CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Following a set of vigorous exercises, Igor springs up from the floor. His movements are light, almost rubbery. And if his limbs are thin, then his muscles are nevertheless well-defined. With a sweet strain of extension, he stands in his underpants before the bedroom mirror, rotating his head, then tilting it from side to side.

Catherine watches him, repelled. His health and vigor mock her in their ostentation. “Is Coco back today?”

“Tomorrow, I think.”

“I thought you were looking happy.”

“I’m happy because it’s a nice day, and I’m alive. Is that so bad?”

“It’s not bad for you, no.”

“Why do you have to be so sour?”

“Why do you have to be so cruel?”

“Cruel? You’re well looked after. You receive excellent medical attention . . .”

“Ha!”

“. . . the children have a private governess . . .”

“And who have I to thank for all this? Little Miss Nouveau Riche?”

“Well, I think you should be a little more grateful, that’s all.”

“Grateful? Fine.”

Catherine twists away from him on the bed. Igor makes as if to say something, then, shrugging, moves to the bathroom. He fills the basin with hot water and hums in a low voice as he shaves. He pretends to be indifferent, but he isn’t. His heart is thumping, and it’s not from the exercise. He can’t stand arguments. He hates being made to feel ashamed. But, at present, their every conversation ends in acrimony. He can’t say anything right.

“I’m going to get on with some work now.”

“Go!” She waves him away. She wishes he’d vanish. His presence is a living rebuke to her. She feels like a prisoner. Even staying in the most cramped apartment, she never felt as trapped as she does now.

Leaving the bedroom, Igor feels as though he is quitting one country and entering another, where the climate is healthier and there exist different rules. It’s as if in crossing the threshold he enjoys new constitutional rights: rights to freedom and happiness; even silence, if he so wishes.

Downstairs he drinks his coffee. The noise of the children playing drifts in from the garden. Combined with the sunlight and the taste of his coffee, the sound seems especially sweet. Coffee he loves more than anything in the morning. He relishes its fierce aroma, its astringency. Sipping it quickly, he peruses the newspaper for the results of the Olympic sports. Though in exile, he still finds his sympathies tend most strongly toward the Russian athletes. He feels a secret satisfaction when they do well.

He works without stopping until lunch. He revises ceaselessly, with his glasses pushed up onto his forehead and a magnifying glass hovering like a monocle over the score. Themes are restated, motifs reconfigured. He explores combinations of chords that converge at different centers, varying the intervals between the notes. Testing various phrases on the piano, he achieves fortuitous collisions on the keys. He experiments with major and minor chords together, relishing the complexity of their moods. He is learning to follow the emotional lead of the music, allowing it to take him into areas previously closed, territories he’s never explored before. There’s a new flexibility and freedom in his composition, a willingness to try things out, a new openness to accident and chance. Maybe it’s better, he thinks, not to be always so in control.

He makes good progress. Always at his best in the morning, he works hard so that in the afternoon he can relax.

Some new books have been delivered: the works of Sophocles, plus new Russian-French and Russian-English dictionaries. Cutting the leaves of the Sophocles volumes, he enjoys the slow tearing sound of the watermarked paper and the leather smell of the spines.

He looks up “coco” in his dictionary. He discovers it is argot for snow, cocaine, and coconut milk and means “eggy” in babyspeak—definitions which cluster associatively around the color white. It also means licorice powder: black. He likes the monochrome simplicity of the word. White, the spin of all colors, and the no-color of black, with a whole spectrum of feelings implied in between.

Toward late afternoon, Soulima knocks at the door to his study. The boy knows that if he sees the door closed, he is not to interrupt. This is a long-established prohibition. But, with his mother ill in bed, Coco in Grasse, the servants busy preparing dinner, and his siblings too torpid from the heat to want to play, he feels drawn toward the forbidden door. His knock provokes a low grunt. Sheepishly he enters the room.

“Soulima? What’s the matter?” Seeing the boy’s blue eyes gaze timidly up, affection wells inside Igor’s chest.

“I’m bored.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because I am.”

Igor laughs at his unanswerable logic. “What do you want to do, then?”

Seeing that his father is in a good mood, the boy says, smiling, “Can we have some dancing again tonight, please, Papa?”

“Come here,” Igor says, setting aside his books. He beckons his son over, inviting the ten-year-old to sit on his knee. “Now, you know your mother doesn’t like dancing . . .”

“Why not?” Soulima says.

“Because it makes her dizzy.”

“But she doesn’t have to dance.”

To the children, Igor knows, Catherine’s ailment remains vague. “Yes, but when she watches, it makes her head spin.”

“Then she shouldn’t watch.”

“I’m afraid she’s made her mind up. No more dancing.”

“But why, though?”

“Anyway, it’s too hot.”

“Not at night, it isn’t.”

“Well, it upsets her all the same.”

“It’s not fair!”

“Oh, come on now.”

“But it isn’t.”

“You know your mother isn’t well, and we have to be considerate.”

Sulking. “I suppose.”

“That’s a good boy. We love Mother, don’t we?”

Speculatively. “I do.”

Startled: “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing.”

Soulima looks solemn. Igor scrutinizes him. Has he guessed? Does he have any inkling of what is going on? Has somebody spoken to him? But he looks so sweet and innocent and shy. It’s just a mood he’s in, Igor decides, nothing more. Still, it’s a reminder of how careful he must be in front of the children. And he realizes at this instant that he absolutely does not want them to know anything about his relationship with Coco. He’d be desperately upset if they were ever to find out.

Momentarily lost for any means of consolation, he offers to show his son some tricks on the piano. He’s coming on promisingly and is the most gifted of the children in this respect.

“No,” the boy says, stiffening. There is a pause, filled by Igor stroking his son’s fair hair. Soulima relaxes. His head falls back against his father’s chest. Igor watches him closely. That same frown. It’s like seeing a picture of himself as a young boy.

“How about a game of chess, then?”

Soulima looks up without enthusiasm. He smiles weakly, then seems to brighten. It doesn’t much matter what he does as long as he can spend some time with his papa.

“All right.”

Igor retrieves the board from a high shelf. A faint marbled pattern runs through the squares. He hands an oblong wooden box to Soulima, who slides the lid across and tips out the pieces. The boy readies them for battle. One black pawn is missing. It’s nowhere to be found. A small brown button functions as a substitute.

Picking up one black and one white piece, Igor shuffles them behind his back. He presents his son with two clenched fists. Soulima slaps the left one.

“White.”

The boy kneels intently over the board, his chin almost touching the pieces. Igor sits back in his chair and lights a cigarette.

Having failed to find Soulima in the rest of the house, his brother and sisters track him down to their father’s study. In no time, they are all gathered jealously around the board.

“Can I play?”

“Can I?”

Igor blows smoke into the air and groans. “All right, all right! But not in the study. You know you shouldn’t be in here. There’s not enough room.”

He won’t tolerate this invasion of his work space. He is afraid, moreover, they might disturb him one day when he is with Coco. The vision of this happening flashes pinkly through his mind, making him wince. He emits a noise that is almost a groan, and the children turn to look at him. He covers it up by clearing his throat. It is his prompt to move them out. They decamp to the living room.

“And after you’ve played me,” Igor insists, “you must also play each other.” They agree.

Igor beats Soulima. The lumpen button proves the boy’s undoing, wriggling its way to the end of the board. In fact he wins all his games with ease. But the tournament between the children continues until the early evening.

Catherine comes down to join the family group. Still in her dressing gown and looking exhausted, she is nevertheless pleased to see the children so content. At the same time, she rather resents the ease with which Igor has achieved this. It is always on his terms, and at his convenience. There he is, presiding like a deity in his chair.

The children go to bed around nine o’clock, arguing over the significance of their triumphs and defeats. In the quiet that succeeds, Igor and Catherine sit together. Igor tosses off a vodka.

“How are you feeling?”

“Rotten.”

Regarding her response as automatic, he chooses to ignore it. “The children had a nice time tonight.”

“Did they?”

“Don’t you think?”

“I don’t know what to think anymore. I feel as if I hardly know you.”

“You’re in one of those moods, again.” He stoops to pick up a chess piece. His fingers toy with it restlessly.

“Don’t I have just cause to be?”

“That’s not for me to say.”

“It never is, is it?”

In the silence, she adjusts her dressing gown around her legs. He notices how thin his wife has become. She has lost so much weight, her wedding ring slips constantly from her finger and needs to be resized.

She makes a direct appeal. “Let’s leave here, Igor.”

“What?”

“Let’s go somewhere and start again.”

“Where?”

“I don’t know. The coast, maybe.”

“I can’t.” He continues to fiddle with the chess piece, picking the green baize at its base.

“Why not?”

“I’m working well here.”

“You’ve shown me nothing new in weeks.”

“I’ve not finished anything yet. But the ideas are coming like never before.”

“I’m not happy here.”

“Well, I am.”

“That’s very selfish.”

“Then I’m sorry.”

“Really?”

The look in his eye is unrepentant. They’ve had this argument before.

“Your talent doesn’t excuse you from acting decently.”

“If it wasn’t for my talent, as you call it, we’d still be in Russia.”

“Would that be so bad?”

“If it’s decency you’re after, then, yes, it would be. Very bad.”

A fold of her dressing gown slips, exposing her knee. The glimpse of leg afforded him is quickly eclipsed as she tightens the gown around her. “At least we’d be with friends.”

“We’d be penniless.”

“We’re penniless now.”

“It’s a good chance for us to save.”

“I’d rather be happy.”

“You will be.”

Unconvinced: “You can’t say I haven’t supported you.”

“I’ve never said that.”

“Then why can’t you support me for once?”

“I have supported you. For years. Since you became ill.”

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this place. I want to leave.” The weight of her entreaty bends her forward. “Please?”

Sighing: “Look, it makes sense to stay here at least until the new year.”

“Sense to you.”

“We’re on holiday, here.”

“We’re not on holiday,” she corrects him. “We’re in exile.”

“Catherine, if you’re going to snipe at everything I say, why don’t you just go back to bed?”

She gives him a hard accusatory stare. “You’d prefer that, wouldn’t you?”

After a silence: “Yes.”

Catherine bites her lip, twisting her mouth sideways. She feels defeated. Having demeaned herself utterly, she’s still failed to move him. In an instant of clarity, she realizes her life here is a sham. “You’ve changed, Igor. You know that?” Her lips narrow in mute fury. Her eyes seem to burn a hole into his brow.

He says, “And the problem is, you haven’t.”

Hurt, she rises and withdraws from the room. She closes the door behind her with a strange quietness. The undramatic nature of her exit startles him. The door’s click operates like a spring inside his mind.

Gravely he shakes his head. The evening was going so well. The children had enjoyed themselves. Even Catherine had seemed pleased at first. Yet each time they come near each other, some invisible force contrives to push them apart. It grieves him to know that he’s hurt her. He has no wish to. At every turn he finds himself ambushed by guilt. But what can he do? The fact is, he’s in love with someone else, and there’s only so much love within him he can give.

He looks at the repeated pattern of squares on the chessboard, at the piece still in his fingers, and, via a knight’s move of his attention, his gaze switches to the window.

Outside he sees the moon float in and out of sight behind dark trees.

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