Travels with my Kazoo

It’s been 28 years since last I travelled with a kazoo.  I haven’t had the need for a while.  The last time I travelled with a kazoo I was on my way to Ohio; a seven year old with a heady anticipation of what the world had to offer, an interminable internal white noise, and a sense of what was important.  I had been left in charge of packing my essentials.  My contribution: two pairs of white socks and a kazoo.  We were going for eight months.  Today I am a 35-year-old Anaesthetist on a National Express coach back to London from Cambridge, and there is a kazoo in my handbag.  And 3 pairs of socks.  

The thing about having a kazoo on your person – but then, there isn’t only one thing about having immediate access to a kazoo.  The benefits are legion.  I’ve been trying to think of a finite number from Trumpington Park and Ride all the way through to Bow.  I’m now at Mile End, and I’m still going.  There is, within me, a heightened sense of proportion.  I feel I could add my own sound effects to whatever situation I find myself in from this point forward, and conduct my own music CBT.  I could turn in my pencil smile, that self-condemning falseness, and swap it for a rousing buzzed rendition of the 1812 Overture, with the Kazoo taking all the principle roles. Including the canon.  I have a dizzying sense of anticipation and a simultaneous sickening suspicion that I’d never be brave enough to play it now. Not in company.  What sense of self did I have as a seven year old that mandated the presence of a kazoo in my pocket that I lack now?  I find myself humming, as if “warming up”.  Seems the tune I’ve gone for is the Divine Comedy’s “National Express” – one of the few worthwhile misappropriations of scansion I’m aware of.  

The coach has left the flat land of East Anglia and its particular low-flung haze of light in its wake.  We’re on our way through Whitechapel now.  The people are decanting out of buildings; the seeping wet and constant drizzle, fake fur hoods and spit and fizzle of life oozing out of doors and windows and gaps between mortar.  There’s a vague sense of purpose, but it’s one I just had to look for.  I have a sense of purpose, but sometimes I feel I need to lie down for a little while first.  I went back to Cambridge, just for two days, to find this sense of purpose again, or perhaps it was to retreat behind a barricade of sorts.  London is sometimes very loud, and of late, it had felt rather like I had made a library of the sound of road works and the sensation of running with scissors, and kept this as an internal theme tune, against which, decision making became a little harder. 

The kazoo isn’t for me.  It’s a gift for a friend.  The buying of the kazoo found its inspiration in a dream, not in a biblical way, far less inspiring, and not tricky to interpret.  I dreamt that I was in an inclement situation; this in itself is not dreamlike, but clearly my brain fumbled with the memories of my every-day experiences, and condensed them, combining them into one, concentrated exposure.  Like a shark-infested paddling pool.  Anyway, in this inclement situation, there appeared my friend who tried to cheer me by providing kazoo sound effects.  That’s a true friend.  Always there when you need them, making “encouraging noises”.  I’ve been having so many dreams of late, that sometimes they keep me awake.  Caliban I am not; although I might cry to sleep again, I wouldn’t dream if given the option.  Not unless my dreams settle down a wee bit; I’m tired and they are taxing.  

The Half Moon, the Hung Drawn and Quartered, The Walrus and the Carpenter; my progress through East London in public house form.  Sometimes it feels to me that the city is teetering; grey-aging facades staring down the pavement, shaking spired fingers at the ceiling, like orators telling of other times, of less nonsense, dirtier chimneys, and more whimsy.  The kind of whimsy that makes a team of a walrus and a carpenter.     

The rain flops weakly against the coach window as the coach veers away from Tower Hill, and pushes on towards the city and the river.  I delve into my handbag and take the kazoo out of its paper bag to have the closer look I was too embarrassed to take whilst in the music shop.  It is a shiny, silver, metal material and feels the weight of a small bird in my hand.  It’s shaped like a blunt arrow, which in itself is ridiculous, and part way along it, it has a growth, or protuberance, where the magic takes place.  This round turret houses a membrane – a voice changer.  This is normally a sheet of wax paper, or silicone, but in days gone by, was more organic.  

The gentleman in the shop informed me that the membrane used to be made out of fish skin.  This seemed like a wonderful image, ethereal and like a book illustration.  The picture conjured up was glorious technicolour; there I was, elfin-like, with my head immersed in a pond, enchanting a few coy carp with my kazoo buzzing.  I have later learnt that “goldbeater’s skin” was used.  This refers to the process of treating animal intestine to make it thin.  Suddenly, the image is altered, and blowing through a goat’s caecum gives a very different visual.  But with the same theme tune.

There are no keys on a kazoo – you have to hum down it.  But your humming is elevated to a tickling, buzzing sound.  It would be like Puccini, only sung by bees, and you’re listening down a telephone line.  It changes your voice, and much like a swanny whistle, makes gravitas challenging.  So, what’s the appeal?  And why does it return to me now?

The kazoo I had when I was seven was quite different.  It was white, with a red trim, and wonderfully plastic, was much warmer in the hand and was fearsomely weightless.  I won it at a school fete, so it had everything going for it.  It made music, it paraphrased what I was saying, and it declared that I was a winner.  That I was a winner in the realm of the ridiculous was less important.  That I would have too few uses for it in Ohio was utterly unimportant.  I used it once or twice and that was sufficient for its existence.  All things in their time and place.

Ohio was all copper and golden, as summer fell into “Fall”, and I learned what a chipmunk looked like and what it meant to have a forest “out back”, and a basement which, according to how I wrote the day, either housed the washing machine or a beautiful and fearsome Navajo tribe.  I blame a cowboy game we used to play in “Leslie Brown’s”, the toyshop-Aladdin’s cave of my childhood, owned by a man who knew the importance of floating a toy boat around the duckpond on a Sunday afternoon, even when he was quite grown.  

It matters not why we went to Ohio.  It does matter that on the first evening, I recognized that the kazoo wasn’t always going to be the best accompaniment.  A hospital window opened a little, enough to give me a glimpse of a time before my mother knew of me or my brother and sister.  I remember that – my first hospital waiting room, with my sister’s tiny, fierce arm, protective as always, around my shoulder, and my brother’s hand on my knee.  This was partly to stay the perpetual swinging of my legs that was a habit of mine, and partly to assure me that he was there, like swaddling.  I braided the tassels of my scarf so fiercely, as if I could but shake the nervousness out of the end of my fingers.  I looked at my white socks and wished they were blue.

For those months in Ohio, the beauty of my slight mother in her blue plaid kilt and black polo-neck, was more and more fierce, with every step that played out the choices of casting cares and picking up crosses.  But there were evenings where we would eat hamburgers and play in the expanses of garden that seemed to have no border.  Or sit in the thunderbird making farting noises with our mouths, imagining we were roaring down some highway we’d never seen and never would.  Or the night we drove back from a convent where we’d visited a cousin (a family theme).  This cousin-nun held me on her lap on the drive home in the evening blue, and I saw a flock of geese form an arrow head in the sky and rested in that peace and the arms of this religious.  That is, until, we were pulled over by the “cops” and the fidgeting fingers had to find something else to braid the anxiety into.  Whilst I convinced myself that this was all due to my library books overdue, and what a waste it was to go to jail for a book that hadn’t been that much of a page turner anyway, the police mentioned something about a taillight, bid farewell, and we drove on with the nun’s rosary now spun by me into a tight knot.  These nights – these nights suited the kazoo, and the way it could accentuate those bars where life moved from the sublime to the ridiculous.

And now, I’m 35, on a coach that smells of the warmth of a few dozen people and some car freshener, and the light outside is the graphite of evening.  And now I have a significantly more spectacular kazoo in my hand.  I’m reminded of Seamus Heaney contemplating the pen in his hand and deciding that he’d “dig with it”.  I go back to the dream – the stimulus of such a purchase.  The symptomatology of an underlying ache and disastrous nature of running from oneself, and failing to seek for joy.  

I glanced out of the window; we were at Temple now.  I suppose life is a bit like a fugue – a basso continuo of the everyday activities that timetable the day, bars of serious string sections, heralding the weight of responsibilities that pull at me, as they must have weighed on my mother in Ohio.  And every now and then, a sunlight clearing of major in the minor key and time of rest.  And then I realized, I could interact with the composer – these were strains of music given only to me.  And there was something missing – I’d been running with my eyes closed and had forgotten to see with that knowing part of my heart.  I’d muted the kazoo.  Those minor passages were not only necessary, but were mine – you can’t have chiaroscuro without shadows.  A theme tune made up solely of kazoo would be perhaps a little annoying, but a strain of it here and there was utterly necessary.

When did I ever decide that I could survive without a kazoo?  What became of my white and red-trimmed wonder?  Did I exchange it some day for the burden of taking oneself too seriously?  As an adult, can you ever kazoo the theme tune to your day, or does it have to be done by someone else far enough away to see the joy?  Is that how you get a grade 8 in the kazoo?  By learning to accentuate the dynamics of joy?

Well so, there’s nothing much wrong with seeking out those moments where a kazoo would remind one that all things pass; where it would be the best possible theme music, for the best possible superhero – one of the ordinary moments of life.  I turn my head from the coach window and coal tar London evening, back to the kazoo in my hands and call out to that seven year old with the white socks and the unknowing chipmunk sidekick.  What would it take, just now, to herald my own entry into Victoria coach station on the kazoo?  I start to wonder how the “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” would sound when buzzed, and my palms begin to sweat with the prickling compulsion of knowing.  We’re nearly there now, and I’ve used up 98% of the journey in wondering about it.  I look around the coach; couple of dozen faces, some asleep, most kyphosed, hypnotized and hypnotic in the blue light of their phone screens.  I’ll never see them again, unless, God forbid, I have to anaesthetize them.  I take one almighty deep breath in and blow.

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