About the Book
About the Author
Also by Vesna Goldsworthy
Title Page
Prologue: A Snapshot
1 Monsieur Ka
2 Air Street
3 An Excursion to the Edge
4 Absence
5 Orphans
6 The Wild Mane
7 The Black Sea
8 Forgiveness Sunday
9 Borzoi
10 When the English Speak of Russia
11 The Russian Party
12 The Meaning of Cowardice
13 The Wronged Party
14 The Descending Blue
15 You, Anna

About the Book

The London winter of 1947. As cold as St Petersburg during the Revolution. The Karenins keep their vodka under the layers of snow in their suburban garden, in bottles entombed like their Russian past. But when a young Frenchwoman arrives to work as a companion to the aged ‘Monsieur Ka’ he begins to tell his story…

Albertine is the wife of a British army officer who is often abroad on covert government business. Lonely, yet eager to work, she begins to write Monsieur Ka’s life story as a secret gift to him, and even learns his mother tongue. To her ear it is like ‘the sound of falling snow’. As she is drawn into Ka’s dramatic past, her own life is shaken to its foundations. For in this family of former princes, there are present temptations which could profoundly affect her future.

About the Author

Vesna Goldsworthy was born in Belgrade in 1961 and has lived in London since 1986. She writes in English, her third language. Her books include an internationally bestselling memoir, Chernobyl Strawberries, and a novel, Gorsky. A former BBC World Service journalist, she is currently professor of creative writing at the University of Exeter and at UEA.

Also by Vesna Goldsworthy

The Angel of Salonika
Chernobyl Strawberries
Inventing Ruritania

To Vera

Title page for Monsieur Ka

My God, if only someone could finish Anna Karenina for me! It’s unbearable.

Tolstoy, Letters


A Snapshot

‘Unconditional love: people say it is the essence of motherhood. I was barely old enough to recognise it when suddenly she was no more, like a comet extinguished. To have a famous mother is a curse. To lose your mother at nine is a tragedy. I have lived my life in the shadow of these two misfortunes. It took a lifetime to comprehend the extent of the devastation they caused. There is no mother more famous than mine. Except the Holy Virgin, perhaps. Soon you will understand it all much better. We are now related, you and I, dear Albertine.’

The Count’s face was lit by the familiar, lopsided smile. He said all this in Russian. I was so pleased with myself for finally understanding the words that I realised only later, when I was writing them down, that I had missed his meaning. He was using the familiar, informal you for the first time. We are now related, you and I, he said. My Russian is, still, barely passable. By electing to write his story in English, I chose a camera unable to capture the most significant detail in the snapshot. What did he mean? What did he know?


Monsieur Ka

Why do marriages end?

A better question may be: why do they ever begin?

‘A triumph of hope over experience,’ Albie would have said. He spoke like that, holding emotions at arm’s length with the pincers and tweezers of clichés, like a bomb disposal expert. Years pass and I still don’t know which live wire was to blame for the blast that blew us asunder. I hold myself culpable. Responsibility is easier to live with than ignorance.

Albie was not yet fully dressed. The long johns and the vest sagged around his knees and elbows and gathered under his armpits like old man’s skin. A pair of suspenders hugged his calf muscles, holding his long grey socks in place. There was something incongruous and clown-like about the red and green regimental stripes of the elastic band, at odds with everything around us. His army days now lingered in vestiges like those.

‘Ber,’ he said, managing to extend the syllable into a mournful tune.

It was freezing, even indoors. The bathroom window was covered in fern frost. A faint glow beyond it suggested the arrival of a new morning – daybreak seems too strong, too definite a word. Albie pressed his forehead against the cistern, as though standing was an effort. A chain dangled to the right, its white pull with a black rubber ring indecent in its plain-ness, its no-nonsense utilitarianism. I was beginning to get used to this island, the pride it took in the functional, in making do. ‘Mustn’t grumble,’ people said all the time. ‘I’m fine,’ to mean they had had enough.

Albert and Albertine – an Englishman and a Frenchwoman, if I could still call myself French. One might have concluded from our names that we had been meant for each other, but there was no deeper meaning behind the coincidence and Albertine had nothing to do with Proust. I was a few days older than the first volume of À la recherche. My father had wanted a son to call after my grandfather: the name helped overcome the disappointment of my gender. Albie’s father loved Queen Victoria. His mother did not approve of Albert as a name. Too common, she thought. She had wanted to call him Tristan; mine nearly plumped for Violetta. Patriarchal authority gave us both a lucky escape.

He laughed when I called him Albie – fit for a Cockney comedian, he said – but the nickname stuck. He used to call me Bertie in Alexandria. Ber sounded like an English shiver. It seemed apt, on mornings like this.

My nightdress offered little protection against the cold. The mirror above the washbasin threw a misty reflection of its blue stripes back at me. The pattern was unflattering, although I had purchased the fabric and made the garment myself. It was ill-chosen, or perhaps chosen all too well. I thought I knew what I was doing as soon as I touched the flannel at the Army & Navy Stores in Victoria, but I had miscalculated the effect. I had assumed the stripes would suit a tomboyish garment, a witty, wifely echo of Albie’s longing for propriety. I took no notice of the fact that it could make me look like a detainee, yet that is what it had faded to, and so soon.

The sewing machine had been a wedding present from Albie’s parents; a Singer, like my maiden name, or one version of it. On the day the gift was delivered, there was the clip-clop of horses’ hooves outside. The livery of the coachman was as green as the cart and the big box from Harrods that it brought; the horses as black as the blackest night, with fetlocks from a gothic romance. I was green, too, new to the land where people sent expensive gifts by way of apology for not seeing you. We pretended that was normal, in England. Albie was used to communicating by parcel. The machine reminds me of those horses every time I open the lid. Friesians, Albie told me, a sight to behold. Graceful, dependable; foreign like me.

‘Ber,’ Albie said, ‘you’ll get used to London. You’ll come to love it. I promise. Give it a couple of years.’

A couple more years, he should have said. It was eighteen months since our boat had docked in Southampton. It had been high summer then; 1945, the war just over. The train that took us to London cut through the Hampshire fields, parting waves of wheat as full of sunshine as the beaches we had left behind. London: the word still pealed like the chimes of wedding bells.

Before we left Alexandria for good, Albie and I had had a weekend by the water, west of the city, where the desert met the sea in luminous expanses. The Egyptian sand seeped from our hair and our clothes for weeks. I kept finding grains on pillowcases and felt them on the carpets under my feet well into that first autumn. Tiny, hard, grey specks; impossible to believe that, in their billions, they added up to something golden.

Albie joked that we had brought the dunes with us to our home in Earl’s Court. It took a long time to learn how to pronounce these two words well enough to make myself understood when I wanted to buy Underground tickets. The waves closed behind me and the city took me in. Its size was overwhelming. I did not venture to its edges again until the end of the second winter.

Albie combed some oil into his hair, then tidied his moustache with the same comb. He would soon put on a suit and tie, button up his waistcoat so that it looked as stiff as a cuirass, lace up his black shoes and finally throw his overcoat over his shoulders, never once glancing in the mirror. He knew his drill. Wrapped up and poker-straight, he was the very picture of an officer in mufti – handsome, handsomer even than that dusty, lithe creature in desert boots and shorts he had been when I first met him – yet everything about him had stiffened, become different, unreachable.

The young man who had teasingly boasted of defeating Rommel now went to work in an office, eagerly and as early as he could, often skipping breakfast. Duty calls, he’d say in a sing-song voice, his face warming into a smile, as though duty was a mistress, easier to please than a wife.

I knew little about Albie’s work. Whitehall: that was what he said when people asked where he worked. It sounded like Whitelaw, his – our – family name. We had walked along Whitehall, with its un-French, haphazard jumble of commanding grey blocks, several times that first summer, and he had pointed to the building which housed his office. It was closer to Trafalgar Square than to the Houses of Parliament; it had a shiny black door, with an even shinier brass plate next to it bearing the name of an English county. Sussex House, Cheshire House, Lancashire House: it could have been any of these. I trusted Albie. I still do. Wives did not ask in those days.

Don’t worry your pretty head, Ber. I’ll keep bringing home the bacon.’ That was his answer, and a hug, when I bothered to pose a question. It was such a funny phrase. I never doubted the essence of his promise. I felt lucky that he thought me pretty, that he had chosen me for a wife.

He was still on His Majesty’s service, though no longer in uniform, and he no longer talked about his work. In our earlier days, he had often seemed unable to resist a boast. Chases along the wadi, madcap plots to snip apart Rommel’s string of African successes: his yarns of military adventure were so riotous that I never believed any of them. He made the war sound like an English school sports day. Victory had turned out to be a more serious business. He even found it difficult to say whether he was hoping to be home for dinner. Every now and then he would pack a suitcase, leave it waiting in the hall and, in the morning, when an official car arrived to collect him, he would say, ‘See you on Thursday or Friday’ the way other husbands might have said, ‘I’ll be a bit late tonight, darling.’

I could guess where he had been on his return if a box of sweets appeared on the dining-room table – marrons glacés, calissons or bergamotes, leckerli, lebkuchen, the upturned boats of gianduotti or the sweet pillows of amaretti morbidi. Albie’s gifts from Europe. He did not exactly hide his tracks, but that part of his life which related to the unfinished business of wartime victories was no longer mine, no longer a laughing matter.

In bed at night, he fell asleep within minutes. I counted hours, sheep, personal losses, depending on the mood I was in. Albie thought that happiness was a matter of pulling your socks up, making them stay there, by hook or by crook. I was beginning to think that perhaps I should become like him: bury the past, forget that which you can’t bring back. Choose to be cheerful, stay cheerful, and happiness will follow. He himself seemed stuck at the second part of the proposition.

‘You don’t have to work, Ber, you know that. But if it would make you happy to go out into the world, meet people, please, Ber, I won’t say no. I know it’s difficult to stay at home when you have been used to working. Voluntary work, for example? A lot of ladies these days …’

My stockings hung on the radiator like something vaguely prosthetic. I reached for them and stepped out of the bathroom. I could hear the hum of a motor outside. Albie started these conversations only when there was a way to end them quickly. Down in the square, the car was waiting to take him to Whitehall, a shiny black frog under the falling snow.

When he went to work, the day stretched emptily ahead. I had long ceased to pretend that the pieces of translation which Albie’s people sent my way could keep me occupied. The brief communiqués that I conveyed into my most elegant French extolled the Allied war record and expressed optimism about the future. They were neither riveting nor revealing. I had no illusions about their importance. I was too un-English to be grateful for small mercies. Yet even these commissions were drying up. Treaties were being signed; war-crimes trials were being completed one by one.

I wasn’t looking forward to the life of galleries and tearooms in which so many women frittered their afternoons over oils or china cups. When they thought no one was watching, I glimpsed the memory of war in their faces, the disorientation of a return to inconsequential civilities.

I would not have thought it possible to feel as homesick as I did when Albie was not around to distract me, although I knew I was homesick for places that no longer existed. The war took away Paris and Bucharest, and replaced them with a knowledge of their capacity for betrayal. I had arrived in Alexandria in 1941 and, while the world was at war, I felt at peace there for four years. I had a job. I polished my English as though I sensed my life would come to depend on it. I knew that Egypt was a temporary shelter, that the enforced largesse of the Arabs was not going to last. Now only London remained, yet I did not know how to love London. Albie was my way into the metropolis, but Albie had a country – a whole continent – to rebuild, a new world to defend. I had no such clarity of purpose. In the heart of a frozen city, on an island surrounded by icy grey waters, my insides felt frozen to the bone.

Every morning, after Albie left, I’d put on my coat and galoshes and walk to South Kensington to buy Le Monde, fresh off the ferry and a day late. To take some exercise, I cut through rows of mews and back streets at great speed, trying to look like someone who had to get somewhere in a hurry. It was a new habit, this new paper: Le Monde. I read it the way one reads fiction, as though France was a figment of my imagination, a country that no longer existed. I skimmed through the headlines over toast and coffee until it was close to noon, the day half gone, the thought consoling in itself.

‘You’re wishing your life away, Ber,’ Albie had said when I told him how the best part of the day was always around 3 p.m. – when the light was almost spent. It was too late to start anything, close enough to his return from work to make me relish a bit of solitude – if he was in the country that is, and not, as so often, in Germany, France or Switzerland. When I had promised to have and to hold, there was no mention of a thousand temporary partings.

Europe, he called it.

‘I’m off to Europe tomorrow, Ber. I won’t be back until Thursday.’

‘Isn’t it perverse, Albie,’ I had asked, ‘isn’t it perverse to wake up and look forward to three in the afternoon?’

‘You’re wishing your life away,’ he had responded, spreading margarine on his toast, scraping it so thinly that the membranes of each cell crackled under the pressure of the knife.

‘I am not. You are,’ I said. I failed to grasp the meaning of the strange little phrase. I took away to mean elsewhere.

On one of those morning walks, I had spotted an advertisement in the window of the newsagent, offering light secretarial work to a lady fluent in French, two afternoons a week, or more. It had been typed out on a blue-lined index card. Someone had stuck a paper flag in the bottom right corner, a French flag, next to the telephone number, baiting the card to attract the Francophones left in the rock pools of South Kensington by the receding tide of the war.

It was the tricolour that had caught my eye. It made the card look like the advertisements people displayed on notice-boards in Alexandrian consulates and hospitals, hoping for news of family and friends. Now, when Albie mentioned work, I remembered the advertisement. Chiswick 9940 – I was not aware that I had memorised the number until I dialled it.

‘My father is Russian,’ a male voice explained, diffident, perhaps distinguished too, ‘and secretarial work is not quite right. An occasional letter, maybe. Tidying the family archives, such as they are. A bit of reading. The sound of French. Company.

‘We visit him often,’ he continued, ‘almost daily. But Father is bored. He was once a great walker; he now trips and falls so often. He used to read; now he complains that no light is bright enough. Company, yes, mainly company.’

The man gave his business address for the interview. It was less awkward that way, he explained, less disturbing for his father, in case I did not accept the job.

‘I am sure it will be a formality, Mrs Whitelaw.’ He sounded apologetic that he had to make me travel all the way to Chiswick. Apparently, I was the first – the only – person to respond. The temperature had been hovering around zero for weeks; a bad time to advertise anything, he added. He emitted a strangled little laugh. Ha ha: it did not sound so much like laughter as like someone reading the two short words from an unrehearsed script. I warmed to his shyness, his lack of self-confidence.

Fahrenheit, I thought when I put the receiver down. In Celsius, zero would be progress.

The following day I found myself in a vast office on the first floor of a Georgian terrace with bricks the colour of congealed blood and rows of black-framed windows reflecting the snow. The street sloped towards the Thames like a slide. There were the beginnings of an island at the bottom – an eyot, Albie later explained. Black stumps of reeds pierced layers of snow on its crest, and ducks paddled across patches of ice on the river’s edge. The air was full of yeast, malt and smoke; the warm, pleasant smell of a medieval kitchen, as unexpected after a short ride from Earl’s Court as the horse-drawn carts loaded with casks which emerged from a warehouse alongside the office and clattered away on icy cobbles, on a twin-track path cut through the snow. I had taken the Underground train, and – after half a dozen stops – emerged into a world teetering on the brink of the Industrial Revolution.

‘Albertine Whitelaw,’ I introduced myself as the secretary shut the double door behind me. ‘How do you do?’

‘Alexei Carr. I prefer to be called Alex.’

The man stood up from his desk and stepped forward to shake my hand. He was one of the directors of the brewery, he said. One of the oldest family-run breweries in London, he explained, gesturing at more buildings invisible behind the walls. I had glimpsed them as I approached the three-storey terrace that housed his office, a jumble of pitched roofs, clapboard towers and tall chimney stacks, like a walled city half-hidden from view.

‘We brew the best beer in England,’ he said.

‘I will have to take your word for it,’ I answered. ‘I am not very fond of beer.’

He was considerably taller than me, and beanpole thin in his chalk-stripe suit. The coat looked double-breasted not by original design, but as though it had had to be taken in, as though it had originally belonged to someone much more solid. Behind the wire spectacles, his eyes were almond-shaped and slanted, a startling pairing with their clear Nordic blueness. I wondered if this was a Russian trait.

It was an odd job interview, as perfunctory as such a conversation could be. He seemed to wish no more than to set eyes on me. I tried to make sense of my chequered job history and the decade of dislocations that had followed my agrégation. I was the first in my family to go to university. I read English and French. Before the war broke out, I had intended to be a secondary-school teacher.

While Alex Carr stared at me, barely listening, I explained how I had left Paris in 1937 to teach French in a Bucharest lycée, on a whim; how this might well have saved my life although it had originally looked like a bad move; how I was evacuated to Greece, then to Egypt soon afterwards. I spent the war working at the British General Hospital in Alexandria and lodging with a Sephardic family, while losing touch with what passed for my own.

In Paris, I had lived with an aunt and her family for four years, I explained. Tante Julie, my mother’s sister, ran a tailoring business with her husband, as my mother and father had done. We were tailors and dressmakers, as far back as memory stretches. My parents and my sister had died in a train crash outside Paris in 1933; a blessed year to die, it turns out, if you were Jewish. I was twenty – too old to be a proper orphan, too young not to feel like one. At least my mother had a sister, I said, someone to go to. For a long time, and until well after I had settled in London with my British husband, I was convinced that my aunt and uncle had made it to Montreal. That had been the plan, sketched on the last postcard I had received from them, just before I left Romania. Instead …

Alex Carr’s face remained expressionless throughout. He now raised his hand, as if to say that will do. There was no need to explain what happened instead. There were too many stories like mine to need telling again.

‘Your husband?’ he asked.

‘We met in 1943.’ I named Albie’s regiment.

‘I was in Palestine, around the corner,’ he offered, although I had not asked.

‘My father is Russian, I think I mentioned on the telephone,’ he added. ‘My mother was French, but not from France. One of St Petersburg’s French. Father decided, when he was nine or ten, that he would never marry a Russian woman, although he is as Russian as they come. So was Mother, in a way. You will find him interesting.’

Carr did not sound Russian, but that was not surprising. Many people changed their names, to hide or to fit in. My own family had done the same, three times in the past hundred and fifty years. It did not help. We were not good at passing ourselves off, pretending to be what we were not. I recognised the deficiency in myself, the absence of will.

‘Father suffered a stroke last year,’ Alex Carr went on. ‘He’s recovering, but he can’t do much and his days tend to get very long. That is why I thought of hiring someone to visit, to distract him. There is a housekeeper already, Mrs Jenkins. She is devoted, but not a companion, she can’t be. Father speaks English to her, and he speaks Russian to me. He always spoke French to my mother. He still does sometimes … although she is no longer around to hear.’

He took his spectacles off and proceeded to wipe them with a paisley handkerchief he pulled out of his pocket, while continuing to look at me. Without the glass barrier, his eyes seemed larger and younger.

A copy of a magazine was open at an article about the actress Vivien Leigh. It was illustrated with a photograph, the film star in a dark Victorian dress with a lace collar. Alex Carr followed the direction of my gaze, took a large brown envelope and covered the magazine with it. The awkwardness in his manner persisted. He was happier with long silences than me; happier than most people. There were papers on his desk, account books, invoices, pages covered with columns of numbers speaking of responsibility and tedium.

Perhaps, if you are still keen, you could start with a visit to my father tomorrow, Mrs Whitelaw.’

He was implicitly declaring our conversation over, offering me the job.

‘See how you get on. If you are free, that is.’ He dictated an address in Bedford Park.

An ice storm passed through the city overnight. The following afternoon, the streets looked shiny, as though everything on them had been sheathed in glass. Branches glistened darkly, clinking as they swayed. The tips of my fingers, my ear lobes and the flares of my nostrils tingled. The chill stung every inch of exposed skin the moment I stepped off the train. By the time I had left the station and crossed the road, my hands felt as dead as the branches.

I had memorised the route before I set off. I knew it would be too cold to pause to inspect a map, or to be certain that I would meet anyone en route to ask for directions. I passed a brick church half-buried amid the snowdrifts, then walked down a street lined with bare chestnut trees. If you ignored the temperature – if that were possible even for a moment – the scene could be idyllic. The gables and balustrades with their snow trimmings made the houses look like ornate dwellings in an ancient painting.

A garden suburb, Albie had said when I told him where I was going to spend my afternoon. I was building my English vocabulary with him like that, pausing when I did not recognise a term, asking him to explain concepts that were new to me. I was already used to the idea that suburbs meant something different in England, not dwellings for the poor, but pretty and quiet places away from the smog. Rus in urbe, Albie had said.

He was delighted at my news, helpful, almost irritatingly supportive. I was, at long last, following his advice. I was pulling my socks up. White Russians, he surmised when I repeated the scant details supplied by Alex Carr. Britain was frequently the last stage of a long journey. They had fled Russia after 1917, but they often arrived here after escaping Berlin, Paris or Prague, as recently as during the past decade, now doubly exiled and doubly impoverished. There were many in West London.

I had encountered these White Russians in Paris. There, too, they lived in the west of the city, while my people – the Ashkenazim – had settled in the east. The Russians came to my father to have their clothes repaired or relined. Between the layers of old fabric he sometimes found gold coins stitched into secret pockets, and once, behind a balding fur collar, wedged as interlining between whalebone stiffeners, a document containing the title deeds to twelve hundred desyatinas of Siberian land.

Father knew something of their world through stories brought over to France from godforsaken small towns in Poland where my ancestors had lived before they started escaping westwards. They had been powerful once, these members of the Russian gentry. Father pitied them and indulged them with old-fashioned deference, refusing large tips they could ill afford. I used to believe there was poetry in poverty and exile. I know better now.

It was strange to think of this employment by one of these White Russians as my first English job. They could not have done too badly in the end, I thought, escaping Russia for this quiet suburb. It was just past four, yet the lights were already on in many of the houses. Stained glass threw pastel illuminations onto the snow-covered gardens outside. I heard dogs barking as I went by, saw curtains twitching.

Mr Carr senior’s house was no different from others on a street which curved in its attempt to emulate a village lane. Sticks poked out of the snow along the path to the front door, the stems of rose bushes pruned back for the winter. Gnarled branches of a dormant wisteria trailed above the porch. A woman opened the door, then left me for what seemed like hours in the hall, next to a coat stand decorated with beaten copper plates, reliefs showing plump pomegranates. Two coats hung on it: one male and exotic with grey astrakhan cuffs; another female, mossy in both colour and texture, with a rust-coloured woollen scarf falling out of its sleeve. Shoes and galoshes were arranged in a neat row underneath. From further inside came the smell of old books and furniture polish. Finally, there was a shuffle of slippers and an old man opened the inner door to beckon me further into the house. He had the same slanted blue eyes as his son.

‘Madame Vitélo. It must be you. Sergei Carr. I am delighted.’ He addressed me in French, and kissed my still-mittened hand. ‘Please come in. Do let me take your coat.’

It took me a while to realise that he had uttered a version of Whitelaw, pronounced with playful French distortion. There is no sound more alien to French than that W with which my married name began and ended. I thought at first that he was hurrying me in.

Enchantée, Monsieur Carr,’ I responded, taking my coat off and stuffing my gloves into the pockets. I had been reading and translating, but I hadn’t spoken French in months. It sounded strange on my lips, a secret code retrieved.

Monsieur Ka,’ he echoed aloud, as if amused by my accent. ‘These English names of ours, Madame Whitelaw, they are not very pleasing to the Gallic ear, are they?’

He must have been in his early eighties and he was as tall and as slim as his son. High cheekbones and a leonine head of wavy white hair lent him an illustrious air. He could have been the conductor of an orchestra. He was dressed and combed with careful deliberation, yet signs of a loss of control were everywhere if you examined closely: a patch of beard missed in shaving, a fleck on the lapel of his tweed jacket, a cufflink holding only the insides of his double cuffs. The left side of his face sagged. It made him look as though he was on the verge of tears even when he smiled. His walking stick dragged along the tiles, the rubber tip leaving faint black trails as he moved ahead of me and into the library.

The interior – comfortable but far from lavish – was dotted with Russian objects: icons, a samovar on a side table, a few porcelain figurines of ice skaters and ballet dancers on the shelves. This, in a way, was what I expected. I did not expect to see watercolours, dozens and dozens of them, covering every available surface. One or two depicted the interiors we were passing through, creating the optical effect of infinite regression, a mise en abyme. For the most part they were images of flowers, individual blooms and countless bouquets in a variety of vases – lilacs and lilies, roses at different stages of their life cycle, chrysanthemums exploding like fireworks, fat bundles of hyacinths and narcissi, posies of sweet peas, violets and daisies – entire walls covered with fading flowers in near-identical thin frames. Some were verging on abstraction, consisting of two or three simple and elegant lines, others possessed an almost furious verisimilitude, parading the hours and hours of labour that had gone into them. Each picture, individually, might have been beautiful, but there was something overwhelming, depressing almost, about their cumulative effect.

‘My wife,’ said Monsieur Carr, lifting a shaky hand with its walking stick towards a picture of a bunch of anemones in a jam jar propped on the mantelpiece we were passing at that moment. He rolled his eyes in mock exasperation, as though his wife was in the room with us and she was able to register his displeasure with the clutter, but he said no more about the paintings. His voice echoed with a loneliness caused by something beyond physical absence, equalled by the loneliness emanating from the images on the walls.

There were no flowers in the library. Instead, in the gaps between the shelves loaded with hundreds of books hung a couple of framed documents in what I took to be Russian Cyrillic, and, above the fireplace, an unframed oil portrait of a couple. With its uneven edges and deep vertical furrow across the middle, the canvas appeared to have been hastily cut out of its original frame, folded flat for a long while, then stretched again over a new set of wooden bars. It depicted a severe, bald-headed man with strangely shaped ears. His raised eyebrows made him look as though he was about to ask the viewer a question. Next to him, by his side but not touching him – the distance emphasised by the awkward fold – was a younger woman whose shiny curls bled into a backdrop darkened with age. Her smile was directed sideways, at something or someone beyond the canvas. An elegant pale hand with several rings on the third finger was raised slightly away from her body, and away from the man, as if she was mid-gesture, reaching out for something. As a device to show off the painter’s skill her pose could not be faulted, but it exposed something pent-up in her nature. In the entire household – or at least in those parts of it I had passed through – that woman alone seemed to exude a still unsubdued energy, an élan vital.

‘My mother and father,’ said Monsieur Carr, ‘in St Petersburg, a month or two before I was born.’

Only when he said that did I notice the hint of a swollen belly under her severe black dress. Her modest décolletage seemed almost shocking: a milky throat amid so much darkness.

‘The painter has caught my father’s likeness, but Maman, I am not so sure,’ continued Monsieur Carr. ‘She died so young. I won’t ask if you have ever visited St Petersburg. It’s too late now anyway, has been too late for thirty years. The city exists no more.’

I shook my head. I knew so little of Russia. I could not imagine wanting to go to Leningrad, whatever now remained of it. Albie spoke of its siege as the worst episode of the war. Much worse than Dachau, he would say, much worse than Belsen. I refused the possibility of comparison, one infinity of suffering next to another.

‘Poor city,’ I said to Monsieur Carr. ‘Things will get better soon, I hope.’

Platitudes, I know; it is one way to preserve sanity.

‘No, not in my lifetime. Nor, dare I say, in yours,’ Monsieur Carr responded.

His French was perfect.

The housekeeper brought in a vast silver tray: a teapot and two cups, a small jug of milk, a couple of plates with a single biscuit on each, a pair of folded linen napkins.

‘Thank you, Mrs Jenkins. Please, feel free to take a break. We will have finished by six,’ Monsieur Carr said as he dismissed her. His English was as good as his French; the English – almost – of a native speaker.

And now, I am just going to close my eyes,’ he said, switching back to French. ‘It would be lovely to hear you read: from the start, why not?’

He took a copy of a book from the shelves, seemingly at random, and handed it to me having opened it at the first page, then sat in an armchair by the fireplace. His walking stick slid onto the carpet. He reached for the teacup and closed his eyes. I cleared my throat to the sound of clinking china.

Nous étions à l’Étude, quand le Proviseur entra, suivi d’un nouveau habillé en bourgeois et d’un garçon de classe qui portait un grand pupitre. Ceux qui dormaient se réveillèrent, et chacun se leva, comme surpris dans son travail …’

I paused to glance at the old man. He had placed his cup on the side table. His eyes were closed and his cheek was pressed against the wing of the armchair, pushing his lips further down into the lopsided smile. I had not bothered to check the title of the book before I started, but I no longer needed to.

I was fifteen when I first read Madame Bovary. All those stories of Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, Magritte, Dalí and Buñuel now make you think that Paris in 1928 was the centre of the world, but to me the 3rd arrondissement seemed much duller than nineteenth-century Rouen. I could almost re-enter my teenage body, sprawled on the bed with the book propped open against the pillow, the beams criss-crossing the eaves above me, the grey clouds sailing past the attic window of the equally grey city, while eight flights down my father and mother laboured in their clothing workshop and – on a floor halfway between us – Arlette, my younger sister, endlessly practised on her piano, trying to memorise her scores.

How could all that music vanish? Like Monsieur Carr speaking to his dead wife, I even now continued to compose letters to Arlette, explaining about Albie, making Earl’s Court sound better than it was.

Whenever I paused, Monsieur Carr opened his right eye and waited for me to continue, closing it as soon as the flow resumed. And so I went on, in turn attentive to the words I read, then allowing my thoughts to wander away from the text, until I noticed Alex Carr, standing in the doorway, in his overcoat, listening. Outside, it was pitch-black.

The Underground station was empty when Alex Carr accompanied me to my train. I had tried to refuse his offer. It seemed no longer necessary, even a bit ridiculous in our new world, this old-fashioned courtesy, seeing a woman off safely to the station. He turned to me a couple of times to say something, but changed his mind. We stood for a long time by the small stove in an empty waiting room, looking down the platforms and along the tracks that stretched west, deeper into London’s suburbs. The amber lights, like cats’ eyes, were visible for the best part of a mile as the train approached through the falling snow.

‘That was so kind of you, Mrs Whitelaw,’ he said when the train came to a halt with a low whine of metal on metal. ‘I could see how enormously my father enjoyed your reading. I hope you did too. I hope you will continue. A couple of times a week, more often if you wish, and please choose the days. It doesn’t have to be reading. Anything you like. All sorts of joint projects you can think of.’

He made it sound as though his old man and I might be starting a business together.

‘It would do him a world of good, take him out of himself,’ he added.

Me too …’ I admitted. Without quite realising that I would do it until it happened, I raised myself on my toes and kissed his frozen cheek. In Paris, it would have been an unremarkable gesture. In Alexandria, an invitation. I still had no idea about London. I looked out of the window as my train pulled out of the station. He stood there, while snow accumulated on the rim of his hat.

At home, Albie had already laid the table for dinner. In the fireplace the gas fire had been lit; bluish flames licked fake coals behind the gothic tracery doors. The room was almost warm. Albie was beamingly expectant.

‘Darling Ber,’ he said as he ladled out the soup and lowered the bowl in front of me, smiling tentatively, proud of his cooking skills, clearly expecting a detailed report of my activities. ‘I hope you have had a good day.’

The liquid was so startling in its vivid greenness that I burst into laughter and, almost immediately, into tears. I did not know how to respond to his efforts. There was a bunch of white flowers in a vase at the centre of the table, a yellow block of butter under a glass dome, a golden loaf of bread on the board. Its shape was even more startling than the colour of the soup: two balls of dough baked on top of each other, like a beheaded snowman.

‘A cottage loaf, we call this,’ Albie explained, pausing with the bread knife just above it. ‘White. Still illegal, strictly speaking. For you, Ber.’

It was on sale only in Soho and Fitzrovia, he added, an Italian take on a traditional British recipe. He must have gone into the West End specially to buy it. He knew that I would recognise the gesture as a gift. Soft, like your challah, like your brioche, he said. The yeasty crown seemed to promise a new world in which food would again be fresh and abundant.

You look happier today, Madame Vitélo,’ Monsieur Carr said when I re-entered the library two days later, his face coloured by the reflection of the sun through the stained glass and divided into halves. The left was green and frozen in its image of sadness, the right rosy and smiling.

The side table was laid for tea. Instead of biscuits there were two slices of caraway cake. I picked up Madame Bovary, with its bookmark where I had left it last time, and prepared to read. Monsieur Carr’s lopsided lips spread rightwards into a wide smile. He raised his hand to ask me to wait.

‘I enjoyed your reading very much last time. I do hope you will continue to visit me. My son could not have given me a better present than your company. And I wonder if you would like to join me on an excursion soon. To Shepperton. It’s just over an hour’s drive from here. The film studios. I have had an invitation. They will be making a very special film this spring, and my grandson Gigi will be playing a unique part in it: me. Alexei will lend us a car and a driver.’

The reference to the grandson took me by surprise. I am not sure why. Alex Carr was in his forties; it was logical that he should be married, that he should have a child. Children, even. Several children. And that there should a mother for those children. I had little time to wonder why anyone would want to make a film about Monsieur Carr. Our lives were strange, particularly at that time when London was so unsettled by the aftermath of war and turbulence on the Continent. The unusual life would be one without a drama, an uneventful life.

‘Mrs Jenkins,’ called Monsieur Carr, ‘would you, please, bring that invitation from the dining table? I’d like to show Mrs Whitelaw what we have in mind for our outing.’

The housekeeper walked in holding the envelope, as though she had been waiting behind the door all that time. I stared at the address.

Prince Sergei Alexeievich Karenin,
20 Queen Anne’s Grove,
Bedford Park,
London W4

‘Open it, please, Mrs Whitelaw,’ said Monsieur Carr. ‘Do read the invitation. You will like this excursion. They are making a film about my mother.’


Air Street

The evening was an anniversary of sorts. Albie and I had been married for a year and a half. When a marriage is in its infancy we mark the small birthdays because the big ones seem impossibly far apart.

We dressed up for the occasion. Albie’s new dinner jacket came from some allowance that had nothing to do with ration books and everything to do with the kind of international event he was now expected to attend from time to time. He was moving up in the world, representing Britain. I wore my best – my only – cocktail gown. Made by Tante Julie as a parting gift on the eve of my departure for Bucharest, it was a replica of a Schiaparelli frock, light enough to survive the dislocations that gave it a new audience for each infrequent outing. The Mediterranean sun could compete with it, subdue it even. In London, it glowed like a thousand-watt light bulb, shockingly pink against austerity tweed. Then there was the magic locked in a dozen precise cuts. My aunt was a mistress of her trade. She knew how to tame the silk, to make it flow and follow the skin without ever sticking to it. I couldn’t wear the dress without thinking of my family, yet I had to stop thinking of them in order to do anything at all.

Albie caressed his moustache in a futile attempt to mask an expression of pleasure.

Scarlett, my dear,’ he said, mocking the accent of the Confederacy and pretending that he had never seen me in the dress before, although I had worn it on practically every occasion that deserved the name, including our one-night honeymoon at the Cecil in Alexandria.

‘That – what do you call it? – is simply spectacular. You are on fire.’

Given the temperature inside the house, a reference to Gaslight, or some similar bleak and accented drama, would have been more appropriate than Gone with the Wind. Yet Albie’s delight in my un-English looks was genuine. He relished hearing people talk about his ‘European wife’, as though our marriage represented a token of his goodwill towards the new, post-war world, a pledge to the work of its creation. In practice, he was much more European than me. Even the word – Europe – felt tainted to me. I would have preferred a new world altogether, where he and I looked alike, indistinguishable.

The taxi ride to St James’s took longer than it would have taken us to walk there, but the weather was a good excuse for extravagance. The snow rasped underfoot. The silk hem of my dress felt stiff, like tent canvas. When we reached Piccadilly, I wound the car window down by a fraction and the smell of coal fires and rubble rushed in on the tip of an icy blade of air. Twenty-one months had gone since the Germans’ unconditional surrender, yet warning signs and padlocks continued to guard the ruins, even in the heart of the city. St James’s church was a roofless shell. The walls of the bank next to it had been lacerated by shrapnel. A hundred yards further on the left there had once stood a tearoom, the glass dome shattered by a bomb and now open to the elements.

Forty-two people died here,’ Albie said. ‘I was in a bar on Air Street. I was killing time in London when I should’ve been killing the Eyeties in North Africa. I kept pestering my superiors, pleading to be sent to Alexandria.’

‘You could so easily have died here,’ I said, spying behind wooden hoardings a shard that projected upwards, propped up by a charred stump of a palm tree like the wing of a grand piano. ‘You must have been less than a hundred yards away.’

‘A hundred yards felt far enough. I ran to help with the rescue,’ Albie said. ‘There was an odd smell of burning sugar when the bombs hit Piccadilly that night. In the silence which descended after the masonry fell and the screams died out, I heard a sound, like an enormous sail flapping somewhere above. The Angel of Mons, said an old man while we were pulling a woman’s body from under the rubble. I did not know if he meant the body or that sound above us.’