by JULIE WAKEMAN-LINN
The last day of September, Sasha rushed into their flat. “Olga, I’ve got us an offer.”
Olga sat wrapped in her old quilt with her back to the window. At least today she had folded up the sleeper couch and had changed from her bathrobe to jeans and a sweatshirt. She turned toward Sasha, her head pivoting like a slowly closing door. “Why are you talking in English?”
Sasha slipped her violin case off her shoulder and slid it behind Olga’s cello case. She puffed at it, blowing off accumulating dust.
“You must not sit here in the dark like an old lady. Come on, aren’t you curious?” Sasha plopped on the couch, nudging Olga’s feet out of her way. “For a hint—we’ll need to practice our best English.”
“If you insist.” Olga pulled up her knees. “What is it?”
“A man turned up at the conservatory and Professor Yevchenko recommended you and I for a job. The man has asked to speak to us. Well, me, because you are sulking.” Sasha dropped an arm around Olga’s shoulders.
Olga closed her eyes. Sasha teased, but she worried how increasingly Olga’s depression took on the appearance of sleep deprivation with rings under her eyes, her blonde hair lank, her lips pale. She’d hardly been out of the apartment since she failed her audition. When Sasha had argued it was only the State Symphony Klassika, Olga had snapped, “It’s my first step toward greater orchestras.”
“We can quit the bakery. We’ll be able play every night and practice all day.” She knew they both hated their part time jobs. Sasha fussed how the fat yeasty smell clung to her hair. Flour all over their hands and arms nearly penetrated their pores but they’d been able to attend all their lessons, rehearsals, and master classes working the pre-dawn to breakfast shift.
“Think how many hours you can practice that damned Barber first movement. You’ll get your confidence back.” Sasha blamed the Barber for Olga’s missed note. If she had chosen to play the Beethoven instead.
“Whatever are you talking about? What kind of job?” Olga said.
“A cruise ship! A luxury liner. They want a violinist and a cellist.” Sasha swirled around their tiny flat, flinging open the curtains, smiling out through the sooty windows toward the dying afternoon sunlight. “We will escape from winter.”
“I don’t mind the cold.” Olga twisted her hair into a bun.
“You’ll be ready for the next audition.” Sasha dangled the key tidbit. Olga had boldly auditioned for first chair and nearly made it. Another time and she would succeed. “I might meet a rich tourist. Anything is possible on board a luxury cruise ship.”
“You are a fool romantic.” Olga rose to her feet, trailing the quilt, and walked toward her cello. She laid her fingertips on it, almost like she was taking its pulse. “Who else are we competing against for this job?”
Sasha had to shake her partner out of this. Olga, descending into depression, seemed to be adding paranoia to the mix.
“No one. You are missing the point—Professor recommended us.” Sasha tapped her chest and poked Olga’s forehead. Olga was being so thick. The two of them—not egomaniac Dimitry who was horribly talented. Not Svetlana with the curves of a movie star. “He told me we should go see the world.” Sasha ran a quick mental inventory of her clothes. The black sheath of course, her rayon blouse that shimmered like silk. She’d get new heels, maybe stilettos, so she would stand as tall as Olga. “I’ll ask your grandmother to make me a long pencil skirt of black wool.”
“I don’t think I’d like traveling on a boat.” Olga spoke without facing Sasha.
“A luxury cruise ship, not a leaky ferry or sloppy trawler. Besides, we need to go together. We are a team.” Since they had turned ten, introduced by Madame Olekevsky, they played together. Bunkmates at Orlyonok camp. Their joint audition to the Conservatory probably made the difference in admission. Their down bows always in perfect sync. Olga’s musicality and her rhythm. “A thousand people listening to us, my string-sister.”
Olga turned. Sasha’s appeal to their partnership had reached through her fog. “You treat me better than your own sister. Tell me more.”
“We perform in the evenings in the different lounges. They have such exotic names. World Voyager lounge. Akvavit Cafe. Dag Salon.” Sasha imagined what kind of man would sip expensive liquor in a Dag Salon. “We have the days free to ourselves. We could practice Prokofiev and the damned Barber every single day.” Sasha believed muscle memory was a musician’s best friend. “It’s a four-month contract. The man hinted that the passengers are rich so they will be educated and well behaved. Slobs like our cousins do not sit and listen to classical music, do they?”
Olga’s mouth twisted side to side, like she was swishing mouthwash, considering Sasha’s plan.
“Please, say you will meet this cruise ship man. He’s British. Please say you’ll say yes.” Sasha wanted this opportunity for the two of them, wanted it to save Olga from her dark moods, and for herself, the chance to escape to another life. With Dimitry at the Conservatory ahead of her, she’d never make first chair violin, but this contract offered her another path.
“I guess it’s worth talking to him.” Olga finally unwrapped from the quilt and began to fold it.
“Good. You need a haircut. Go wash your hair. I need a quick manicure.” Sasha knew but did not say that their professor’s recommendation hinged on their youth, their sweet well-ordered faces, their respectable body shapes. Olga tall and thin, she petite and chesty—they were not too sexy, not too pretty, but wholesome. On board with the right outfits and a little bit of red lipstick Sasha would get closer to sexy.
The two flights from St. Petersburg and the bus ride from the Barcelona airport left Sasha limp with exhaustion. In the short thirty days since they’d been hired, she’d spent so much energy to acquire their visas, track down proper travel cases for their instruments and jam everything into one suitcase each.
Sasha felt asleep on her feet as they walked up the gangplank of the tall white ship, gleaming in the sun. For a story to brag about to her little sister back home, she stopped to count the number of decks. Nine above the water level. The brisk and damp breeze across Barcelona’s harbor chilled her face and hands and whisked her broadbrimmed hat off her head, sending it tumbling down the gangway.
A man in a fedora and a tweed sportscoat snatched up her hat and strolled to them. “An unexpected delight—stringed instruments. What do you play?”
“Bach, Beethoven, Vivaldi. The usual,” Sasha said. He offered her hat with both hands, like a gift. “Thanks for rescuing my hat.”
“Will there be a quartet?” he asked.
“No, just us. We have been playing duets nearly all our lives.” Sasha said, watching to see if he objected to only two musicians, but he only smiled. His chin had a distinguished dimple when he smiled. She liked how he focused on her, although Olga’s new blonde highlights were quite striking in the sunlight.
“I’m sorry but we must hurry. The cruise entertainment director is waiting for us.” Olga tugged on Sasha’s arm and kept walking up the gangway.
“I hope you come hear us play,” Sasha called back as she trudged after her, surprised at Olga taking the lead. Or she was expressing her disapproval of Sasha chatting with strange men. Until the first chair audition, they had always been equals, but Sasha usually operated as their spokesperson.
Inside the ship, the entrance foyer soared to two stories. Around the perimeter sofas and chairs were positioned like elegant living rooms. On the light oak floor, a grand piano, a dark ebony gleaming monster, graced the bottom of a grand staircase. Perhaps she’d offer to play some light classical standards.
Everything was light, soft lighting, oatmeal-creamy colored upholstery, brass and mirrored tables. Sasha ran her fingers over the soft luxurious fabric, which would be totally impractical in the sooty air at home. She wanted to recline elegantly on a sofa and watch the passengers, but Olga was moving ahead.
“We’re the musicians.” Sasha said to the uniformed crew greeting all the arrivals. A woman in a Norwegian folk costume of blue dirndl skirt and embroidered vest directed them to deck number A, below the water line.
“No charming ocean views for us,” Olga mumbled. As they descended the stairs, the elegance gave way to beige industrial walls and narrow corridors. An officer directed them to the correct room. They stepped into an office so small they juggled their music cases, so they didn’t bump the walls.
“Ah Miss Sasha and Miss Olga. Welcome aboard.” Mr. Barberry—Sasha guessed he was a Frenchman from his accent—offered them heavy plastic packets with their room assignments and keys, their schedule, a map of the ship’s decks, and a spiral binder of sheet music.
“Thank you but we brought our own music.” Sasha began to hand back his binder, arrangements of ABBA, the Beatles, and movie themes.
“You will play these sets at our scheduled times. The ABBA is for cocktail hour. The Beatles for mid-evening and the movie themes for the last set of the evening. I organize all the onboard entertainment. Your concerts, the comedy night, and the evening song and dance reviews.”
Olga flipped the sheet music pages. Her face grew as pale as the sheet music’s edges. Sasha reviewed their schedule which indicated they would play in the bar, the lounge, the living room but not in the ship’s auditorium. There would be no 1000 person audiences. If she had his job, she’d use high quality music for genuine concerts and leave the pop melodies for the song and dance gigs.
“Can you play these? I was assured you were well trained?” His eyes, so dark brown they seemed black, stared at Sasha, at Olga and back again.
“Yes, we can play these songs, but they are, well, terrible arrangements.” Sasha found her voice and retook her role.
“Ahh, but they are what we require.” He looked at his shoes, nice black leather, highly polished, like he was looking for an answer in them. Or maybe he agreed with her. “Can you do it or not?”
“We’ll do it,” Olga said. “Our days are free, isn’t that correct?” “Except for some small tasks. You and all the crew must participate in the captain’s reception. All crew participate in the safety demonstration. It’s imperative we teach the passengers where the lifeboats are and to drill them that they must leave everything behind in an emergency. You’ll enjoy helping I’m sure.”
Olga said nothing, her jawline pulsing, grinding her back teeth. Sasha knew Olga would probably rather drown than leave her cello behind. Abandoning ship was very unlikely anyway. At receptions, they’d have a chance to meet all kinds of interesting men. Sasha jumped in with, “We’d love to help.”
“Good, you understand. We have long standing traditions and our passengers have expectations. They are usually repeat travelers on our ships.” He cleared his throat with a tiny cough. “They may have favorites. I’m afraid you must play the passengers’ requests. It is part of the charm of live music.”
“They may request the great ones?” Olga asked. “Bach, Beethoven. Barber? I have been practicing it recently.”
Sasha wanted to poke her—Olga had been listening to the charming gentleman in the tweed sportscoat.
Mr. Barberry gave a nod and a smile so tight it was truly a frown. Sasha wondered if the man registered Olga’s hope of playing what she loved.
“Not likely but anything is possible. The chance to play—it is everything.” He stroked his upper lip. “I understand. You see, I was the principal French horn for Montserrat’s city orchestra until my lip muscles atrophied.” His voice sunk low, like he was embarrassed at his body’s failure.
“I’m so sorry,” Sasha said, gently patting his arm. Another first chair failure. The physical risk to all musicians was so real. He wasn’t old—not at all—maybe only forty or so.
“You young women are lucky to have this opportunity. Make sure you enjoy it, no matter what the music.” An anger simmered in his words. Sasha recognized the mood—he missed playing. He probably ached for it. She knew Olga would wither without playing. Facing this adventure, she wasn’t so sure about herself.
At their first performance, as they finished ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” Sasha heard Olga’s stomach rumble. She had been clever enough to grab a muffin from the staff pantry in the main kitchen, but Olga had skipped any food to practice the Barber. Little good the Barber did her now in this glass enclosed lounge at the top of the ship. They wouldn’t get a break for another twenty minutes. She flipped the sheet music notebook to reveal, she groaned an ugh. “Fernando.”
This music was so simple they hardly needed to practice it. She wanted to laugh at Olga’s belly chatting. Would the patrons of the bar hear it? Sasha glanced past Olga to watch the room. No one yet. Would anyone come to listen to pop music on string instruments?
The mirror behind the bar made the bottles of liquor glisten. Every color—blue, red, green, tawny brown—so much alcohol. The bartender’s white starched shirt and black belted vest and the waiters’ long apron to their ankles were kinds of costumes to make them invisible, like their black sweeping skirts and silky knit tops. The bartender had flirted with Olga at lunch, but Sasha fussed, saying she shouldn’t waste time on a poor shallow guy, like the boys at home. Olga groaned, saying better him than all the old guy passengers.
The gentleman who had rescued her hat strolled in with a group of five. He motioned them to the chairs near her. Olga didn’t register them, her form perfect, elbows wide, shoulders low and relaxed, her face blank. She had molded her body around her cello. With it between her knees, she always said it was her true love. The clip of Sasha’s violin chin rest rubbed against her collarbone. She refolded her chamois to protect her skin.
They had planned to repeat “Fernando” to stretch out the set, intending to eliminate “S0S,” the melody they both hated even more. The man twisted his chair to face them, turning half away from his group. His hair, mottled gray and black, made him younger than the average passenger. He sported a wry half grin, the dimple appearing in his chin. Sasha smiled back and her F went a touch flat. She registered Olga’s snort of irritation.
At the pause between songs, Olga tapped Sasha’s knee with her bow tip, nudging her to concentrate. With these silly pop songs where everybody in the room knew the melody, they must keep perfect pitch.
A woman in the group touched the gentleman’s arm and he said something quietly. The waiter was trying to take their drink orders. Sasha watched to see what the charming man would drink. Scotch? Champagne? Certainly not a beer.
Sasha turned the next page. All these melodies used the same three chords, G, C, Em, making them intensely boring. Sasha nodded to Olga, signaling her readiness and they began again. Someone in the group was humming along. Awful—a karaoke episode. A woman in an embroidered jacket had started to sing.
Sasha pivoted, turning a bit away from the group, seeing Olga’s back stiffen, her shoulders rising. They could do nothing but keep playing. Would someone else stop the woman? Sasha glanced at the bartender, Olga’s pal from lunch, who shrugged and kept polishing a glass. Sasha’s fingertip callouses ached from the repeated notes. They were trapped in the middle of an ABBA nightmare. They rushed through the final notes but next up was the worst of ear worming of the songs—”The winner takes it all.”
Sasha rested her violin on her lap and took a deep cleansing breath. Olga tightened her bow.
“Do you take requests?” The woman in the embroidered jacket approached, slightly weaving side to side.
“Yes, if we know the music,” Sasha said quickly, thinking Dear lord of all—please don’t let it be another ABBA song.
“Can you play Danny Boy?” The woman’s breath was beery-smelling.
“What is this Danny Boy?” Olga let her accent flood her words. Was she trying to wiggle around the request or dupe the intoxicated woman?
“Danilo-chekovzeh,” Sasha whispered. “The Irish tune.”
“Nyet.” Olga twisted her A-string peg.
“Da,” Sasha hissed. They could not refuse. They must play it, or they faced consequences— Pay penalties? Performances cut? Getting fired?
The woman, swaying, sang, “Oh Danny boy. That one, that song.”
Sasha tucked her violin into her shoulder and matched the woman’s note. Two beats later, Olga bowed the same note an octave lower for a measure. She glided off into grace notes.
The woman’s singing, although drunk, had a sweetness. She launched “but come ye back,” and Olga, latching onto the woman’s high C, played a two-bar motif. Sasha felt a jolt—it was in the jagged metric of the Barber Andante.
Whatever was Olga doing? Being a show-off? Sasha persisted, playing louder to cover the repeating motif. She rushed to finish this song before Olga got to the solo cadenza.
The woman stopped singing, muttering “What the …”
Sasha, on instinct, slipped into her part of the Andante. The lyrical second theme. Damn—muscle memory and hearing Olga had overwhelmed her for four measures. She squeezed her eyes shut, paused, and fingered a trill of her own to return to the damn Danny boy melody, adding touch of impromptu to bridge the gap.
The woman tried again but her voice cracked on the “I love you so.” She plopped into a chair, giving up.
Sasha down bowed once, twice, in a flourish to end and to signal Olga to stop. She glared at Olga who continued the Barber into the nearly impossible solo cadenza. Sasha scanned the lounge. The woman’s group of friends ignored them, except for that one gentleman.
Damn—their boss, Mr. Barberry, had appeared in the doorway. Sasha fixed her wide, welcoming smile on her face, but inside she was terrified. How much of Olga’s splashy hijacking of Danny Boy had he heard? Olga glided to the last note, her tone rich and full and absolutely on key.
Olga had destroyed their performance, but she was smiling for the first time in weeks. Rosy spots bloomed on her cheeks. her face tipped up like the sun warmed her instead of a crystal and chrome chandelier. “I hit that note—the one I missed. I’m going to call Professor Yevchenko. I’m ready for the audition now.”
“You probably got us fired.” Sasha whispered. Mr. Barberry approached from the back of the lounge. “What do we do?”
“I don’t care. I’m going to quit and go home.” Olga stretched her fingers against her cello’s F holes, almost like she was caressing a pregnant belly.
The wonderful man in tweed got to them first, before Mr. Barberry. “I loved your variations. Can I also make a request? The Ravel Sonata, the second movement perhaps?”
“Certainly,” Sasha simmered with sweet relief.
“It’s one of our favorites,” Olga said, conceding some ground.
Sasha wanted to throw her arms around his neck and kiss him, but she curved her fingers into a heart shape and flashed it at him. There would be plenty of time for Olga to eat after they performed what they loved. Maybe he’d buy Sasha a drink.
He didn’t return to his group but lingered at the edge of their performing space. His foot in a tiny tap kept time with them. Mr. Barberry swayed his index finger like he was almost conducting. Even if their boss hated how they destroyed Danny Boy, he was enjoying the Ravel. Sasha would try to persuade him to organize a real concert in the auditorium. She’d play pop songs on the grand piano in exchange.
Olga might go home and break up their team. Sasha would take her chances with adventure.
The violin’s and the cello’s voice filled the bar and everything—the bottles, the glasses, the lights—all seemed brighter.
Julie Wakeman-Linn lives and writes and bird watches on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. She edited the Potomac Review for a dozen years.