CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

Ludmilla, shirtless and a little cold, bends low over the basin as Coco washes her hair. Three-quarters warm and one-quarter cold, she feels the mix of temperatures spill in ribbons over her scalp.

Afterward her cheeks shine pinkly and her eyelids glisten as she peeps from beneath a towel. Coco administers one last playful rub of the head before drawing a tortoiseshell comb through her hair. “There,” she says. “All done.” She passes the girl a bar of chocolate. “Don’t tell your mother I gave you this.”

“Why?” Ludmilla asks, removing the wrapper from the bar.

“She might think chocolate is bad for you.”

“Is it?”

“Only if you eat too much of it.”

“Is this too much?”

“No.”

Content with this information, Ludmilla takes another bite. She chews strenuously, the whole of her young jaw engaged. Chocolate adheres to the corners of her mouth.

“Be careful to clean your face afterward.”

Before Coco can add anything, Ludmilla asks, “Do you like Mama?”

“Of course I do. Though I don’t know her very well.”

“Why is she always sick?”

“I don’t know.”

There is a pause while Ludmilla contemplates this. She snaps off another swatch of chocolate. With her mouth still full, she asks, “Do you like Papa?”

“Yes.”

“You prefer Papa to Mama?”

The simplicity of Ludmilla’s French makes her seem more childish than she really is. Coco detects a canniness beneath the naïve questions, however. Wary of delivering too frank an answer, she says, “I like them both.”

“But you spend more time with Papa.”

“That’s because he’s up and about when I am.”

“Does Papa prefer you or Mama?”

“He prefers your mama, silly.” This is terrible, she thinks.

“And you prefer me to the others?”

“I suppose I do. But it’s wrong to have favorites.” She holds the girl by the shoulders. “You mustn’t tell,” she continues in a whisper, fixing her gaze. “It can be our secret.”

Ludmilla takes a last bite of chocolate, scrunching the silver paper into a ball. “Finished!”

“Good. Now go and wash your face.”

Ludmilla runs from the room. Her straight wet hair accentuates her hipless figure. Coco reaches for a cigarette, her mouth compressing into a circle as she lights it. She feels the tension of the girl’s questioning drain away. Her eyes tip into glassiness as she inhales.

Noticing strands of hair clinging to the fabric of her dress, she picks them off and deposits them in an ashtray. Afterward she jabs her cigarette out on them. She watches the hairs flare briefly and blacken to a crisp.

On an impulse, she telephones Adrienne. The shop sounds busy in the background. She realizes she misses that. She hates being away—always has done. Suddenly she yearns to return to rue Cambon, to throw herself back into her work. She doesn’t possess Igor’s self-discipline. He can work alone and regulate his days. She needs to have people around her. Though she’s been going in three times a week and putting in long hours at home, it’s not enough, she thinks. She’ll be there, she decides. Tomorrow.

Looking in the mirror above the telephone, she sees a pallid spot on her cheek, a blanched oval where the skin has lost its pigmentation. And her fingernails, she notices, are tawny from so many cigarettes. She’s been smoking too much here.

It’s worry, she concludes. And why? Because she has time to worry: about what she’s doing and where she’s going and who she wants to be with. For the first time in weeks, she thinks of Boy. How could he have wed someone else? He loved her. It didn’t make sense. It was wrong. What grotesque snobbery was it that had prevented him from marrying her? Just because she’d had other men and wasn’t highborn? She feels angry suddenly, as if she wants to spit.

She recalls with pain the days immediately following his death. Allowed to sort through his personal effects to retrieve anything that belonged to her, she came across some letters. Going through them, she registered with dismay one mutual friend’s advice: “You don’t marry someone like Coco . . .”

She couldn’t believe anyone would have written that. She couldn’t believe, moreover, that Boy would have taken it to heart. Yet in some deep recess of her mind, some obscure corner of her being, she knew this to be exactly what he had thought. She lacked the necessary pedigree. People of good breeding knew better than to marry beneath them. “You don’t marry someone like Coco . . .” The phrase stamped a white-hot iron into her soul.

Abruptly, from down the hall, she hears the piano thunder in Igor’s study. It shocks her into consciousness. The skin on her hands feels tight. The smell of burned hair touches her nostrils. She begins shaking her head.

She knows there is little prospect of her relationship with Igor developing much further. He is frantic enough as it is at the prospect of anyone discovering their affair. Is he secretly ashamed of her? Catherine, she knows, regards her with the disdain reserved for the ineligible, for those whose blood has no hint of blue. She can hear the superiority inform each of her remarks. The way she insists on speaking Russian with Igor whenever Coco is around. Perhaps that’s why she’s able to endure the humiliation of their affair. Maybe she knows, ultimately, that her position as his wife will always be secure. For her then, Coco feels, she poses no enduring threat.

This realization is sharpened by a profound sense of abandonment, the roots of which lie, she recognizes, in her mother’s early death, her father’s absence from the family home, and her subsequent removal to an orphanage. She has a deep need of love and a frank need for physical passion. But these needs, she knows, are shot through with a wish, equally deep, never to get hurt and never again to be dependent upon anyone else for anything. She can cope alone if necessary. Her whole life so far has steeled her to accept loss. She’s strong; she knows that. And talented, she reminds herself, even though Igor sometimes tries to put her down.

Entranced by the burning of Ludmilla’s hair, she goes on idly to light the loose end of a ball of wool as though it is a fuse. She watches the spark take hold and run smolderingly up the thread. But it fails to travel very far. After frazzling the wool for about a foot, the tiny flame gives up the ghost. Still, something catches inside her. It’s as if she internalizes the fire. Taking a pair of scissors, she snips the burned end off.

Coco, her voice thinning with the pressure of utterance, looks at the italicized print on the card. “It seems you’re invited, but I am not.”

A cigarette rests between Igor’s forked fingers. His legs are foppishly crossed. There is to be a party held at the Opéra. Everyone who is anyone in the arts world will be there, including Satie, Ravel, Picasso, and Cocteau.

“I’m sure you wouldn’t enjoy it,” he allows. “It’ll be very tedious. Just a lot of backslapping artists talking shop.”

Her voice deepens noticeably. “No, it wouldn’t really be my style, would it? A bit too intellectual for me. A bit too sophisticated. I wouldn’t want to show you up, now, would I?”

“What are you talking about?”

“They don’t invite tradespeople. I know that. You don’t have to patronize me.”

Bewildered: “What are you saying?”

“I know when I’m being snubbed.”

The ferociousness of her tone provokes him. “Don’t be absurd. You’re imagining a slight where none exists.”

“You’d obviously prefer it if I didn’t come.”

“That’s not true.”

“You’re still not sure about being seen with me, are you?” Framed against the window, the frizzed edge of her hair forms a kind of halo.

“That’s preposterous. I’d love you to come. I’ll be bored silly without you.”

“It’s all right for you to fuck me in private, but you don’t want to be within ten yards of me outside the house.”

Igor is shocked by her language and embarrassed by the loudness of her tone. She doesn’t seem to realize that there are servants around and that Catherine is just upstairs. Her features, which he has seen idiotized by desire, close over. Her eyes and mouth seem holes in a flat mask.

“I repeat,” he says with emphatic calmness, “I think you’d find it tedious.”

She answers, “All right. As it will be so tedious, I don’t suppose you’ll want to go either.” Abruptly, to his astonishment, she starts to rip the invitation in half.

“What are you doing?” he asks, startled.

The card makes a thick tearing sound. Her lips purse with the effort. “There! You see?”

“I can’t believe you just did that.”

“No slight intended, and none received.” Her voice rises with the assumption of hauteur. In profile, her chin lifts as if it has been hit.

“It will be extremely rude of me not to attend.” The skin tightens across his face. His scalp moves backward visibly.

With severe politeness, Coco says, “Then you’d better telephone and explain. Tell them your wife is ill or something, that you have to look after her. That should do the trick.”

She feels a tingling in her hands. Glancing down, she’s surprised to find blood on the skin around one of her nails. A paper cut. There’s a russet smudge on the torn card, too. The appearance of blood seems to spice her temper even more.

“It’s fine to invite me to parties as a patron where there’s a good chance of a handout. But it’s not all right for me to be with you when you’re consorting with friends. That’s it, isn’t it?”

His expression grows stern. “I do not seek handouts.”

“Oh, really?”

He warms to a theme. “No. Though, of course, it’s not unknown for people to support artists in order to further their own social ambitions.”

“You ungrateful bastard!”

She recalls her donation for the revival of The Rite. She knows she gave anonymously, but he might have guessed, she thinks. She’s certain Diaghilev has told him, yet he hasn’t so much as mentioned it to her.

More heated: “In fact, the way people sponsor the arts these days is often quite insincere.”

Her words come faster now, with venom in them. “You can never quite get over the fact that I’m a woman, can you? A woman who is intelligent and successful, and an artist in ways that you’ll never understand.”

Incredulous. “An artist?”

“Yes, an artist, who works every bit as hard, if not harder, than you do.”

“If you spent more time making and less time selling, then I might agree with you.”

“That’s called reality, Igor—something you seem immune to in your own little world.”

He discovers a raw burst of energy. “You’re not an artist, Coco.”

“Oh, no?”

Contemptuously: “You’re a shopkeeper!”

“I don’t have to put up with this.” She moves toward the door. “Remember where you’re living, dear,” she hurls at him. “One of these days, you’ll see.” Then, turning smartly on her heels, she leaves the room.

He feels the draft from the door as it slams behind her. With his legs still crossed, though more stiffly posed, Igor’s head tips sideways in thought. His heart is galloping. He hates it when they argue. But she shouldn’t have torn up the invitation like that. He leans to pick up the fragments from the floor.

She’s too easily seduced by surfaces, he thinks. She’s too much moved by the glisten of things. He finds it hard to take clothes design seriously. He can’t deny that her outfits are ravishing, but it has more to do with vanity, he considers, than any claim to art. There’s something too palpable about its manufacture. He can’t help taking it for granted somehow. With the perfume, he admits, there’s a mystery, an elusiveness, an unseen quality he enjoys. It appeals to the senses in the same way music does; and he’s prepared to concede it needs artistry, genius even, to produce it. The trouble is, she’s become so obsessed with the business side of it, he’s lost interest. She seems to speak of little else.

Looking down, he adjusts the angle of his ankle minutely to align with the shadows in the room. He closes one eye to achieve an exact fit. Then outdoors he hears a scream. He jumps up and looks out the window. Vassily is scrapping with one of the Alsatians. Fierce snarls and barks accompany a series of tussles that seem to take place in a furious blur.

He rushes into the garden and manages to separate them before any real damage is done. But, of course, the cat has come off worse. The poor thing has several deep cuts about the eyes. And where a patch of fur is missing around his neck, there’s a raw wound of matted blood.

Igor winces. It had to happen sooner or later, he reflects.

Pathetically the cat dabs at his injuries with his paws. Igor strokes him and inspects the vivid welts already swelling on his skin. Vassily’s claws are still extended as Igor picks him up. Cradling him in his arms like a newborn baby, he carries the cat inside.

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