Igor sits at the piano, penciling in corrections. Sheets of music are propped high on a board above the keys. With head held intently and glasses pushed up onto his brow, he resembles a cardsharp or racing driver: a man who might take risks.
Constantly he juggles combinations of notes and plays with their durations. He’s after that arresting coincidence of sounds, that correspondence of tones that’s so thrilling it’s like someone piercing you with a needle between the ribs. He tries out different chord sequences, adjusting the position of his fingers until there’s a density of texture that seems sweet and difficult all at the same time. He finds the answers lie rarely in straightforward harmonies. The solutions are more slanted. They come at an angle and surprise you, so that what can sound at first discordant turns out to be penetratingly complex and superb.
There is a knock on the door of his study. He presumes it is Marie come to tidy. But no, it is Coco. Hurriedly he stands up. His glasses slip down his face, almost falling off his nose.
“Coco,” he says, resettling his spectacles.
“Just to let you know, I’ve arranged for a doctor to call upon your wife.”
“You’re very kind.” A respiratory ailment has laid her low in recent days. She wasn’t even well enough to go to church on Sunday.
“And don’t worry about the expense. I’ll attend to it.”
“No. You mustn’t.”
“Don’t be silly. You are my guests here. I can’t stand to see people ill under my roof.”
“It’s my responsibility. I’d feel insulted if you were to pay.”
“Nonsense. Consider the matter closed. He’ll be here this afternoon around three o’clock.” Igor makes to remonstrate, but Coco insists.
They both laugh uneasily. She’s aware that her tone is a bit schoolmistressy. At the same time, he knows how expensive doctors can be. He knows, too, that he could never afford to pay for any lengthy course of treatment. He feels the weight of Coco’s money tilt the balance of authority between them. Humbled, he looks down. As he does so, he notices a hole in his shirt gape open, exposing the skin of his stomach beneath. A few dark hairs crinkle finely in the light.
She follows his gaze. “You’ve lost a button.”
He colors slightly and closes over his shirt.
“There it is!” Her eyes seem to bend around the piano in seeking it out. Reaching low, she picks up the button. “I’ll sew it back on for you.”
He can’t bring himself to argue again. “Thank you. I’ll leave it with Marie this afternoon.”
“I’m going out this afternoon. It’ll only take an instant. Come on, I’ll do it now.”
Slightly thrown by her urge to do things promptly, he blurts, “Well, give me a minute and I’ll go up and change.”
Startled by his formality, Coco is even more abrupt. “No need.” That toughness in her voice again. “You don’t even have to take off your shirt. Sit still, I’ll be back in a second.” Her dress whispers deliciously to him as she leaves the room.
Discomposed, Igor feels the need to assert himself more. But each time he speaks to her, his resolution melts. He finds himself constantly disarmed by her frankness. He removes his glasses and wipes them clean with the tail of his shirt. It is then he realizes his hands are trembling.
Coco returns, bearing a small tan packet of needles and some thread. “Face the light,” she says. She wets the thread with the tip of her tongue and pokes it through the needle’s eye.
Obediently he turns to the window. The light crowds his white shirt, making it transparent. Igor stands, shyly immobile as she attends to the button at his waist. With his arms lifted and his head raised high, he feels the ceiling close above him.
Coco senses the squat musculature stiffen beneath his shirt. For a small man, he is impressively athletic. It is her turn to hesitate. She plies her needle with quick hands, drawing the thread out tightly and working the point in briskly through the seam. A little too briskly, for she pricks her finger. Pain blooms inside her. She curses as the room turns red beneath her lids.
Igor recoils, dropping his arms and looking down. “What’s wrong?”
She shoots her finger between her lips. Flared, her eyes reflect the whiteness of his shirt.
A sudden tenderness wells within him. He has to suppress an impulse to take that vulnerable finger and heal it inside his mouth. Then, with a spasm of courtesy, he remembers himself. He says, “Here, take this handkerchief.”
“It’s nothing.” A bubble of blood oozes up. Further proof for him, if proof were needed, of how full of life she is. She tamps it with the handkerchief, covered now with a pattern of small red stars. “I’m sorry. That was careless of me.”
“Are you all right?”
An attraction flashes between them. Unspoken and remote, perhaps, but as real and clear as the button she sews back on to his shirt. Igor feels an obscure queasiness in his belly, as though he has just eaten seafood. An undertow of longing pulls at him. The sting of the needle in her finger has quickened the heat in his blood.
“Of course. Let me finish off.”
Before he can protest, she’s back at work. The button hangs limply by its crimped string from the hole. Raising his arms again, he looks down. Her hair is tied in a bun above a white turndown collar. He can smell the lye soap, ubiquitous in the bathrooms, rise from the back of her neck. He can feel the pressure of her hand against his chest.
She says, “Here, hold this.”
He puts his finger against the button as she ties a knot around it.
“Now let go.”
He releases his finger and the button is secured. Unthinkingly she snaps the thread with her teeth. She leans back, inspecting the finished article.
“There!” Coco’s mouth broadens into a smile, forcing a dimple into her left cheek, a puckered shape almost like the beginnings of a second mouth. She gathers up her needle and thread and makes to leave then turns around, recalling why she came in the first place. “So he’ll be here around three. I’ll be out having my hair cut. Joseph will show him in.”
Conscious of having thanked her enough already, he merely nods. He remains standing, listening to her steps grow fainter down the hall. Cut again! Her hair is boyishly short as it is, he thinks.
Then he sits down. He places his glasses back on his forehead, picks up his pencil, and returns to work. His hands, widely spaced, make different shapes on the piano. There’s a sudden roundness to the sounds, a richness to the tones, a fatness to the harmonies. Reaching up to the board above the keys, he changes a minim into a crotchet by filling it in.
With his thick index finger and thumb, the doctor draws the skin of Catherine’s eyelids up. Her corneas roll, revealing a filigree of broken blood vessels across the whites of her eyes.
As she breathes deeply in and out, he listens with a stethoscope to her chest. Then she sits up from her bank of pillows while he taps and listens from the back. She submits in silence to his repertory of tests, conscious of the labored operation of her lungs. She feels them wheeze like a squeeze box as the air snags before being expelled and wonders for a moment what he must hear. She watches for his reaction, but he gives little away. In fact, he barely looks at her. He removes the stethoscope from around his neck and winds the tube around his hand. Stout, with an olive complexion and an abundance of dark hair, he is himself radiantly healthy. Who’d trust a doctor that was anything but?
No deep furrows mark his forehead, Catherine notices. Nothing has worked to disturb the smoothness of his brow. He has never suffered any life-unsettling wrench, she thinks. Indeed, he has shrewdly restricted his constituency to that rim of the city where only the wealthy can afford to live. His practice has fattened happily with clients such as Chanel entrusting their medical welfare and expenses to him. Catherine’s own father was a country doctor. She knows the strains he had to endure in serving the poor of the town.
“Well?” Igor says. He moves toward a corner of the room to confer. Impatience colors his voice.
The doctor presses the stethoscope into his case. His look promises nothing. “The right lung is very weak,” he says, with an effort at frankness and loud enough for Catherine to hear. Her face falls exhaustedly back against the pillows. She resents these two dark-suited men talking about her health, as though she is not a real person with feelings and a certain purchase on her own life.
She is more alarmed than she cares to admit at the move to Bel Respiro. True, the fresh air and sunlight are undoubtedly good for her health, as Igor—and Coco—persuasively maintain. But what is she to make of the captivating Mademoiselle Chanel? Does she not have other, darker motives for inviting them here?
The exile from Russia has affected her more than it has Igor. He, at least, has his work to go on with. She has abandoned everything: her friends, her property, her sense of belonging. And the constant traveling has eroded her health. All that sustains her is a deep religious faith. That, and the love of her husband.
Turned to one side her eyes hold a reflection of the window and the sill tricked out with lilies. They seem suddenly malignant to her, these flowers: snake-tongued and venomous. And they stink. She doesn’t quite know why, but she feels contaminated in this room, in this godforsaken house. A sympathetic taste of acid coats her tongue. Watching a wedge of shadow darken the bed, she feels she wants to vomit.
Sensing his wife’s resentment, but fearful of what the doctor might have to say, Igor ushers him from the room. The two men descend the staircase and pause in the corridor at the bottom. Two bluebottles orbit a light fixture, buzzing dementedly in repeated squares.
The doctor’s tone is solemn. “Has she coughed up any blood?”
“Any history of that happening before?”
“She was mildly tubercular in her youth,” Igor concedes. “It came back after our youngest was born.”
“When was that?”
“Six years ago . . .”
This seems to confirm a suspicion. The doctor nods while biting his lip. “Well, she might be showing signs of that again.”
The angle of Igor’s shoulders communicates distress. “Is it serious?”
“She needs to be looked after.”
“Is there anything she should be doing?” He lifts a hand to his cheek, where his fingers begin stroking.
“Getting plenty of bed rest and fresh air. A little walking might be a good idea. Nothing too strenuous, you understand. Gentle but regular exercise. Also, she’s a bit on the thin side. She should eat a little more. She needs to build up her strength.”
“Of course.” Igor continues needlessly to stroke his cheek.
“I’ve prescribed something that should calm her down. It’ll allow her to get the rest she needs and make her breathe more easily. It may make her sleepy, though.”
After fizzing inside the lamp shade, the two bluebottles alight on the ceiling. Both men notice the silence.
“I appreciate your coming over at such short notice.”
The children cluster. “Is Mama going to be all right?”
Igor feels love surge within him for these young things. The doctor touches their heads as if healing them. “She’ll be just fine,” he says. For the first time, he breaks into a smile. Igor wishes his wife could see this.
Joseph appears out of nowhere. He returns the man’s hat and opens the door. A square of light frames them sharply, making them squint for an instant.
“Be sure to give my regards to Mademoiselle Chanel.”
Deferentially, the doctor has parked outside the gates. His feet shuck the small stones in the drive. The sound in Igor’s ears is louder than it should be. The sharpness of the light and shadows seems to extend to the air and its ability to carry sound. It extends, too, to his conscience, where it amplifies a pang of guilt.
He experiences mixed feelings at the news of Catherine’s illness. Pain at her renewed suffering mingles with excitement at the thought that her convalescence might afford him more time with Coco. Then, remembering his children’s instinctive loyalty, he feels wretched entertaining such thoughts. But they ripen within him darkly and will not go away.
He thinks of the six years he has spent looking after his wife; the difficulties he’s had squaring the demands of his work with the need, pressingly vivid, to watch over her. The sacrifice has been great. But, he reminds himself, he’s not a saint. He loves her, of course, and can’t imagine ever being without her. She’s the mother of his children. Yet here he is, he reflects, thrust into a world bristling with possibilities, alive with new hopes. Now thirty-eight, and still smarting from the injustice of his exile, he feels the need to be affirmed not only as a musician but as a man.
Coco pushes her sleeves midway up her arms and sits down to dinner. She has on an open-necked blouse with a sailor collar, and a long knitted skirt. A black bandeau echoes the dark arc of her eyebrows.
Shaking out a napkin, she asks, “No Catherine this evening?” She can’t conceal the fact that she thinks Catherine a malingerer—the way she carps the whole time, and that insipid way she has of calling downstairs for Marie. Coco can’t fathom why Igor puts up with her. She seems to do nothing for him.
“I’m afraid not,” Igor says. He gives a summary of the doctor’s visit.
“Well, I’m glad to hear it’s not too grave.”
Picking up his cutlery, Igor says nothing. He allows her to pour him some wine.
“With Catherine not here, do we still need to say grace?” Coco has been startled recently by the ritual of a prayer before each meal.
Igor becomes complicit. “Fine by me.” But he feels treacherous as he says it, both to Catherine and to his own deep-rooted sense of faith. A primitive loyalty stirs within him, an infant possessiveness. Something wooden in his grin alerts Coco to his discomfort.
She glances at the children. It means little to them. They speak Russian mostly, except when rehearsing their courtesies in a highly trained fashion to Mademoiselle Chanel. Igor chivvies them into delivering their pleases and thank-yous and insists they hold their knives and forks in the proper way. If only it were the same during the day, Coco reflects. Without any discipline from their mother they just run wild, bickering and squabbling and making a racket. Meanwhile Igor seems largely oblivious of their needs. So they constantly come to her, interrupting her work. And she’s just as busy, if not more so, than him.
Generously, though not without regard for herself, she has engaged a local governess to tutor them for the summer. The truth is, someone has to control and look after them. And it’s not going to be her!
She tucks into her starter of chicory and Gruyère. There is a silence before she throws at Igor, “So, you like it here?”
Shuffling off his discomfort: “I do, yes. Very much.”
“But you prefer St. Petersburg.”
There she is, at him again. There’s no letup with her. “Not necessarily. I’m fonder of it now, though, than I’ve ever been.”
“Now that you can’t go there?”
The delay occasioned by his sipping the wine adds emphasis to his response. “Exactly.”
“But your wife misses it terribly, doesn’t she?”
Setting down his glass, he composes his fingers about the stem. Since arriving at Bel Respiro he realizes how, intimidated by Coco’s sociability, Catherine has withdrawn into her own shy world. He can’t blame her, though. He feels intimidated himself.
“It must be hard for her here.”
“Yes.” He looks down at his plate.
“And the children?”
“Children adapt. They always do.” His gaze switches to the four of them. Seeking out the innocent spaces behind their eyes, he experiences another reflex of guilt. As he looks, bits of Catherine leap out from their features like strands of color in a rug.
But slowly, like his children, Igor grows more relaxed and animated, more comfortable with himself again. Coco responds. They both talk of their ambitions and warm to their themes. She wants to democratize women’s fashion. He wants to redefine musical taste. They speak with vigor and conviction, finding a common loathing of fussiness and luxuriance. She hates frills and furbelows, ruches and puffing. He pours scorn on the empty decorativeness of recent music, its syrupy rhythms and glutinous tunes.
She’s determined not to be outdone. Her work is just as much an art form as his, she considers. And if God didn’t clothe us the first time around, she thinks, then it takes a second act of creation to put that right.
She tells him how she likes working with jersey. Given the unavailability of most fabrics after the war, the thing about jersey is, it’s cheap, stretchy, and practical to wear. You can be simple and chic at the same time, she says. If you can’t walk and dance in a dress then what’s the point of wearing it? And if the textile seems inferior, then you can always embellish it with embroidery or beads, with films of lace or tassels. All you need do is add a neckerchief to see how the simplest of outfits might be transformed.
Igor recalls what Diaghilev said about her, but she’s convincing him. She’s making sense. He listens to her intently. It’s not only what she’s saying, though, it’s her manner he finds compelling. That wide mouth, the inflection of her gestures, the dark sweetness of her eyes.
She’s looking for a new simplicity in her designs, she says. Unadorned clean lines, a more masculine cut. She wants to know why it is that men get all the comfortable clothes. “Isn’t it time that women had clothes designed for them by other women, instead of being packaged like Easter eggs?” Women aren’t ornaments, she reasons; they are human beings. “They need to be free to move, and at the moment that means taking away. It’s a matter of subtracting and subtracting until you’ve pared a dress down to the fit of a woman’s body. Is that so hard to understand?”
He admires the passion of her arguments. He’s never met a woman like her before. There’s something absolutely feminine about her, yet with a new confidence, a new sense of independence. He likes that, though it frightens him slightly. It’s as if her sexuality surrounds her like a shape he can almost see.
Having stuffed themselves with meat and cheeses, the children are excused. Coco and Igor talk on about their work.
“I rarely begin on paper,” Igor says. “I almost always compose at the piano. I need to touch the music, to feel it rise between my hands.”
“The same with me. I find it hard to work from sketches. I’d far rather start on a model directly. And I always begin with the material handy. I have to shape and feel it first.”
This need for direct contact in their work establishes a braid in their relationship and knits their conversation together. There is a shared commitment and dedication that allows them to connect. To connect, but also to compete.
Igor drinks almost a whole bottle of burgundy, while Coco consumes several glasses herself. They argue about who works hardest. Igor contends that he starts much earlier, while some days she’s not even up until noon. She counters that she works until the early evening, whereas he frequently stops in midafternoon. They become eager to outdo one another in the hours that they put in.
As he drinks, he hears her voice bubble up warmly toward him. The overlapping sensation of the wine and her buoyant talk makes him feel heady. A thought strikes him. He hears some inner prompt. The sentence escapes his lips before he’s fully conscious of delivering it.
“Misia told me about Arthur Capel.” Immediately he feels he’s overreached.
There’s a catch in her voice as she answers. “She did?” She seems stunned, disbelieving. “She told you about him, really?” Her face becomes a mask, her voice suddenly small. “Everyone called him Boy.”
“You must have loved him.” He surprises himself again.
She gathers herself. “He betrayed me.”
Shot through with bitterness, her voice nevertheless remains calm. “Without telling me, he married an aristocrat. English. Someone with better credentials,” she adds acidly. “And then he died.” As though reexperiencing the grief in accelerated time, her mood is propelled through desolation, numbness, and anger within a few seconds. A tear starts in the corner of her eye.
“A car crash.” Her eyes darken as if dipped in shadow. “He was always in too much of a hurry.”
Her heart falls through the silence that follows. She feels the wine go flat inside her. Something drags at the corners of her mouth. As if in a trance, she volunteers, “When he died, I had my bedroom painted all in black, with black sheets and black curtains. I wanted to put the whole world into mourning for him.” She looks up at him stonily. “He was the beat of my heart for nine years, and now he’s gone. I can’t stand it.”
He reaches across and puts his hand on hers. A gesture of consolation, heartfelt and humane.
Her fingers respond minutely. She feels the hairs on his fingers brush her palm. The metal of his ring surprises her with its coolness. “I was nothing before him. He made me. But you know something? I paid him back, every penny. I built the business by myself.”
There is a softness and depth to their glances that melts the space between them.
Her free hand plays with a napkin ring.
Joseph enters to ask if they want coffee. Shocked to find someone else present in the room, their hands spring apart. Igor rapidly finds his glass. Until this instant, they’ve been unaware of how well they are getting on. With this recognition, each seems to withdraw a little. The previous uneasiness renews itself. Some dim impulse tells them both, simultaneously, to take out a cigarette. And no, they don’t want coffee, thank you.
Joseph retires. Igor snaps a match from a packet given as a souvenir in some Swiss hotel. He has to strike it twice before it lights. Coco moves her head forward. With the cigarette in her mouth, her face presses into his vision. The tobacco flares. She leans back. Smoke rises over the table in simple loops and threads.
She says, “It would just keep me awake all night.”
A rim of lipstick appears like a wound at the end of her cigarette.
Igor says, “Me, too.”