Read an extract from Music and Freedom by Zoë Morrison

We’re delighted that Music and Freedom by Zoë Morrison is one of the six books shortlisted for this year’s Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. Here is a short extract from the novel.

Find more information about this year’s shortlisted books (including the judges' report) here.


Oxford, England, October 3rd, 2005

I knew what the sound was when I heard it, but I didn’t believe it. It could have been anything, I told myself, a bell tolling in the distance, someone else’s alarm clock.

I’d descended the stairs that morning wearing nightclothes and layers of old bedding; they dragged behind me. I was already very cold. At that time of day the house was grey and all shadows; then again, when was it not. I might have been confused for part of the house itself – the layers, the shape of them, even the colour of the materials, which blended in so uncannily; I could have been a walking piece of furniture. Except for my face, that is, glimpsed within this odd shroud, my hand coming out to touch the wall. No, you would be mistaken in thinking I was anything but a person.

My aim was to die slowly so that I could organise the house. I had developed a structure for those dying days, a sequence of four actions I repeated. So far they had not been interrupted.

Down the hall, still close to the wall, into the study, and all of this done slowly. I was already slight, my white hair uncombed. By the fireplace I struck a match, held the small flame downwards, it crept onto a page, appeared to pause for a second as if looking around, checking, then started upwards. I put some books onto the fire, lowering them carefully: A New Theory of Capitalism; The Significance of Monetary Policy; Capitalism and Freedom.

On the desk by the window were stacks of sheet music, albums, catalogue labels and file boxes; there were also piles on the floor. I was only up to B. I picked up an album of Bach partitas, heard the first one begin in my head as I made a label, tucked it away. I reached Beethoven that morning, a book of his Bagatelles, then went out to the hall. The phone was a relic, old, black and heavy. I dialled the number; this time he answered quickly. He-llo? he said, relaxed. Hello? Sharp. I hung up, hastily.

So far everything had progressed normally. I went to the piano.

Usually, at this point, I would play a single note over and over for some time. Then I’d go back into the study to burn more books and papers, and file music. This was the habit circle I had developed. Burn, file, call, play. Repeat.

The note I played happened to be concert A, which is like a starting gun musically speaking. It tunes a child’s violin (see her frowning down the fingerboard of her little instrument, bringing the bow onto the string); it tunes a symphony orchestra (and there she is again, a young woman now, in the leader’s seat, playing the note for the rest of the orchestra). Sometimes when I played it I’d hear an orchestra tuning up in my head: first the strings, then the woodwind, the brass, the timpani. Everything playing that note until it all faded and the silence began, that anticipatory silence between tuning and performance, although now there was no music because I had not played for many years.

I got onto the stool. The slump of my spine mirrored the shape of my index finger, which started tapping the note in a way that did not expect to be heard. It was expressing some- thing, I suppose, that I was not yet able to put into words.

A, A, A.

I was feeling eerily light, as if part of me had separated from my body, one of the physiological effects of starvation, I was thinking; it was several days since I had eaten.

A, A, A.

My eyes shifted from the wood of the instrument to the street outside, Chardwell Road, where I had lived since I was nineteen. The houses opposite were identical multi-storeyed terraces; they looked empty, although people lived in them. A boy sped past on a bicycle and turned the corner, a student probably, it was nearly term-time again.

A, A, A.

(Whoever thought beginnings and endings could co-exist so closely?)

A, A, A.

And then I heard it, I heard it, bell-like at first, a bell hit repeatedly. It was another concert A, also played on a piano.

I took my finger from the key immediately and sat upright. I listened closely; there was nothing. I started playing the note again, quietly. There it was, the other concert A, keeping up. More than this, it was played exactly between my concert As, turning crotchets into quavers, walking into running.

It was an echo, I thought. Something had shifted in the structure of the house overnight, all that rain; a freakish phenomenon, ephemeral. I played the note once, loudly, and it came back three times (A! A! A!). Happy toots.

The instrument must be malfunctioning, I thought next, the hammer rebounding. I got up and played the note, watching the mechanism hit the string; it struck only once. I sat back on the stool.

It sounded as if the note was coming from behind the wall to my left, a common wall with a rental property similar to my own. An American family had moved out at the beginning of summer and I hadn’t seen anyone move in, but perhaps someone had done so without me noticing. It seemed unlikely; surely I would have seen them coming and going.

I went over to the wall and felt it with my hands. The plaster, painted grey, was cold and smooth. I leant into it, pressing my ear flat.

I moved to the window and looked at the neighbouring porch. Junk mail, wrinkled from the rain, was plastered on the tiles around the door: desiccated supermarket catalogues, faded menus for Indian takeaway. I watched the place for the rest of the day, then into the night. No one came in and no one went out.

The next day I dismissed the other concert A. I assumed I had been hearing things, and that my ears were now broken as well as my hands. I went nowhere near the piano. It was erased from the habit circle. I burnt papers and books about economics, filed music, made calls – and that was it.

I felt, at times, upset about the conclusion I had drawn about the other concert A, and uncertain. At one point I got down on the floor beside the piano, felt the carpet around me and thought: floor. Then I held my arm out in front of me and shook it: arm, fist. I patted myself on the head, hard, harder, so I could feel it, know it, see it. This did nothing to solve the mystery of the other concert A either.

If this were where the story finished there would be nothing more to tell, except for someone else to describe the sight of an old woman’s emaciated corpse on the carpet beside a Steinway grand piano (strange place to rest, poor thing, or maybe she fell), a study with empty shelves (now what happened here, do you think? Is it all at the Bodleian Library already?) and some neatly catalogued boxes of sheet music and albums that completely and precisely covered the surface of the big desk.

I think forgiveness is an overvalued concept. It is the sort of idea perpetrators and their associates suggest to victims for their own purposes, after all those victims have done for them already, sponging up the hatred as it was poured upon them. I have no use for forgiveness, not yet. But other ideas like that, kindness, for example, I think that is fundamental. Resurrec- tion; I like that too. And love, of course, love, love, love.

*

Currabin, New South Wales, Australia, December 16th, 2006

Here is the view from where I sit. The remains of the lawn, brown at this time of year, stretch from the edge of the veranda to the orange trees, which ring the house and extend acres beyond it. The garden (violets, wisteria, magnolia) is gone, except for the solitary date palm that stands bent in one corner and now looks comical to me. The owners sold the water rights last year and when I saw what they had done to the oranges, as I rounded the bend in the drive in the hire car, I stalled it. Total disorientation. I was under the sea looking at a forest of bleached and broken coral. I was on the moon. Then I saw the house, still flat, weatherboard and splayed like a foot. I restarted the vehicle, drove it up the small incline into the car port.

All the orange trees have been cut to stumps or short, ampu- tated branches, and have been painted white. Apparently this preserves them with little requirement for water, and the paint protects them from the sun. I’m sure the owners have done this in the hope someone will want to resurrect them and it will add to the value of the property, which is on the market. I have faith in none of it. This was never a good place to grow oranges. The soil may be alluvial and rich but the rainfall is equal to that of a desert.

I flew in ten months ago from Heathrow and have the place on lease, the rent rolling over until they sell it or I leave. At first I did nothing; I just sat here, thawing. Then I got on with a few other things: for example, I’m on the visiting roster at a local nursing home; my neighbour Shirley helped with that. Mostly, though, I’ve been sitting here thinking about writing this.

Perhaps I could blame Romantic music for what happened. Those clear and simple melodies, the harmonies that dip then lift, the grand, over-arching themes. I learnt many years ago at music college that the Romantic movement was about individual striving, and the triumph of fantasy over reality.

In a week, three house guests are supposed to be arriving. If they don’t come it will break my heart. I have readied their room: it has a big window, excellent blinds and an air-conditioner so modern and enormous it chills the space in no time. I paid Shirley’s niece to dust it thoroughly, wash the windows, the mesh, the sills, even the walls. Last week I got her over again and she moved furniture, covered the space with sheets and painted it a sort of warm custard-yellow; it has been airing ever since. I have made and frozen several meals; tonight I shall make a cake that slices well and improves with age; and today, finally, I sit to write this. It needs to be finished by the time they come. If they come, that is. I’ve allocated one day, today, to write of the first seventy-three years of my life, and the next six to write about what has happened since. I think I can do it. I’ve started early; the dawn has just passed. The place still whirs with birds at this moment, despite the drought. The light is yellow, faint, no need to assert itself yet, the full force will come. When it gets very hot I’ll go inside, eat a quick lunch, fill another jug of water, make more coffee. I don’t intend to be deterred.

One of the reasons I like writing so much these days is because I can see it – there, on the page. These blue biro words cover the paper, they indent it; I can feel them when I touch the page with my fingers. When I write I am better at telling the difference between what is something and what is nothing. And when I do this, I am not dead anymore, or dying. I am here, I have arrived, I am defined in clear lines: I am myself.


Music and Freedom is available in-store and online.

You can read more about the Prize here.

You can buy a specially-priced pack of all six shortlisted books here for $139.95 (was $170.86).

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