Three weeks later. The first Saturday in June. The hottest day of the year so far.
Coco’s villa, Bel Respiro, is nestled in woodland to the west of Paris. The house is screened by a variety of trees: elms and beeches, apple and cherry, and a flowering plum that yields a soft and oversweet yellow fruit. Asters and marigolds star the garden, contending in their scents with lilies and narcissi. Shutters lacquered in black punctuate the villa’s cream stucco. A bleached gray roof adds to the pallor of the house.
In the distance along the lane, the noise of a motorized van grows louder, until suddenly it is spraying gravel as it trundles up the drive. Two large Alsatians bark and are quickly joined by five small puppies. They snap at the vehicle as it halts outside the house.
“Hey! Hush now!” Coco cries. The dogs are instantly and impressively obedient.
First to emerge are the children, made restless by the journey and excited at the new house. Then Igor alights, helping down his wife.
She wears a broad white hat to keep off the sun and is slow to look up. When she does, the first thing Coco notices is that Catherine is not beautiful. There is something frankly mannish about her features and prim about her lips. A squareness about her jaw gives her a gruff and clumsy look. Her limbs are long and gangling, and Coco registers with surprise that Catherine is some inches taller than her husband. Coco feels for a second intensely feminine. Something kittenish enters her gestures without her willing it. “Delighted to meet you at last,” she says.
When the two women shake hands, it is a strong, weight-testing handshake. Coco notes the hotness of Catherine’s fingers. And though she feels her own small palm eclipsed in Catherine’s grip, it is hers that is by far the firmer. She senses within herself an underlying toughness, and she wants Catherine to feel it, too.
For her part, Catherine feels alarmed at Coco’s attractiveness. Not only is she rich, she is also beautiful. She fights an instinctive contempt for her as a parvenu. And there is something incongruous, it occurs to her, about Coco’s smallness and the size of her house. It seems gross, vainglorious. A swollen folly.
While she has to admit that the overall effect of the villa and the garden is tasteful and restrained, nevertheless there’s something about the place that makes her feel immediately uneasy. She decides she doesn’t like the funereal chic of the shutters. Black! She all but recoils. And the lawn has that manufactured look like the nap of a snooker table. Such a difference from the lush and unkempt grass of her own Russian home. She misses that. It had life, a thickness to it, a texture. By contrast, the garden here appears sterile.
But there’s something more about the house. Then it strikes her: it seems godless. Color for her has always been a clear sign of His presence, a symbol of His brilliance leaking through. She thinks of the stained-glass windows of the church and the tints of the living world. In its stubborn monochrome, the villa seems stripped of divinity, robbed of God. It fills her instantly with a sense of foreboding. Feeling she needs a shield, she unfurls her white parasol. Raising it against the sun, she twirls it nervously around.
Then she checks herself. It is not like her to be unkind. She may think differently when she sees inside. She must be gracious. The woman is offering them a home, after all. And anyway, these first impressions, she tells herself, may be blurred by her fatigue. The journey has exhausted her.
“I want to thank you for allowing us to stay,” she says to Coco. “I can’t tell you what a relief it is finally to have some stability in our lives. Especially for the children.”
“It’s a privilege to have you here. Everyone, welcome!” Coco declares, in a grand gesture of largesse that includes Catherine and the children in its sweep.
The politenesses have a rehearsed air about them and, despite the warm words, a wariness establishes itself in the looks between the two women. Coco immediately sees in Catherine a woman destined to suffer. She’s met the type before. It’s as if, she thinks, her kind sees something noble in misery and self-denial. If she’s a victim, then it’s likely she invites it, Coco thinks. She tries to imagine this other woman’s tall, skinny body in bed with Igor, and finds she can’t.
Sensitive to the tensions in this first meeting between the two women, Igor has prepared Catherine as best he can, enthusing about Coco’s generosity, but setting his wife’s mind at rest with unflattering references to her lack of pedigree. His wife understands that a well-bred woman would never run a business. A little charity work, perhaps, but certainly nothing commercial. That would be vulgar, both agree.
Igor asks if his wife might sit down. The jostling motion of the vehicle on the roads has unsettled her. Beneath her hat brim her eyes seem pale and washed-out, and upon her cheeks are these dark crimps as if the skin there has been pinched. Coco gestures at a bench. As he looks at her, together they cannot resist a smile. Then they turn, disturbed by a growl.
The Stravinskys have a cat, Vassily. Seeing him, the Alsatians have bristled, their tails thumping on the grass. A low growl smolders in one dog’s throat. The cat arches its back, and its mouth lifts in a snarl. But they needn’t be concerned, for Vassily lords it over the dogs as they sniff inquisitively around him. His miniature fierceness interests them. The threat of violence evaporates. Typical, Igor thinks.
Joseph—the majordomo—and his wife, Marie, emerge from the house. They worked previously for Misia Sert, until she changed husbands three years ago—and with them her domestics. Coco introduces them to the Stravinskys. Igor recognizes Joseph as a man of rectitude and gentleness. Marie wears an expression that is slightly more severe. But she smiles as she takes Catherine’s jacket and leads her inside. Joseph follows them in, leaving Igor and Coco together with the children.
Watching them as they run and chase the dogs in ever-tighter circles, Igor says, “They’re very lucky.”
The two boys, Coco notices, have their mother’s fair hair and her lashless eyes, while the girls have inherited Igor’s darker features. Theodore shies away when Coco tries to speak with him. But after a little stiffness he, along with the others, responds energetically to her invitation to play.
“They’ll be all right,” she says.
The driver is unfastening the hasp at the back and is climbing onto the wagon. Appointed to help unload, Joseph comes back out.
Turning to Igor, Coco says, “Come on, I’ll show you around.”
The villa has several bedrooms and bathrooms. The ceilings are high and the windows deep. The walls are beige with black lintels. White floral displays accent every room. And though there are surprisingly few paintings on the walls, there is a superabundance of ornaments and books.
Coco steers him upstairs to his bedroom. Already sitting on the large square bed, Catherine mops her brow.
“How are you feeling?” Igor asks.
Catherine looks up without smiling. “Awful.”
The inside of the villa is as austere as she had feared. The walls are bare as a hospital or prison. Even the furniture seems primitive. A headache slices like a thin knife through her skull. She hasn’t removed her hat yet and feels a barely suppressed impulse to get up and leave.
Igor touches her shoulder lightly. Meant to be a comforting gesture, in the circumstances it seems perfunctory. But he’s impatient to see the rest of the house. “Joseph is bringing up the cases. I’m just having a quick tour.” He feels the need to add, “Don’t worry, I won’t be long.”
Listening with an amused look, Coco waits outside the room. When he emerges, she points the way back down. The stairs unwind into a corridor, halfway along which she stops to open a door.
“And this is your study.”
It is spacious, with a chaise longue, and two big shuttered windows at one end. He is openmouthed in admiration.
“It’s south-facing,” she says.
Unfastening the shutters, she flings the windows open, leaning her elbows on the sill. Birdsong floods the room, together with the noise of the children playing. Leaves flutter minutely, throwing spidery shadows across her arms.
There’s a pause while he takes it in. Rooms are important to Igor. Some he feels instantly comfortable in, and his work flourishes as a result. Others he finds oddly hostile. This one has light; it has air and space. Immediately it gives him a good feeling. “It’s superb!” he says.
“I hope you’ll do a lot of work here.”
“If I don’t, I’ll only have myself to blame.”
There is, in their tentativeness, a reaching out, a seeking after warmth and understanding, a tone on the verge of i ntimacy.
In the corridor behind them, Joseph and the driver begin ferrying in the luggage. The first things they bring in are half a dozen cages containing lovebirds and parrots.
Joseph stands there, unsure exactly who to address. “Where shall I put these . . . ?”
“Goodness! Did you bring the zoo with you?” Coco asks, a little abashed.
“I hope you don’t mind.”
Silence hovers for a moment. He has made no mention of the birds; still less sought permission to bring them. She senses his awkwardness.
“I’m sorry, I should have said . . .”
Her first thought concerns his presumption. It’s a bit cheeky to say the least. Isn’t it enough that she’s housing him, his wife, and four children, without bringing an aviary along? As she stands there regarding them, something seems to catch in the skull of one pistachio-colored parrot. It angles its head and squawks.
“In the outhouse for now, I think,” Coco says.
She looks to Igor, who nods in rapid approbation. She’s astonished by her own tolerance and tact. Given other circumstances she might have erupted. She wonders why she doesn’t insist that he make alternative arrangements. But then she feels that a sense of wonder somehow accompanies the birds. A promise of the exotic.
The parrots are followed by packing cases, hatboxes, and several heavy crates. Finally, and most awkwardly for the driver and Joseph, comes the piano. Sensible of the need to deliver the instrument unharmed to the composer’s study, they take great care in bringing it in. Several attempts are made to jockey it into the room before, with a measured heave and an adroit twist, it is managed. Joseph feels the small of his back and stretches himself tentatively. The driver wipes his brow as he retires.
Coco sees Igor’s fingers twitch. “Don’t you want to play, then?”
He looks afresh at the instrument. Without sitting he lifts the lid and rests his hands on the keys, then presses down. Behind the piano’s ashwood cabinetry and ebony veneer, he feels the hammers begin to hit the strings and set the sound-board vibrating. The room brims with music, a series of ice-bright major chords. The notes, as they mingle with the sunlight and Coco’s presence, create in him a transcendent joy, a delicious sense of freedom. It is, he feels, as if he has been given back his voice.
Coco smiles, marveling at the ease with which he plays. As he continues it seems to her that something takes over and his hands enjoy suddenly a life of their own. The sinews and bones of his fingers become in her eyes one with the wood, wire, and hammers of the piano. The keys seem liquid under his fingers.
Upstairs, Catherine hears it, too. Her stomach feels hollowed out. She understands from the glad sounds that they will be staying for some time.
Late into the evening, the crates are painstakingly unpacked. The Stravinskys have become accustomed to life in transit. Wrapping paper gathers in heaps across their suite of rooms. Objects accumulate: cups, spoons, samovars, paper-weights, apothecary jars, and Catherine’s prized collection of icons; plus all manner of gadgets including pocket watches, a barometer, and a gramophone with a detachable handle and folding trumpet. A large framed portrait of Emperor Nicholas II takes pride of place on Igor’s study wall.
He sets the metronome going on top of the piano. It swings on a pivot in its pyramidal case. Listening to its rhythm, he feels something obscure revive within him. There’s something vital in the act. A new start. A fresh beginning. For a moment, he feels marvelously enlarged.
That night, as Igor helps put the children to bed, he hears his older daughter Ludmilla whisper, “Coco,” to her sister. He closes the door behind him and listens briefly as they giggle, elevating the name into a soft chant that echoes after him down the stairs. He, too, finds himself repeating her name inside his head, discovering as he does so in the hollow of those strong vowels a sweet roundness as of holes or suns.
New routines establish themselves inside the house.
Igor rises, as he does every morning, on the stroke of eight o’clock. He executes fifty sit-ups and as many push-ups until he feels the veins in his arms bulge from the strain. More stretching exercises ensue. It is a daily ritual. He prides himself on his fitness, and there’s a sense of military discipline in his approach.
Breakfast comprises two raw eggs, each swallowed in a single gulp; a cigarette; and a cup of tarry coffee. The exhilaration of the day’s first cigarette mixes with the coffee to create a bitter taste that lingers on his tongue.
It is his habit to work in the mornings until lunch. He works punishingly hard and can concentrate for long periods. He likes his life to be regulated by routine, and the rage for order in him is strong. The door to his study is always closed. He cannot stand extraneous noise and is not to be disturbed on any account. Only Vassily, the cat, is permitted to enter. There is a strict prohibition on anyone else.
Laid out like a surgeon’s instruments on his study desk are penknives, letter openers, rulers, india rubbers of various sizes, a monogrammed cigarette case, a pot of pencils, and a roulette instrument he has designed for drawing staves.
Surrounding Coco on her work desk are pincushions, different-sized thimbles, packets of needles, spools, and ribbons of cotton thread. On the floor lie stacks of tracing paper, balls of wool, and masses of material: silk, cambric, crêpe de chine, linen, muslin, chiffon, satin, jersey, cotton, velvet, and tulle. Everything is highly organized and has its rightful place.
While the piano sounds in one room, the snip of scissors undoes the stitching of a dress in the other. While a pencil dangles sideways from Igor’s lips, Coco toils away down the corridor with pins between her teeth. While Igor presses the pedals of the piano, Coco works the treadle of her sewing machine. Both mutter to themselves inaudibly as they go on.
The third night of their stay in Bel Respiro, Igor and Catherine sit with Coco in the living room drinking tea. Outdoors, cicadas charge the darkness. An owl floats its long mournful notes across the woods.
Igor is particular about his tea. He likes it very weak and very hot. An antidote to his usual vodka. He is explaining to Coco the battles fought with successive neighbors over his playing the piano.
“One man used to beat the ceiling with a stick until the landlord complained about his damaging the plaster. Another threw pinecones at my windows, and even smashed one of them.”
“It can be unsociable, dear,” Catherine says. The couple exchange a look, hinting at the tolerance that obtains in their relationship.
Coco says, “Well, here you can play as loudly as you want!”
Suddenly the door swings open and in walks Milène. She has awoken in a strange room, terrified, not remembering where she is. Worse, in her fright, the bedroom furniture has taken on a nightmarish presence: a chair in silhouette has swollen into an ogre; a lamp shade has become a giant spider; and a nightgown on the back of the door has assumed the proportions of a headless ghost. Bravely she has made her way along the unfamiliar corridor, heard the voices of her mother and father downstairs, and come into the room. As she enters and sees her parents, she flashes them a look full of hurt, mixed with relief at having found them.
“Oh, darling!” Catherine stands up, opening her arms wide for Milène to run into. “What’s wrong?”
Coco says, “The poor thing! She’s obviously disoriented.”
Milène says nothing. She’s too frightened even to cry. Her face is frozen in a mute appeal for love and reassurance.
Igor walks over to his daughter. He bends down to address her at her own eye level. Stroking her hair gently, he says,
“Don’t worry, sweetheart. Mama and Papa are here. And Coco, too.”
“There’s no need to be afraid,” offers Coco. “This is your home now for a while.”
The little girl’s expression softens. Her eyes glimmer with light from a nearby lamp. Leaning toward her, Igor says, “Everything will be all right.”
Catherine whispers, “I’ll put her back to bed now.”
“No,” the child says.
“Come on, we’ll read a book.”
Milène pleads, “Can’t I stay down here for a while?”
With gentle firmness: “No. It’s very late now. It’s time for bed.”
“Yes, and you’ll need your sleep because tomorrow is going to be very exciting. We’re going to play lots of new games in the garden, and you’ll need plenty of energy if you want to keep up.” Coco pumps her arms up and down athletically to illustrate.
Milène recognizes this for the sop that it is, but seems happy to go along with it.
“Now kiss Papa good night.”
Milène hugs her father. Squeezing her tight, Igor administers a tender kiss on her forehead. “Good night,” he says. “And give Coco a kiss, too, and say thank you for letting us stay here.”
“Thank you, Coco,” chants the child.
“That’s quite all right.”
“Now, young lady, up to bed. Come on.” As Milène opens the door to leave, Catherine pauses at the doorway. “I’ll retire now, too, if you don’t mind,” she says. “I’m very tired. Good night.”
She hasn’t felt well the last couple of days. She trusts her husband will follow. Though she’s not jealous by nature, she doesn’t like leaving the two of them alone.
Igor says, “I’ll be up soon.”
“Good night,” echoes Coco musically.
Catherine leaves the room, clutching her reluctant daughter’s hand. She still has her doubts about the situation here. There’s something not quite right about the place. She feels it instinctively. All the carpets are new, the furniture is modern, and everything is spotless. The smell of fresh paint is everywhere; even the grass looks immaculate. Yet it doesn’t feel real somehow. It seems to her as if she’s living in a stage set, and she half expects at any moment the audience to reveal itself. Still, it has always been her habit to reserve judgment, so she agrees with herself to give it time.
Igor and Coco remain, listening to the pattering footsteps of the child and the more solemn steps of her mother as they drift up the stairs. Between them, the cat stretches its rough tongue in a yawn.
“She’s a lovely girl.”
He looks up. “She is.”
“You must be very proud.”
In the silence that follows, the note of the cicadas seems to rise a semitone. Having returned to his chair, Igor adjusts the newspaper’s slippery leaves across his lap. The print in front of him starts to swim. He is conscious of Coco’s presence like a massy object on the other side of the room. She seems closer than she was before, as though his chair has been tugged toward her. He feels suddenly uncomfortable and is aware of his wife now waiting upstairs. He sets the newspaper down and folds it with unnecessary neatness. Then with equal formality he finishes his tea and announces that he, too, is going to bed.
“Good night,” he says. A sense of challenge informs his voice. A muscle twitches on the right side of his face.
Her eyes tilt up toward him, catching the lamplight shallowly. She leans her head sideways, shifting her weight in the chair. Something about her look unnerves him. Boldly he meets her gaze.
“Good night,” she says.
Her voice is husky, rough-textured, like velvet brushed the wrong way. The pitch of it sticks with him as he goes on up to bed; as his head hits the pillow; as his mind begins to generate the nonsense of his dreams.