Of Igor’s four children, Coco’s favorite is Ludmilla. The twelve-year-old doggedly follows her about the house. She listens to her on the telephone, runs after her into the garden, even pursues her into the bedroom to see her change clothes. And, just when Coco’s patience is stretched to breaking point by her clinging attentions, Ludmilla, sensing it somehow, will summon a winning, irresistible smile.
Keenly aware that she has made a favorite, Coco doesn’t care. She has no problem showing her affection openly. She’s not the girl’s mother, after all, she reflects.
Catherine quickly comes to resent the rapport her eldest daughter establishes with her host. She can’t help but notice that Ludmilla is more often downstairs playing with Coco than she is upstairs ministering to her. A kind of unannounced competition for the girl’s affection begins within the house.
This sense of challenge merely quickens within Coco an already instinctive liking for the girl. The two of them enjoy a developing warmth. She allows Ludmilla to play with her jewelry and encourages her to try on some of her clothes. The girl is excited by the different fabrics. She’s intrigued, too, by the way materials can be transformed from their raw state into a skirt or jacket. The whole process fascinates her, and she’s keen to know more. So one day Coco takes Ludmilla to the shop. The girl comes back dazzled and impatient to tell her mother about the fabulous things she has seen. She also wants to show off Coco’s present of a dress.
“Isn’t it marvelous?” Ludmilla gushes to her mother, showing off the mantle of black Chantilly lace. Catherine manages a tight smile. The dress whispers sinisterly to her. In twirling around, the girl displays an instinctive flirtatious-ness, a native sexuality that makes her mother look at her in a different light. She’s horrified at the thought that Coco is educating her in the ways of the world. That bitch. Her baby. She feels a hard knot inside herself: something twisted, kinked.
She complains to Igor. She feels Coco is stealing Ludmilla away from her, buying her affection with expensive gifts. It is enough to lose a husband, but a daughter as well! That is too much to endure.
Igor, of course, does nothing. Anyway, what can he say? He can’t very well scold Coco for befriending his daughter, for generously spending some time with her. She’d laugh at him. Besides, he wonders how much of this new closeness to Ludmilla is due to her own possibly pregnant state. Each day he waits to hear that it is all a false alarm and that there is nothing to be worried about. But nothing has happened yet, and he’s growing ever more anxious and preoccupied. Then, when Catherine complains that if anything the situation has become worse, and that Coco and Ludmilla are spending more time together than ever, he snaps, “I don’t see what the problem is. There’s no harm in it. It’s perfectly natural. And,” he adds with impatience, “it’s just as well at her age that the girl gets some attention.”
Catherine feels the jibe keenly. She doesn’t deserve this. Energized by fury, she retorts, “Even when I’m sick, I still do more for the children than you.”
It is a sore point all around. Coco is careful not to involve herself in this new row. Ludmilla meanwhile remains oblivious of the crosscurrents of affection that eddy around her. And while her mother and father continue to argue over whom she spends more time with, she grows, to Catherine’s chagrin, ever closer to Coco.
One day, the girl remains in her room, crying. She’s inconsolable. She fails to respond when Catherine asks her what the matter is. She refuses to speak to her father, too, and seems oddly ashamed. Her sobbing continues all morning. Only to Coco does she reveal, toward lunchtime, the broad red stain, clammy and stickily intimate, that weeps from her knickers, ruining her new dress.
Coco doesn’t need to be told. As she walks into the room she can smell it.
It is her first period, and Ludmilla feels afraid and upset. Coco’s mouth frames a smile. The ghost of a maternal impulse burrows at her chest. She congratulates the girl at twelve and a half upon her graduation into womanhood, giving her a sisterly squeeze of the hand. Immediately, she sees, Ludmilla feels better about herself.
Coco’s period arrived this morning, too. The two of them are in sync. It used to happen when she lived with Adrienne. A blood sisterhood. She feels silly for having said anything to Igor, for frightening him like that. She never felt pregnant, though perhaps she imagined a few telltale signs. She told him partly to shock him out of what she saw as his complacency. And partly because by articulating her fears, in a superstitious way, she thought she might even help bring the period on. Besides, apart from Igor, who else could she confide in? If she mentioned it to anybody else, Misia in particular, he’d kill her.
She feels relieved, she thinks, that the scare is over. The fact is she’s not pregnant. It was what she wanted. But at the same time her relief is complicated by a remote sense of disappointment. She’d begun, she realizes, to carry herself differently: more stately, more serene. She recognizes now from the responses of her body that she enjoys a secret urge to have a child. And if not now, then when? She knows that time is running out.
Ludmilla has brightened. Flattening a tear at the side of the girl’s nose, Coco advises her to tell her mother. “She’ll be proud of you.”
Ludmilla twists her lower lip sideways with worry. “She’ll think I’m dirty.”
“She won’t, I promise. She’ll think you’re growing up.”
“Can’t you tell her?”
Smiling: “I don’t think that would be right.”
“Why don’t you talk to Suzanne about it? She’ll explain everything.”
The thought provides a ledge to which the girl clings. It seems to reassure her. She looks up. “All right.”
Ludmilla fingers the dark stain on her dress. She laughs nervously. “I feel strange.”
“You will to begin with. Everyone does.”
“Does it mean I can have babies?”
“Are you going to have a baby ever?”
“I don’t know. Someday, perhaps.” The words scald her throat. Looking at the toilet paper in her hand this morning, darkened with her unpunctual blood, she had felt cheated. In its stain, she had seen the evidence of her failure: the one thing, she recognizes, she cannot do. She thinks now of the two abortions from her early lovers. Cavalrymen, both. What had those operations done to her insides? Reduced her to this empty spot of red; this nameless blank, this absence.
“Mama likes babies.”
“Does she want any more, do you think?” Resentment shades her voice. She wonders how Catherine can be so effortlessly fecund, and she not. Four children. It just doesn’t seem right or fair.
“Not since she got sick with Milène.”
Coco says nothing.
After a silence: “So you don’t think I’m dirty?”
“It’s perfectly natural.”
Then, shyly: “You think I ought to tell Mama?”
Coco smiles. “I think that’s right.”
Ludmilla is not quite sure how to hold herself or her dress. She shrugs. Her body seems to have grown heavy. It’s as if something inside her drags.
Coco leans toward her, and awkwardly they embrace. She pats her back, then holds her by the shoulders. Ludmilla’s eyes grow moist again. Placing both hands on the girl’s cheeks, Coco wipes away the tears with a deft, symmetrical motion of her thumbs. “You’re a good girl,” Coco says. “And don’t worry about the dress. We can soon get you another one of those.”
Yellow-brown leaves fall plenteously. A cold October wind crimps the grass.
A Sunday, Catherine makes an effort to rise early and go to church. She takes the children with her, holding Ludmilla by the hand. Along, too, go Joseph and Marie with Suzanne. Igor has too much work to do, he says. Coco is still in bed.
A little later, Igor dresses for the second time that morning. He’s in Coco’s bedroom. They have tried and failed to make love. It’s the first time since her late period. Igor burns with shame. “I’m sorry. I’m preoccupied at the moment.”
“That’s all right.”
Irked by the tolerance in her tone, he protests, “I can’t perform to order, you know.”
“I said it’s all right. It doesn’t matter.” But the warmth in her voice sounds ambiguous.
When she told him she wasn’t pregnant, she was shocked to discover how exhilarated he was. He must think he leads a charmed life, she reflects. He’d seemed pleased with himself and said he’d prayed for it to happen. He’d even attended church. She felt annoyed at this. “It doesn’t matter,” she repeats.
“You always make me feel as if I have to compete.”
“Compete? With whom?”
“With you.” He can’t finish dressing quickly enough and fumbles clumsily with the belt on his trousers.
“With me?” She starts up from her languor. “I see.” For a moment an odd silence organizes itself around the bed. Then she asks, “Are you afraid of me, Igor?”
“Of course not.”
“Well, I don’t understand what you mean.”
“Don’t insult me.”
“I didn’t mean to.” She lies back again.
Igor struggles with one of his socks. “You always want to be the one in control.”
“I just try to be happy, that’s all.”
“And I do my best to make you happy.”
Not wholly convinced: “I know you do.” She sits up in an attempt to appear sincere. He has spoken recently of dedicating his next symphony to her. When it comes to it, though, she doubts he will. It’s too reckless a gesture for him, she thinks.
He tightens his laces with a tug. “I’d better go. They’ll be back any minute.”
Fear of discovery has been overtaken by a new fear: that he doesn’t measure up to Coco’s other lovers. She makes him feel inadequate at times, inexpert, inept. And he still can’t shake the feeling that what he’s doing is wrong.
His heart lurches between the two women of his life like a pendulum in an unvarying arc. Catherine his wife, and Coco his mistress. Two interlinking letter Cs. Blindly he hopes that through some miracle of merging the two women might become one: with Catherine’s delicacy and Coco’s ardor, with Catherine’s gentle intelligence and Coco’s native charm, with Catherine’s sensitivity and Coco’s taste. Alas, the gap between them seems to widen with each passing hour. And his heart, like an atom trapped, smashes against the cage of his ribs, leaving a burning sensation in the center of his chest.
He starts to leave, then turns to kiss her. A formality. She permits the gesture. But his face lingers next to hers. The moment becomes tender.
She whispers, “Why can’t you just relax?”
Breathing in deeply, he smells the musk of her body. For an instant her vulnerability and his lust are renewed.
“I’m sorry,” he repeats. “I find it difficult with everyone in the same house.”
“They’re not here now.” She’s getting tired of his rushing.
“I know, but they will be soon.” He fastens up the button he missed earlier on his shirt.
Puzzled: “I thought you said she knows.”
“Yes, but still, I don’t want to rub her face in it.”
“All right.” She sighs, turning away from him on the bed. It’s as if, she feels sometimes, she’s not real to him the way Catherine is.
“We’ll speak later,” he says and steps toward the door. They share a half smile before he leaves the room.
He returns to his study, flinging the window open for fear of her perfume lingering. But he finds little sense of respite here either, for immediately he’s confronted by another problem: his work. He is trying to complete his symphony, while at the same time revising The Rite, while at the same time ran-scribing scores for mechanical piano. He feels overwhelmed and admits to himself that he’s not sure he can cope.
Plagued by indigestion, he sits up straight, squeezing a fist against his chest. He punches himself, urging a stubborn bit of food down to his stomach. Cleaning his teeth this morning, he noticed the water he spat out was pink. Somewhere his gums must be bleeding. He shakes his head. He remembers what Catherine told him. He’s convinced that he, too, is decaying from within, slowly falling apart. The knot in his chest, and now this bleeding. The evidence is mounting up.
He surveys his sketchbooks for a minute. The ills of his personal and professional life seem kindred. What seemed brilliant on paper the other day, on reflection seems less good.
He’s distressed by the lack of order his compositions enjoy. Pasting together ideas over the last few days, inserting fragments into what were fragments already, he’s not convinced that any of it hangs together. He feels blocked and quite at a loss as to how to go on. The turbulence and messy ongoing-ness of his life here have muddied the clarity of his thinking. The complexities of his existence in Bel Respiro seem to be spilling over into his music, making his work unusually fussy and inert.
He notices the silence that surrounds him, like a vacuum that sucks everything up. And suddenly it strikes him that the insect hum has ceased. It is as though someone has lifted a foot from the sustaining pedal of summer. The knowledge shocks him. How did he miss it? When did it stop? And why?
Again he looks at his sketchbooks. He has twenty-four wind instruments to score simultaneously: layers of sound intricately worked. But he can’t yet hear them distinctly enough or see how they might converge. When he tries to imagine each in relation to the whole, they either blur into a generalized sound or seem so independent as not to synthesize at all.
“It’s no good,” he utters.
He keeps hoping that all the unrelated scraps will suddenly fit, like the bits in a kaleidoscope, into some meaningful whole. But so far, despite his best efforts, the pattern has eluded him.
He feels the need to strip away the blurriness of his music. He wants to win through to something pure and distilled, something clean: the thing itself. The only way to achieve real tautness, he thinks, is through the discipline of conflicting rhythms and by generating tensions from opposing melodic lines.
He looks again at The Rite. Sitting there, he is revisited by an intuition. Rhythm. That’s it!
It hits him again with the strength of a revelation. Rhythm rather than harmony is the organizing principle. Rhythm is what connects everything together.
We all walk to a melody we hear inside our heads, he thinks. But that rhythm beats differently for each of us. Perhaps love, then, he considers, is where an absolute synchrony establishes itself between two people.
This revelation leaves him feeling liberated but also obscurely afraid. For it makes him confront his own existence in time, makes him aware of the changes in tempo his own life has undergone. With an urgency that seems connected to his pulse, he begins testing the spacing of notes against the settings of the metronome. There exist nuances, he knows, delicate variations of measure that can’t be captured exactly by notation. The fractions afforded by quavers and semiquavers are not absolute. There are spaces, margins of freedom in between that cannot be registered or set down. And it is in these spaces, he feels, that the key to something new and undiscovered lies. If only he could focus in close enough to explore these secret interstices, these in-between bits of time.
Just then, he hears the front door open. The children pour in with a sudden rush of sound. He sees Catherine through the window. She walks slowly but unaided. An aura of sanctity surrounds her as she returns from church. It always does. Piety suits her. It lends her a kind of glow.
He goes to greet his children as they enter the house. Flattening himself against the door, he allows Catherine to pass. She ignores him, placing her folded parasol between them like a shield. Palely she floats past him, like a ghost.
It’s as though the two of them move in different worlds, to different clocks. They’re misaligned, out of sync. Two melodic lines going off in different directions with no hint of a resolution. It’s as if they don’t exist for each other anymore.
Back in his study, he adjusts the speed of the metronome. On his way to lunch, its rhythm, slower than his heartbeat, ticks with a hallucinatory minuteness inside his head.
The sun is low. The trees are almost leafless. Overhead, a V of geese honks.
Joseph helps Marie hang out washing on the line. The bed linen is cumbersome and difficult to maneuver. Unfurling a sheet, a cloud of dampness is released like an odor from the folds. Joseph holds one end and Marie the other. Together they snap out the creases. They approach one another, touching corners, as if enacting a formal dance.
Joseph asks, “Has she mentioned holidays to you yet?”
With two wooden pegs in her mouth, Marie mumbles, “No. She hasn’t.” Positioned at evenly spaced intervals, the pegs make dents of shadow on the sheets.
“We’re due a few days before the end of the year.”
“You should speak to her.”
Holding the laundry basket clumsily under one arm, she turns to her husband. “Yes. You.”
“But you’re the one who spends time with her. You are her maid . . .”
“You’re better at these things.” The sheets flicker whitely off to one side.
“The situation is just so damn tense. I feel I should be going around on tiptoe.”
Suzanne and the other children step into the garden. This being a Sunday, they are not at school. They form a straggly group. Theodore is bouncing a football. As they move, there is an impression of bony arms and luminous shins; a lolloping uncoordinated march, heedless of the events around them.
Walking back toward the house, Joseph says, “It’s the children I feel sorry for.”
“You know what Milène said the other day?”
Marie glances around to make sure no one can hear her. “She said, ‘Is Coco going to be our new mama?’”
“What did you say?”
“No, of course! And then she asked if her mama was ever going to get well.”
“She’s very sensitive. She cries all the time. You can tell that something’s worrying her.”
“It’s very sad.”
“I don’t think he has any idea.”
As if in answer, from Igor’s study come the first promptings of the piano. Notes float across the lawn like scraps of fallen laundry. The rhythms are awkward and syncopated, with a fury fed from within.
Back inside, behind the kitchen door, Joseph says, “His music isn’t exactly comforting, is it?”
“I’m sure his playing scares them.”
The cry of geese above the house strikes a sharp angle with the sound of the piano.
“I’m not surprised,” he says. “It scares me sometimes, too.”
Catherine sits in the garden, a plaid blanket folded across her lap. A book rests, closed, upon her knee. She is examining a bottle of perfume given to her as a present by Mademoiselle Chanel. The children play in front of her on the lawn.
“Thank you,” Catherine says, raising the bottle as she sees Coco emerging from the front of the house.
Coco approaches, taken slightly by surprise, but smiling. “I hope you like it.”
“I’m sure it’s enchanting.”
“It’s the least I can do.”
“Yes.” Catherine looks away at some far point beyond Coco’s shoulder.
There’s a silence between them filled with the noise of the children playing. Catherine sets the perfume down on her lap next to her book.
Coco shifts her weight from one leg to the other. “What are you reading?” Coco says.
“It’s all right. You can stop pretending.”
She still won’t look at her. “You needn’t worry. I won’t start a row.”
Coco says nothing.
Catherine brightens like a light switched on. “I’m happy for him. He needs distracting. He gets so caught up in his work.”
Milène shouts to Soulima, who is chasing her round the flower beds. “You can’t catch me!”
The two women look at the children as they sweep by, and smile.
“I know what you’re doing,” Coco says, holding her smile.
“Don’t think I like myself for it.”
“I didn’t plan any of this.”
“Mind the flowers!” Catherine shouts at her children as they skirt the borders of the lawn.
Coco looks on in silence.
Catherine feels in this instant like the still center of a whirling circle as the children run frantically around the garden. But she experiences with it a sense of calm and even a strange kind of power which she has not felt for a long time. Now she steels herself to look Coco in the eye. “Just don’t interfere with his music,” she says. “It’s everything to him.”
A brief silence.
“And to you?”
“He sleeps with the light on. Did you know that?”
Coco says nothing.
“He’s afraid of the dark.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
She grows solemn. “He can’t work when there’s chaos.”
“Are you afraid of the dark?” Coco says, straightening, still holding that smile. “Or is it the light you can’t stand?”
Catherine almost laughs. “You’re quite something, aren’t you?”
Coco doesn’t answer.
“And you know the odd thing in all this?”
“I actually like you.”
Coco nods gravely, accepting the compliment, but now any trace of a smile has vanished.
On an impulse, Soulima races Milene to get to her mother and, when they reach her, they each dangle their arms affectionately around her neck. Catherine kisses their fingers and beams at both of them. Her children.
Slowly Coco walks away.