‘Pssst.’ It came from the direction of the darkened doorway he had just passed. He chose to ignore it. ‘Hey.’ Louder but still sotto voce, ‘Maestro.’ That stopped him subito. Nobody had recognised him for years never mind acknowledging his former prowess. He could hear the applause, the crowd on its feet. ‘Encore, encore.’ The ladies in the front row openly weeping joyous tears, roses strewn about his feet.
He turned to scrutinise the shadows. A figure was barely discernible, the hand beckoning him, quickly. He shuffled towards the doorway, his left leg still troubling him after he fell five years ago. This was all most unusual. Why was he making his way to what could only spell trouble? The hand reached out and tugged at his sleeve forcing him into close contact.
‘We need to talk.’ Serious eyes locked with his.
Only then could he see that his interlocutor was a woman. The drab uniform of the Regime had sucked all sensuality from the female form. No longer were curves, calves or cleavage to be displayed.
‘What is this…’ He waved his hand around in the air. ‘…all about?’
‘As you’re very painfully aware the Regime has forbidden all music. Unless of course, you wish to perform military marches at state sponsored propaganda rallies.’
‘I am well aware of the situation,’ he said.
‘Maestro, please, keep your voice down. It wouldn’t do either of us any good to be seen or heard talking together.’
‘Ok, ok. But what is this all about?’
‘I, we, have something to show you.’
At that point he would have settled for a bitter Espresso with a silky layer of crema on top or the velvety kiss of a fine Bordeaux. Life’s little luxuries existed for him no more. The days before the military junta came to power were heady times. Well, come to think of it maybe not just before, when the economy was on its knees, but the tiger years. Yes, that was when life was filled with simple pleasures, a time when people could still afford concert tickets.
‘You must follow me.’
He remained rooted to the spot. This could be an elaborate plot. Nothing would please the Ministry of Moral Instruction more than to have him discovered with his trousers down, so to speak. Maybe he knew of others and could reveal names, give up old friends to save himself. She saw his indecision and knew the thoughts that were keeping him motionless. It wasn’t that long ago when she had been in the same position.
‘You’ll just have to trust me,’ she said.
Trust, hah! There’s a notion that had been truly crushed under the jackboot, ground into nothing like a discarded cigarette.
He relented and followed closely behind her as she led him through the dark narrow streets and laneways in the old part of town, the paths still glistening and slippy from the recent downpour.
As he avoided the puddles his thoughts wandered back to that day all those years ago when the Regime had sent a messenger to his office at the Conservatoire of Music. He tore the note to shreds and dismissed the soldier from his office. How dare they request him to play some bland music at their trifling ceremony. He was not for hire, at least not to these thugs. An hour later the phone on his desk rang, once, twice and as he stretched out his hand the door burst open. He brought the receiver to his ear as if nothing had happened. ‘Maestro. The General he is…’
‘Yes I know. Thank you.’ He replaced the receiver in its cradle. ‘Well General what can I do for you?’
He was still blocking the doorway, but moved forward then. There was excited movement out in the corridor. Two armed bodyguards moved into position in the vacated doorway ensuring no-one could enter. The General sat down heavily in the chair opposite the Maestro.
‘Well Maestro, there is the small matter of your refusal to take part in our inaugural Freedom Day ceremony.’
‘I feel that art should not be…’ The General wagged his finger.
‘Dear Maestro you should let me finish.’ He smiled without warmth.
‘I appreciate your reluctance and your higher motives but, and this is a very big but, the Regime will not tolerate any disobedience. I have come here personally, after your rude dismissal of my personal attaché, to give you a chance to publically announce the details of your performance.’
The bodyguards drew aside just enough to allow half a dozen journalists into the room.
‘So Maestro, what is it to be?’
‘I refuse to allow music to be hi-jacked for political purposes.’
‘How noble of you. I see that you keep your Stradivarius in your office.’ Two strides and the General was over to the instrument case, opening its lid. ‘This is your final opportunity Maestro.’
The Maestro leapt to his feet, knocking over his chair and gritted his teeth. ‘I cannot play for the Regime.’ He forced out each syllable.
The General seized the violin by the neck and dashed its body against the edge of the desk. It exploded in a shower of splinters and lightning storm of camera flashes. It was too much to bear. The scene swam before the Maestro’s eyes; a watercolour painting that someone had spilled a bucket of water over. His legs went limp beneath him. The sharp pain in his left hip barely registered, only later would he discover that he had broken it. His humiliation was almost complete. Not only was his priceless instrument publicly destroyed but when he was discharged from hospital he was stripped of his position and forced to accept employment as a janitor at the Conservatoire. The propaganda press followed his Icarus flight in excruciating detail, ‘Former Maestro now sweeps floors’; a warning to anyone else who dared speak out against the Regime.
They had arrived at their destination. A black wooden door, paint peeling off it. Once inside she handed him the instrument case. He opened it but could scarcely believe his eyes, needed to touch its curves before fully accepting what was within his grasp, ‘A Grand Amati.’ It escaped his lips in a wondrous whisper.
‘How…’ He had to stop to swallow and wet his lips. ‘How is this possible?’
His fingers trembled slightly as he held the violin, appreciating its weight, bringing it into position between chin and shoulder. Her voice interrupted.
‘We couldn’t source a Strad. This was the best we could get.’
The Maestro didn’t answer. It was an exquisite instrument, there was no doubt. With bow properly tensioned, the tuning was checked, some minor adjustments needed. Satisfied, the C Major scale followed, ascending three octaves in semiquavers. His fingers still knew where to find the notes.
‘Yes, it is a fine violin,’ he thought. A deep breath and then a volley of notes were unleashed, ricocheting off the bare walls. He let the final note die away before opening his eyes to see the awestruck face of his mysterious female companion.
‘So, what exactly do you want from me?’ he said.
‘We just want you to play.’
‘But that is illegal.’
‘Precisely. We must fight the Regime on all fronts. When the general populace see that people of your standing have the courage to…’
‘To what!’ he snorted. ‘Play music. Hardly bravery.’
‘But it is. Any resistance will be treated harshly by the Regime.’
She immediately regretted saying that, she wanted to encourage not frighten him.
‘What difference will it make? I don’t see how my sacrificing my life and another priceless instrument will achieve anything. I have already experienced the General’s wrath.’
‘We’re not talking about public performances. At least not yet. We need to build our numbers first. We already have several people who were prominent members of society before the Regime. It would mean so much if you joined our ranks.’
The Maestro lowered his head and slowly shook it.
‘I am truly sorry. but I cannot allow my music to be hi-jacked for political purposes.’ He gripped the violin tightly and smashed its body against the wall.