Catherine and the children have been gone for over a week now. Joseph and Marie are still on holiday, Piotr has been given the day off, and Coco and Dmitri are out riding—again. Igor feels abandoned in this big house.
He has just heard that his mother has been granted a visa. He ought to be pleased, but the news fills him with dread. She says in her telegram that she’s heard from Catherine and needs to know whether to travel to Biarritz or Garches. From her note, he doesn’t think she knows much—just that they’re not together. Catherine would not have said anything about their separation. He knows her well enough to be sure of that. But what is he going to say? How will he explain it? He folds the message into a small square, as if with this action he might shrink his difficulties into a manageable space.
The silence bristles around him. He smarts as he looks at his mother’s photograph. He can’t escape feeling intensely foolish. And, like a child who has done something naughty, he is fearful of rebuke.
He knows he has miscalculated, and now ponders the cost. His thoughts wander to Catherine and how she is coping with the children alone. An image comes to him of her laughing, enjoying a joke with some friends at his expense. And it strikes him that maybe she’s relishing her time away from him. Maybe it has liberated her. In thinking this, he realizes how formless for the moment his own existence is.
Painstakingly he retunes the piano. The tuning fork pings like a dead electric bulb. He adjusts each note minutely: all eighty-eight in turn. Finished, he celebrates by dragging his hands in unhurried runs across the keys. Hard brilliant sonorities flow like water over stone.
Then he plays.
He plays with an elegiac tenderness and self-lacerating calm. His fingers touch the keys and lift from them gently. He closes his eyes and reaches deep into himself. The notes rise from beneath his spaced hands. Relaxing, he allows his mind to be drawn by the emotional impulse of the music. Chords mount to an expression of ecstasy, then blend into regret.
He continues for many hours, his fingers generating their own momentum. In playing, Igor is transfigured, seeming to enter into conversation with the piano.
At lunch he doesn’t feel hungry but plays straight through. He doesn’t even hear Coco and Dmitri come back, giggling sillily, from their ride.
He works hard to create tensions and postponements—to slow down the symphony in the final few bars before the passionate climax. He wants the harmonies to thicken and the dissonances at the last to resolve in a perfect concord. At the close, he wants a surprising stillness: the impression of silence stained.
That night, Igor sits alone in his study and drinks himself into a stupor.
He drinks two bottles of wine, followed by a half dozen shots of vodka. He drinks quickly until he is almost blind. Beside him, the ashtray brims with cigarette ends. Smoke leaks from between his teeth. He senses an emptiness enlarge within him. He pours in the alcohol to plug a gaping hole.
When he can no longer see well enough to light another cigarette, and when the vodka bottle shakes in a kind of prism before his eyes, Igor staggers up from his chair. Stumbling across the room, he knocks the metronome clatteringly off the top of the piano. The noise makes the shape of an explosion inside his mind. Clumsily he makes his way to the door. Beneath him the carpet takes on an elastic life of its own. As he leaves, he flicks off all the lights. Noticing a glow still behind him, he realizes he’s forgotten one of them. But he can’t be bothered with that now.
Slowly, on all fours, he negotiates his way upstairs.
It is two o’clock in the morning. His face is ash gray and his spectacles askew. The fracture in the lens from his spat with Dmitri merges into the generalized blur of his vision. A fine sweat appears on his forehead and spreads itself across his chest.
Coco and Dmitri, having retired to their shared bed much earlier, wake as they hear him scrabbling up the stairs. By the time they are conscious, though, he has reached his room and closed the door behind him.
Violently Igor rips open his shirt, and the buttons fly everywhere. He kicks off his shoes in drunken frustration and falls crosswise upon the bed. He can feel his heart pound loudly. He’s breathing quickly now. From above, the light shoots splinters into his eyes. Then abruptly he feels something rise within him. Possessing just enough presence of mind, he rushes to the bathroom. Some dim civilizing impulse prompts him to place his head over the toilet bowl.
Unpreventably he feels his stomach churn. A gorge of nausea ripples hotly up his throat. His eyes fill with tears. A burning rush of vomit breaks in straggly beards from his mouth. Bits splash from the toilet bowl back onto his clothes.
Gasping, he stands to see himself through tear-thickened lashes in the mirror. Though he feels hot, his face looks bluish gray. A numbness spreads to his hands and makes his fingertips tingle. He runs the tap until the water is freezing cold. Taking deep breaths, he cups the water in his hands and splashes his face. For a moment his palms rest like a mask against his skin. Then he drinks, squeezing the water with his cheeks around his rank and stinking palate. His teeth throb, the water is so cold.
Looking down, he sees a scaly mess move in the shallows of the toilet bowl, rising and falling, rising and falling like the body of a dead fish. The smell appalls him. Ribbons of sick harden around the enamel. A few slivers remain on the wall and on his clothes.
Aside from flushing, there is little he can do. He makes a mental note to clean up in the morning. The electric light in the bathroom is harsh and hurts his eyes. He feels the vomit still lingering in his throat and in his nose. He returns to the bedroom. Without undressing, he collapses onto the bed.
In her sleeplessness, Coco hears Igor’s snores erupt unevenly through the night. She rises early and opens wide the windows in his study. It stinks of drink and cigarettes. Lifting the ashtray wincingly with her fingertips, she carries it at arm’s length to the bin.
Midmorning, she decides to check that Igor is all right.
He stirs a little, his eyes opening slowly as she enters the room.
“Come on,” she says.
She opens the curtains and he shrinks from the light.
“I feel sick again.” With drunken clumsiness, he scrambles to his feet. Then he runs to the bathroom, where he vomits two or three times. Coco’s reproachful tone is superseded by reassuring noises. She wipes his mouth with a damp washcloth. Soothingly she strokes the top of his head. Then, telling him to undress, she runs a hot bath. He hesitates, but sees she means business. Shyly he removes his clothes. Stepping in, his limbs appear warped in the water. She washes him like a child as he sprawls awkwardly in the tub.
“I’m sorry,” he manages. “I feel ashamed.” Like an instrument thrown out of tune by humidity, his voice has risen a semitone.
“That’s all right.”
“I’ve missed my morning’s work.”
“I think you have.”
She bathes his face and squeezes a sponge over his head. The water trickles healingly across his scalp and down his cheeks.
“You’re very kind,” he says. “Honestly.”
She smooths the lines of his eyebrows. “How are you feeling now?”
“A little better.”
But he feels terrible. He hates her seeing him like this. It’s humiliating. Not for the first time, he feels unworthy. Climbing out, he ties a towel chastely around his waist. Dried, he goes over to Coco. Affectionately they embrace. Surrendering to a childish impulse, their foreheads touch together. Their fingers intertwine. Still damp from the bath, he feels his hands adhere to hers.
He says, “You have every right to hate me.”
“I could never hate you.”
She is glad, she finds, to be with him at this moment. They indulge each other with the tenderness of lovers reconciled to loss.
“You know something?” he says. “I never told you. You smell marvelous.”
They squeeze hands, then slowly allow their fingers to slide apart and let go.
“Don’t think I regret it. Any of it,” he says.
Gratefully Igor lies back upon the bed. Coco waves good-bye with her fingers. She blows him a kiss before closing the door.