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OUR BOOKS > HOUSE OF MUSIC

House of music
Stories
Written by Chester Eagle
Cover designed by Vane Lindesay
DTP by Chris Giacomi.
First published 1996 by Trojan Press
Circa 54,200 words
First edition 1,000 copies
Electronic publication 2006 by Trojan Press
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Here’s what it says on the cover:

The stories in this collection can be read separately, and in any order. If, however, you read in the conventional direction, you will find that the characters who are named in the first story – as opposed to the endless throng of drinkers, talkers and excitement-seekers who pass through the house of music – are picked up at least once in their later lives. Their fates and fortunes – like the events detailed in the stories – differ widely, and the reader may well ask what, if anything, bonds these people, these events, together. The collection, finally, leaves the question open, but the last story reaches a serenity, an acceptance, which is somehow the outcome of all the events, and all the lives, detailed herein.


To read some extracts from the book click here:
House of music
Angela’s child
Those shining towers
Who shall comfort ye?
The eyes of the blind
Three strikes
Coming down

To read about the writing of this book click here.

House of music

Andy moved through the mob to the front room, and put on Bach. A few bars, and the house was silent. People looked in from the passage and the second room, half expecting to see Vance there, directing events. But after the chorale, the big tune, Bach was pulled off, and the slow movement of the Coronation Concerto was put on. Then it was a free for all among the music buffs. Wine was discovered in the attic. Beer came with the taxis. 'You'd think he was up there, making it all happen!' Alan shouted to Ellen. 'What about Carlos? Is he coming round?' She shook her head. 'He said to do whatever I felt I had to, but he didn't think it would be right for him to come. I guess it's Vance's night.' The Farewell Symphony came on; time seemed to have come to a stop. Night held the household in its memories. The lights were turned off in the front room and candles lit. People blew them out as Haydn's musicians made their exits. Then it was The Song of the Earth, with thunder in the orchestra, and the agonising farewell of Kathleen Ferrier. As the last 'Ewig' died away, Ellen turned on the lights in the front room. 'Sorry, but we're closing down now. There's no more music.' She flung open the double doors; light was entering the sky. 'Alan and I have to clean up. It's time to go home. Really. Home. Please. I don't like to kick you out but I can't stand another minute of this ... ' something swept through her, contorting her face ' ... this fuckin music!' Rage took her over, then left her as suddenly as it came. She went limp. Alan moved through the house, getting it into people's heads that the party was over. Absolutely, finally, over. 'Time to go home,' he said. 'We all had a good innings.'

Half an hour later Alan, Ellen, Andy and Margaret were standing on the footpath in front of the house. 'We were going to clean up,' said Ellen sourly. 'It's a fuckin shambles in there.' Margaret took her by the hand. 'It got a bit emotional. We could come back tomorrow, do a few hours work, get it so his parents can take over again. It'd take ages to get it really clean. Clean enough to sell, or rent, I mean.'

It struck Alan that the formative period of his life had ended. 'It's funny,' he said to Margaret, 'I find it impossible to imagine that house being lived in by new people. It'll always be Vance's, for me.'

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Angela’s child

Chris decided, when his club didn't want him any more, that he wouldn't go back, a fallen hero, to his bush town, but he'd try Queensland’s Gold Coast - the hedonistic capital of the country. Waves, women, wine and warmth ... who could ask for more?

When they found out, at the City office, that he had three quarters of an engineering degree, they wanted to make him a draftsman, but he said he was as fit as he'd ever be, and he didn't want to lose it. 'I want laboring work. Digging trenches, I don't care. I want the sort of tan you can't get down south, and I want to be where I can see what's going on!'

They put him on a gang that was trying to fix the drainage of a new apartment block - the most luxurious for twenty miles, according to a sign at the front, because the penthouse was for sale. Only millionaires need apply, according to the gang. They'd fixed the problem, they thought, but when they came back after a new complaint, the sign was down, and a white Jaguar with a Victorian numberplate was in the penthouse garage; the door was raised, so they reckoned the owner couldn't be far away.

A minute later, two people came to the car, a woman of twenty, blonde and shapely, and a weedy man twice her age, the sort of man, Chris thought, that didn't deserve a woman like that, so he had to be rich. What did the fellow do? Chris looked at the numberplate: HUGO 69. The couple drove away. A couple of hours later, the woman came back on her own, pressed a hand-control device, and brought the door down. 'Life at the top!' said Digger, foreman of the gang. He looked out to sea. 'You'd get a bloody good view up there.' Horse, the oldest of the men, said, 'I reckon you would. But I wouldn't be lookin out the window!' They laughed, and Chris knew that talk was as far as these men ever got.

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Those shining towers

She went to Senlis, Laon, and Chartres. She went to Rheims, where the kings of France had been crowned, and then, with a woman much older than herself, to La Place de la Concorde to be shown where Marie Antoinette and the sixteenth Louis had lost their heads. 'The terror,' Margaret said, 'had to be as powerful as the King, because it replaced him.' Her companion smiled. 'The space, once made available, is always there, waiting to be filled. It is a very considerable thing to make a space in the human mind.' Margaret's head seemed to be one great emptiness, filled with odd lots of rubbish, bric a brac, and a few decent pieces where she could comfortably sit. 'I feel so second-hand,' she said, and that night she wrote to her distant friend:

The gothic imagination frightens me. All that stuff about hell and damnation! Wouldn't you think that hell would become normal after a while, if you had to live in it? I suppose only people who'd spent years in a concentration camp could answer that question. I wonder if the camps the Nazis made were their effort to fill a frightening space in their imaginations. If you think I'm brooding on dreadful things, you're right. The past is very much alive in Europe. You can't shut it out because it's all around you. I have to say that, back home, we did a pretty good job of wiping out the world of the aboriginal people, but maybe it's a series of vast and alarming spaces we're simply blind to. Have you been into those mountains yet? I want to know what you discover. A little further on she said: 'Isn't it strange! This is the most important dialogue we've had.' He laughed. It was, and he'd never felt more alone. Two minds, he thought, two voids, which we are trying hard to fill!

The letters between them, so eagerly awaited in their period of newness, and estrangement from where they lived, grew further apart. Each came to terms, and made friends who filled the foregrounds of their lives, yet they lived, once the correspondence became infrequent, with the memory of their connection providing, still, an open line. After a gap of months, she wrote to him that she was going to marry René, a young man at the outset of a diplomatic career:

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Who shall comfort ye?

'Doctor has a rule,' Jocelyn said. 'If you want to speak, you have to hold the apple.' She put an apple, of unknown variety, on the low table. 'He analyses only what goes onto the tape, and he keeps your microphone switched off unless you are in uncontested possession of the apple. I think everything else has been explained. Good luck!' She smiled professionally, though without conviction, and joined Doctor Harris at a table to one side of the room.

The four who'd come for counselling looked stunned. 'This isn't what I expected,' said George. 'Me neither,' said Charlie. To the women he said, 'What about you two?' Wendy wrinkled her nose, while Jo turned to the doctor at his desk. 'You expect us to talk, in front of each other, while you just listen?'

Doctor Harris whispered to Jocelyn, who got up. She took the apple from the table, and put it in front of Jo. 'Think of this,' she said, 'as being wisdom. Knowledge. Imagine that it can tell if you're deviating from the truth, or leaving out things you ought to be saying. Think of it as a microphone with a mind, an intelligence which expects the best you can give. You came here for counselling. The best counselling is an improvement in your understanding of what you are, and how your problems came about. You might find it hard to talk frankly - and honestly, I have to say - to each other, so you have to imagine another, perhaps superior, intelligence in the room.' Her eyes moved around the group. 'A bloody apple!' Charlie grunted. 'Beats me!'

Jocelyn picked it up. 'Get used to it.' She gave the apple to Jo, who wished immediately that she hadn't been first. 'Here,' she said, handing it to Wendy. Small though Wendy's hands were, she held the apple between two fingers, sniffing it more than looking at it, before dropping it into Charlie's hand. 'Where'd you find this?' he said. 'Hanging in the Garden of Eden?' Feeling his joke made him superior to what had been foisted on them, he hand-passed the apple to George, who caught it, held it up, then spoke.

'Okay, I've got the apple, so I'll start. Turn this mike on Doctor, I'm ready to go on the record. The four of us have known each other a bit over twenty years. I'm married to Jo ...' he looked in her direction '... but Wendy and I slept together quite often before she married Charlie - Charles, he likes to be called, by the way - and the four of us have one thing in common. When we run into a rough spot in our lives, we head for the one we're not married to. I go to Wendy. Charlie wants to have Jo. Jo lives with me, but when she's in a dark patch, she calls up Charlie, and they get together. Wendy's a bit more reserved than the rest of us, but I know when she's in a hole, and if I go around, we comfort each other.'

'You fuck,' Jo called.

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The eyes of the blind

Among the black people, leaning on a pillar, or column of some sort, she saw a man with a red face, and eyes closed, listening to a transistor pressed against his ear. He had fat cheeks, and clothing that showed no sign of care. Among the vibrant Africans, his withdrawn state, his ugliness, made him notable. She glanced at him for a moment, intrigued yet repelled, before going on. Then she caught a sound she distantly recognised, a musical sound, the murmur of orchestral strings, and a plangent, penetrating instrument, keening with the intensity of the European orchestra. What was it? She turned.

Her sensations in the next moment were intense, separate, yet confused, in that they all arrived at once. The man leaning against the column had a white stick, a cane, against his body. His eyes were more than closed. They would never open. He was blind. The music was the prelude to Tristan & Isolde, a work she'd listened to any number of times with Carlos when he was pensive, brooding, unhappy or withdrawn: unhappiness had always been the underlay from which he brought forth the miracle of his love. The last sensation, and the strongest, was that the paunchy, slovenly body of the blind man housed the immortal spirit of her husband, Carlos Manuel de Grigente. Stunned, she looked more closely. The blind man moved not at all, his concentration, like his ear, pressed against the sound source he held against his head. In no way did he resemble the husband she'd lost, yet the sensation - the certainty - burned itself into her. He was so ugly, the blind man, yet he seemed to live in the music of a tragedy which would never befall someone so unattractive, so isolated, so lost to normal life. Ellen, horrified, turned her back on him and fled inside the hotel. Yet as swiftly as she could she made her way to her room, pulled back the curtains and opened the window onto the Praca. He was still there, the blind man, absorbed in his music, reminding her intensely of the husband she'd lost. She pulled down the window and drew the curtains across, then lay on her bed, gasping, confused, not knowing whether to rush into the square again, or to catch a train out of the city as quickly as she could.

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Three strikes

'All right lads', Denis said. 'I'll just get my lawyer, and I'll be happy to oblige.' The police said he couldn't make phone calls, and he had to come at once. 'No problem, boys. My lawyer's in the next room, as ready as I am. You there Donald?' A wiry, sharp-faced man appeared in the doorway. 'These gentlemen,' Denis said, waving airily at the cops, 'think I may be able to help them with certain matters. I've told them we'd be happy to do so. Okay by you?' Donald, though impassive, had the look of a man who enjoyed a fight. He stepped forward.

The sergeant, gaunt and poorly trained, said, 'No, Mr O'Connell, we've had no instructions about lawyers, you won't be able to bring ... ' he found it hard to call Donald 'this gentleman' but couldn't see how to avoid it '... this gentleman with you. You're facing questioning on a serious matter.'

'The very reason I might need him,' Denis said. 'Outline my rights, would you Donald?'

Donald did so, aggressively and effectively, and the four men were soon on their way to police headquarters. 'A beautiful morning,' Denis announced as their car passed the cathedral where he intended to get married when his girlfriend had given birth to the child she was carrying and had slimmed to marriageable girth again. The sergeant said, 'Let's hope it stays that way, eh?', striving to get on top of this breezy crook. 'I'm sure it will,' Denis said, 'though I suppose the game you gentlemen are in is pretty unpredictable. Do your wives ever worry about you coming home at the end of the day?' The younger cop wanted to punch this bastard in the front seat, but felt overpowered by the lawyer beside him. 'My wife doesn't worry, mate,' he said. 'What about yours?'

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Coming down

Alan asked him to tell them what had happened, though he'd been told the story by the manager: Billy needed to talk. So, as the plane took them towards Broken Hill, Billy told them, in broken episodes, interrupted by grunts of pain, and sprinkled with witticisms at the expense of his employers down the years, the story of his life. Alan recognised all the symptoms of a man talking to keep out fear - that he wouldn't recover, that his employer wouldn't want him back, that he wouldn't be as good as he'd been, that - even - he wouldn't be good on his horse any more: that, finally, his identity, built up over many years of expert work and simple living, was fading. This is what it means to be aloft, Alan thought: Billy's expressing everything I've been locking away in myself because I've no more idea than he has whether or not I'll be able to start a new life. 'That sounds like the end of the story, Billy,' called the pilot at a convenient break. 'You'll have to make do with one doctor. We're within sight of town now Alan. Come and record this for your memories!'

As Alan started to move forward, Billy called, 'Take me with you doc. I want to see it too!' Alan felt a flush of sadness though he grinned at the stockman, and the sadness remained as he sat beside the pilot. The land that had been his for thirty seven years was spread beneath him, bathed in light. It was the mildest of days, and the land, after recent rain, would be rippling with flowers. 'How many trips have you made?' the pilot asked. 'Did you ever count?' Alan shook his head. Apart from occasional rumbles from Billy, the men in the plane were silent for the remaining minutes of the flight. The pilot veered and banked slightly to give Alan a last look at the town where he'd spent his working life. When they landed, there were at least forty people there to welcome him - a photographer and a reporter from the Barrier Times, the Hospital Board, some grateful patients, other Air Ambulance people, a handful of colleagues, and, camera in hand, his wife.

Jocelyn. Alan moved modestly through the throng to be held in her arms. The photographer snapped busily. Those nearest the couple beamed. Everyone shook hands with Alan. Billy's stretcher was brought across and the photographer signalled that he should face the camera before he was loaded into the ambulance. 'Your last patient, doctor! We can't let this go unrecorded!' Alan knelt beside the stockman in a media representation of inspecting wounds, and was close enough to hear the injured man grumble, 'Lotta bullshit, doc, but I reckon you're worth it.' Alan took the stockman's hand. 'Thanks Billy.'

His career was over. The simplicity, the finality of it, was amazing. He'd shed everything he'd ever been, and had to find a way to go on. He turned to Jocelyn. 'May I take you to lunch, darling?' She shook her head. 'Let's go home. I want to be out of the public eye.'

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The writing of this book:

This book was written after Wainwrights’ Mountain, but published before it. Thereby hangs a tale. I felt immensely proud of the novel, but its treatment by two of the country’s best known publishers had left me angry. I determined that if Wainwrights’ Mountain could be treated as it had been then I wanted no more to do with commercial publishers. It seemed to me also that the electronic revolution had changed the situation in which publishing had developed. Typesetters were no more, and printing on demand, as opposed to large and speculative print runs, had arrived with high quality photocopiers. People still said, ‘Distribution is the problem,’ but I felt it was a problem worth tackling. I determined that I would publish for myself and began to do so. Since Wainwrights’ Mountain meant so much to me I decided to do another book first, and the big novel second. Hence the reverse order of publishing these two books.

The completion of Wainwrights’ Mountain was a huge event in my life and I said to some of my friends that I doubted if I’d ever write anything again. Happily this turned out not to be so, and after a gap of a year or so I began a suite, as I called it, of stories. A suite: as the word implies, the stories follow each other. The first is certainly the first and the last is the last, with the other five stories sitting more or less evenly in between. Again I have to refer to Wainwrights’ Mountain; with this novel I achieved, at last, that summit for a writer, unity of vision. As the big novel reaches its end, the world is seen, at last, with a unifying vision. The novel, and its writer, have found the unity that Giles Wainwright had striven to achieve.

Quite a peak! The House of music stories were the first thing I wrote after the Wainwright novel and it seemed to me that I could take unity for granted, now that it had been achieved. I could offer the reader parts, discreet stories, hoping that they would sense their bonding. I like to believe that this is the case, though I must defer to what actual readers, as opposed to my notional ones, find when they read them.

I began with the ‘house of music’ which was based on the untidy home in East Melbourne where I had spent precious hours in the last three of my university years. It was the home of Vans Ovenden and of everyone who knew him. There were occasional quiet nights, and many other nights when the place was swarming with people. I don’t remember Vans ever turning anybody away. In the opening story I have ‘Vance’ die while still the occupant of the house. This wasn’t actually the case. The real Vans remarried and moved out, dying a few years later of a first and only heart attack. There was a farewell party but I had to come down to Melbourne for it because I was living in Gippsland by then. The farewell party was decorous enough but there had been more than enough wildness in earlier years. Vans loved music and I think his household did more than anything else to educate me in the holy art, as Schubert calls it in a song.

In planning the suite, I decided that everyone mentioned by name in the first story would reappear in one or more later stories. This was one way of establishing that unity referred to earlier. It had been achieved in Wainwrights’ Mountain and could now be taken for granted, but it should be there, I felt. Hence the shape of the last story, ‘Coming down’, which has an ending at the beginning and a new beginning at the end. Hence also most of the tricks of the other stories. ‘Angela’s child’ was based (very freely) on a tale I’d been told by an ex-student of many years before who’d looked for a while as if he might become a famous footballer. His sporting career didn’t take off but his story lingered long enough to be overtaken by the feminist thinking already referred to in these notes. ‘Those shining towers’ is also a very free rewriting of events in my own life, including a recent visit to New York. I felt a need to link the gothic cathedrals of France with the even more heaven-assaulting towers of the American city. Why? Because they were there, I suppose. Because both types of building gave this individual a feeling that he didn’t have much control over his destiny.

‘Who shall comfort ye?’ is based on a few scattered observations of people at Vans’ East Melbourne home, coupled with the quirks of what I shall call psychological medicine. Every generation invents new forms of it or reinvents old ones, and they’re never much use but as one generation moves away from nonsense another comes along, needing it. Who shall comfort anybody?

In ‘The eyes of the blind’ I linked a woman’s (Ellen’s) loss of her partner and also her loss of a binding thread in her life with something I’d observed a couple of years before during a visit to Lisbon. In the praca (square) outside my hotel I saw and heard a blind man listening to Tristan and Isolde. It seized my heart. I went straight to my room and wrote about it, knowing that the incident would surface in my writing one day. It controls every line of this story.

‘Three strikes’ is a piece of play based on a man who was a frequent caller at Vans’ East Melbourne home. He had a huge general knowledge and seemed to focus on what everyone was up to. Everyone was up to something, usually on the other side of that line drawn by law. When I visited the house of music I was a rather tight young man but something of this big Irishman took root in my mind; hence this quirky story.

‘Coming down’, as stated before, completes the suite. It also sums up (and tries to overcome) many years of listening to men talking as if they are ‘tougher’ than women. Men will say this despite the evidence of their own eyes! Toughness takes many forms, and it slides into determination, which in turn slides into many more qualities, such as the capacity to analyse situations in order to make them better. Strength is love and love is one of the greatest strengths. The character of Jocelyn is the strength of this last story and she demonstrates it in a world that’s more complex than the Broken Hill environment where she and her flying doctor have raised their son. He’s in trouble, Jocelyn finds a way to give him a new start, and in doing so she gives herself and her husband a new start too. This is a good place to end.

At the time I published this book I made valiant efforts to get it into bookshops in several of our capital cities, but few of these copies ever sold. It dawned on me that publishing could only prosper on the back of publicity that I had no way of generating and didn’t want anyway. I dropped back to modest print runs and giving books away. The internet hadn’t reached my consciousness at that stage so I fell back on word of mouth and simple generosity. I’d separated art from business but still hadn’t quite worked out how art could get by on its own..

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