Piano Capital – Barbara Eather

According to folklore, there’s two eras in this town: Before Tracy and After. A simplistic assessment—just ask the Larrakia People—but it’s still an accepted ‘fact’. Merry Christmas, 1974. Take that up your clacker, Darwin. Plenty has been said about that mean little system—that bitch Tracy who almost wiped this northern capital off the map. How she snaked across tropical waters, doglegged once she was past the Tiwi Islands, set her beady eye on Darwin and came in, her evil vortex sucking everything out.

Survivors still speak of looking up into the heavens during the calm eye, doubting there was a God, or imploring to one (if He existed). And seeing thousands of sheets of roofing iron illuminated by lightning and circling Darwin like Christmas tinsel. There’s no mention of airborne pianos. Perhaps there should have been, for it’s also in folklore that when claims for post-cyclone compensation were lodged, Darwin’s per capita piano ownership exceeded the national average many times over.

After the dogs had been shot, and thirty-five thousand citizens evacuated in the largest airlift in Australian history, wounds were licked and memories lodged. There’s still argument about who did what during and after the disaster. There’s division about what should happen now, division amongst the survivors and between those who went through it and those who didn’t. At an all-faiths’ church service to commemorate an anniversary of Cyclone Tracy, there were many faces absent. Some thought it had been turned into a circus, complete with thirty-piece orchestra and wailing soprano.

‘This is us they are talking about,’ one survivor said to me. ‘They didn’t actually ask us if we wanted a live broadcast.’

Others spurned all official commemorations and had their own— flowers scattered from a yacht, breakfast at the beach as dawn broke, even though that private event was gate-crashed by a camera crew. Some did nothing, except nurse demons.

But despite the cynicism about how many piano claims turned up on compensation forms, many pianos were victims of Tracy. As one survivor intimated to me:

‘We lost everything, and then some more. The morning after, one neighbour bundled his family into their car. Before he left he asked us to salvage anything we could from their home. But there was nothing to save. Our friendship with that family was never the same. They couldn’t believe there was nothing left, even though they had seen it with their own eyes. My piano was gone, without a trace. Like two hours of practice a day for six years had never happened.’

Forty years later, when she had allowed herself the indulgence of a new second-hand piano, she found she could no longer play. All the scales, arpeggios, entire sonatas and wicked honky tonk rags were still embedded in her musical soul. But so was something else, a deep sadness that surfaced whenever she tinkled the ivories.

Barbara Eather is a writer,
musician and visual artist who
grew up on a sheep and cattle
station in a remote area of
north-west Queensland.
Barbara studied commerce at
the University of Queensland
and in 1986 took her first job in
Darwin. She hasn’t left.

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