanting to soak in her familiar voice while cooking a Sunday chilli. She called to me through the speaker as we sang a familiar duet. She willed me to see her in the flesh and I saw a pilgrimage ahead of me: to Brooklyn or Amsterdam or Zurich. But would you believe, only five months later she would be playing the small theatre in my mother’s own town...

~ She was tiny on stage. Black-suited, a shock of copper hair and that same glossy fringe. I watched from behind my own small frame. Peered from the balcony behind auburn hair, my own shiny fringe. Her songs journeyed me back to long days on that old brown carpet, sat amongst dust particles and the sunny eyelets of Swiss cheese plants. One song took me back to the house of my best friend and her dad’s old Mini as he drove us to ballet class on Saturday mornings, her lyrics quivering through the speakers. From up in The Circle I finally understood the words. About being lost inside people’s pockets. About metaphor. I knew every single line as if I’d been rehearsing for her concert but felt a muffled rage that I could not open up my lungs and join her. I heard stifled whispers from the woman beside me as she buckled the noise inside herself too. Most unexpected of all, I heard my own poetry tangled in the roots of hers. I realised I’d been carrying her around with me this whole time: the magic realism of her malevolent queens, monks in belfry towers, the shapes and colours and tragedies she sung about. I considered the long days and brown carpets in all of our childhoods, when time is just dust particles falling. But that what we absorb in this stillness becomes a part of our bones forever.

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