BOOKS > HOUSE OF MUSIC
what it says on the cover:
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,
read some extracts from the book click here:
Those shining towers
Who shall comfort ye?
The eyes of the blind
read about the writing of this book click
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.
think he was up there, making it all happen!' Alan shouted
to Ellen. 'What about Carlos? Is he coming round?' She shook
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.
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
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
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.'
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,
struck Alan that the formative period of his life had ended.
'It's funny,' he said to Margaret, 'I find it impossible
that house being lived
in by new people. It'll always be Vance's, for me.'
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?
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!'
put him on a gang that was trying to fix the drainage of
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.
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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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:
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!
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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shall comfort ye?
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.
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
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!'
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.
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.'
fuck,' Jo called.
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eyes of the blind
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.
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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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.
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.'
very reason I might need him,' Denis said. 'Outline my rights,
would you 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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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!'
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.
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.'
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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writing of this book:
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.
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.
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
find when they read them.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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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