Music was not just in her blood, but in the way she walked, her hips moving to some melody all her own. She looked like a princess in Wrangler jeans. Merle Haggard blared from her room one week, Lucinda Williams the next.
At eight years Suzanne could sit her dad’s Akubra on her head and growl Slim Dusty ballads, or wail a Dolly Parton tearjerker so sad it made her uncles cry. A girl with destiny, everyone said so.
‘I’ll be famous one day,’ she said to me once, twirling her skirt so it flew high.
I grinned at her. ‘I’ll drive you around, and unroll the red carpet.’
‘Maybe,’ she said. ‘Depends how lucky you are.’
At fifteen Suzanne fronted her own band, playing at parties, and Sunday afternoon garden sessions at the pub, hamming it up so hard she made her old man smile, sitting there with his mates, accepting compliments on her behalf like a manager taking his cut.
Clothes were resewn, reused, and every cent went on guitar strings and sheet music. A big shot producer passing through from the city gave her a card and told her to call. She sent him a five-track demo and waited. He asked for harder rock.
Suzanne said no, because she was wise, and knew that women don’t own rock’n’roll like they do country music. I know how hard that decision was for her, because I held her hand for half the night while she deliberated. Instead she planned an assault on Tamworth, stayed up ‘til midnight each night writing songs, and rehearsing the band after school until her voice sounded like a heifer tangled in wire.
Competition for venues was fierce but Suzanne’s voice on the tape took some beating. I was there that first night, when the eager festival crowd cheered her to a series of encores unprecedented for an unknown artist. It started from there, and I guess it never stopped. I could see why they loved her. I loved her too.
I was able to walk with Suzanne, but when she started to run, then to fly, I had no choice but to stay behind, sticking articles and photographs in scrapbooks, poring over social media; singing her songs aloud with the iPod headphones screwed in my ears.
Sometimes she came home, breezing into town to a hero’s welcome, and I would wait, breathless, for her eyes to light on me, and then to rush over, kiss my cheek and wrap silken arms around my chest.
‘My oldest and truest friend,’ she called me, before another photo shoot or something else intruded, while I pictured her as she once was, hair in pony tails and holes in her jeans. Sometimes I thought it was better when she kept away, but when she broke in America I prayed to see her so badly I thought my heart would break.
In the end I read no more newspapers, and kept away from Facebook. For there I would read some snippet of her private life. Something terrible built inside me, not helped by listening to her songs of longing. This thing grew—this feeling like and yet unlike rage, until I woke one night to the moon shining into my bedroom like a sign, or a promise.
Even then—waking up, dressing—I didn’t know what I was going to do. Before I knew it I had a bag packed, good travelling clothes on. Within the hour I was out the driveway and cruising towards Sydney. I boarded a plane bound for Los Angeles, and changed there for Nashville, Tennessee.
I was a tired wreck when I reached a sleek glass and concrete recording studio, after being redirected a dozen times from a chain of managers and publicists, none of whom seemed to know what they were doing.
They let me in to a glass-walled booth with sophisticated controls that wouldn’t seem out of place in a jet aircraft. Suzanne stood at the microphone, facing away so she couldn’t see me. Her voice came through the speakers, mingling with the backing track. The hairs rose on my forearms and neck. When it was over they let me inside the studio.
Suzanne laughed and ran to kiss me. ‘I can’t believe it’s you,’ she said. ‘I didn’t know you were in the States.’
‘I wasn’t until a few hours ago.’
Her face clouded, ‘Has something happened back home?’
‘No. I just … wanted to see you.’
She gripped my arm, ‘Hey, we’ll have dinner. This place I know has the biggest steaks I’ve ever …’
Perhaps it was the jetlag. I started to cry. I sank down on one of the soft brown studio chairs and let it happen, powerless to prevent the tears. Suzanne was beside me in a moment. ‘Please,’ she said, ‘tell me what’s wrong. We can’t be sad now that we’re together.’
All the defenses, all the bravado, fell away: ‘I sit at home, and all I do is miss you.’
Something unbelievable happened. Suzanne kneeled, leaned her elbows on my legs, one each side. Then she brought herself forward, those red lips closer to mine. She kissed my mouth and looked at me with serious eyes. ‘My songs,’ she whispered, ‘every single word is about you. You are everything to me. I just never thought you cared about me that way.’
I reached for her, bringing me into her arms. People left the room, embarrassed. Suzanne’s breath warmed my neck. Now that I had her I knew I could never let her go again, not for an instant.
‘Remember when we were kids,’ she said suddenly, ‘you offered to drive me around.’
‘… and unroll the red carpet,’ I added.
‘Is that offer still open?’
‘Maybe,’ I said, one hand on the back of her neck. ‘Depends how lucky you are.’