issue 38: september - october 2003 

see also Vivaldi, The Jumping Cardinal, God... | author bio


Ron Butlin

Had the five Russian composers who made up The Mighty Handful been less stubborn, they could have been playing indoors - indeed, one of the ballrooms of the Winter Palace had already been placed at their disposal. They were offered Brussels lace coverlets for goal-netting, extra chandeliers for floodlighting and wigged servants for corner flags. Such a luxurious all-weather pitch, with every facility, would have cost them only a couple of waltzes each, but they’d refused.

      ‘We’re Nationalist composers,’ piped up Cui. ‘We don’t do waltzes.’
      Rimsky-Korsakov - who was to orchestral colouring what a chameleon is to tropical undergrowth - suggested a compromise set of Polish-style mazurkas.
      Waltzes,’ the Court Chamberlain insisted. ‘Strauss-style.’
      The rest is history. Throughout the winter season The Mighty Handful were forced to play their five-a-side home games in a local park where, from October onwards, the snow fell thickly, and daily. Blizzards were frequent.

Today was a grudge match. As they got themselves into their shorts and boots under the protective canopy of umbrellas held by liberated serfs, muzhiks and the team’s droshky driver, the talk had been defiant.
      ‘See these Rubinstein brothers and their Conservatory team! A bunch of - Shit!’ Mussorgsky was so wound up he’d snapped a lace. ‘The pair of them trying to play a European game. Well, they’re not Europeans -’
      ‘Neither are we!’ interrupted Balakirev, ‘We’re Russians!!’
      ‘RUSSIANS!’ shouted out Cui. He stood to attention and saluted.
      ‘That’s the right spirit,’ Professor Borodin glanced over and smiled an indulgent, professorial smile at the plucky composer who’d only just managed to make The Mighty Handful team on the strength of a polka and variations for piano. The older man stopped himself just in time from reaching across to give the recent signing - whose name he could never remember - a professorial pat on the head. ‘Everybody ready?’
      The Five got to their feet for the pre-match photocall. As winter deepened, this part of the fixture took up more and more time. The wind came from the north-east across the Siberian plains driving the snow before it, so the serfs, muzhiks and the droshky driver were regrouped into a line to shield them from the blizzard long enough for Sergei Sergeivitch to take the team photo.
      Sergei Sergeivitch hadn’t asked to be the team photographer, and didn’t want to be. If the truth were told, he didn’t want to be a photographer, period. Having grown up in the village of N- in the province of K-, he had come to St Petersburg determined to become a Russian novelist. His own small village boasted few Russian novelists, but the city, he soon discovered, was stricken with them. And a gloomy crowd they were. At nights they gathered on the Nevsky Prospect to draw lots for the best lampposts to hang from or formed a queue to jump into the frozen Neva - declaring the vast and unendurable emptiness of the Russian Steppes to be a metaphor for the yearnings of the Russian soul. They talked a lot about soul. In less than a fortnight Sergei Sergeivitch had switched to photography.
      Why photography? people asked.
      Well, why not? - was his reply. Soon he was attending Czar christenings, hunger marches and, like today, snapping football teams.
      ‘Smile, please!’
      As always when being photographed, Mussorgsky stared at the hooded figure and felt himself growing tense all over. Recently, against a team of Young Nihilists, he’d let in four sitters, including a between-the-legs nutmeg. He was hard at work on his opera Boris Godunov - heavy going even when he hit mid-season form - and the resultant crisis of self-doubt had cost him a week’s work. Some days it felt Boris would never be finished. Which made it difficult to smile on command. He bared his teeth.
      Pouf! The magnesium flare lit up the huddle of players, their ice-stiffened beards and chilled knees. One more for burial at the bottom of the inside back page, thought Balakirev, who despaired of his club ever receiving the write-ups it deserved. The Rubinstein brothers, academic lickspittles unable to tell the top of a ball from the bottom, were now fielding a team that included three expats from the German Late Romantic Movement - free transfers if ever there were. These reactionary throwbacks got more coverage than they knew what to do with: their training sessions and concert rehearsals got full-page spreads, their team photos were centrefolds. Last Sunday, Anton Rubinstein’s most recent piano concerto, a sepulchrally mock-Teutonic effort in D Minor, had been puffed in all the supplements with accompanying league tables detailing the team’s form and cup chances.
      ‘Connections!’ Balakirev spat the word into the snow, and watched it freeze.

The snowstorm was getting worse. Every so often the ball came hurtling out of the blizzard - sometimes Mussorgsky was ready, sometimes he wasn’t. He had been booked for talking to himself. ‘Speech patterns,’ he had protested as the yellow card was hoisted to invisibility in the storm, ‘I’m basing the libretto on speech patterns and need to run through them for -’
      The referee was having none of it. A yellow card it was. One more booking and he’d be on the bench. They were trailing six down already . . .
      Later, on the team droshky home, the same thought - Couldn’t we drop Cui and sign up Tchaikovsky? - was on everyone’s mind. On everyone’s mind but Cui’s, of course. But they were The Mighty Handful: five Nationalist composers determined to put Russia on the map. The flyers had been printed, there was a wagonload of T-shirts, scarves, mugs, souvenir strips. Like it or not, till the team merchandise was shifted, they were stuck with Cui.
      Something had to be done. Something serious.
      They got in a firm of consultants.

 After this, things naturally went from bad to worse. Against the Bakunin Anarchist Cell Five - who, of course, could field only 3 players at a time - they lost 15-0.
      The consultants were sacked.

To everyone’s surprise it was young Cui who came up with a plan. Just in time, too - all the merchandise had been sold bar a few scuffed-looking videos they couldn’t even give away.
      It was late February. The game, against an Old Believers Select, was scheduled for that afternoon. Balakirev had organised a pre-match team-building session but had been the only one to turn up. Yet again Mussorgsky had pleaded Boris Godunov (people were beginning to wonder if the opera existed at all, and wasn’t just a full-time alibi), Rimsky was working his way through a re-orchestration of the entire back catalogue of Russian music, Borodin was in his laboratory . . . and Cui?
      Well, that morning Cui had woken with a great idea. He knew he was under pressure. Every pretentious match commentator had begun making the same joke: ‘Cui - qui?’
      ‘I’ll show them who!’ he’d boasted to his shaving mirror. ‘I’ll show them!’

He arrived late, and panting. Straight into the boots, shorts and strip. Ready for the team photo. Being, musically, the lightweight of the group he always felt like the team mascot. But not any more. Today he was going to be the team saviour.
      It started snowing.
      Pouf! Photograph over, everyone began running on the spot, flapping their arms. Mussorgsky passed round the bucket of vodka and they were ready.
      Considering his junior-league status, Cui drank deep, and he emerged from the team bucket a sombre man. He told the other four to form a huddle. Then, having glanced round to check he wouldn’t be overheard, he crouched down to join them.
      In a vodka-scorched voice he whispered the mysterious words: ‘Real Madrid, 1959.’ Then paused.
      Only once they realised he’d actually finished speaking, did their four questioning grunts grunt together as one: ‘ . . .????’
      ‘Real Madrid,’ he repeated, then let them into the secret that would one day transform the entire dynamics of international football: ‘No more big-toeing it up the park and running after it - we’ll pass the ball to each other.’
      ‘Pass?’ they echoed in close harmony.
      ‘Let me explain.’ Reaching under his strip, Cui took out the video, Historic Moments in World Football. He opened the accompanying booklet and showed his huddled team-mates a series of black-and-white illustrations. Fortunately, these grainy photographs came complete with colourful overlays, computer-simulated dotted arrows and lines, demonstrating the revolutionary approach pioneered by Puskas, Di Stefano and Santa María, which was to secure the European Cup for Real Madrid three years in a row.
      ‘ . . .!!!!’ came their ecstatic response.
      The falling snow turned into a snowstorm.

That was to be the last time The Mighty Handful ever played together as a team. Their previous record defeat of 17-0, now became 27-0. The boots were hung up, the strips torn up for cleaning rags, the remaining merchandise disposed of under the cover of darkness. Balakirev became a clerk in the railways; Borodin decided to stick to chemistry with music as a sideline; Mussorsky gave himself to Boris Godunov and vodka. Rimsky-Korsakov began orchestrating everything he could lay his hands on: overtures, symphonies, tone poems, shopping lists. . .
      Cui they left at the bus stop - with three hours’ worth of video tape draped around his neck like so much plastic creeper. The snowstorm got worse. Everything around him, the cobbled street, the pavement, the bus shelter, became more indistinct. Gradually he too was all but erased from sight.

Half an hour later, Sergei Sergeivitch happened to pass by in his pony and trap. Days like this made him regret having given up his career as a Russian novelist and put him right in the mood for a night on the Nevsky Prospect. As he drew level with what looked like a snowbound postbox standing next to a long-abandoned bus stop, he had a sudden inspiration. Surely here was his way forward. He took out his camera.
      Pouf! Forget the rewards of artistic compromise, he’d become the very first Russian Conceptualist. Pouf! and Pouf! again. This pair of objets trouvés he’d call: NOTHING TO SAY AND NOWHERE TO GO. A double metaphor for the eternal yearnings of the Russian soul. Perfect.
      Cui hardly noticed the magnesium flashes. Stood there like a snow-covered block of ice and with his mouth frozen half open, he listened to the jingle of the pony and trap grow fainter, then fade to nothing. Afterwards he listened to the silence of the falling snow. No bus was going to come. Ever. But what depressed him most was the injustice of it all: he had bought a return ticket.
      From the Russian fairy stories his mother used to read him he remembered that no one should ever give up hope. Well, he’d try his best not to. Though it seemed he was becoming more of a snowdrift by the second, there was at least one consolation: he was growing so deliciously sleepy. Maybe things would look a little better after he’d had a short nap . . ?

© 2003 Ron Butlin
see also:
Vivaldi, The Jumping Cardinal, God, Clint and The Number Three by Ron Butlin

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author bio

Ron Butlin was, at various times, a lyricist with a pop band, a barnacle scraper on Thames barges, a footman attending embassies and country mansions and a male model (at the same college as Sean Connery!) before taking up writing full-time. His poetry and prose have been translated into over a dozen languages. "The Mighty Handful Versus the Rest of the World" comes from his collection VIVALDI AND THE NUMBER THREE due out from Serpent's Tail next year. Also forthcoming, a collection of short stories, NO MORE ANGELS. He lives in Edinburgh with his Swiss wife (the author Regi Claire) and their dog.


issue 38: september - october 2003 

Short Fiction

Ron Butlin: The Mighty Handful Versus the Rest of the World
Alicia Gifford: Surviving Darwin
Ryland W. Greene: What D’ya Know
Sarah Strickley: Annie Has a Thing, Makes Her Crazy
Richard Ailes: The Bounce

   picks from back issues
Anthony Bourdain: Bobby at Work
Bill Broady: In This Block There Lives a Slag . . .


Book Titles
answers to last issue’s Literature-to-film - the Sequel

Book Reviews

Night Visits by Ron Butlin
Loot and Other Stories by Nadine Gordimer
Love Me by Garrison Keillor
Tiny Ladies by Adam Klein
Fear Itself by Walter Mosley

Regular Features

Book Reviews (all issues)
TBR Archives (authors listed alphabetically)

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