Title: Art Can’t Smile

Author: Peter Hall-Jones

In: Sport 32: Summer 2004

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, December 2004

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Prose Literature

Conditions of use



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Sport 32: Summer 2004

Peter Hall-Jones — Art Can't Smile

page 133

Peter Hall-Jones

Art Can't Smile

(from The Berm)

Art can't smile. That's his thing. He's crouched in front of the stereo in his chocolate-brown skivvy, playing with the volume and treble knobs, and ‘Third Stone from the Sun’ fills the room as if it is big, not loud. He's playing the whole song at 16rpm—playing his old copy, with a specially drilled off-centre hole in the record—and he is as happy as hell. But nobody would know it. In infancy the muscles around the lower part of Art's face never fully formed, and now the tightening around his lips makes it look as though he is doing his level best not to scowl.

He raises his head to look out the window. Nobody on the berm has noticed his added effects. Nor did they noticed his treatment of the guitar solo in ‘The Sailor's Tale’. Aunty Helen is talking and everybody else is either smiling or laughing. Everybody, that is, except his father. Irv has disappeared from view, along with that saddest of losers—Wayne Robinson.

Yma and Shireen Peato are chatting each other up. Who'd have seen that coming?

He looks across the room at the mirror above the mantelpiece and subtly snubs himself. Then he turns back to the little mixing desk he has rigged to his father's stereo. He adjusts the reverb and contemplates the pile of records he has brought out from his bedroom. What now? Pere Ubu? Nah. Can? Nah. Eugene Chadbourne? Nah. Os Mutantes? Nah. At the heart of his problem, if he can be said to have a problem, is the fact that he doesn't like his taste in music anymore. He can go to other people's houses and look through their CDs quite happily; he will always find something he wants to hear. And most of the time it's something he has at home but never plays. But what does it page 134 mean when you get ‘Island Girl’ stuck in your head for a whole week?

He has been looking much more closely at Country and Western recently, because he saw a busker singing ‘The Long Black Veil’ down at the railway station. She had tears streaming down her face—and then he had too; not because of the lyrics, but because by some miracle she had got the phrasing exactly right—maybe even better than Lefty's—and he suddenly understood the Western part of the name. And the two of them just stood there crying at each other until the song played out.

He passes wind enormously. Get on with the job. The Fall? Nah. Robert Wyatt? Nah. Slapp Happy? Nah. John Cale or Mo Tucker? Nah. Nick Drake? Fuck no! Why the fucking fuck had he even brought that one out of his fucking bedroom?

‘Third Stone from the Sun’ finishes. As a filler he flicks over to the tape deck, which he has cued to play weird old Yma Sumac. At least his Dad will appreciate this one. Before the track can begin there's a noise behind him. He spins around with fright. It is his brother Yma.

Yma is smiling. He looks like shit.

‘How are you, bro?’

Art says nothing. Yma knows the rules.

‘Ah yes.’

Yma looks around and then picks a dried protea out of a vase on the mantelpiece. Good one. He holds it to his mouth, microphone-style, and the interview begins.

These are the rules. In 1968 Art became a rock star when Deep Purple had a hit with ‘Hush’—a song he'd written in the bath earlier that week. Yma made the mistake of disbelieving him, and the two of them argued even more than usual. Following this they refused to talk to each other for a week. After that Art decided that the only way he would ever accept any form of communication from his brother was if it were delivered with all due deference and by way of his rock-star persona.

‘Hello, My name is Yma Martin and this is Wankers' World. We're page 135 coming to you live tonight from Waitaki Bay, where we're speaking with Art Martin (yes, yes, thank you, thank you), a man whom I am sure needs no further introduction. Welcome to the show, Art. It's good to have you back.’

Art straightens up and picks his sunglasses off the speaker beside him. He puts them on and makes a strange face which somehow pulls them up his nose. Then he runs his fingers through his hair and says, in an unaffected voice:

‘Hey thanks, Yma. Hey. It's really good to be here.’

‘Now tell me, Art, how've you been passing your time since I saw you last?’

‘Well, much like kidney stones actually, Yma.’

‘Oh, that's very good, Art. Let's just make sure the folks at home got that one. Time passing like kidney stones! Yes, yes, thank you, thank you. Okay, let's just take a quick break while the applause dies away. Perhaps we'll have a word from our sponsor.’ Aside: ‘In the meantime, hey Art, how have you been?’

But Art is not to be fooled. He adjusts the volume on the stereo for a moment and then looks up at the roof while he drums his fingers on his knees, waiting for the ads to finish.

‘Okay, okay, welcome back. Yes, come on people, please, we have a show to do and limited time… Thank you. Now, tell me, Art, it's been twenty years since we heard from you last. Tell me, what have you been up to since then?’

‘Well, you know, Yma, not a hell of a lot. I won't lie to you. I'm on the sickness benefit, and I get $175 a week. Rent in town is $130 minimum—that's enough for a shitty room in a shared flat—so I live out here with Dad. But I tell you, it's fine. It's actually really great. I enjoy margarine carving. In fact here's a little tale the viewers might enjoy. Just yesterday morning Dad found my mysteriously ironic homage to Jethro Tull in the freezer and threw it out. You should have seen his conscience chewing him up—God, I love it when he thinks he's been a bastard.’

‘That's terrific, Art. Now, look, we get a lot of letters to Wankers' World asking about your current attachments. Since your affair with Courtney Love became public property, and pretty much wrecked page 136 your marriage to Cameron Diaz, has there been anybody special in your life?’

‘Hmmm, I think I might pass on that one, Yma.’

‘Okay, well what about the future then, in that respect? Any love interest on the horizon?’

‘Well, Yma, if you insist on pursuing this line… there's a busker called Fat Duck who hangs out in the Pukeuri Mall. She's not the brightest crayon on the tray, but she's a fine musician after her own lights. I think if I were romantically inclined, well, let's just say I'd be brushing my teeth on a daily basis. But other than that, no, not really.’

‘Still single, eh? That's hard to believe. Come on ladies, please, we're trying to conduct an interview here. Excuse me, Miss! I must ask you to return to your seat. Security! Thank you. Sorry about that, Art. And now tell me, what's the meaning of life, Art?’

‘Well I'm glad you asked, Yma. You know, when I was twenty-three I took liberty caps and harmaline and spent a long night in bed thinking about stuff like that, and, you know, if you boil the question down and down and down, well, there's not a lot left in the pot. You know what I mean? I tell you, ever since that night I haven't paid too much attention to meaning. And I mean that in a good way.’

‘That's deep, Art. And what about friends? I mean, what do you do for a social life?’

‘Friends are wankers, actually. Except for old Mrs Duke up the road. I still go up there once a week and do her lawns and fix up little things around the house and shit.’

‘Okay, well here's a few quick questions for the bubblegum set. What's your favourite song, Art?’

‘Now that would have to be “Taboo” by the Fabulous Jokers. Even though it was a total fluke. Or do you mean that seriously?’

‘Best book?’

The Lost Steps, by Alejo Carpentier.’

‘Greatest movie?’

‘Oh, I think I'd have to go with Tetsuo, Iron Man. But ask me again in five minutes.’

‘Congratulations, I haven't heard of any of them. You really have page 137 climbed a ladder up your arse, haven't you, Art? What I mean by that is, yes, thank you, Art, and now tell me, what's your favourite thing to do these days?’

‘I like to go down to the railway station and wave goodbye to people.’

‘Star sign?’

‘Same as my politics—non-aligned.’

‘Oh ho ho. Harmonica?’

‘Rod Stewart in “My Boy Lollipop”.’

There is a flicker of doubt on Yma's face. He doesn't believe that the harmonica solo on ‘My Boy Lollipop’ is played by Rod Stewart. Which reminds him, he still owes Art a million billion dollars if half of Led Zeppelin had their recording debut on ‘Mrs Brown You've Got a Lovely Daughter’.

‘Favourite instrument?’


Of course. It is the only musical instrument the house ever had—a souvenir of their father's trip to America in the 1950s. While other kids were learning to play recorder, piano and guitar, Art was mastering B-grade sound effects.


That one stops him dead. Art gawps. At the same time, he realises that his expression has given him away.

‘Oh no way! You're joking?! Oh shit, Art, I was just kidding.’

‘Moving right along.’

‘Oh hell, back pedal, back pedal! Just forget I ever asked that, okay?’

‘This interview is terminated. This is the kind of sensationalist muck-raking crap that the public has come to expect from you, Yma, and believe me, if this ever goes to air you'll never work in this town again.’

‘Shit no. No way! You think I want it known around town that I've got a 45-year-old brother who's a long-haired bald virgin? And he is, isn't he? He bloody is!’

‘You're getting in my face, Yma. Security!’

‘Your mouth is saying “no no no”, but your eyes are saying “yes yes yes”.’

page 138

‘Enough about me, let's talk about you.’

Yma stares into the dark glasses for a long moment, until the squirming has gone from his brother's manner, and then brings the protea up to his lips again.

‘I heard from Mum.’


Yma is shaking his head. He shouldn't have said that. He should NOT have said that. He should have had a long sleep first. He should have waited at least a week before he said anything about that.

‘No, no, I was just kidding. I just said that to change the subject, so I could change it back again: when did you first discover you were a virgin? Come on people, please, show a little respect for our guest.’

The brothers look at each other in silence. Then the tape deck too falls silent.

When he finally realises that the music has stopped Art snaps his fingers loudly and repeatedly. He goes over to the jerry-built shelves and fishes about until he finds his prized French pressing of ‘Memories’. Volume; volume. A volume of sound. Buying music by the volume. Playing with the volume. By the time the track begins he has regained his composure, and is able to speak. Yma does not hear, so he shouts.

‘So what did she have to say?’

Yma takes a deep breath and shouts back. ‘Can you turn that down a bit?’

‘Don't be stupid.’

They can't bear to look at each other.

‘She rang the day before I got out. She said sorry. She was crying her eyes out. Then she said: “Your father should have known.” She said a whole lot of things—she was all over the place, and I was too surprised to take any of it in. Before I could get any real sense out of what she was saying, some guy picked up another line and started talking over her voice. I was trying to ask her where the fuck she was and then this guy started singing “It's a Small World After All”.’

‘No way. Then what?’

‘Then I hung up.’


page 139

Yma shouts louder. ‘I hung up. I just freaked out. No, no, that's right. Something else happened first. She asked the guy to get off the phone but he wouldn't. Then there was the sound of a door slamming, like she'd gone off to hunt him down. And it was just him and me on the phone, and he said: “Oh dear, she's going to waste a lot of time if she searches for me in the house.” Then another phone got picked up, and Mum said: “Whatever you do, Yma, don't you listen to a word this man tells you. He is not himself.” Then she put the phone down and I heard another door slam. The guy was just laughing at her.’

‘So what did you say?’

‘I didn't say anything. It's scary enough being set loose after three years in prison—I couldn't deal with this fucking insanity in my ear as well. I was trying to shout for her to call again later, but the guy started singing again; I don't even know if she was still there.’


‘I know.’

They stand there in silence, or, rather, in volume. Then Art crosses the room and slumps down deep into the old couch. He can't think. This just happens to be the worst song he could have chosen to play at this particular moment. It is a joke he chooses not to share with his studio audience.

Yma comes and stands beside him, and together they feel like crap. It is all over. Their mother is alive. She always has been.

Finally the music stops.

‘We were never any good.’

Art says nothing. Then Yma brings the protea back up to his lips.

‘Good evening folks. We're back in Waitaki Bay now, where Art Martin is looking kind of sick and weird. This is the end of your theory about Mum and the extra-terrestrial breeding programme, isn't it, Art? Hey?’

Art might have smiled if he could have, but either way he doesn't. He looks out the window. Bloody hell. She is alive and she hadn't even bothered to contact them, not once, in all that time. He almost preferred his sneaking doubts that their father had killed her.

‘Are you all right?’

He turns the record over. Whichever of them it is who speaks, the page 140 other one does not answer. Art turns the volume down and still neither of them speaks. And then the air keeps filling with the sound of strange old Robert Wyatt yodelling into his preserving jar.

‘Hey Art, do you remember what mum used to say whenever some kid in the neighbourhood did something wrong? She'd say: “Personally, I blame the parents”.’

He doesn't reply. He takes off the dark glasses and rubs his eyes hard, until the colours come in flashes. He was fifteen when their mother disappeared. That was two thirds of his life ago.

‘Do you remember the fairybread policemen?’

One year the family had gone on a holiday around the South Island. Honey had found a cookie cutter in a motorcamp kitchen. It was the shape of an English bobby, bent at the knees with an enormous truncheon protruding from behind his back. She brought it back home, totally embarrassed by her small act of theft, and for years afterwards, whenever there was a birthday or Christmas, or even just a good school report, she would churn out dozens of little bread figures sprinkled with hundreds and thousands.

‘Good name for a band. The Fairybread Policemen,’ says Art.


They look at each other. Art wants to swear, but Yma's face puts him off. His eyes are the colour of morning sky on a crap day. Eyes like that on anybody else would signify an addiction to narcotics, but not on Yma. Even when he had been a junkie, Yma hadn't enjoyed pleasure.

‘Tell me, Art, do they still call you Spacejunk?’

‘They don't exist.’

He used to feel like this in the fifth form when everybody made his life worse and he couldn't see an end to it.

‘I wish I didn't remember so much. Not that I do. Either I've forgotten all the good stuff or there never was any.’

‘What stuff?’

‘You know.’


‘Do you remember old Werther?’

‘The goldfish?’

page 141

‘You remember what he looked like, eh? He was one of those see-through ones, where you can see the blood pumping around inside. When I was a kid I put his bowl in the freezer, just to see what would happen. I went back five minutes later to check but nothing much was going on—he was still just swimming around—so I left him a few minutes more, then checked again, then a few minutes more, then checked again. I must have gone back so many times that the freezer couldn't get properly cold, and then Mum came in and started making tea, so I had to go out to the lounge.

‘All through tea nobody noticed that the bowl was gone. Then you and I got into a fight over something and I gave you a biff and got sent to bed. I woke up in the middle of the night and sneaked down to the kitchen and lifted the lid. It was awesome. These great clouds of cold air came out, and there in the middle of it all was old Werther. He wasn't see-through anymore, he had turned to bronze. He was stuck in the centre of this huge crystal, and all these cracks were radiating outwards from him to the edge. Man, he was heavy metal. He was totally beautiful.’

The record has finished and Art is almost whispering.

‘Where are you going with this?’

‘I put him back on the mantelpiece and went back to bed. And in the morning—it was a Saturday—there was Werther again, see-through again, swimming around as if nothing had happened.’


‘No, it's true. And you know what? I just worked it out. Mum must have gone out and got another one first thing in the morning. How simple is that? How come I never worked that out before?’

Art is shaking his head.

‘Oh man—how much stuff don't we know? All the good stuff. All the good stuff.’

Yma smiles for both of them, and then brings the protea back to his lips.

‘Ah, well, thanks for being with us tonight, Art. And thanks for joining us, people. You've been great. We'll back tomorrow night, and we'll be keeping you up-to-date as more on this story comes to hand. Ladies and gentlemen, Art Martin. Give him a big hand.’

page 142

Art leans over towards the microphone and adds: ‘We were never any good.’

What now? Yma puts the protea back in the vase. In the morning he will talk to his father, and together the three of them will decide whether or not to track her down. It would not be hard. Look how quickly the police had found him, once they had linked his name to the stolen credit cards. Perhaps she even wanted to be found.

Art goes back to his records. Yma watches as he starts sifting through the piles. There is no way of reading his mood. After a moment Yma goes back outside and sits on the front doorstep beside his father and Wayne Robinson. His mouth opens as his eyes close; it may not be sleep but it as close as his body can come.

Art closes the lounge door behind him.

Plastic People of the Universe? Nah. Carla Bley? Nah. Chambers Brothers? Nah. Shaggs? Nah. Bongo Joe? Thirteenth Floor Elevators? Stina Nordenstam? Henry Cow? Who ARE these people?!

Just as he is about to make do with The Count Five's first album he hears excited voices from out on the berm.

‘Play one we all know!’

‘Ginga chikk! Ginga chikk!!’

‘… not Guy Lombardo!’

Is this some kind of popular uprising? He goes over to the window. They all have their backs turned on the house. There she is. People gather around Fat Duck as she settles back into the boll of the macrocarpa. In a flash she has tuned her guitar to an open chord and is taking a huge draught from the glass Aunty Helen has handed her. He watches as she drains it and grimaces comically. It's one of his father's martinis. Earlier that morning Irv asked Art to go onto the Internet and find the recipe… vermouth swilled around the rim of the glass then discarded; glass chilled then filled with vodka shaken over cracked ice… but at the last minute they had found that the olives at the back of the fridge were mouldy. Art suggested they substitute pickled onions. His father hadn't thought he was joking. And so it was.

A moment later Fat Duck is using the empty glass as a slide on the neck of the guitar. She is a pop sensation. Perhaps the small group on page 143 the berm doesn't see this as clearly as Art does. They watch in awe, and acknowledge that her playing is better than anything their imaginations could have come up with, but Art just laughs out loud. He can do nothing until she finishes. She is hunched over the guitar like some kind of prehistoric predator, smiling and frowning at the same time, and making little grimaces whenever she needs to affirm the rhythm. Old Mrs Rose and Aunty Helen begin to clap. Then Shireen Peato starts to whistle. Her whistle is a phenomenon in its own right—the whistle of an elderly tradesman brought up on skiffle.

The blood drains from Art's face and his ears flatten back against his skull. It is too late to get a tape and capture the moment. And besides, it would be the wrong thing to do. It would be just as wrong to go out to the lawn and stand there watching. It would be wrong to put a flower in her guitar case. It would be wrong to ask if she has an e-mail address. It would be wrong to wait until she has finished and then play something (anything) by Sam Cooke. It would be wrong to think that his mother was still alive. It would be wrong to comb his hair. There is, in fact, only one thing he can do.

A few minutes later Fat Duck is finishing her second martini and wondering which of their requests she will play next. It is not really a party, more like a family do, but the atmosphere is nice enough. Then she hears a strange whimpering sound. At first she assumes it is a ringing in her ear. She tunes her guitar again—nothing fancy this time—and slashes at the six open strings. The lost chord: ‘A Hard Day's Night’. But she is only a few lines into the song when the noise grows much louder; much too loud to ignore. She stops playing.


‘What is it?’

It is Aunty Helen who asks. Fat Duck knows already. There is no mistaking that eerie wail. It is the sound of an approaching alien space ship; the sound that underwrote a hundred low-budget movies. Several of the group peer self-consciously up into the evening sky, but its cauliflower folds reveal nothing. Fat Duck can hear her own breathing—deep and measured. She feels somebody shift beside her. At long last Shireen Peato breaks the silence.

page 144

‘It's bloody him!’

It is. It is Art. He is standing in the lounge window behind an old wooden cabinet. A long thin rod extends from the top, and a long tubular loop comes out from the right. His hands are fluttering around these two protrusions as if they were aggressive snakes he is hoping to seize unharmed. The rest of his body is totally motionless. The flying saucer noise gives way to something that is clearly musical.

‘Fuck me,’ whispers Fat Duck. ‘It's a theremin!’

Art is looking straight out at them now, but the light outside is fairly dim and all he can see is his own image reflected in the window. His eyes are focused somewhere far beyond this. It is the look of a juggler, struggling to expand his peripheral vision. At the limits of what he can see, both hands dance into and around the magnetic field, never quite touching the instrument.

The performance becomes more melodic, and at the same time sweeter, sadder, and strangely sarcastic. It might have been a number of things. It might have been a peasant's flute melody, played in the days before there was a consensus on scales; or it might have been the opening theme of some 1950s cult induction video; or perhaps a skit from some student revue, parodying the mawkishness of the violin.

Fat Duck is awestruck.

She takes up her guitar and, with her bottom jaw jutting forward and her brow knit ferociously, advances towards the window. Art does not see her approach, but he hears her guitar, and his face brightens. He shakes his arms and stretches his back, and the theremin dives wildly off-key for a moment. He resumes the playing position; in an instant his body is lifeless again, and his gaze has come unfixed. Even this emptying of facial expression alters the pitch.

‘Don't encourage him,’ hisses somebody.

But it is too late. Fat Duck is going into the house.