The Conductor by Sarah Quigley 2011Shostakovich was about to tell Boris to get back to the only work for which he was fit, grubbing around in the dirt.  As Boris’s voice hammered on, a tinny tune emerged from the insults.  Just as he grasped it (a mindlessly repetitive tune, but there was something there) and was trying to memorise it, annoyingly Boris stopped.

“You were saying?” Shostakovich gazed away in a casual manner. “Something about my worthless opera, its neurotic quality, its excessive number of notes?  But surely you’re simply quoting the famous Pravda editorial, Comrade.  Have you no views of your own?”

The ploy worked.  Instantly Boris started up again, his voice chipping away like the pickaxes behind them.  “Your conceited nature obstructs your music . . . Your ego is larger than what you write . . .”  Once more Shostakovich heard the tune.

Pizzicato, that was it! A pizzicato refrain rising  from a melancholic E flat melody like a puppet rising from a heap of toys.  Unseen hands pulled on the strings (slowly, relentlessly) until the puppet was marching repetitively against the snare drums.  “Idiotic,” said Boris’s voice from amid the growing dim.  “Arrogant. Imatative.”

“Exactly!” The words burst out of Shostakovich.  “You’re right! The themes of fascism.  It will be a fascist march.”

“What did you say? Did you call me a fascist?”

“Not at all, my dear Boris!  To tell the truth, I’ve never felt more kindly towards you than now.  Do you have a pen?  I seem to have dropped mine.”

Boris stuck his hand into his shapeless trousers and drew out the tiny stub of a pencil.  “Here. But be sure to give it back.  It still has some wear in it.”

“Certainly, my good fellow.  In such uncertain times, you’re wise to take care of your belongings.  One never knows where the next pencil will come from.  Perhaps the pencils of the entire nation will be sequestered for fortifications.”

Boris, looking nonplussed, trailed away.  Furtively, Shostakovich scribbled a few lines. True the pencil was as blunt as Boris’s wit and it wrote as badly as Boris played the piano — but it was enough.  He’d captured it!  As soon as he got home, he would begin writing.

The Conductor, by Sarah Quigley, 2011