CHAPTER TEN

The day after her return from the shop, Coco invites Igor for a walk in the surrounding woods. Above, the sky is vast and blue. Beyond stretch cornfields blotched with poppies. Visible in the distance is the spire of a church.

They stop to sit on the grass, and lean their backs against a cedar tree. To Coco, the tree smells of freshly sharpened pencils. All around them, crickets seethe.

She complains, “I wish I could play an instrument.”

Igor says, “But you can sing.”

“Like a crow!”

“That’s not true.”

He starts telling her of a soprano who gave up singing because the sound of her own voice made her cry.

She says, “That’s ridiculous!”

“Why?”

“It’s so precious.”

“I thought it was romantic.”

“Sentimental. There’s a difference.”

“I thought it would appeal to you.”

Straightforwardly: “You were wrong.”

She has this ability to belittle him in a way that no one else can. Perhaps, he has time to consider, it’s because he cares what she thinks.

Coco prefers to talk about more down-to-earth matters: the amount of tax she has to pay, the interest the banks charge, the ever-increasing wages bill. In Igor’s loathing of the Bolsheviks, she finds an echo of her own impatience with workers’ rights. Having pulled herself up out of the mire, she has no wish now to give others a helping hand. They’ll rise, she thinks, if they’re talented enough.

Something reckless enters her head. She stands up and strikes out in the direction of an orchard. Moments later, she’s back, her eyes bright with mischief. In her hands she holds two small apples. “Here.” She offers the more healthily distressed of the apples to Igor and burnishes her own against her chest. She twists off the stalk and takes a large bite.

Leaning back against the tree, Igor closes his eyes. With the sun on his face, he feels buoyed up. The world is good, he thinks. Suddenly the insect hum, the sunlight, and the crunch of the apple inside his head synthesize into a single chord. “Good,” he says aloud.

He looks at Coco. He’s fascinated by this woman who always seems so much in control. Not only does she cope with everyday problems, she seems able to shape her destiny in a larger sense as well. In short, she’s good at life. She has vivacity and strength. He likes that. So different from Catherine, he can’t help but observe. And she’s shrewd and beautiful, too. He’s stirred by her, no question, and feels a strong animal attraction enter his bones. He realizes he hasn’t made love now for weeks; months even. A sweet heaviness begins to thicken in his groin.

He has always resisted other women in the past. Here in the present, however, he finds himself tempted beyond measure. He turns his head toward her and sees her lit by the sun. Suddenly he wants to put out his hand and touch her. To prove to her his feelings, to match her audacity. He’s so close at this moment he can see the pores on her nose. He feels the veils of flirtation dissolve before a raw urge, a blind will. His fingers stretch tensely. Seconds bend into a new space. His body involves itself in a tropism toward her.

Afraid, though, that some deceitful twist of perspective makes her seem nearer than she really is, he tilts forward to follow the instinct only to lean back, deterred. The moment is lost. She hovers out of reach.

Something of the northern puritan in him has drawn him back; all that formal restraint, that coolness. He hates that in himself. He’s afraid to say or do anything irrevocable. Here he is living in Coco’s home and, thanks to her patronage, enjoying a fine lifestyle. If he were to make advances, he’s not sure what she’d do. She might react badly and tell Catherine. Perhaps her invitation to Bel Respiro was wholly altruistic, after all.

Sweating, he rubs at the reddened dents where the pads of his glasses have chafed in the heat. He thinks of all the love in the world, and none of it for him. He’ll never make love to anyone again in his life except Catherine. He sees the possibility, the probability, stretch in front of him, extending to a vanishing point which, he guesses, is his death.

Then sternly he reminds himself, he is here to work. This, for him, is paramount. And there’s a strong sense of loyalty in him—always has been. He feels he’ll never stop loving Catherine, or the children. They are, and will forever remain, fixtures in his life. There’s something charming in flirtation, but something noble in resisting it, he tells himself. Yet he knows, too, that Coco’s proximity within the villa is killing him.

He watches her throw away the remains of her apple and follows suit. Then they set off back through the woods. Dog roses blossom in the hedges. The grass is thick with butterflies and fungus. Birds call sweetly from the crowns of the trees.

Coco offers her arm and, with exaggerated gallantry, Igor takes it. There is an intimacy in their just being together, he thinks; the two of them touched by the same air. He feels her lean against him. Their embrace tightens, though visibly they move no closer. For a time, they are conscious through layers of cloth that their arms touch. Then without warning he reaches across to kiss her, quickly and deliberately, in a way that still might be interpreted as merely playful. A noncommittal kiss on the cheek, soft and moist, lasting less than a second.

She permits it, and smiles without looking at him, but doesn’t encourage him to go on. He senses it as a rejection. She has drawn her line. Only so far, but no further, he understands.

Walking in silence back to the house, they disengage just before they enter the garden. For there Catherine sits, reading in the sunshine. And there the children play.

At night, on the balcony, Catherine stands close to her husband. She says, “It’s romantic, isn’t it?”

Romantic: the smell of jasmine on the air, the moon in three-quarter profile, and the cicadas fiddling like café violinists. He cannot deny it. “Yes,” he says, leaning against the rail.

He feels the need to appease her after their fight the other night. They have not spoken openly for several days now. Humiliated still, Igor has been uncommunicative and sullen. He can sustain a sulk for weeks. Usually it falls to Catherine to make up. But on this occasion, it is he who attempts to be conciliatory.

He moves toward her. They hold hands; his eyes grow soft. Taking her in his arms, he kisses her on the forehead chastely. His fingers stroke her cheek. She inclines her neck to accommodate his touch. His lips wander tenderly to her eyelids. But when he tries to kiss her on the lips, she moves her head so that his mouth meets only her hair.

“No,” she says, almost inaudibly.

In avoiding his lips like this, in averting her head, he feels she’s withdrawing her whole being. She seems, suddenly, a lifeless doll in his arms. The faintest impulse of desire drains from him. He holds her slackly for a moment, feels her head press against his chest. She’s sleepy, she says. It’s been a long day. The children are already in bed.

Igor can’t remember the last time they slept together as man and wife. She’s sick, he knows, and that doesn’t make it easy. And perhaps it shouldn’t matter, but it does. He aches with frustration. The absence of physical love is burning a hole inside him. He feels a tension within him that is desperate to be released.

With a final hug, he releases her from his arms. At that moment a gust of wind buffets her from one side, causing her to stagger. He can’t believe she stays upright. She has to steady herself against the railing. He thinks of Coco and the way she’d find the wind invigorating, the way she’d feed off its energy and make it her own. A vision of her comes to him: her dark hair, her inky eyes and ardent mouth, that wide, shapeless smile. In thinking of her, he looks at his wife. In his mind he attempts to superimpose the image of the one upon the other. Try as he might, the image will not fit. They’re too different, misaligned. White note and black note. Together they jar.

Catherine retreats inside. Igor remains on the balcony. He looks up at the starlit sky, listens to the hiss of insects, inhales the odor of the night flowers. The word still haunts him: romantic, he thinks.

Sunday. With the Stravinskys at church, Coco noses around Igor’s study.

She enters the room with reverence as well as a remote sense of dread. Looking about sharply, she half expects him to storm in and reproach her for violating his space. She leaves the door ajar, wanting if necessary a means of escape. Each step she experiences as a transgression. There is an intimacy in the act. Something worshipful, yet something predatory, too.

She heads straight for Igor’s desk, and touches the ink bottles, india rubbers, pens, and rulers—things rendered precious by the fact of their being his. She opens his glasses’ case, which snaps shut abruptly, causing her to start. Lifting his magnifying glass over the table, she sees objects oddly warped and swollen under the lens. The knit of things seems for an instant to be revealed—the weave of manuscript paper, a watermark. A tuning fork thickens under its Cyclopean eye.

With a final thrill of trespass, she moves to the piano. She removes the tiny trefoil key from its place within the stool, turning it once in the lock until it clicks. With both hands, she lifts the lid. It is heavier than she thought, as if a resistant force is telling her she shouldn’t be doing this.

She pulls the back of one hand softly across the keys. Too soft to make a sound, but hard enough to feel the tiny hairs on her fingers bristle with a delicate rippling pressure. They feel strange to the touch and not what she’d expected. The white keys seem bony and brittle, while the black keys are harder and more compact. Then she allows her index finger independently to press one of the higher notes. The sound makes a star in the surrounding silence.

Her heart jumps as she hears a rustle. Recoiling a little, she turns around to see Vassily padding in. The cat stares at her through the narrow slots of his green eyes. Igor’s familiar. Stealthily he lengthens his body. She feels guilty again before rationalizing the moment: Igor won’t be back for another couple of hours.

Once more she presses the key, bolder this time. She presses the note again and again until the room rings with its prolonged vibration. Then, touching it more softly, she listens to the dissolving tone. The sensation she gains is not just auditory, it is tactile. In decaying, the echo sends a spasm the whole length of her spine.

She is struck once more by the thought that she misses him. Each day without him now seems a day damned. And anyway, she considers, why should she compromise? What if this is a chance to experience genuine love? Not the wanton romping of her youth, but something more substantial, more profound. Can she really afford to pass up such opportunities in her late thirties? She’s free to do as she pleases. She has the money to finance her desires, and the power to enact them. Catherine has had her chance. Why should she feel sorry for her? She’s led such a privileged existence until now. It’s up to Igor to choose who he wants to be with. He’s not interested in being a martyr, she’s convinced. She just hopes she hasn’t frightened him off.

Looking out of the window, she feels the world around her widen. Leaves, their heart-shaped shadows, flicker flatly against the wall.

She sets down the lid of the piano and locks it. Then, running an eye over the table, she checks that everything is as she found it and that nothing has been disturbed. She leaves as silently as she came. Behind her, the sunlight shoots through half-open shutters, touching all the objects and making them warm.

Upon their return from church, Igor and Catherine relax in the garden in two reclining chairs. The children play football on the lawn. Their shouts carry a long way. At the far end of the garden, thinking they can’t be heard, the two boys begin swearing following a hard tackle. Igor shouts for them to watch their tongues.

His chair is turned away slightly from that of his wife. Since returning from church, they have not exchanged a word. He is busy scribbling some notes.

She says, “You only ever tell them off. You never play with them.” The whiteness of her skin looks incongruous next to her husband’s swarthier body.

“I don’t see you playing with them either,” he retorts, after a pause. Although he has the genuine intention of patching things up with his wife, he nevertheless finds himself tetchy in her presence.

“I would if I were feeling better.”

“Well, I’m determined not to waste my time.” He continues writing, more urgently this time.

“Theo has been miserable recently.”

“Really?”

“You don’t care.”

Slowly and deliberately, with a pencil in his mouth: “Yes. I care.”

“I think he might have heard us arguing.”

“No. He heard you shouting.”

She ignores him. “It’s hard for them. They’ve moved a lot.”

“It’d be a lot harder back in Russia.”

“I’m not so sure.”

Derisively: “You don’t think?”

You’re the only one who seems happy in the villa.”

“That’s not true. Ludmilla loves it here, and Soulima’s having a nice time. In fact, there’s no reason for any of them to be unhappy.”

“Well, I can think of a few.”

Exasperated: “Catherine—can’t you see I’m busy?”

It’s no good, it isn’t working with Catherine, he decides. He wants Coco and feels miserable without her. And yet it is torture living so close the whole time and not being able to touch. It places an intolerable strain of temptation upon him. He must do something. It isn’t right. He admits to himself that he’s in love with her but doesn’t know what to do. He burns with the need for a different life.

Flight.

It’s as if Catherine senses this. “Why bother to spend time with us? Why don’t you just go to her? That’s what you want, isn’t it?”

Igor says nothing, just bites his lip and carries on scribbling.

“You never talk to me anymore. Even Joseph pays me more attention than you do.”

It is true; at this moment he resents being with her and has nothing to say. He feels ashamed but is unable to deny it. Part of the problem, he realizes, is that he feels powerless, living here on another woman’s charity and subject to her whims. He needs to impose control over someone—and who is more convenient than his wife? Of course on one level he knows this is pathetic. Yet, try as he might, he finds he cannot help himself.

The boys hurry back toward them. “Come on, Papa, come on, Mama!”

Having come to an impasse in his composition anyway, and hurt into activity by Catherine’s slight, Igor responds immediately. In a vindictive show of energy, he slides his papers into his wallet, lays down his pencil, and sprints after the ball.

Rising from her chair, Catherine feels her lungs labor with the effort. She senses the air in her chest begin sluggishly to churn. While the fresh air is good for her, she knows the emotional upset she’s experiencing is potentially calamitous for her health.

The sermon today, she recalls, was all about tolerance and forgiveness; how we shouldn’t allow our grievances to get in the way of giving our love. Ordinarily she’d be quick to forgive him. But she feels hurt and angry still. He’s made no effort, really, to reconcile with her, apart from his grand gesture on the balcony last night. It was clear all he wanted was sex—to force himself upon her—while what she craves with increasing desperation is tenderness, affection, and, above all, respect. She’s not willing to surrender just like that. That would be too easy.

She watches him now as he runs around the garden. It is as if he is possessed, she thinks. Finally he kicks the ball so hard against the outhouse that all the parrots squawk.

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