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Authors: Helen Harris

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“I see,” Edward said teasingly.

“Well, I’m sorry,” Mademoiselle Iskarov said sternly, “But I do. I exclude you, naturally, since I don’t know you, but my experience of men has on the whole not given me a high opinion of them.”

As he looked at her, tilting her chin defiantly towards him and twisting her right foot in a taut provocative circle, Edward suddenly, unmistakably sensed that her experience of men had been vivid, dramatic and extensive.

He was wondering when she might leave. To his disappointment, she accepted his offer of a second glass of whisky and as he reached out for her glass, he noticed on his watch that it was already half past eleven. He told himself, ‘Time, gentlemen, please’ and he decided that he would not offer another round when this one was finished. He had to admit that it was to Mademoiselle Iskarov’s credit, though, that he had no doubt at all she would undauntedly drink it.

A short while afterwards, she looked at her little gold watch bracelet, however, and gave a loud groan. “Oh no, I can’t bear it.”

“What’s the time?” Edward asked with studied indifference.

“A quarter to twelve,” exclaimed Mademoiselle Iskarov. “And at nine o’clock tomorrow morning I have to be back in that lousy
lycée,
face to face with my
beloved
pupils.” She pulled another extravagant face.

“Some time,” Edward said politely, “not now, you must
tell me something about the
lycée.
I’m still pretty ill-informed about the French education system.”

Mademoiselle Iskarov seemed to mistake his politeness for a genuine desire. “Of course,” she said. “You must come round and have dinner. I’ve been meaning to ask you, in fact, ever since you moved in. But my time isn’t my own.”

She scrabbled around for her bag and her gloves and her silk neck scarf.

“That’s awfully kind of you,” said Edward. “But, really, I didn’t mean –”

“Now, please,” Mademoiselle Iskarov interrupted him. “Don’t be English. I really can’t stand that sort of thing.”

“But I know you’re incredibly busy,” Edward said. “I don’t want to put you to trouble.”

Mademoiselle Iskarov wagged her forefinger, now clad in a black leather glove, at him and declared in unusually accented English, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

“Oh,” Edward exclaimed. “Do you speak English?”

“Certainly,” she answered, still in English. “But not infallibly.”

“Huh,” joked Edward. “To think I’ve been sitting here, labouring away in French all evening.”

“It’s good for you,” said Mademoiselle Iskarov. Promptly, she reverted to French. “So, when are you coming to dinner? Except we’re not just going to talk about the French education system.”

“When would suit you?” Edward asked helplessly.

Mademoiselle Iskarov thought for a moment or two. “Well, things always wind down a little towards the end of term,” she said. “The Christmas holidays start in just over three weeks. Nothing much happens in the last week of term. So why don’t you come not next Friday but the one after?”

“Um, the seventh?” said Edward, looking in his diary for appearances’ sake.

Mademoiselle Iskarov shrugged. “If you say so.”

“Yes, that’s fine,” said Edward. “Well, thank you very much.”

He called himself a couple of richly deserved rude names as he wrote the date in his diary; talk about asking for trouble.

When Mademoiselle Iskarov had left, he got ready for bed
absent-mindedly. The novelty of having a visitor in the flat seemed to have changed it somehow. In his pyjamas, he went back into the living-room and had a look at it. Instead of imagining the room peopled by the numerous new friends he was going to make – dinners, parties – he found himself wondering about its earlier inhabitant – what had she called him? – Dyadya Volodya. What had he been like? Good taste in flats but, if Mademoiselle Iskarov was to be believed, poor taste in wives. What had he looked like? And, after his divorce from Aunty Arsenic, what sort of a life had he led here?

Thanks to the powerfully strong coffee, he couldn’t get to sleep. He thought over the way Mademoiselle Iskarov had talked about Volodya. He wondered whether their relationship had ever gone beyond that of uncle and niece, although he knew he was only speculating in that direction because it made the whole scenario more interesting. Most probably, Volodya had been a gloomy old Russian with a bushy beard and a taste for vodka. At least the flat’s tradition of alcohol consumption was being kept up.

He cursed Mademoiselle Iskarov for keeping him awake. There was no doubt about it, the woman was a menace. It was funny, when he had first met her, when she had that cold, she hadn’t really seemed to him at all threatening. She had seemed, if anything, slightly to be pitied; so swamped by life and its miseries. Restored to health, she was quite definitely a woman to steer clear of. He resolved not to pursue the acquaintance any further than he had to. He tossed on the wide, empty bed. He wondered how much action it had seen in the days when Volodya slept there.

 

His social life, if you could call it that, consisted of Henry’s and Mai’s invitations. The third time he went to have dinner with them, he had begun to feel a little pathetic and uncomfortable and he wondered whether he ought unfailingly to accept. Maybe they were only including him out of pity and he would actually go up in their estimation the day he couldn’t come. Otherwise, he was getting nowhere. He had struck up a conversation with a young German journalist on a press trip to the construction site of the new Cité des Sciences at La Villette and the German had given him his business card. (Edward’s weren’t yet printed.) After letting a respectable week go by, Edward telephoned him and Dieter, sounding somewhat startled, agreed to meet him for a boozy lunch. That was all very well but it didn’t solve the problem of the unending series of empty evenings nor bring any female company his way. Over lunch, Dieter volunteered the information that he was married with eighteen-month-old twins, as far as Edward was concerned the ultimate definition of a domestic nightmare. The ringed eyes and muzzily weary look which Edward had singled out on the press bus as the signs of a prospective fellow-carouser were thanks to the twins. For the rest of their lunch, he worried that Dieter might invite him home for a meal but, luckily, all he did was apologise that his wife was far too busy to entertain. He seemed obscurely puzzled
by Edward’s approach as if all his capacities for social contact were exhausted.

Edward spent more time on his own than ever in his life. For all that he lived in a classically Parisian house and went to work at the city’s bustling commercial centre, he was effectively as excluded as if he were living in a different city entirely. The indignity of it bothered him nearly as much as the loneliness. If he couldn’t cope with Paris, how did he imagine he would have coped with Peru? The ready answer, that in Peru the shutters would have gaped open on avid faces, didn’t satisfy him. If he were as self-sufficient as he fancied, then he ought to be self-sufficient anywhere. Simultaneously, as he searched for an instrument to prise open the city’s shell, his dislike for it increased because it was making him appear a wimp in his own eyes.

Because of all this, he did not feel quite the dread he had anticipated when the Friday of Mademoiselle Iskarov’s dinner invitation arrived. If nothing else, it was one evening filled. She hadn’t told him a time at which to come so, at about seven o’clock, he telephoned her to ask when he should show up.

The telephone rang for so long he wondered momentarily if he had somehow managed to get the day wrong and she was out. But at the last moment, just as he was about to ring off, she snatched up the receiver and answered, “
Allo
?

“Hello, it’s me,” he said, “Edward Wainwright. I was just ringing to ask what time I should come over?”

“Oich!” gasped Mademoiselle Iskarov. “When I heard your voice, I thought for a minute you were ringing to say you couldn’t come. I would have wept; I’m making you such a wonderful dinner.”

Edward, rather taken aback by this candour, stammered, “Oh, gosh, don’t go to any trouble.”

He heard what he termed an “Iskarovian snort”.

“I shall be disappointed,” Mademoiselle Iskarov told him playfully, “if you continue to act the proper English gentleman with me.” And when Edward, now quite at a loss, didn’t straight away answer, she said, “When d’you want to come over? When would suit you?”

Edward looked across at the elderly carriage clock on the bookcase which was a handsome oddity but hard to decipher.
“I could be over there in about half an hour if you like. Or –”

“No, no, my God,” cried Mademoiselle Iskarov. “I’m up to my ears in butter. Give me at least an hour.”

“OK,” said Edward, mentally adding, ‘Why
ask?

“I’ll be there between eight and half past.”

He imagined he heard a last flustered gasp just before the receiver slipped too quickly from Mademoiselle Iskarov’s buttery fingers.

The idea of her labouring to create an elaborate dinner for him was somehow quite unexpected. He hadn’t thought of her as someone who would gladly get to work in a kitchen. He wondered whether she was also a good cook and what she might be cooking for him. He got dressed slightly more smartly than he would have to go to Henry and Mai’s.

As he walked over to the Cité Etienne Hubert, as well as the pleasant anticipation of a good meal, he felt a faint childish triumph; like the smug passers-by bustling along with their bottles of wine and bunches of flowers and caricatures of
baguettes,
he was on his way to a
rendez-vous
behind the mean metal shutters.

Mademoiselle Iskarov swept the front door open, giving a jaunty parody of a gracious society hostess. “Ah, good evening, Mister Wenwright. Do come in.”

“Ooh good,” Edward said. “Are we going to speak English this evening?”

Mademoiselle Iskarov spread one upturned palm in an exaggerated your-wish-is-my-command gesture. “If you desire.”

She had certainly made an effort, Edward noted. She was wearing an imposingly chic pink dress which gave an initial impression of being a shiny metallic sheath but as Mademoiselle Iskarov moved, it displayed an expensive ability to dimple and fold along with her, clearly suggesting every asset beneath it.

Edward admired this effect from behind as Mademoiselle Iskarov led him across the hall to hang his coat in a walk-in cupboard. It was remarkably clever, really; all the dress seemed to consist of was four long triangles of fabric, two front and two back, plus two sleeves, yet its repertoire of shimmering and clinging was quite amazing. Edward supposed it must be
the creation of some ultra-fashionable Parisian designer; he frankly didn’t remember Mademoiselle Iskarov being anything like as elegant as she looked this evening. He appraised her covertly while she opened the cupboard, reached for a hanger for his overcoat and tried to clear a space for it inside. He was tickled to notice, just quickly, that the cupboard was crammed with a convincingly Russian collection of substantial fur coats and solid boots. Mademoiselle Iskarov held the coat hanger out to him. Edward decided that he wasn’t quite sure about the colour of the dress. He certainly wasn’t used to women wearing such an uncompromising shade of pink; a very bright, tough, grown-up pink, he thought, no relation at all of the soft, little-girl pink of Rosie’s favourite track suit. It seemed to him a somewhat dicey combination with Mademoiselle Iskarov’s auburn hair.

He remembered, belatedly, the small box of chocolates in one of his coat pockets and he had to fumble for it as Mademoiselle Iskarov held his coat on the hanger. He was slightly annoyed that she didn’t make the effort to seem more pleased, just taking the box matter-of-factly and putting it on a nearby chest. Maybe she was already preoccupied with something else because she announced, “Now we have a little ceremony to go through; you must meet Babushka.”

Edward remembered his previous visit to the flat; he remembered how he had become conscious of the voice holding forth from the unseen room and how he thought he had seen a grey blur of movement as they passed the half-open door. He actually wasn’t sure that he wanted to meet Mademoiselle Iskarov’s grandmother.

But she led him across the hall, pausing at the door of the same room to whisper, Edward worried, perfectly audibly, “Don’t be concerned if she says anything unusual.” Without elaborating, she walked into the room, announcing clearly as she went, “I’ve brought a gentleman to meet you, Babushka.”

For the first moment after he entered the room, Edward couldn’t actually see the grandmother amid the cluttered quantity of cushions and pouffes and padded settees; she was herself just another unobtrusive rounded object among them. When he had distinguished her, he wondered with
slight dismay what medical condition had made her quite so uniformly round: her small rotund body and her circular face, surmounted by a perfectly spherical bun, were one thing, but even her hands and feet were swollen, inflated-looking, and hung somehow helplessly at the end of her limbs.

Mademoiselle Iskarov went on in the same over-articulated voice. “He’s the new tenant of Volodya’s flat, remember? Mister Edouard Wenwright from England.”

The grandmother looked back at them absolutely blankly. There was no sign on her aged face that she was even aware of their presence.

Just slightly louder, Mademoiselle Iskarov continued, “You can speak English to him, Babushka. He’ll like that.”

Perhaps, imperceptibly, the grandmother’s face turned towards Edward, who said uncomfortably,
“Bonsoir,
Madame.
Enchanté.”

“No, no,” Mademoiselle Iskarov hissed. “Speak English. It may stimulate her.”

“How do you do?” Edward said.

Surprisingly, Mademoiselle Iskarov nudged him fiercely. “Go on.”

Falteringly, Edward said, “I like the flat a lot, you know.”

He was convinced he caught the grandmother’s filmy blue eyes flick back and forth from him to Mademoiselle Iskarov.

Raising her voice a fraction more, Mademoiselle Iskarov repeated, “Did you hear that? Mister Wenwright is very happy in Volodya’s flat.”

Still, the grandmother did not respond.

“Bon,”
Mademoiselle Iskarov concluded, a little roughly, Edward thought, “If it’s like that –” She motioned to Edward. “Let’s go and have our
apéritif
.”

“Nice to meet you,” Edward murmured rather helplessly as Mademoiselle Iskarov ushered him out. The grandmother watched them go impassively.

“She has times like that,” Mademoiselle Iskarov explained in the hall. “There’s no point in persisting.”

Edward felt Mademoiselle Iskarov was being rather hard and unsympathetic. But, when he thought it over, there did seem something faintly perverse in the way the grandmother
had chattered uninhibitedly when there was no one there and clammed up irremediably when she had visitors.

“What can I offer you to drink?” Mademoiselle Iskarov asked brightly. “You’ve done your duty now; you deserve it.”

Edward looked at the pleasingly well-stocked drinks cabinet. It was the old-fashioned sort which lit up when you opened its rounded walnut doors. “What do you suggest?”

Mademoiselle Iskarov tilted her head to one side and said coquettishly, “Vodka?”

Only at this point did it occur to Edward to wonder whether other guests were invited too. He had somehow assumed all along that the invitation was for him only; come over for a meal, quite casual, I, Mademoiselle Iskarov, will do my welcoming bit for a forlorn young foreigner. But now everything, beginning with the dress, was out of all proportion to such an occasion: the little black and red lacquered trays of cocktail titbits set out on the low table, the promise of the elaborate dinner prepared for him. Surely, he thought, with the start of an unformulated panic, there must be other people coming too?

The bottle of vodka which Mademoiselle Iskarov took out of the drinks cabinet bore no resemblance to any vodka Edward had ever seen; it was in a thickish blue-glass bottle at the bottom of which something spidery but plant-like was suspended.

He must have looked concerned because Mademoiselle Iskarov explained, “It’s home-made, a present from some friends of ours. Have you ever drunk vodka with green herbs?”

Edward hoped he could keep the apprehension out of his voice. “No, I can’t say I have.”

Mademoiselle Iskarov gave a gleeful chuckle. “Ah, you’re about to have an unforgettable experience.”

“I suppose,” Edward said light-heartedly, “It’s going to knock me out completely?”

Mademoiselle Iskarov passed him a generous measure. She giggled and, with a very accurate imitation of flirtatiousness, she answered, “No, not completely; just the right amount.”

She matched his drink and sat down in the high-backed armchair opposite him, sinking luxuriantly against its cushions. She lifted her glass. “Well,
Na
zdorovye.”

“Cheers,” said Edward.

One mouthful of the vodka was enough to let him know what was what. He reached hastily for something from one of the cocktail trays, which turned out, rather unpleasantly, to be a piece of marinaded fish. He gulped it down quickly and then, rather hopelessly, took another swig at the vodka to wash the taste away.

Mademoiselle Iskarov was watching him from the depths of her armchair. She had crossed her legs and, indolently, she was drawing circles with one sharp black shoe. “Well,” she asked him, “how do you like it here in Paris?”

“Not much,” said Edward. The combined attack on his senses by the vodka and the herring had temporarily distracted him from the worrying situation in hand. Now, as Mademoiselle Iskarov bestowed a high voltage smile on him and replied, “Ah good; we have something in common,” his apprehensions returned in force.

“What don’t you like about it?” he asked absent-mindedly.

Mademoiselle Iskarov heaved a tremendous sigh. Her dress, Edward couldn’t help noticing, even though he didn’t want to, gave a tremendous follow-up. “It’s cold, it’s unfriendly. You can live here all your life but they’ll never accept you. My mother came here when she was a baby, you know, but they still called her Russian till the end of her days.”

“But I thought,” Edward said tentatively, “from what you were saying the other day that you kept it up deliberately; that you
liked
being Russian.”

“That’s not the same thing at all,” Mademoiselle Iskarov reproved him. “Of course I ‘like being Russian’; I’d rather be Russian than some silly
chi-chi
little
Parisienne.
But I resent being an outcast because of it. Look,” she leapt up and beckoned Edward, concerned to find that he was already not quite rock solid on his feet, over to one of the windows. Dramatically, she yanked back the curtain and gestured across the street. From the fifth-floor apartment opposite a single yellow patch of light spilled out. The rest of the building was shuttered in darkness. “They don’t always close their shutters. Neither do we. How far away do we live from one another? Fifty metres? In the summer, with the windows open, we can sometimes hear one another’s voices. And how
many times, do you suppose, in all the years that we’ve lived here have we had a friendly wave or a nod from our
neighbours? Parfaitement
; not once.” She smacked the curtains closed again. “That’s what the Parisians are like; they live in their little hermetically sealed homes, thinking blinkered chauvinistic thoughts in their hermetically sealed minds and unless you’re one of the
zenfants
de
la
patri-uh,
unless you belong, you’re a nobody. Not, of course,” she concluded erratically, “that I would wish to be part of that
milieu.
Are you ready for some more vodka?”

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