CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

With Dmitri, Coco can be heedless and tender, demonstrative and bold. Moreover, she does not have to care who sees or hears her.

Catherine, meanwhile, experiences a fresh feeling of disgust for her husband. Igor is fine when Coco is away at the shop. But as soon as she returns he begins slavering like a lapdog. Catherine cannot resist a wry smile at the way things seem to be turning out. A feeling of sweet vengeance seeps deliciously into her veins. She has more color in her cheeks. She feels more self-possessed. A measure of strength returns to her, and she finds she has more time for the children, who respond with overdue embraces. She is even able to undertake a few short walks.

Igor begins to act more warmly toward her. He becomes openly affectionate. But perversely she grows cooler toward him. She can see what he is doing: hedging his bets, looking for succor, for someone to lick his wounds. Well, he can look elsewhere, Catherine thinks. To his annoyance, she makes it plain that she quite likes Dmitri. He’s a breath of fresh air around the house. He’s courteous and charming, she finds, and she enjoys speaking Russian to him. She discovers in him an unlikely ally. Besides, he’s wonderful with the children. And he makes her laugh. The laughter sounds odd in her own ears. It’s so long since she’s heard it. Perhaps it gives her the confidence for what she wants to do next.

Some days later in a willful act of strength and resolution, Catherine begins packing her things and announces she is leaving Garches. She is going to Biarritz with the children: on the strength, ostensibly, of its climate and superior schools. She calculates she has enough money saved to be able to rent a small place there. She no longer requires the charity of Mademoiselle Chanel. In fact, it has reached the point where she’d live in a hovel if it meant getting away from her.

Igor is outraged. “You can’t do this to me!” he shouts, as she folds her clothes into her suitcase.

“I’m not doing it to you. I’m doing it for me and for the children.” Her voice, eroded by so much crying, has lowered a semitone, grown a grain or two huskier in recent weeks.

“But I want you to stay.”

“You do? Why?”

“Because . . .” He falters. “. . . you belong with me, here. And I need you.”

“And I needed you!” The use of the past tense stings him.

His whole frame shakes with fury. But, even in his anger, he is sensitive to the fact that others in the house may hear him. He proceeds in a fierce whisper: “You’re my wife!”

Shrill, she doesn’t care who hears her: “You should have thought of that before.”

A few weeks earlier, she had been desperate for him to come to her. She had begged for his affection, pleaded for his emotional support. He had not responded. He had failed her then. Why should she be loyal to him now?

“The fact is, we’re still married. Nothing alters that. That’s sacred.”

“You haven’t acted as though you believe that!”

He fights a rising panic. “But what will you do?”

“I’ll cope.”

“Are you sure?”

“No. But maybe it’s what I need.” She flattens a dress into the case.

It’s come as a relief almost, knowing she can expect nothing from him. She no longer aches for caresses that will not come. Strange to say, being dead to him has given her a kind of freedom.

“Have you thought it through?”

“Long and hard. I can’t stand it any longer.”

A repressed hysterical note hovers in his voice. “Stand what?”

“Don’t insult me, Igor.”

“But it’s nearly over with Coco . . .”

“Nearly?” She stops her packing for a moment. “What do you want? Another week, another month, a year?”

“But it is. We’re not right for each other.” He hears himself talking, but is oddly powerless to stop the words issuing from his mouth. What surprises him most is that he doesn’t agree with anything he says.

“And what makes you think we are?”

“Haven’t we proved it over the years?”

Resuming her folding: “I think the last few months have proved otherwise.”

“Why, though?”

It’s as if a mist has risen between them. “Because if it’s not Coco, then it will be somebody else.” She goes on, “And it just doesn’t seem worth it anymore.”

“That’s unfair.”

“Is it?”

“You’re acting out of pride.”

“And about time, too!”

Igor feels a sudden admiration for his wife, for her resourcefulness and inner strength. From the beginning, he had been attracted by what was placid in her. Now he recognizes this stronger side to her character. It is as if he sees her anew. He makes to hug her. An act of reconciliation. But it’s too late. She tolerates the gesture coldly, her face withdrawing from his. She continues pressing clothes into the open suitcase.

“And the children?” he goes on, more quietly this time.

“Yes?”

“Have you considered their welfare in all of this?”

“Absolutely. Why do you think I’m doing it?”

“But they’re just getting used to their school. They won’t want to start all over again.”

“I’ve thought of that,” she responds hotly.

“Don’t you think it’s worth us staying together for their sakes?”

Catherine ceases packing again and looks him straight in the eye. “You’ve got a nerve!” With a conviction that almost frightens him, she explodes, “When have you ever given them a thought in the last few months?”

Defiant: “But they’re sensitive to such things. This will upset them.”

“They’ll be even more upset if they stay much longer, given the musical beds that goes on around here. It’s precisely for that reason I’m taking them away.” Her voice rises like the pitch of indignation in her cheeks. He makes to speak, but she doesn’t allow him a chance to answer. “Don’t you realize, Igor, they know? They might not say it, but deep inside they know what’s been going on. They know that you don’t love me. Only you could be so blind.”

“But I do love you.”

“You’ll have to do better than that!”

Catherine has managed to come through her crisis. She has learned to cope in her own way and learned to live without his love. Here he is, coming to her again, and she feels sickened. It is intolerable. His love is cheapened, bankrupt; his affection pathetic. She pushes him away. The simple fact is: she doesn’t want him in the same way anymore.

“What about us?”

“Who do you mean by us?”

The question stuns him.

“Don’t worry.” She can’t resist belittling him. “I won’t tell your mother, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“For God’s sake!”

“I’m not changing my mind, Igor. I’m leaving in the morning.” She closes the suitcase with a click of the buckles. The act possesses a solemn weight. “If you want to see us, you know where we are.”

He stands still, frozen into immobility. For an instant he feels like hurling her suitcase out of the door. He looks around for something to smash. His fists clench in suppressing the instinct.

Catherine moves with renewed purpose, wrapping up the ornaments that have constituted for both of them a family home. The room is quickly stripped of its domesticity. Lastly she packs away the objects from her bedside table: a photograph of her children, an icon, and a seashell with its single nacreous horn.

Igor retreats to the comfort of his study. He is shocked and upset, as well as embarrassed. Yet there is a sense, he knows, in which he’s gone through the motions. His initial fury modulates into a conviction that this might not be such a bad thing after all. While it is a blow to his pride, Catherine’s removal along with the children might help transform his relationship with Coco. It will leave him free to fight for her. It will give him a respite from the constricting guilt he feels when his wife is there. And then his mood changes again, from hope to fear. Fear that his betrayal of Catherine will be met with another, this time visited upon himself. Fear that nothing will resolve itself. Fear that he will become estranged from both Coco and his wife. Fear that the energy and inspiration he reserves for his work will be dissipated in emotional turmoil. Fear, simply, that he will end up with nothing.

In the hours that follow, the sound of the piano wanders across his study like a crack in the ice of a pond.

That night, Igor sits down with Catherine and tells the children they are quitting Bel Respiro. They are to leave for Biarritz with their mother the next morning. Because of the better climate, they are told. And because the schools are more suitable to their needs. And because the villa in Garches is becoming too full, now that Dmitri is here. Their father, it is explained, is staying on to finish his work.

The children are stunned. They greet the news with a morose silence. Only Theodore seems pleased to be leaving. But Igor and Catherine’s hand-wringing excuses communicate their nervousness to the children. Oddly none of them asks any questions. Probably because something tells them they do not wish to know the answers. Soulima and Ludmilla both look at the floor, bewildered by the prospect of yet another move.

Later, once they are all in bed, Igor visits his children’s rooms. In sleep, their lips are parted, where bubbles seem about to form. The picture of his children asleep is invested with a kind of holiness, always.

Already Theodore has the look of manhood upon him. Milène still wears the frowning expression of an infant in her bed. Soulima is the one he worries about most. Igor sees himself in the boy. The same shaped face, the same eyes and nose. It is himself he is looking at, thirty years younger, the combination jiggled.

Igor had loathed his father, who was cold and unloving toward him as a child. He always promised himself that, as a parent, he would be far more affectionate to any children of his own. But when it comes to it, he discovers his instinct is also to withdraw. He follows the model responses of his own papa in pushing the children off. Emotionally his reflex is to keep them at a distance. While he was proud and delighted at each of their births, he resents the perpetual demands they make upon his time. He finds the domestic music they generate too competitive with his own.

Leaning over them now, though, and regarding their sleeping faces, he experiences the sorrow of imminent loss. He puts his fingers to his lips and kisses them in turn. They stir minutely. He mouths the words “good night” just loud enough to make Ludmilla respond blindly in her sleep. The star of her hand tightens, then slowly unfolds again. He notices they all sleep with the light off. As a boy, he remembers he could never sleep in the dark. They’re so very brave, he thinks.

The next morning, after much weeping, the children stand prepared to leave with Catherine at the door. Coco is there, too. Dmitri, having bidden his farewells, has gone out hunting in the woods. Coco offers Catherine her hand. Slow to obey the impulse, Catherine’s hand moves involuntarily to meet it. For one absurd moment, she even feels privileged, obscurely grateful. Then a surge of anger rises, opening its wings inside her head. As Coco makes to kiss her, she turns, averting her hot cheek.

Soulima asks, “Why is Papa staying?”

“I’ve explained already,” Catherine says.

Ludmilla complains, “But I still don’t understand why we’re going.”

Joseph and Marie exchange a glance.

These late, awkward, tactlessly candid questions act like stabs in Catherine’s side. Lost for a response, she picks up the cat. He’s been wandering in and out of the space between her feet, gently bumping and nudging her leg, brushing his fur against her exposed ankle.

Little Vassily! Igor experiences a pang of dismay at seeing the cat. He has failed to register the fact that he, too, will be going along with the children and his wife. This detail, small but overlooked, operates like a lens through which he sees the true extent of his loss. The cat’s self-sufficiency away from him is another mocking blow to the notion that he’s needed. These few moments, he reflects, are perhaps the worst of his life.

Joseph’s announcement that the taxi has arrived breaks the silence and robs the children of their answers.

Gravely Igor shakes his sons’ hands and kisses his daughters on both cheeks. He tries to press a lifetime of affection into these gestures. But Theodore sternly refuses to meet his father’s eye. Silent and aggrieved, even Soulima remains stone-faced. Igor regards them with admiration. He tries to imagine his own father acting out this scene, allowing his wife and sons to leave him. But he cannot, and his mind fills with shame.

Catherine bids him a stiff good-bye. Then, after a few hurried and guilty hugs of the children from Coco—including a prolonged embrace of Ludmilla—they are gone. The door clicks shut.

It is all so sudden. Igor looks at Coco. He feels weightless. His solemnity wars uneasily with the complex sense of relief he feels. Coco remains tight-lipped. The silence thickens around them.

“I’ll let you get on with your work now,” she says, turning away from the door.

Igor lingers for a moment before returning to his study. How stupid, he thinks. The one moment that should be touched with triumph, the very instant that should see them leap into each other’s arms, is instead clouded by resentment and doubt. A crushing sense of guilt and waste descends upon him. Now that he has all the quiet he requires, he has nothing left to fill it with. Has he abandoned his family for this? He feels the weight return to his body, almost forcing him to the floor. He’s always believed his life to be ordered by some pattern, by some obscure allegiance to form. But he can’t conceive of the design behind it now. His existence seems purposeless, and for a second he feels utterly desolate. Then with equal quickness he feels buoyed up by a renewed sense of conviction that what he is doing is right. He refuses to give in. To his feeling of dread he attaches a hope that all will be well. Coco will come back to him, he vows. She will see through this idiot, Dmitri. She must. Something, he knows, will bring them back together. He feels it in his blood.

Virtually the first thing Catherine sees as she takes a motorized taxi down the high street in Biarritz is Chanel’s shop. She pretends not to notice but winces inwardly, as if she can never escape the name. It is the children who eagerly point it out. The impression grows within her that she can never get away. Like the Lord’s, her signature is everywhere.

But the new house with its stone façades and timber beams seems a sturdy defense against Coco’s presence. They’re safe here, Catherine thinks, at least for a while. Not even Mademoiselle Chanel can penetrate these walls.

She sends a telegram to Igor’s mother, informing her of their change of address.

008

Two days after Catherine’s departure, Coco grants Joseph and Marie a week’s holiday. At least with Piotr around, there will be someone left to serve in the villa. And better that there is one person in charge rather than Piotr and Joseph both fighting over who is boss. An unspoken hostility has already established itself between them.

Piotr acts like a bodyguard to Dmitri, steadfastly protecting his master and tending to neglect everyone else. What’s more, there is some confusion over household duties. And because Piotr can speak little French, and Joseph knows no Russian, mutually uncomprehending arguments erupt in the kitchen over exactly who is to do what and when.

Joseph and Marie are relieved when the time comes eventually to take their leave of Bel Respiro. Glad to escape for a few days from Garches and its bizarre goings-on, they head for their native village in the north.

So with Coco and Dmitri increasingly away, either horse riding or working in Paris, and everyone else gone, the house is finally silent. And Igor—except for the monosyllabic Piotr—is suddenly alone.

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