Alfred Busi lives alone in his villa overlooking the waves. Famed in his tiny Mediterranean town for his music, he is mourning the recent death of his wife and quietly living out his days. Then one night, Busi is viciously attacked by an intruder in his own courtyard—bitten and scratched. He insists his assailant was neither man nor animal.
Soon, Busi’s account of what happened is being embellished to fan the flames of old rumor—of an ancient race of people living in the surrounding forest. It is also used to spark new controversy, inspiring claims that something must finally be done about the town’s poor, whose numbers have been growing.
In trademark crystalline prose, Jim Crace portrays a man taking stock of his life and looking into an uncertain future, while bearing witness to a community in the throes of great change.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.21(w) x 7.96(h) x 0.67(d)|
About the Author
Jim Crace is the author of eleven previous novels. His most recent, Harvest, was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and won the International Dublin Literary Award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. In 2000, Being Dead won the U.S. National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and in 1997, Quarantine was named the Whitbread Novel of the Year and was short-listed for the Booker Prize. Jim Crace has also received the Whitbread First Novel Prize, the E. M. Forster Award, and the Guardian Fiction Prize. He lives in England.
Read an Excerpt
It was not unusual for Alfred Busi—Mister Al—to wake up in the shallows of the night and overhear a cacophony of animals, hunting for food in his and his neighbours’ metal rubbish bins or drinking water from the open drain, water that the residents had used to clean their teeth or wash their clothes and dishes. When he was a married man, he tells me, such shadowy disorders were not at all disquieting. He only had to press his nose again into the warm cloth of the woman in his bed and there could be a pair of minotaurs at his bins for all he cared. For thirty years and more, he’d found full comfort with Alicia, with Missus Al, his wife, and wanted little else. But in the loveless, fallow times that came with widowhood and age, he was reduced to sleeping on his own and so he could be troubled by the bins and drains, or at least detained by them from rest. And then he would slip out of bed, go tiptoes on his naked feet to peer out of the high window that looked into the yard and, westwards, into town. In the two years since Alicia’s death, he’d seen—and made a list of them in the daybook on his desk—a bestiary of dogs and cats, a monkey once, the usual deer, the usual swarms, a feral pig, a bird too black and indistinct to be named with any certainty, reptiles, pigeons, rodents of a dozen kinds—not only rats, though there were tumbling multitudes of rats—and, naturally, the poor. If he was wasteful, throwing out some cuts and slices still good enough to eat himself, then he was wasteful for the poor.
That May night when Busi suffered the cuts and bruises on his throat and face—we’ve seen the photograph—had been a soggy one, with a careless wind intent on keeping everyone awake. He might not have slept much anyway. He’d drunk a little more than usual, three or four sweet tots of Boulevard Liqueur, a woman’s drink, Alicia’s, and so, encouraged by the anxieties of the coming day, a headache was inevitable. He had agreed to wear his medals and his suit and make a public speech. The prospect was alarming, even for a man who in his time had sung in the greatest halls and auditoriums and, on one occasion, years ago, not far from here, to almost everybody living in our town. His show was tannoyed from the stage into the streets, a ‘modest gift for the needy and the ticketless’, he’d said, hoping that the modesty would attach to him as well as to the gift.
Busi did not try to fool himself where music was concerned. He knew his singing voice of late had lost some of its caverns and its peaks. Age had weakened and reduced it, as it must. But what he missed in range, he’d gained in craft: the trick of knowing how to make the most of his shortcomings, how to employ the latest microphone for volume and dimension, how to waltz and shimmy with its rigid stand, how to murmur like a lover or a confidant rather than resound mightily as he could when young, ‘the barrel-chested maestro of acoustics’, ‘the market crier of the song’, a human megaphone. So, even at the age of sixty-something, he was hardly anxious about performing. Besides, the venues where he still gave occasional recitals of his celebrated, proven repertoire to his loyal fans and whatever strays could be delayed by his voice were more likely to be small foyers or bars close to home than great, capacious halls abroad. He didn’t care—he welcomed it, in fact—that sometimes his only payment nowadays would be applause. He had some savings from his most successful years and he owned his family house. In his widowhood, his affection for the building was all the love that he possessed. Not selling it, not ‘milking the market’, as he was urged to, bullied to, more frequently these days, was a regular if modest satisfaction.
The offers from housing factors, architects and agents—none of whom had any desire to live in the villa and enjoy it, but only plans to knock it down and build—were delivered to the door in stiffly embossed envelopes, but mostly left unread. Busi knew that was not shrewd financially but it was wise in every other way. Being devoted to the place where you live and protecting it, he could easily persuade himself, was not proprietorial, little more than title and mastery over an assembly of walls and ceilings. No, rooms could be comforting companions, especially if they had been hung and furnished by your wife. The styles and choices were all hers. She was indented in the cushions and the chairs; the mirrors had grown old and silvered in her company; that curlicue of ring marks on the tabletop was where she’d left her cup a thousand times; those antique crystal glasses had tipped towards her lips; that bedspread was the one that covered her the day she passed away. Death does not tidy up or sweep as it departs. We all of us leave traces other than the ashes and the bones. Her ashes, actually, were still at home, in their brass and rosewood presentation coffer on the piano-top; she rattled slightly with fortissimo. She should be scattered in a peaceful place, but her husband could not bear her parting from him entirely.
Their home—one of the two surviving seaside villas at the old end of the promenade, beyond the new hotels and restaurants and the fashionable marble-faced apartment crescents with their costly slivers of an ocean view—had been a passion for them both. The grand—the grandiose—first-floor window with its curving wrought-iron balcony and flaking paint afforded three contrasting and distinctive outlooks that added value to what had become in recent years, since Alicia, a run-down property. To the west, there was a narrow prospect of the town—the seaside shopping street, some modern frontages, its ramshackle aquarium and a skyline rising steeply from the bay, which was a largely unspoilt frieze of historic towers, domes and spires. To the east, there were glimpses from the balcony of wooded slopes and the progress-defying remnant forest beyond, the only day-time darkness that we had near town, the almost-wilderness, a confined headland of trees hemmed in between the buildings and the sea-cliffs. This was what the French would call garrigue but we born here know better as the bosk, a tangled, aromatic, salt-resistant maze of sea-thorn, carob and pine scrub. And to the front? A paved square where cars and carriages could turn, and a fussy planted garden with benches from which passers-by could watch the blinding cinema of sea.
This was where, on Sunday afternoons and summer evenings, the more cautious citizens in their buffed shoes would end their walks along the waterfront and head back into town on paving slabs rather than chance their ankles on the pebble beach or risk the unattended forest tracks. The older ones would look up at the house, perhaps, knowing that their Mister Al had lived there all his life. Was that the man himself, standing at the window, with a novel in his hand? Was that him, old and naked from the waist up, balanced on a chair to change a bulb? Was that the singer eating lunch, alone, on his defiant balcony? Then, afterwards, they might even catch themselves humming ‘Babel, Babel’ or ‘The Drowning Sailor Speaks of Love’. Those were the titles that still earned Busi modest royalties and kept his reputation—unlike the hero of his song—just afloat, its head above the water.
Yes, Busi was a moderately prosperous man, prosperous in everything except love, let’s say. There might no longer be a pressing need for him to sing for supper but he had been a lifelong devotee of making music and so perform he would, he hoped, until at least the hour of his death. He’d join in the hymns and liturgy at his own funeral, he liked to tell an audience. They’d press their ears against the coffin lid and catch his lasting voice or hear him singing from his little urn of ashes. That would be his one reward, and theirs. Yes, Mister Al would hold us rapt right to the end. No one who knew him doubted that. He never doubted it himself. Nonetheless, presenting a formal address while wearing a tie and without a piano at his side, as he had undertaken to do at noon, would be an ordeal. What he called his ‘missing limb’ would be on show for everyone to see; he had never had the gift of making people laugh, the power to amuse, except in song. And so the very thought of standing up to speak and not to sing laced his stomach stiff and tight as boots. Busi badly needed six or seven hours of unbroken sleep if he were to face the day ahead with any confidence.
But on that night before the speech, the animal banquet in the yard had been uncommonly disturbing. Usually these nocturnal looters went first for water at the drain and then took what they could, the easy pickings, the offcuts and the peel and anything that could be gripped and dragged through the bins’ air vents and punctures. Then they’d hurry off elsewhere and Busi would be left in peace, resting if not quite asleep. This time, though, the wind had helped the larger feeders, strengthened and emboldened by their hunger, to topple the bins and let them spill. The containers had been full and ready for emptying, and so there was enough to keep the feeders busy in the yard and keep the neighbourhood awake for quite a while.
Busi peered down from the bedroom window for a second time that night. The clouds had curtained out the moon and stars. The only illumination, from the street lamps on the promenade at the front of the house, was too low and distant to trespass in the yard. He turned an ear towards the four glass panes. There was always more to hear than see in these unlit hours—not only the animals but also the buffeting of the wind, the swish and crackle of the trees, the clonk of loosened gates and, further off, the sea.
Feeders at the bins would normally follow the trampled game trails in the bosk and come down the loose limestone escarpment at the back of the Busi villa. Busi hadn’t scrambled up it since he was a boy, but he could remember coming home more than once with thorn-shredded legs, a twisted ankle and bruised hands, to be greeted by the zesty sting of salve as his mother wiped him clean. The bosk behind his home and to its east was treacherous and steep, so any creature descending to the yard and breaking cover there was bound to signal its approach with shifting lime scree or the dislodging of a rock or the snapping of a branch, and Busi could then expect on busy nights a tinny symphony of bins and the bickers, the barks and snarls of warring animals.
There were the usual noises, certainly. And movement too. Now that his eyes had adapted to the gloom, Busi could make out the liquid shadows of his visitors and the eye-shine of cats, but little else. When Alicia was still alive, he’d occasionally seen torch lights in the yard and then had known that there were humans at the feast, some street folk hoping for a rich man’s meal, some beggars from the Mendicant Gardens who’d come into the yard to push their old boots through the scrap and spot whatever might be edible, or usable, or valuable, or bright. The poor were quieter than the other animals, and warier. They were both predator and prey, and understood what trespassing amounted to, if caught. They’d lift the lids and turn the bins as carefully as maids unpacking porcelain. Only once had one of them attempted to come in the villa, but he—or she, perhaps—had taken fright as soon as he had sensed the pair of faces looking down from the high window. Busi and Alicia had been woken by the forcing open of the yard gate—not a manoeuvre yet perfected by any animal—and now could witness their visitor’s alarm and his retreat, and hear the hurried and receding footsteps on the street.
On this night, as far as Busi could tell, the diners were too small and confident and raucous for beggars. He knew that there would be no point in banging his knuckles on a windowpane in the hope of scattering these guests. At best, some moist and apprehensive faces (if animals have faces, that’s to say) would look up idly at the noise and then continue snouting. Mostly he would be ignored. He hardly merited the baring of a fang. The ill-tempered rap of old man’s bone on glass was not a language they could bother with. Feeding counted more than fear.
‘Get yourself a shot-gun,’ his nephew had advised, too frequently; his nephew Joseph on his dead wife’s side and a man not miserly about sharing his opinions. ‘Sell up, Uncle,’ he would say, ‘This place is far too large for one.’ Or ‘Why not take in summer lodgers? Unless you want your rooms to stale.’ Or ‘You ought to find yourself an honest maid.’ Joseph had no idea how his uncle hoped to pass his days, and wanted none. Shot-guns suited him, so shot-guns should suit everyone. But, as Busi liked to tell his friends and any fans or journalists who visited the house, he was—at least, since he’d discovered microphones—one of nature’s doves. Alicia had often called him that—The Chanson Dove, the singer with The Feathered Voice (both titles used for concert tours and his recordings). He was a coo-ner rather than a crooner, she had said, too often in his view; a lyricist of his finesse could not approve of feeble puns no matter who the composer might be, no matter that she was adored. He was ‘the broker of tranquillity’, according to the obituary already waiting to be printed on his death. His low notes were ‘his sedatives, and his aphrodisiacs’. His reputation—his self-image, actually; his vanity—rested on his seeming calm and his composure. His worth was proven by his modesty. Busi could hardly be the man, no matter how disturbed he was, to open out the high window and point a weapon into the night, let alone disturb his neighbours’ sleep with gun-shot, let alone harm anything.
There was a gentler weapon, though, behind his bedroom door: not quite a cudgel but stouter than a walking stick, a weapon that had only once drawn blood. Boy’s blood, to be exact. He reached for it before he went out on to the landing. He knew full well there’d be no sleep for him unless he made the effort straight away to, first, urinate—dilute that evening’s alcohol with water from the bathroom tap—find the pillbox for some painkillers to chase off the worsening headache, and then go downstairs, undo the bolted doors and venture into the yard himself to pull the bins back on their feet. He’d have to see if he could find something heavy or some rope to secure their lids.
The stick, he persuaded himself, was only for any dogs that might be in the yard. A cornered dog, unlike a monkey or a cat, would rather bite an unarmed man than back away from feeding. But all dogs, even wild ones that had never known a master and a hearth, understood the meaning of a stick. They could not know that in this yard and on this night, the wielder of the stick was not a man to do much more than shake it from a distance.
Busi did not expect his current and his only neighbours in the house next door to offer any help or even stir, no matter how much barking there might be. Their rented villa, the Pastry House—once home to a family as celebrated for their baking as Busi was for his voice—was in even greater disrepair than the singer’s. The tenants were much younger than him, a careless, cheerful gang of ten; students, he supposed, though he had never asked. They were evidently deaf at night and blind by day, and had scant desire to defend or to protect the yard they shared. Their old neighbour might have lived there all his life, as had his parents and grandparents; he might very well have been born in the same room as the one in which he now slept—but this was no concern of theirs. He was free to love his home, good luck to him; they were free to live their frenzied lives. So Busi was always the one who’d sweep and tidy up, restore the pots of fessandra shrubs—which Alicia had planted—to their pedestals, upright the bins and hose away the pellets and the droppings that the diners had deposited, their satisfied gratuities. One morning, after an especially metallic night, he had even had to drag a neighbour’s motorcycle back on to its stand. He’d found it toppled in the yard and had mistaken it, in the half-light, for a beast, a shiny, slaughtered carcass with rubber-ended antlers, bleeding oil. He had been tempted once in a while to post a note through his neighbours’ door, asking that—especially—they did not throw out their fish and meat waste without at least wrapping it and sealing it. Certainly they should make sure that the fodder they could not eat themselves should not be too easily retrieved by animals or settled on by flies. But he kept his grievance to himself. He had a reputation to protect as a calm, distinguished man, a man too tranquil to complain. Besides, he was a little nervous of the young, never having had a son or daughter of his own, never having had a sibling either.
There was a further reason, though, why Busi wanted to be armed, if only with a gentler weapon, a reason that defied all reason. He had never been keen, not since he was a child in this same house, to walk out on to the landing in the dark. The family home was disconcerting after dusk. It was not a settled building, despite its age, and had its own percussions, which for anyone with an imagination were as alarming as any beasts might be. It was constructed in the craftsman style, hand-built to have a bit of play-and-give in every joint and seam. Even the bulky painted paper on the walls was leafy and loose; it smelt of either sand or salt, depending on the season and the tides, and was irreplaceable, an heirloom in a way—but it was also all that stopped the ageing plaster-daub from crumbling. So it stayed and helped to absorb and soften the unrelenting racket of the house. The villa’s timber frame and floors, the stairs and banisters in inlaid tarbony and lime, the veranda and the balcony, the heavy doors—all muttered, wheezed and fidgeted like ships, especially on tropic nights like this when the winds were coming off the sea, made vastly muscular by all its distances. Anyone alone upstairs, nervous, fretful, wide awake, might mishear the shifting wood as footsteps, or as an intruder tinkering downstairs, or nosing round, or treading not quite carefully enough on creaking boards. On decks. No lucky child, born into money, and certainly no widower, in fallow days, beleaguered by the dry and shrunken sorrows of a life alone, would return to sleep through that, would not imagine he had human visitors, intent on narrowing the gap between the moderately prosperous and the poor.
Busi, holding what he called his clouting stick at the bloodless, narrow end, stepped out on to the landing, armed, and knowing that he looked absurd. What might those students think if they could see him now? Quiet as feathers, in bare feet, with sleep encrusted eyes and aching calves, dressed only in his summer bed-wear, and feeling frail and foolish, our town’s celebrated singer felt his way towards the stairs. It was still implacably dark inside the house. He might as well be blind. The dawn, if there was any dawn so early in the day on flatter ground, had not yet cleared the heights beside the villas to soften the night sky with any of its felted greys. For once the house was entirely free of shadows, such was the saturation of the gloom and the meekness of a bashful moon. There was only creaking blackness and the smell of something he half recognized but could not name just yet.
Excerpted from "The Melody"
Copyright © 2019 Jim Crace.
Excerpted by permission of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
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