CHAPTER FOUR

For a few days following the meal, Coco is unable to banish the thought of Igor from her mind. She makes inquiries and discovers the parlous state of his finances. Then, on an impulse, she rings and asks to meet him. There is something important she wants to discuss, she says, but not over the telephone. They arrange to meet at the city’s zoo.

Struck in an obscure way by their encounter the other evening, Igor is keen to see her again. He remembers the odd response of his molecules to her touch. Arriving punctually at ten o’clock, he clutches behind his back a bunch of yellow jonquils. In order to meet her, he has sacrificed a morning’s work—something, ordinarily, he is extremely reluctant to do. But here he is at the entrance to the zoo. Coco is late and his frustration is mounting.

Restless, he displaces bits of gravel with his foot, then tamps them down again. He’s not sure what to expect from this meeting. If she wants to offer the ballet financial support, why doesn’t she just approach Diaghilev directly? It would be proper to go through him. What is it she has to speak to him so urgently about anyway? He’s flattered, of course, but hopes he doesn’t have to humble himself. Yes, he’d welcome patronage, though not at any price. He’ll make it clear to her that he can’t be bought. Sober, he’ll show her he’s not so easily won.

She arrives more than half an hour after the time arranged and offers no apology. He has prepared an admonitory speech, and is ready to deliver it, but his anger evaporates the moment he spies her gliding toward him. They smile to see each other from a distance. The chief emotion he feels now is relief. She greets him, holding out a white-gloved hand. He kisses her solicitously on both cheeks.

The other night, he gained the impression that she was much younger than him. But he knows from Diaghilev that they are roughly the same age. She’s maybe a year or two younger. Thirty-six? Thirty-seven? He recognizes, though, why he was tricked into thinking this. Her figure retains the tautness of a woman still in her midtwenties. Her arms are slender, her bosom high, and she steps with a girlish l ightness.

Igor conjures the jonquils from behind his back. “For you.” He sees how tight her skin is around the temples, how tense and muscular are the little dents that appear at the corners of her mouth when she smiles.

As she looks down, her chin borrows a yellowish tint from the petals. She holds them in front of her with one hand like a torch. “Thank you, they’re lovely.” Then, chastened, she says, “I am sorry I’m late.” A few grains of pollen adhere to her white gloves.

As if to make amends, she insists on paying the entrance fee. They visit first the aquarium. Inside, a bluish gloom plays about the walls and their faces. The flowers turn green in the light.

Bending low in front of the tanks, they see the fishes’ hearts beating visibly through their bodies. A silence ensues as they watch them and their own reflections in the glass.

Then straightening, and with the air of someone coming to the point, she says, “You know what I thought the other night, at dinner?”

“No, what?” Igor straightens, too.

“I thought, why isn’t he talking to me?”

“Really? I thought I did.”

“You didn’t speak to me after the first half hour.”

Defensive. “You could have spoken to me.”

“True, but I chose to wait and hear what you said first.”

“And?”

“I’m still waiting.”

Igor is rarely scared of women, other than his mother, but he is beginning to be afraid of Coco. His mouth goes dry; he feels tongue-tied and clumsy. A tightness enters the base of his throat.

As they move outdoors, Coco sees that he’s perplexed. Her joke has misfired. She knows she’s spoken out of turn, and now she’s worried that he’ll think her disrespectful. She watches as he walks on, hands behind his back. But she needn’t worry—he doesn’t feel slighted: outmaneuvered, rather.

Before them, two lions describe tight circles as they pace around their cage. The bars are reproduced in shadow on the floor. Igor seizes his opportunity. Perhaps inspired by a sympathetic impulse, he begins bitterly to complain about his straitened circumstances and the cramped conditions in which he works.

He grumbles about the lack of privacy he has to endure, with him, his wife, and their four children all squeezed into a small apartment in Brittany—miles away from Paris. They are in the capital now only for a short time to rehearse his new ballet, Pulcinella. He feels frustrated and finds it difficult to concentrate. His creativity is being stifled. All he wants is more space to compose, and to be at the center of things. And yet the rents are so expensive.

“Everything costs so much more here,” he complains.

“Do you have to be in Paris?”

“Everyone is here. Satie, Ravel, Poulenc.” He seeks to flatter her by association. “It’s where the twentieth century is.”

“Well, you might just be in luck.”

“What do you mean?” He wonders guiltily if he’s exaggerated his plight.

“Would it bother you if I were to help financially?”

“It would have years ago.”

“And now?”

“It bothers me even more.”

The remark hits her at the right angle, making her smile.

They walk on and begin circling an ornamental lake where two besotted swans float in state across the water.

“Business has been going well recently, and my accountant has advised me to invest in some property. I’ve just completed the purchase of a villa in Garches. It’s quiet, in the suburbs, with a large garden. Not a palace exactly, but it’s not bad. I intend to spend a couple of months there in the summer—but otherwise it’ll be empty most of the year. I was thinking . . .” She comes to a halt and turns to look at him. “You might like to take advantage and move in.”

Fingering his necktie irresolutely: “I couldn’t possibly . . .”

“If you move in by the beginning of June we could spend a few weeks there together. You’d get to know the place, enjoy a bit of a holiday, and have the space you need to work. Then for the rest of the year it would be yours.” One of the swans elongates its neck luxuriously. Beads of water drip from its beak.

He looks at her to see if she means it. “That’s a fabulous offer, and very tempting. I don’t know that I could leave my family, though . . .”

Startled: “My dear, of course not. The villa is very big. They could move in, too. I don’t suggest for a moment that you leave them behind.”

Embarrassed that he has misunderstood the nature of the offer, Igor is quick to laugh it off. “It’s very kind of you, but you don’t realize what you’re letting yourself in for. You haven’t met the children yet. They’re terribly noisy.”

“At their age, they should be noisy. Besides, I won’t be there much for them to disturb me. Apart from July and August, I usually stay in rue Cambon above the shop. It’s up to you, but you’re—all of you—welcome.”

Igor is stunned. He doesn’t know what to say. Of course it is a stupendous offer, and he’d be a fool to refuse. But he feels humiliated at having to rely on charity such as this. He sees the swans poised between the promise of the bank and the security of the island. Then he remembers what Diaghilev said. She’s fabulously rich. Financially this is nothing to her. If she’s doing it for the kudos, well, so what? It doesn’t alter his integrity as an artist. She won’t own him. It’ll merely provide him with the wherewithal he needs to pursue his work. Besides, he’s intrigued by her. He feels a sense of challenge rise within his chest. She needn’t insist. He thanks her.

“It’s decided, then. You’ll come and stay.” And again: “All of you.” Her eyes are birdily alert. “Provided, of course, your wife agrees.”

Rightly or wrongly, he sees this as a jibe. “She’ll be delighted, I’m sure.” In fact, it will be marvelous for her, he thinks, to live in comfort and feel secure. And there’s a garden, too. That will be fantastic for the children.

She goes on, “How long have you been married, to . . .” After a false hesitation: “. . . Catherine, isn’t it?”

A strand of hair, briefly iridescent, blows across her cheek and makes her blink. Coolly she lifts it off with her fingers.

“Fourteen years.”

With a faint suggestion of condescension: “You must have married young.”

“We’d known each other for ages.”

“That’s always the best way.”

He finds it difficult to gauge her tone, but it’s interesting, he thinks, the way she fences with him. He’s beginning to enjoy it. She’s nimble-witted, and there’s an intentness about her that demands his total concentration.

She regards again his gift of flowers. With a renewed effort at sincerity, she says, “And there’s no time limit. You’re welcome to stay as long as you like.”

The point she wants to make, of course, is that she could just as easily have chosen someone else. He should be flattered she’s asking him. It’s not about status or prestige, she wants him to realize. Or, at least, it’s more complicated than that. She likes him, for God’s sake. Ever since that night seven years ago, she’s felt their destinies to be connected in a mysterious way.

He, too, feels a rare sense of affinity exists between them, a remote and unspoken bond. Someone once said it, and the idea has always appealed to him: as two people approach a street corner from different directions, what are the chances of them both humming the same tune and, as they meet, of each reaching the exact same phrase? What are the chances of that happening, and what would it mean if it did? He can’t explain it, but here with Coco he senses the same dim rhythms of chance establish themselves around him, and feels invited to supply one half of that shared melody.

“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must get back to the shop. Baroness Rothschild is waiting for me, and I’m already late. I’ll telephone again soon to confirm the details. Okay?”

It is not so much a question as a directive. Igor feels bewildered at the way she seems already to be shaping his life. He is mesmerized by her energy and charm.

They shake hands in parting. A milky stain, he sees, has leaked from the flowers onto her gloves.

Bowing gravely, “Thank you,” he says.

As an afterthought, she offers him a peck on both cheeks. Then, pleased with the way things have gone, she is off. She likes being in control. And she’s struck again by the immense power her money seems to wield. She finds it grants her instant authority, an immediate influence. She’s secretly delighted, too, at his misunderstanding of her offer.

She has come a long way in the last seven years. She recalls being in awe of him that first night of The Rite. Yet now he seems within her reach. It’s funny, but each time she thinks someone is beyond her, she finds herself quickly rising above them. She’s become a snob because of it. The trajectory of her ascent is so steep, she thinks, soon nothing short of royalty will satisfy her. The thought makes her feel conceited, she knows, but it makes her feel lonely, too.

Igor watches her walk slowly, and with exaggerated grace, to where her chauffeur is waiting. He notices she does not look back.

Deciding to stay a little longer, he sees some of the animals being fed. The cage of a panda is unlocked for a moment as food is taken inside. Two zebras bolt at his approach. Then he is caught in a brief shower. Sheltering under the trees, he sees the gentle event of the rain occur around him.

The cloudburst over, light strains through the leaves. The earth opens up, and he breathes the odor of the lilac trees as they release a heady scent. He feels anointed, blessed, as though touched from above. And as the wetness leaks through his clothes, slowly he senses the native restraint of his nature drain away. He starts to walk more jauntily and even breaks into a run. He has never felt the air so fresh, never felt so free. He lifts his head to breathe in fully.

Then suddenly aware of the time that has passed, he hurries to catch the Métro. Feeling energetic, he stands up all the way. Reemerging into the light, the city seems newly painted. Wet, the railings flash and gleam, and the tram tracks glisten like the threads of an enormous web. He races back home, only stopping at the door of his hotel to think for a moment.

He needs to consider before rushing in to tell his wife the excellent news.

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