Puccini's Ghosts

by Morag Joss

Puccini's Ghosts

Hardcover, 367 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $22 | purchase

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Book Summary

During the summer of 1960, fifteen-year-old Lila's life is about to change forever as she escapes the confines of school, her parents' loveless marriage, and her mother's hysterics to spend the summer with her uncle George, a London music teacher preparing to stage an amateur production of a Puccini opera in the town of Burnhead, on the west coast of Scotland. 22,500 first printing.

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Excerpt: Puccini's Ghosts

Puccini's Ghosts

Now I’m here I begin to sense the trouble I’m in. I’m back at the window but the view has changed. I haven’t switched on a light so I’m standing in the dark watching night colours gleam through the glass: silvered wet tarmac, darts of rain caught in the cloudy glow under the streetlights and across the road, garden walls soaked in warm, sodium glare. There are no streetlights on our side—they belong to the new houses—but their orange sheen leaks as far as our privet hedge, staining its green leaves brown. The old road is a street now. At intervals across it there are lumps lying in wait to slow the traffic; even at this hour one or two cars pass. The beam of their white headlamps tilts and dips and steadies as they curtsey over the bumps and then they pick up speed with the fizz of tyres on the wet road, pulling their shadows after them. I follow the line of streetlights stretching through the sky all the way back to the bridge, receding spangles of orange distorted by the rain on the window into a row of tiny bursting suns. Behind me, the room creaks with damp, its emptiness sighs. But I will not turn round yet, nor switch on a light. I know what it would show me. I shall carry on standing here, looking out and feeling ridiculous.

What was the rush? Why did I drop everything and come immediately to arrive so late at night, when tomorrow would have done? When they rang to tell me he was dead I came at once as if, having just died, he might be still within reach, somehow not quite gone. His death reminds me of something obvious that I feel stupid for having overlooked, that he was old and one day would die, and yet how can he leave like this, a man who never did anything sudden in his life? I talked to him in my head all the way here. I told him I was sorry.

I’m sorry, I say again now.

All I hear in reply is his tired voice, Och, Lizzie. His voice comes to me, it seems, from a great distance. He sounds lost and cut-off as if he has got himself stranded somewhere, though he isn’t crying for help; he is, if anything, resigned.

Och, Lizzie.

I can’t tell if he means it as dismissal or forgiveness.

Maybe it isn’t so ridiculous, my jumping to attention now he has died; maybe it’s an effect the newly dead have on the rest of us. And am I acting any more suddenly than he did? Off he goes raising a cloud of dust and up I start, needing to move in some direction or another, as if giving chase. It’s the kind of thing, scrupulously misinterpreted to feed their hunger for a disgraceful tale, that people round here get their teeth into. I can hear their voices, too.

Doesn’t see him for years but she’s here fast enough to hear the will read.

I don’t know if he made a will. But even while I’m booking a flight, packing, cancelling appointments, I think I make out a shape in the dust as it begins to settle, some dark weight he left behind. It’s cumbersome, as heavy as history, and I have no use for it, yet I can’t leave it lying unclaimed. It’s the past, and now it’s mine and I have to do something with it. He’s not been dead a day but I intend to be practical about it, as I will be about his other things. Already they are no longer just his things but obstacles of a kind, an affront to order, a challenge to the clarity of what belongs where and to whom. I am unsettled by the sudden knowledge that, for an interval at least, everything the dead leave behind is still theirs and yet no-one’s, though I’m not sure if this question of ownership is a trivial or a profound matter. But what a strange hurry I feel to bestow or destroy, as if his belongings might be dangerous if they are not at once attached elsewhere. I don’t care where they go as long as I get them off my hands, and it’s the same with this story of our past. It’s a shapeless load with one straggling thread, its unsatisfactory ending, that trails from it like a fuse. I want it tucked out of sight. I have to find somewhere to dump it, some unvisited place in my mind, a kind of mental cupboard under the stairs for a filled sack of worn-out memories.

They’ll expect a show at the funeral. Not necessarily of grief, but they’ll expect me to make myself somehow conspicuous; I’m sure there are still those who like to think I’m as bad as my mother. Thinks she’s the next Maria Callas your mum, everybody says so, Enid used to say, smirking at the very idea, and I would snigger with embarrassment because my mother did think that. Or believed she might have been if my father hadn’t ruined her chances, as she so perfectly rewrote events. In my mother’s mind she and my father are Persephone and Pluto; he practically threw her in a sack and bore her down into darkness although he, lacking any authority, makes an improbable god of the underworld. But by the time I’m fifteen I believe completely in her shuttered and powerless misery, which seems irreversible. She lives here as if unable to break out of some truly dreadful contract, under a form of house arrest that leaves her in turn distraught and enervated. All that changes, of course, but I cannot look round from the window now that this recollection is upon me.

Behind me she sits, with Uncle George. They’re lingering over breakfast, I’m clearing it away.

I need a day off. The voice is tired, she tells him. I’m tired, vocally.

I remember now, she’s in a sulk because he has made her give up cigarettes but is still smoking himself.

He says, But you don’t know the part properly yet.

I don’t want to get stale.

Come on, Florrie, he says, wise up. If Callas spends every hour God sends preparing a role, why shouldn’t you?

He’s the one who sounds tired. He has his chin cupped in the hand that holds the cigarette and threads of smoke are weaving up through his hair, silvery blue into chestnut. With the spent match in his other hand he is stirring a little paste he has made out of toast crumbs and leftover butter on the side of his plate, black into pale yellow, over a pattern of ferns.

Don’t call me Florrie, she says, waving away the smoke. It’s Fleur. And don’t talk to me about Callas.

She stands, sets her shoulders wide, looks through this window and arches her eyebrows. Out pours the final phrase of ‘Vissi d’arte’ from Tosca, minus the words, for she doesn’t know them beyond the first two lines. I notice how unused her lips are to being stretched, as if they haven’t done enough laughing. Uncle George looks away and smiles his private smile with one last drag on the cigarette, which he stubs out in the paste of crumbs and butter. The way it hisses a little seems to seal the point, as far as I am concerned.

Of all those people who said my mother thought she was the next Maria Callas, I wonder how many are still here.

When I arrived, I found the key where it’s always been behind the loose brick in the garage wall. I stepped through the kitchen and into the back room that my father’s life had shrunk to fit: one armchair, the television, everything else on castors. At once I snapped off the light and came in here to the dining room. In a minute or two I’ll find my way upstairs in the dark and grope around for blankets in the landing cupboard. I cannot bear bleak electric light scouring the corners and washing out shadows, showing me how unchanged everything is.

I’ll linger here just a while longer. In the silences between cars I listen for the rasp of the incoming water of the Firth up the beach not far behind the house, but maybe I only imagine I can hear it, in the same way that I imagine the moon, invisible tonight behind clouds, pulling the tide across the shore. I like such commonplace movements as these: the coming and going of the sea, the falling of rain, the passing of cars. In this dead room, from behind the glass, I feel I am witnessing a kind of breathing.

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