The Soviet Prom by Neil Herrington

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Wednesday, 21 August 1968

 

The moment you and Slava enter the dining room, he throws himself on the first person he sees, kisses both of their cheeks and pulls them close in a bear-hug.  The recipient of his attention does not stand to return the greeting.  He doesn’t even look up.  You walk on to an empty table.

‘Galya, tell me, who was that?’ asks Slava, taking his seat opposite you.

‘I don’t know,’ you say.  ‘A second violinist.  Maybe a viola player.’

Slava looks around the room in expectation but no one meets his gaze.  He takes a slice of toast from the toast rack, then reaches for the marmalade and knocks over the milk jug.  You sit with your elbows on the table and your head in your hands.  A waitress appears.  She refills the jug and pours milk into your teacup before you can stop her.  You watch Slava’s bowing arm liberally spread marmalade over a slice of toast.

‘What is wrong with them?’ he asks.  ‘I can only think that Svetlanov has crushed their souls.’

‘They’re trying to eat their breakfast,’ you say.

‘In silence, Galya?  And isn’t it strange?  I can’t see any of the minders in here.’

‘Perhaps they’re working on the arrangements for this evening.’

‘Well, you’d have thought these people would be making the most of their absence.’

‘They’re probably tired.’

‘Tired?’ he says, his eyebrows rising above the top of his spectacles.  ‘I just hope they can play with more passion than that with which they eat.’

You sip your tea and inspect the quality of the linen napkins.

Slava takes an apple from the fruit bowl and rolls it across the table in your direction.  You catch it before he knocks over anything else.  You raise your head from your hands and look at him.  The flight landed late last night and it was after midnight by the time you arrived at the hotel, but Slava never needs more than three hours sleep.

‘Why don’t we get some fresh air?’ he says, grinning.  ‘Come on, let’s go out for a walk.  How lucky we are to be back in London.’

He gets up and knocks into the man seated at the table behind him.  The man doesn’t flinch.  Slava throws his arms around him in apology, kisses both of his cheeks, but the man does not look up.  Slava tucks in his seat and knocks his cutlery onto the floor.

‘Galya, tell me, who was that?’ he asks as you leave the dining room.

‘I don’t know,’ you say.  ‘A French horn player, maybe.’

You follow Slava down the hallway’s worn and dirty carpet and out of the front door, into the morning light.  The sun’s rays are bouncing between the opposing terraces of tall white townhouses.  They hurt your eyes.  The street must once have been very grand, but now, great clumps of stucco have fallen from the rows of columns supporting the entrance porches.  Damp is rising up the walls from the pavement.  Like all visiting Soviet artists, you always stay in this hotel when you are permitted to travel to London.

Slava takes your hand and leads you towards Kensington Gardens.  You are reminded how perfectly his fingers are designed for the cello.  They are of almost equal length.  His little finger is longer than your middle finger.  When you met in Prague all of those years ago, he waited for you in the hotel lobby every afternoon, ready to accompany you wherever you wandered.  For three days he tried desperately to catch your hand in his.  On the fourth day, you finally gave in.  You could tell he was a dangerously sensitive person the moment you first felt those long fingers.  They seemed to palpitate with music.

‘Is it the Dvorak you are playing tonight?’ you ask, still thinking of Prague.

‘It is, providing the people we dined with at breakfast are able to summon the strength to lift their instruments,’ says Slava.

‘It’s a long time since I’ve heard you play it.’

‘Sometimes it seems as if it’s the only piece I ever play.’

‘Don’t tell me you’re growing tired of it?’

‘I’m just glad I pestered Prokofiev and Shostakovich into writing for me.   But I need more new pieces, more, more, more!  Benji really ought to hurry up and finish his final Cello Suite.’

‘I thought you said he’s not been enjoying the best of health?’

‘All the more reason for him to finish it before he’s too late.’

‘You should be gentler with him.  Not everyone has your stamina, Slava.  Will he be coming this evening?’

‘I don’t think so.  He’ll be in Aldeburgh.  But we must see him while we’re here.  Ah, dear Benji.’

The very thought of Benjamin Britten and his red house by the sea brings smiles to both of your faces.  Slava takes your hand again as you cross the stream of red buses and black taxicabs in front of Kensington Gardens.

At the western corner of the park, at the end of the lane that leads to the Soviet Embassy, you notice a crowd gathering.  It is August, London is warm, yet the crowd – about fifty hairy men – are wearing pullovers and overcoats.  Above the drone of the traffic you can hear staccato slogans being chanted in unison.  Your English is far from fluent – you and Slava prefer to speak in German with Benji – but you know something unusual is happening, something you have never witnessed in Russia.  The man leading the chanting is darker than an Armenian.  He has sad eyes and a luxuriant moustache.

Slava releases your hand and hurries down the road, lost in an impulsive need to understand the situation.  Of course you both know exactly what is happening.  Three weeks ago, when you crossed back into the USSR at the border with Poland, you saw the endless stream of tanks and soldiers lining the Belorussian highway, waiting.  Slava’s bald head bobs up and down in time with the placards that the men thrust in the air.  You have already read and understood “Russians are Fascists” on one of the signs, but Slava’s eyesight is poor.  He comes to an abrupt halt, dangerously close to the protestors, close enough to risk being recognised.

He rears backwards, mouth open, and grabs the park railings to try and keep himself upright.

‘This cannot be,’ says Slava, swapping the support of the railings for that which your hand offers.

You lead him in silence, back across the stream of red buses and black taxicabs, between the blinding terrace of townhouses, back to your shabby hotel, to the privacy of your room and the black and white TV in the corner, back to the light that the British Broadcasting Corporation will hopefully be shining on Prague.  Only now do you understand why no one in the orchestra dared speak a word at breakfast.  Only now do you understand exactly what Slava is obliged to perform this evening and on whose behalf he must perform it.

 

*          *          *

 

You sit on the edge of the bed together, watching your nation’s tanks rolling through Wenceslas Square.  The Soviet soldiers poking out of the tops of the tanks look confused, unsure of what they are supposed to be doing.  This is what you have come to expect from most men.  They exist to timidly give you flowers at the end of your concerts, to turn around and look at you after you have passed them on the street.  Men are nothing more than an obligatory backdrop.  Slava, of course, is a genius, but these pathetic-looking soldiers only confirm your low opinion of the opposite sex.

Slava gets up from the bed and paces up and down, glancing at the TV screen.  His cello sits in its case in the corner of the room, waiting.  Even cellists are usually nothing more than nameless men who sit below you in the orchestra pit.

The images slowly change.  Wenceslas Square is now full, not just of tanks and soldiers, but cars and buses, pick-up trucks and tractors and thousands of Czechoslovakians.  They stand and watch, mystified, almost amused, as if they are witnessing a quarrelling husband and wife who have taken their domestic dispute out on to the street.

But slowly, inevitably, men begin to shake their fists in the air.  A fighter plane flies overhead.  Some of the men start striking the tanks with their bare hands.  Hundreds more are sitting on the steps outside the National Museum.  People have attached posters you can’t read to the sides of the Wenceslas Monument plinth.  An old man climbs up the side of a tank and speaks to a gun-toting soldier.  He shrugs his shoulders and holds his hands out, questioning.

‘What are we going to do?’ asks Slava.

You say nothing.  This is only just beginning.

‘How can I go on stage tonight?’ he says.  ‘I couldn’t bear the shame.’

Now the TV is showing burning vehicles.  A tank tries to drive over a bus and fails.  Another tank is covered with rubble, immobilised.  It looks as if it has been attacked by the building behind it, but there is only one way the masonry has come to land on it, only one cause for the hole from which the masonry has fallen.

Slava crosses to his suitcase and takes out a bottle of perfume.  He upends the bottle onto his fingers and applies the scent to his neck and wrists.

The first corpse is broadcast, its legs poking from beneath a Czechoslovakian flag.  More corpses are shown being loaded onto stretchers.  You consider turning off the TV, but become transfixed by a group of women who are standing at the end of the square, not far from the hotel where you and Slava met.  They have linked arms.  A tank approaches and the women throw themselves before it.  This is when you scream.

There is a knock at the door.  Slava’s eyebrows rise above his glasses, then fall to a furrow.  Again, you consider turning off the TV, but Slava has already gone to the door and is opening it.

‘Ah, so you decided to come back, did you?’ says Svetlanov, walking into your room with a man you don’t recognise.

You can tell by his suit that the man is one of the minders.  He has an inscrutable face, as if it is paralysed from the eyes down.

‘We went out after breakfast for some fresh air,’ says Slava.

‘It’s better that you stay in your room,’ says the minder, sniffing.

‘Well, now that the British Broadcasting Corporation have told us what is happening, I can assure you, I’ll be too ashamed to show my face outside again.’

‘Well, what else could we have done?’ says Svetlanov.  ‘Dubcek has been acting like a damn fool.  He had to be put in his place.’

‘We?’ says Slava.  ‘I am a musician.  And we musicians have played no part in this.  On whose behalf are you speaking, maestro?’

‘Please wait here until you receive further orders,’ says the minder, still sniffing Slava’s perfume.

‘When did you hear about this?’ asks Slava.  ‘This morning?  Last night?  Last week?’

‘One of the violinists knocked on my door this morning, just after sunrise,’ says Svetlanov.  ‘He’d heard it on the radio.  I alerted Ivan immediately…’

‘And I called the Embassy,’ says Ivan the minder.  ‘They consulted with Moscow who called back just after seven thirty with the confirmation.  The Embassy then relayed it to me.’

‘And did our comrades in Moscow know that I am due to perform one of the greatest works ever written by a Czechoslovakian composer in the Royal Albert Hall this evening?’

‘I didn’t ask,’ says Ivan, still sniffing.

‘Anyway, we don’t know if the concert will go ahead,’ says Svetlanov.

‘I am in touch with the BBC,’ says Ivan.

‘And I don’t know if I can perform,’ says Slava.

You get up from the edge of the bed and take his hand.  Svetlanov and Ivan have yet to acknowledge you.  You and Svetlanov have shared the stage of the Bolshoi before, but this bedroom is small and you have never been so close to him.  You study his widow’s peak and notice he has started dying his hair black.  He is unsettled by your presence, unsure of the capacity in which you have come to a concert in which you will not be singing.  Soviet musicians who wish for their wives to travel with them have to apply to the Ministry of Culture claiming poor health and a need to be nursed.  Slava must apply for you to accompany him on tour too, but does so on the grounds that he is a virile, young man.  He understands that his leash is tethered, but can only guess its length.  You fear he has over-estimated.

‘Are you serious?’ says Ivan.

‘Have you seen the crowds near the Embassy?’ says Slava.

Ivan doesn’t even twitch.

‘Well, we have,’ says Slava, squeezing your hand.  ‘And they are angry.  Imagine if they come to the concert?  How could I dare to play them the Dvorak?’

‘Perhaps we should tell the BBC that we don’t wish the concert to go ahead,’ says Svetlanov.  ‘You know, show them that we Russians are the ones who are in charge?’

Ivan catches Svetlanov’s eye, which stops him talking.  Then Ivan scans the room, trying to locate the source of the scent that so troubles him.

‘As I said, wait here until we return,’ says Ivan, walking towards the door.

‘I have already told you,’ says Slava.  ‘I left this hotel earlier this morning and I have no intention of doing so again.’

Slava closes the door on the men.  You take his hand once more and return the squeeze he gave you.  He crosses to his suitcase and retrieves his bottle of perfume.

 

*          *          *

 

Ivan returns at six o’clock to escort you to the bus waiting outside the hotel.  Slava carries his cello, his head hung low, silently accepting his fate.  Only Svetlanov, seated behind the driver, looks up at Slava as he climbs onto the bus.  When everyone is aboard, Ivan gives the order to proceed to the hall.

You join the slow-moving stream of red buses and black taxicabs.  It should be a short journey to the Albert Hall, but the traffic is barely moving.  You start to hear the chanting of those tortuous slogans again, at first no more than a distant whisper.  They get louder as the bus inches towards the hall until the noise from outside is as terrifying as the sounds that were broadcast by the TV in your hotel room.

The hairy men in pullovers and overcoats now number in the hundreds and are spilling all over the road.  A line of policemen try to clear them back onto the pavement to make way for the bus.  The orchestra members sink lower into their seats, but Slava cranes his neck to read the protestors’ placards.

‘Russians Out, Dubcek In,’ he whispers to himself.  ‘Is This Socialism With a Human Face?’

You can see queues of people in suits and frocks snaking their way from the doors that perforate the circumference of the hall.  The hairy men fill the spaces between the lines, distributing pamphlets, trying to speak to the people who are queuing.  You see suited men and hairy men arguing.

When the bus has remained stationary for five minutes, Ivan stands to address the orchestra.

‘We will walk from here,’ he says.  ‘Do not respond to any provocation.  Orchestra members first, then the conductor and soloist.’

‘What a brute!’ says Slava, under his breath.  ‘He doesn’t even know how to address me properly.’

You watch the orchestra members file out of the bus, one by one, like a dripping tap.  They hang their heads, not averting their gaze from the heels of the person in front of them.  But the hairy men want more from them, much more.  The man whom Slava hugged and kissed at breakfast is the first to be hit by a tomato.  Before the indignity occurs to you, you think of the terrible waste, of the people in your building during the siege of Leningrad who would have killed to lick that tomato from his cheeks.  He is carrying his violin case.  He raises it to his head and runs for the hall.  The other musicians pull up their collars and follow his lead as a barrage of fruit and scrunched up pamphlets descend on them.

A man you don’t recognise approaches the bus.  You grasp Slava’s hand when it looks like he’s going to climb aboard, then scream when he does.  The man smiles at you, then leans forward to whisper something to Ivan.

‘Vladimir will escort your wife to the hall,’ says Ivan, rising to his feet.  ‘And you will both come with me,’ he says, turning to include Svetlanov.

Svetlanov removes a comb from his inside pocket and tidies his hair.  Then he stands.  His smile is unconvincing.  Slava’s hand is palpitating, although not with music. You squeeze it, then let go.

Ivan leads Slava and Svetlanov from the bus and they force their way through the crowd.  You and your new minder, Vladimir, follow.  Slava bears his cello on his back as if it were a cross.

The crowd erupts when they see Slava.  Without the police asking, they divide themselves in two, clearing a path to let him through.  Slava bows his head at each person he passes, but can’t bring himself to look up.  You spot the man who is darker than an Armenian, the one who led the chanting earlier.  You suppose he is Indian.  You know the last King of England gave the Indians their independence, but are surprised this enables the man to lead demonstrations on the streets of London.  He hisses ‘fascist’ as Slava hobbles past.

From the opposite side of the crowd, someone else shouts, ‘It’s not his fault, Tariq.’

‘He is a musician funded by the Soviet State,’ says the Indian man, although now you are unsure whether Tariq is an Indian name.  ‘We have to show our anger.’

As soon as you are safely inside the hall, you collapse on to the first seat you discover.  You don’t have the strength to shout “good luck” or “goodbye” when you realise Ivan is not going to pause to regroup, but is instead marching Slava and Svetlanov directly to their dressing rooms.  You watch Slava’s bald head wobble down the corridor.  He is already lost to the evening’s performance.

Vladimir asks you to get up and follow him to your box.

 

*          *          *

 

You cannot see any placards as you gaze down on the arena.  Instead, your eyes are drawn to the pipe organ, which looms over the hall with all the majesty of the organ in the Rudolfinum in Prague, the place where Slava first recorded the Dvorak Concerto.  You lean back in your chair, assuming the protestors have been barred from entering the concert.  Then someone shouts ‘Russians out,’ and the hall fills with the sound of people stamping their feet.  You spot the man whom you suppose is Indian, see his moustache twitching as he shouts his slogans, but they are muffled by the stamping.  You think of goose-stepping soldiers.

The audience falls silent when the orchestra walks out, as if they cannot quite believe the musicians are actually going to go through with it.  But the stamping and shouting resume once the shock has subsided, this time even louder.  You notice the violinist whom Slava hugged and kissed at breakfast has cleaned his face.

The oboist plays a piercing A.  The brass and woodwind, then the strings, try to tune to it, but they are overcome by the sound of people shouting ‘Get out of Czechoslovakia’.  You watch the men in suits pleading for calm.

Svetlanov walks on to the stage, his black hair perfect and shining.  The Indian man shouts,  ‘Shame on you.’  Svetlanov doesn’t look at the audience, just heads to the podium, picks up his baton and launches into the Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla at a ferocious tempo.

The audience are instantly silenced again, the strings tearing through their hostility like a crosscut saw slicing through a tree trunk.  You ease back into your chair and spot Ivan and Vladimir flanking the orchestra on either side of the stage, scanning the audience with dispassion.

When the overture ends, Slava walks out, carrying his cello before him at arm’s length as if it is a Roman guard leading him to Calvary.  The shouting starts up again.  You try to freeze your heart to stop yourself from rushing down the stairs to the stage to remind him of your love.  He has already assumed the shame of a nation.

Dvorak’s Cello Concerto begins with a long orchestral introduction.  For three or four minutes, you watch Slava fidgeting in his chair, staring at the floor in front of his feet.  People continue to shout slogans.  A man in the front row stands up, points his ticket at Slava and shouts, ‘I’m leaving your concert,’ before throwing it at Slava’s feet.

More than any other instrument, the cello has a range that matches the human voice.  When you first played and sang together in that hotel room in Prague, Slava told you, a soprano, how his bow was his breath; his left hand his vocal chords.  This is all he has to speak his confession and his entry, when it comes, is searing.  The sound he produces is so sustained, he seems to stretch time so that the sforzandos rush ahead of him and he starts to stab wildly at his instrument.  You notice that he only breathes at the end of each new phrase, when he lifts his bow from the strings.  He struggles to keep going.  The pianissimo passages are almost inaudible, as if he is unable to exorcise the grief inside him.  He does not settle until he reaches the second theme, by which time tears are running down his cheeks.  It is too painful for you to witness.  You go to the back of your box, pull back the red curtain and crouch beneath the table until it is all over.

 

*          *          *

 

It is hard to tell what first assaults you when the last notes of the Finale are flung into the hall.  You can still hear people shouting slogans, but the sound of applause almost drowns them out.  You get out from under your table, creep to the front of the box and look down on the arena.  Slava is on his feet.  You cannot tell if he is bowing in apology or appreciation.  He uses a white handkerchief to dab at his tear-stained cheeks.  You study the audience in more detail and notice that many of the people who aren’t clapping are also wiping their faces with tissues.  You cannot locate the Indian man.

Slava walks to the podium.  Svetlanov offers him his hand, but Slava reaches past him and picks up the score.  He carries it to the front of the stage, still drying fresh tears from his cheeks, and holds the name ‘Dvorak’ above his head to receive the applause.  A shudder of hysteria pulses through the audience.

Slava takes his seat again, this time in command of the hall.  He waits until everyone is silent.  You know he will encore with a Bach Sarabande.  He played the Dvorak for Czechoslovakia, but he only ever plays this piece for himself.  You and the audience will now just be eavesdropping on the sound of a soloist’s solitude.  You leave your box and head downstairs to locate Slava’s dressing room.  You want to reclaim him the moment he walks off stage.

 

*          *          *

 

‘I couldn’t watch,’ you tell him, talking to his reflection in the mirror.  Two strips of naked light bulbs flank the sides of the mirror.

‘I couldn’t see,’ his reflection replies.

‘You were suffering.  And there was nothing I could do to help.  So I hid under the table at the back of my box.’

‘I thought of us in Prague,’ he says.  ‘It helped.’

He reaches for your hand and gives it a squeeze, without averting his gaze from you in the mirror.

‘What do you mean you couldn’t see?’ you ask.

‘When I looked out from the stage, my vision was blurred.  All I could see were people being killed.’

His well of tears has still not run dry.  He looks grey, his lips are trembling, but he manages a smile.

‘It’s okay, it’s all over now.’

‘I said what I could.’

‘You said it beautifully.’

 

This story was awarded third place in The London Magazine’s Short Story Competition 2012 judged by Edna O’Brien and Alison MacLeod and Cathy Galvin

 

Neil Herrington grew up in Somerset and studied at the University of Southampton. He has lived in Japan and China and has recently moved to Buckinghamshire. Neil has worked for the British Council and the Open University and currently works for Regent’s University London. He has published two short stories with Ether Books and is working on a novel provisionally titled ‘Imperialist Running Dogs’, which is set in China.’