Friday, January 27, 2006

Happy Birthday Wolfgang Amadeus!

This blog is by way of tribute to the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 250 years ago today.

I originally intended to upload a chapter a month of a novel about the young Mozart's little-known trip to America, and his adventures in the tiny Coloradoan town of Scopas, a story that begins with a murder and ends with an opera. That proved a foolish endeavour -- there was too little time to revise the existing chapters, let alone compose the later ones, and soon other fictions began crowing into the back of the cupboard of raggedy seersucker suits.

I began writing this more than twenty years ago when I was a postgrad living in a shared and somewhat hallucinatory household in East Oxford. I got a couple of chapters in before the next supply of narcotic substances arrived and I embarked instead on a picaresque tale of a trip on or to the Isle of Skye. I picked the story up a few years later and tidied things up, gave it a bit more of a plot, and then... I lost it big time.

To be more exact, I lost all the disks it and most of the writing I was doing at the time appeared on, somewhere in all the boxes and boxes of papers that started following me from residency to residency and house to house like a pack of rather placid huskies. When we moved to the Old High Light in North Shields, we basically set aside a room for boxes, piled them up, and that was that. Mozart slumbered on for a few more years in the husky fur.

Then the lighthouse got damp, seriously floor-timber rottingly damp (well, it is nearly three hundred years old), and by the time we got back in I seemed to have acquired some more boxes of papers. The result was my study got piled up with these ancient-looking cardboard containers and, one day, looking for CDs, I happened across a heap of old 4.5 inch floppy disks.

My PC at home no longer had a slot for these, but luckily my work PC was a little more elderly, and so I had a look. Hey prestissimo: Mozart, plus all the other novels I got half-way through and gave up on. I didn't know whether to go Erk! or Eureka! (A more common problem than people think.)

As I'm now a horribly busy middle-aged oaf, instead of a terminally lazy mid-twenties oaf, I have a fairly busy work and publishing schedule which doesn't leave time for polishing up of novelistic fragments. On top of which I doubt the publishing world is screaming out for a short silly novel mashing together classical music and classic westerns. But there may well be a few benighted souls out there in Blogaria who could be interested.

Who Killed Old Man Pattinson? And why was he hiding on a houseboat in a cave? And will Mozart solve the murder even though that would make him the world's first child detective?

Mozart in Colorado: Chapter 1

Mozart in Colorado is a novel in 12 chapters concerning the adventures of the young Mozart on an historically-improbably visit to Colorado. That's right, it's a Shaneless Western.


Old Man Pattinson squinted out at the darkness beyond his door. Given that he lived on a single-cabined boat in the middle of a flooded cave, and considering that it was the middle of the night, he didn't have much of a view, but he surveyed what he could carefully. The waters lapped blackly about a few thin spools of moonlight, which behave as though they were dead eels, floating with their phosphorescent bellies up. The mouth of the cave was dimly visible, a half-circle of moonlight, dunked in the waters of Lake Pasquatch. Nothing. Must've been the water clapping on his hull. He often heard sounds like that, swaying in the sunless safety of his cave.

Old Man Pattinson was more than a mite paranoid as a rule, and, like those ruled by their dreads, took refuge in his rituals. Going to the wall opposite the door, he took down his rifle, intending to clean it. When the old miser had retreated to this watery sanctuary, he had taken care not to abandon all vestiges of comfort. Hence the old screen, covered with little lacquer figures of an oriental cast, which he hauled back across the door, to block the ceaseless draughts.

Still cradling the rifle, he dragged an armchair closer to his little stove and sat down. Muttering some litany against 'them bats' he took out the firing pin and placed it on top of the stove, then removed the barrel and began peering through it at various of the little armoured figures scurrying here and there on his screen. One hand went fumbling for the all-purpose rag he kept in his weskit pocket.

'Thet's yew, deng yuh, yuh lil slanty bastard!' he croaked, making glutinous rifle noises in his throat. 'that's yew too!'

When a sufficient number of the figures had met their imaginary ends, he removed the rag from his pocket with the remains of a magician's flourish, ready to clean the barrel. At that instant, the noise repeated itself. Shocked, he dropped the gun barrel, noticing that, although only half-hearing the first disturbance, he had recognised this new noise instantly as coming from the same source. He was just remarking to himself on the marvellous qualities of the human mind when the barrel finally reached the floor and his marvellous mind logged that too. They were all the same sound. Someone was out there with a gun being clumsy in a boat.

Old Man Pattinson rose to his feet with a curse which faded abruptly to a rattled wheeze. Following his old gunslinger's instincts, he blew out the light, then immediately regretted it. He had lost that control over his lungs a younger gunslinger took for granted, with the result that all he could hear now was his own antiquated chest, wheezing away in panic. More to the point, he couldn't see where he'd dropped his gun barrel. There came a new knock, somewhere closer, and he dropped to his knees, scrabbling and panting.

His fingertips swept against something and it rolled from him with a hollow, cylindrical note: the barrel! He held his position, trying to fix on the few points of reference in his small world, listening for the invader. Had their boat reached his boat yet? He should be able to hear someone climbing aboard. Very carefully he reached for the bottom edge of his old desk. The gun barrel must have trundled beneath it. He still couldn't hear anything. Keeping his best ear cocked, he shuffled slowly towards the desk, hearing as he did so a stealthy echo: they were moving when he did!

His straining hand closed on the barrel and a sense of relief hit him like a narcotic. Maybe he was imagining things. The acoustics of the cave did funny things to sounds -- maybe it was a bit of driftwood and, as for the shuffling, well sometimes you hear things like that. He heard something exactly like that and his spine straightened audibly. Where was that from? His sense of direction seemed completely gone: he could be floating upside down for all he knew. With one hand he felt for his bullets (always in his breast pocket) while with the other he stretched for the rifle bolt. He'd show them. Try to roust old man rattler from his nest, eh?

He gave a high-pitched shriek on grasping hold of the rifle bolt, which was scorching hot from sitting so long on top of his oven. He heard it thud onto the floor of the cabin at the same time as something thudded against his chest. He seemed to be making an unpleasant rattling noise now, and realised he would have to light a match if he was to find the rifle bolt, he was too close to panic. He quickly pulled a box of matches from his pocket and lit one. The first thing he saw in this fizzing globe of light was an arrow tip protruding from his chest. How in tarnation had that got there? There was something strange about the arrow that seemed familiar but he didn't have time for that now. First thing you learn about being hit is don't let it shake you. If you're still blinking you're still fighting.

He located the rifle bolt and blew out the match, eliciting a first sharp pain in his chest. Ignoring the fact that the rifle bolt still burnt his fingers he hurriedly reassembled the rifle and swung round. The flash of his shot illuminated the cabin in another globe of white light, and Old Man Pattinson saw many things in rapid succession. First: the screen had been neatly slit along its hinge to allow something, presumably a bow, access. Second: the various examples of Chinese soldiery still swarmed about, implacable as ants. Dang them. Third: something was swinging from the hatch in the ceiling above him. Fourth: his room seemed remarkable peaceful and secure, as though caught in a domestic flicker of candlelight. His mind started to go back to that swinging thing – but by then he was dead.

The top of Old Man Pattinson's skull struck the screen shortly after the bullet from his rifle, and while the bullet had passed through it without touching a single lacquer figure, his cranium put quite a dent in a line of pikemen. The screen rocked, but the line held. It would outlive worse assaults than these. The assailant, tomahawk in hand, swung gently for a moment from the hatch, then dropped to the floor beside his victim. Then a second figure folded the screen up and stepped into the room. It wore a quiver-full of arrows over its shoulder, and was tapping away sardonically at the woodwork with a length of tubing. Some people's paranoia just isn't up to the odds.


Dirty wheel-spokes turned like empty kaleidoscopes, heading blithely towards the small town of Scopas. Leopold Mozart bumped over the plentiful ruts, and found himself imagining roulette wheels spinning in the town's main saloon. He looked barrenly up at the sky. Such a wilderness of air, great sleigh-rides of cloud that built up to higher regions than in any of his known skies, those moist, room-like welkins of middle Europe. Something seemed more wrong than usual with his brain today: it had too many words in it. His gaze drooped to the road's dry tongue, lolling between what seemed to him the ulcerous hills of Colorado. Then a nurturing note entered his eye, terrifying as an owl's, as he confined his attention to his dozing creation.

This, the melodious infant itself, wig spattered with toffee and face as yet unblemished by sallow poxes, lay curled up with a miniature violin. Leopold sighed at the pair sleeping together, perfect miniatures. The violin looked as though recently born, the offspring of some melodious viola, its tiny scrolls and coils of delicate carving as miraculous as any baby's toes and fingers. Like a baby, too, it could grasp blindly, easily, at any music its master would summon. That was the gimmick at any rate, though Leopold was worried whether the child would be rested enough for the performance billed as taking place in (what was it?) two hours.

The Gaiety Theater, Scopas, was a recently established venue of doubtful prestige. Tours were becoming more extensive as the novelty wore off. The Old World was less and less astonished by the tricks he had taught his plastic son -- he would soon have to start planning their comeback. Perhaps he could emphasize Wolfgang's compositional talents...perhaps an opera? He put the idea to one side -- he wasn't quite sure his skills were up to opera, even in the style of a gifted six-year old.

'You folks stayin at the Belvedere?'

The driver of their carriage (which was little better than a cart) was lolling back in his seat with that air of studied relaxation Leopold had noted here. It was as though the lower classes were parodying the masters they supposed themselves to have left behind. He also noted the pronounciation: 'Bell-vay-dearie.' It sounded like one of Wolfgang's nonce-words, the ceaseless nonsense with which he filled their air. That was what was wrong: he was thinking like Wolfie. This always happened when he was too tired.

A feeling of being dwarfed by sound came over Leopold, not for the first time: the barrel-bumping sound of the wheels, as though a statue was being dragged behind the coach, the dust-damped hoof-clops, as if halves of skulls were being beaten together in another room. He struggled to focus on the jiggling face of the driver, which hung before him like an unshaven moon, and shook in time to the beating of the skulls. Its eyes kept increasing in size like kites falling out of windless skies, but that was all nonsense. He was just a bit addled by this ceaseless journeying.

'Yes, the Belvedere, that is quite correct. We have a...that is manager has arranged a suite for us.'

'A sweet?' The driver appeared to be considering some sparse mental menu. Meanwhile an inept juggler starting tossing tennis balls of sputum about Leopold's cavernous abdomen. Stop that, he told himself, stop thinking like that.

'Don't think they've got an entire sweet at the Belvedere, but they got a fancy sittin room. It's got a piana,' he added, with a nod at the slumbering deposit by Leopold's left hand.

Mozart Senior groaned inwardly -- he should have realized how much of the florid mail he had received since arriving here was exaggeration. Wolfgang had rechristened the country 'Vulgaria' as soon as he had worked out his father's reaction to it. Unlike his son, who had pronounced the phrase 'an immensity of vulgarity' with something amounting to relish, this contrast between the orotundity of American rhetoric and the spartan emptiness of its reality left Leopold feeling naked, unprotected. Another poky room with mattresses stuffed with coarse hair.

'I'll take yuh as far's the barber's -- you'll be needin a shave fur your performance. Then I can drop your luggage off at the hotel.'

'But I don't require a shave!' Wolfgang was awake.

'Thank you. That will be most helpful,' said Leopold.

'I'm a shaver, aren't I Papa? So I'll do it and save you money. After all, it's probably his brother that runs it, isn't it, Cow-face!'

'Stop making puns Wolfgang, they give me a headache.’ He glanced at the driver. ‘And don't be so insolent.'

'Oh Papa, they're just little harmonies in language: can't you hear them? If you have an earache they'll make it better.’ He mimicked his father’s glance. ‘And isn't he a servant?'

'I ain't your servant nor no man's!' barked the driver, who had just caught up with the general insolent drift of the child's remarks. Then he modulated his tone back to wheedle, 'Eh, you'll still be wantin that shave and bath, sir? My, uh, brother does have baths of hot water right there all day every day.'

A curious mixture of defiance and honesty, thought Leopold, altogether typical of the American. He must remember to put that in his next letter to his wife, not that she'd be interested in anything but news of her beloved son, his musical and of course his bowel movements. He was planning to recoup some dignity from this tour in the form of a travel journal for the Salzburg cognoscenti, if any of them would still consent to employ him.

Just then his stomach added its unsophisticated voice to the jumble in his head -- hopefully there would be time for one of those huge primitive steaks...what was it Wolfgang had called the buffalo? 'Untrained vittles, vats of vitals.' He smiled in the direction of the driver, remembering as he did so the man's name.

'Thank you, my good man -- please take us to...what should it be? O'Shaughnessy's Shaving Salon and Steaming Tub Emporium?'

The smaller Mozart giggled in delight at this rare example of parental repartee, and Bartholomew O'Shaughnessy, seeing that his free meal for this evening had been secured, beamed back encouragingly.

'Why don't you shave there, driver? Does your brother charge too much? Don't you get a discount?' Wolfgang, apprehending the adults' relaxation, set himself up for some more teasing.

'Waal, son, Brian ain't got a razor sharp enough to deal with this man's whiskers!' Bart O'Shaughnessy yelled over his shoulder, as he negotiated the transition from dirt track to dirt street.

'That means the hairs on your arse must slice your shit in sausages!'


'Some mouth your kid's got,' the driver returned, unperturbed. 'Hope he's as good on that fiddle.'

'Violin, you vile pin!' Wolfgang feigned outrage before lapsing into a string of gibberish, improvised to the rhythm of the journey's last few yards:

'Wily bin,
devil's shin,
deaf old whin,
a whinny-fin.

Fish-horse corsets,
tit-mouse faucets,
possets, whatsits,
dogshits, thin.

leaky prattle,

Bart farts,
but I win!'

Bartholomew O'Shaughnessy's only reaction to this was to raise his left buttock two inches from the plank, using its resonant qualities to send a hefty parp forth, and pull the team to a halt outside his brother's shop.

Arthur Marshall Courtney O'Shaughnessy, his nephew, thirteen years old, two feet taller than was strictly necessary, and covered in pimples like a gangling rosehip bush, was snoozing in the barber's only seat. He leapt up as the coach arrived, in time to catch a message on his uncle's eye and brow telegraph:

'Coupla swells stop. Off to hotel stop.'

He beamed back enthusiastically. He had conceived an enormous affection for his relative since, drunk at table one night, Bart had whispered in his ear about watching the girls at the Gaiety change. He was just going into details when his mother returned from the kitchen and silenced him, and the phrase 'smooth fannies' had become unfortunately linked in Arthur's mind with a maternal monologue on the topic of watery potatoes.

Gangling towards the door in the hope of a tip for helping the customers off Bart's bone-cruncher, he was presented with the sight of two perfectly bizarre gentlemen in cloudy wigs, full frock-coats, dashing weskits, knee-stockings and pearly-buckled shoon. One of these exquisites was a third of the height of the other, in the act of tucking a similarly scaled-down fiddle beneath one arm with all the pomp of a major-domo. Not knowing what a major-domo was, Arthur concluded this must be the most hateful child it had ever been his misfortune to run into.

His suspicion was at once confirmed as it turned on hearing his clumsy tread, took him in in one soaring glance, and was now fixing him with that gaze of pleasurable malignancy he had come to recognize in certain girls about his age. Some choice remark about his complexion and its proximity to the heavens was no doubt building up behind that soft little face.

It turned to the full-size exquisite as if to an old confederate and uttered something incomprehensible which sounded cruel beyond reason. German: he recognised it from the Grocer-and-Supplier's talk. This other, six inches Arthur's junior, turned and directed a glance at him which would seem to back up his furious suspicion. He then spoke in a dry, precise English:

'Your, eh, brother recommends you to us as an excellent barber.'

'And a sparkling back scrubber,' added the miniature, innocuously, but not innocuously enough for Arthur. An evil little beast.

'He ain't my brother, he's my uncle,' he muttered.

'Watch out Papa, this is only the apprentice – he’ll shave your spine close and clean your teeth with a loofah! a tooth-ablutah!'

'Be quiet, Wolfgang.'

The glare in the street was beginning to jangle Leopold, while his bones felt as if they had been grinding together for weeks.

'Do you think I could have a bath and a shave please? My son will share my tub.'

Arthur silently indicated the open door, stepping out of Leopold's way, then, as Wolfgang followed, he arranged one of his haddock-shaped feet so that the small boy tripped. Wolfgang immediately dropped his violin and seized his father's coat tails. This elicited a shocked exclamation from Leopold:

'Your instrument!'

Mozartus minor snatched up the violin, which had sustained a scratch. 'Mine,' he replied, 'but I wasn't instrumental in its fall.'

'Don't prattle, boy, wrap it in your shirt. That was a valuable gift. We may not be able to sell it if the score's too deep.'

'That's what you always say,' Wolfgang spat, adding in a higher tone, 'the score's a bore and I can predict the conclusion.' He shot Arthur a malevolent glare before dropping into German, 'They say the serpent in Eden had a face like a fruitcake, did you know that?'

'Calm down child,' Leopold replied in the same language -- 'we'll just have to find a French polisher.'

But the boy had apparently forgotten the incident, and was skipping about in the dimness of the shop singing something about a Polish franker that sounded rather rude. Where did he get these songs, Leopold wondered, not for the first time, going straight through to the back of the shop. Here large tubs stood around in a sombre herd. A damp girl waited in a slatternly dress, grease-spots on her nose and cheeks, as though she slept beneath a candle. He nodded to her kindly and she began hauling a pan of water off a stove in the back wall.

'Sarah, fill a bath for the gentleman!' called Arthur, a second too late to appear commanding. Perched in the barber's chair, swinging little stockinged legs, Wolfgang giggled unsympathetically.

'Come through and get undressed,' said Leopold, handing his brocaded coat to Sarah, who dipped visibly under its weight.

'I'm not dirty, it's only my shirty,' piped up the child.

'Baths are for health, not cleanliness -- come on.'

A few minuted later two wigs could be seen dangling from hat-pegs, with the suits falling away beneath them, one of which didn't reach the ground. The effect was of two gents standing with their backs to the beholder, one several yards in front of the other.

From the tub came a duet for fife and basset horn, in which the theme 'Sit down Wolfie!' was ably counterpointed by the melody 'Johann Sebastian Bath, Johann Christian Splash, Johovah! Fishtian! (Christian-in-fustian) Math!'

Arthur put his pimple-besprent chin on his freckle-ridden forearm and watched Sarah's dress get damper and more revealing as she carted more water to the ablutionists. These might be described now as presenting a tableau from the high seas, the stately figurehead of a sinking ship being wooed by a lone porpoise, just as it was about to slip below the surface.