Excerpt from The Melody by Jim Crace, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Melody

by Jim Crace

The Melody by Jim Crace X
The Melody by Jim Crace
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2018, 240 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2019, 272 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Dean Muscat
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1

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.

Excerpted from The Melody by Jim Crace. Copyright © 2018 by Jim Crace. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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