The Song Between Us by Emylia Hall

27 August 2015

I first heard my dad play I’m Always With You one night in Mallorca. It was 2003 and we were there for a month, just the two of us – he’d recently retired from his post as Head of Art in a Devon secondary school, and I was on a sabbatical I’d earned from three years working in a London advertising agency. We’d rented an old farmhouse in the hills near Pollensa, each planning to work on separate art projects. My dad’s guitar came too, and every evening while I worked, or loafed, he would sit strumming.

At home, my dad had always played guitar, writing and singing his own songs, and most of the time we didn’t really notice. It was an unobtrusive soundtrack to our growing up, just him unwinding after a day’s work, in the same way someone else might flick on the television or fix themselves a drink. The one exception, when my sister and I would sit and listen, truly spellbound, was each year on our respective birthdays. At bedtime he’d come into our rooms to play us Happy Birthday, and, as small girls, it almost always ended in our tears. His low voice, the intensity of the song performed just for us, the knowledge that the birthday was over for another year. I guess it was our first taste of melancholia, something bittersweet.

That month in Mallorca, my dad’s music was as much a part of the scenery as the rising hills and distant sheen of ocean. Sometimes I stopped to listen, but often I was swamped in headphones, drifting about to my own tune, as self-absorbed as any twenty-four-year-old. There was, however, one song that cut through, and I can remember when I first heard it. It was late in the evening and I was drawing, bent beneath the halo of a lamp. I’m always with you, wherever you travel, close at home, or in a distant place, went the lilting chorus. Feel the strength of my arms around you, rest assured in my warm embrace. I remember turning my head and saying ‘I like that one’, my dad answering ‘do you?’ with mild surprise.

In my new novel, 'The Sea Between Us', one of the central characters is a musician. I was working on the final draft when I decided I wanted to include some lyrics in the story, words that spoke of love, of bridging distance, and of solace. And that was when my dad’s song came to me, a fragment of chorus, alighting in my mind from the deep recesses of memory. I’m always with you, wherever you travel. I couldn’t remember how the rest of it went, but some part of my subconscious must have held on to its feeling, because even before I called and asked him, before I read the handwritten lyrics, with the chords sketched out beside, I knew its sentiment was perfect. He sent me a recording too, one he’d made after the Mallorca trip, and I heard his voice just as I’d heard it twelve years ago. With his permission, I wrote his words into my book.

From that moment on, it was almost as if the song turned up its own volume. It became a persistent earworm. I found myself singing it to my baby son, and it was while I was pushing him in his pram that I had the idea that we should record it afresh, as the theme for the book trailer I was planning. I wanted a piece of music that reflected the swell of the ocean, the remoteness of landscape, the spirit of a story set at the ends of the earth, in Cornwall’s far west. While I loved my dad’s recording – it had a Country flavour to it, all dust-beaten plains and campfire stories – I sought a different mood. The idea ran away with itself, gaining momentum in such a way that I still look back on with wonder. Before I knew it we had a band in place – my friend Kate Haines, and her brothers Ed and Jim Wallis of My Sad Captains – and a new arrangement was in progress. They replaced a major chord with a minor, added piano, percussion and banjo. Kate’s voice lent the haunting, ethereal note I’d dreamt of. As my dad listened, I watched his face, and was relieved to see his approval. In fifty years of songwriting he’d never heard another person sing one of his songs or play his music.

Previously, I’d imagined I’m Always With You to have been written as a simple love song. I pictured my dad sloping about Manchester in the 1970s, an amateur guitar maker, rifling through skips for likely pieces of wood, then serenading a woman, who with her cascades of hair and mini-skirts and sticky tape on her glasses, would one day become my mum. Now, though, I know that it was written far later than that, and it’s fitting that of all his songs it was this one that, even heard in piecemeal, struck the biggest chord with me. It worked, he said, as a song of romantic love, but it was in fact born of parental love, of acutely feeling the distance that life inevitably throws between parents and their offspring. He’d written it in patches over the years, as he was watching my sister and I growing up and leaving home. Our lives are busy, the song goes, running around, chasing things that hold us apart. But I could be happy, if you found, a little space for me in your heart.

I became a mother last year, and I find myself looking at my parents with new understanding and gratitude. It’s a fine line, loving without suffocation, showing interest without interference, offering support without ever gripping too tightly, and it’s one they’ve walked impeccably. I can only hope to follow their example. As for my dad’s song, it’s the best of gifts. It’s a time machine. Our version fizzes with newness, capturing the present moment - the book I’ve written, the generous people who’ve come together to make it happen, the music that inspires me - but it still sends me spinning back to a childhood where, in the background, a guitar is softly playing, an accompaniment to love. And as I listen, I travel forward too. I imagine a day, years from now, where my little son finds himself humming a snatch of half-remembered song. Maybe he’ll call and ask me what the words are. Perhaps he’ll have his own infant to soothe, to sweeten with a lullaby. Like this the song won’t end. Wherever we travel, it’s always with us. The beat goes on and on.

About Emylia Hall

Emylia Hall was born in 1978 and grew up in the Devon countryside, the daughter of an English artist and a Hungarian quilt-maker. After studying English & Related Literature at the universities of York and Lausanne, she spent five years working in a London ad agency, before moving to the French Alps. There she began to write. Her debut novel, 'The Book Of Summers', was inspired by childhood holidays in rural Hungary and is published in the UK by Headline. Her second novel, 'A Heart Bent Out Of Shape' was published in September 2013.