Mr Shostakovich appeared at Sonya’s side.  ‘May I see the Storioni now?’

The cello lay on its side in the bedroom.  Sonya’s heart gave a leap when she saw it: it was so beautiful!  Carefully she picked it up and offered it to Mr Shostakovich, who ran his hands admiringly over its red-brown front and curved back.

‘A very fine instrument,’ he said.  ‘I saw your mother play it, many times, before you were born.’

‘Did you? Where did she play?’

‘In the Philharmonia Hall.’  Mr Shostakovich cradled the cello as if it weighed no more than a baby.  ‘Beautiful.  Quite beautiful.’  It wasn’t clear whether he was talking about the cello, or Sonya’s mother, or the concert hall with its soaring white pillars.

‘I haven’t played it much yet.  Just a little this morning, before I started preparing for the party.’

‘Does it like you?’

‘Does it what?’

‘Has it taken to you? It doesn’t matter if it knows you — it will come to know you.  But it is very important that it likes you, and vice versa.  A long time ago I used to accompany films at the Bright Reel Theatre, and you know what?  The piano hated me!  Every day, we battled.  Every evening we fought.  It was a disgusting job.’  He gave a sigh.  ‘Fighting the piano was like working with a person you detest day after day.’

‘When I took it out of its case this morning, the first thing I did was pluck the A string.’

‘And?  How did it sound?’

‘Like —’ Sonya shut her eyes for a second. ‘Like a voice.  It seemed to say something, only I’m not sure.’

Mr Shostakovich nodded.  ‘In my opinion, the A string is the least informative of the four strings.  If approached wrongly it can hold its secrets forever.’

‘So do you think it likes me?’

‘Definitely.  No doubt about it.  Would you consider playing a tune for your guests, if I accompany you?’

‘How about an adaption of Fauré’s Elégie?’

‘A perfect choice for a birthday.  The passing of time is a serious matter.’

As soon as he played an A on the piano for Sonya to tune to, everyone fell silent.  ‘A captive audience,’ said Mr Shostakovich.  ‘That is what we like!’

‘Fauré’s Elégie, an adaption,’ Sonya announced in a slightly squeezed voice.  ‘For my father.’

‘Ready when you are,’ said Mr Shostakovich from the piano.

Sonya straightened her back and pressed her feet against the floor.  The cello leaned into her.  I’m ready too, it said in a woody whisper.

Before this she’d seen the Elégie as a silvery kind of piece, clear-cut, almost icy.  Today, in the hushed moments before beginning, she saw it differently.  Fauré’s familiar notes were transformed: they hung in the air, round, opaque, like ripe golden fruit.  Already the cello had changed her way of seeing.    She took a deep breath, nodded to Mr Shostakovich, and the first note dropped into the silence, perfectly pitched and as sweet as honey.

And soon it seemed to Sonya that the cello was singing by itself.  All she had to do was place her fingers on the strings, and the song sprang open, phrase after phrase floating out as if she had unlocked a secret world with a magic key.  Then, with a sigh — was it from her or the cello? — the bow drew a last husky stroke across the string and there was silence.  She gave the cello a quick stroke on its smooth back.  Thank you, she said. You were wonderful.

The Conductor, by Sarah Quigley, 2011

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