Water Music

19 May 2016 Justin Coleman

Water Music

For two days in January, the end of my steep street dipped into the Brisbane River. It overlooks a kilometre of parkland; normally, I must walk to find river views. But for those two days, the views came to me. The brown water brought reminders of what those upstream had lost: chairs, children’s toys, photos. Memories that didn’t belong to me bobbed at the bottom of my garden.

At 4am, when the peak flood levels were predicted, I was woken by six of my three children – little folk multiply in times of crisis and our house was bursting with relocated urchins. We stumbled down to the end of the street with torches, joining other nervous neighbours. We could just see Bill’s roof, which had kept the rain at bay for 70 years but finally succumbed to betrayal from below. Then everyone swung their torches across the street, looking for the grand piano.

Half of Bill’s stuff is still in our garage. Most of the blokes in the street had helped to put it there on the first flood day: a conga line of sweaty accountants, labourers and middle managers trudging up the hill. Most of us thought we’d help out before going to work, but news reports soon made it clear the only business in town was looking after your neighbour.

Bill is old, wizened from the smokes and from nursing his mother. Her lace and crockery is still in my garage, covered in dust, but at least not in water. Bill bent over double when his last couch was carried out, but it was just shock that caused this. He hadn’t slept in two days and had nothing left.

The elderly couple living opposite owned a magnificent, three-storey family home. The ground floor was already flooded, and they had calmly resigned themselves to losing a lifetime of chattels. “We just feel for those poor people in the Lockyer Valley,” they said. “At least we’re safe.”
But they hadn’t counted on our motley crew of relative strangers bonding into a street team. Ten of us broke down a fence and gained access. The water was lapping halfway up the wooden staircase to the second floor, but wouldn’t reach the third. Their furniture was antique, magnificent, copious and – above all – heavy. The pride of the whole collection was a 130-year-old grand piano. Grand, as in bloody heavy.

We struggled upstairs with enormous carved sideboards, glass display cabinets, the entire kitchen (save a few beers), lounge suites and 2000 books. But no grand piano. Finally, after four hours, it stood alone in the room. Immovably so. I sat wearily on a stepladder and played one farewell song, badly. I needed backing from the Titanic’s musicians. Soon, it seemed, the grand piano would be floating down to the port of Brisbane, joining the hundreds of private pontoons and sofas already swirling in the foaming waters. Except that grand pianos don’t float – they are built for anchorage.

Then a neighbour I had met only six hours before, but who already felt like a brother-in-arms, made a suggestion: we couldn’t get the piano upstairs, but surely we could raise it off the floor? The engineer calculated the required load bearing, the draughtsman drew up structural plans and the big bloke, who sold tissue paper for a living but who was strong as an ox, took the end near the low notes. Ten of us propped the bloody thing up on the kitchen marble bench.

Hence, at 4am, the piano stood near the ceiling of a flooded room, where no piano should rightfully have been. With water lapping at its elevated wheels, it had surprisingly become a street symbol of all that was good and bad about the flood. Neighbours gathered with torches, because the submersion of a mere musical instrument would symbolise the destruction of a thousand more households around Brisbane.

Later that second day the roads were eerily quiet – there were no drivable destinations. Instead, small clusters of pedestrians gathered, optimistically discussing the receding water level, checking on the family next door, carrying food to neighbours.
Bill tottered by after checking his house, a cigarette twitching. “How’s the pianna?”
“Wet around the ankles,” said the engineer. “But still standing.”

On that day of tragic loss, it pretty much summed up the best any of us could have hoped for.


Justin Coleman is a GP who works in Indigenous Health in Brisbane, and is president of the Australasian Medical Writers’ Association. He reports that the piano survived; its owners are planning a sing-along gathering for the whole street.

This first appeared in Ed#373 of The Big Issue.