The White Russian
By Vanora Bennett
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2014 Vanora Bennett.
All rights reserved.
The Le Havre boat train to Paris was crowded with other young Americans.
Some were staring out at the green fields and red roofs of northern France trundling backwards in the hot afternoon sun. Others were whispering, then suddenly laughing too loudly, so that they embarrassed themselves, before hastily turning their laughs into coughs, and blushing.
They were mostly young men in baggy tweed jackets, and many had notebooks in hand, as if planning on writing their great novels before even reaching Paris.
They were so hopeful that I couldn't help liking them. I'd talked briefly to some of them on the boat, whenever I couldn't shut myself away behind a book. In other circumstances, I might even have flirted with one or two. But now I unfolded my copy of Le Figaro across my lap and hid myself and my slightly wrinkled flowery dress behind it, not really reading it but just letting the stories about the aftermath of the Blum government's collapse and whether Charles Lindbergh was going to move his family to France dance before my eyes. I wasn't part of their crowd. I wasn't about to write a modern novel, or become an artist, or go on south to fight fascism in Spain, or to Berlin to interview Mr Hitler.
It wasn't that I thought their dreams mundane. Not at all. I was with them all the way, inside my head. What 21-year-old wouldn't be? But I'd spent eighty dollars for my own one-way steerage ticket on the Normandie, that rolling old rust-bucket we'd all just escaped from, in pursuit of an ambition so much more miniature and domestic than any of theirs that I couldn't help thinking that all those young heroes would find my plan dull.
I was going to Paris because I wanted to meet my grandmother.
I didn't know my grandmother. Or I hadn't thought I did until, when I was about to turn eighteen and was just back from boarding school, a letter to my mother came from her in Paris, out of the blue, offering to pay for me to go to college, to Bryn Mawr. The letter put my mother in bed for a month.
I was at what people call the tongue-tied stage, though in my case it was just how I'd always been. So for days, weeks maybe, at the start of that summer of 1934, I let the tearful whispered discussions go on between Mother and Hughie. (To be strictly accurate, the tearful, whispering part of the conversation was all from her. His contribution was, as usual, soothing murmurs, flowers and Martinis.) I must have figured there was no point in getting involved or expressing a preference of my own, even though, as soon as I'd heard the offer, I'd started quietly hoping they'd eventually accept it. I imagined myself sitting in a huge dream library with a book in my hands, turning the pages and smiling. Zelda was going, after all, and Louise. In fact, all of my friends were going to college. I was the only one staying home after graduation, and not because we couldn't afford school, either – the Depression hadn't touched Hughie's business, and Father had left Mother well provided for – but because Mother was old-fashioned and thought it right for an unmarried girl to stay in the bosom of her family.
I had no idea either what my future would be like once we got back home to New York and our town house on the Upper East Side in the fall. Our summer in the big family house on Shelter Island, where we were the first arrivals of a crowd of cousins who would turn up through July and August, was limbo time, before the detail was worked out. But I already felt listless at the vista opening up in my mind of an infinity of chintz, and of helping Mother arrange parties and flowers, and of hopeful introductions to smooth-faced young men like youthful Hughies. Maybe Hughie couldn't see the point of a grown-up girl hanging indefinitely around the house, because he didn't seem to be taking this college offer half so badly as Mother. But, even though I could guess that he might think it a good idea, and be minded to say yes, I knew it was important for me not to think too much about what was only a possibility. Nothing ever happened in our house unless Mother wanted it. The thing was just to sit tight until the matter was resolved, and accept the outcome. It was outside my control.
But I did pick up the photo left on the breakfast table with the abandoned letter that first morning, among the cold pieces of toast and the empty coffee cups Hughie and Mother had left. She'd let the letter fall and said, in tragic tones, 'Now she wants to send my child away ...' and, blinking back a tear, trailed to the door. There, with both of us staring, she'd paused and added, 'To "broaden her mind", or so she says.' And then she'd headed upstairs, followed by Hughie, who was already sighing and murmuring, 'But, sweetheart ...'
My first idea, left alone, was to read the letter and find out exactly what the fuss was all about. But I never got that far, because my unknown grandmother had also enclosed a picture of herself, half smiling into the camera, and that was what came out of the envelope first: an unremarkable woman in her late sixties, with a fullish face, thick grey-black hair, and just the hint of an amused smile on her lips. She was thin: the kind of slim that would maybe have just recently become scrawny. She was wearing a tweed jacket and skirt and a white blouse and spectacles. The spectacles had a thick dark frame across her eyebrows. Underneath that, eyes enormously magnified by the lenses looked out. She seemed a little nervous, shy maybe, but nice too. I could see she'd be fun. She looked ready to laugh.
I looked at that photo for a long time. That worn, slightly baggy face seemed so familiar. It had nothing of Mother's blonder, rounder, more prettily girlish looks. But there was something in it not unlike my own thinner face and long scrawny limbs (even if my own hair was fair and cocked up in two widow's peaks on either side of my forehead, like Mother's). I couldn't put my finger on exactly what drew me to it. It was just a pleasure to look at it, and daydream. And the more I looked, the more warmly I felt towards the woman in tweed.
I took her away. I put her up in my own bedroom, propped against my lamp, and went on looking.
And, very slowly, a kind of memory of my own began coming to the surface, though I couldn't be sure it wasn't just my imagination. I did have an over-active imagination, from too much reading. I knew that. Mother was always saying so.
But, in my head, when I looked, I could hear a sort of gentle background music of 'peekaboo', repeated, like a bird's call, in the soft singsong tones you talk to children in. I could see her laughing at me and me grinning back into those big eyes through the glasses. Maybe I was sitting on her knee. Certainly I was very small, and very close, and very happy. All of her was big compared with me, and the skin on her cheek was soft and wrinkled, with cords on her neck that I knew, with quiet regret for her, to be ugly. I could feel my little-girl fingers smearing those big glasses, pulling them aside, then hear myself laughing in puzzled astonishment that whenever those eyes didn't have that thick glass in front of them, they were ordinary-sized.
I could imagine my fingers, too, pulling at a rope of enormous rough golden beads until the skin on her neck puckered and I let go. I must be making at least that part up, I thought, because, in the picture, there was no jewellery visible at all. But I could almost feel those beads, warm to the touch and so big my hand could hardly cup the bottom one. Strung together with brown thread.
Silly, of course. I knew that. A story I was inventing for myself. After what seemed a very long time, I sighed and hid the picture inside a book.
Mother never mentioned that the photo was gone. Perhaps she hadn't noticed it? Her migraine – the drapes-closed, weak-voiced, oh-please-just-a-little-dry-toast-and-water variety – stayed with her, on and off, for days more.
I don't remember the sequence of the days that followed the letter's coming very exactly; just that it was the kind of tense time when you want to spend a lot of the day in your room, on your own, reading. I didn't mind. Even though I was still so young that I didn't much notice the world outside my own small world – the bigger world that contained the Depression – I already didn't want to go to the half-empty beach on my own that summer. There was something so sad about the boarded-up holiday cottages, and all the remembered people who weren't there any more. It was the evenings that kept going wrong. Dinner would start all right, with carefully bright questions between the three of us about Hughie's day and Mother's symptoms and who'd be going to the island when and what had been in the newspapers. We'd be sitting among the silver and flowered plates and cut glass, waiting till Florence entered, blinking back steam as she planted the tureen on the table. But our conversations kept fizzling out once the maid had gone, and soon afterwards the meal would end too, with Mother hastily leaving the room, blinking back more tears. Once the details of the offer from my grandmother had become clearer, though not the reason for Mother's reaction, I do remember asking, cautiously, 'I was wondering ... why is she even interested in me and in my schooling? When I didn't know she even knew I existed?'
I could see at once that I hadn't requested this information nearly carefully enough. The question was enough for my mother to turn her beautiful, brimming, accusing eyes on me. My heart contracted. I'd given offence. With what I could muster in the way of defiance (because what was wrong about my question, after all? Why couldn't I ask?) I looked back at her, keeping the innocence of my enquiry clearly displayed on my face, like a shield.
There was a long, dizzy-making silence, broken only by the clink of a single spoon, when Hughie, after a brief glance, went back to his tomato soup, as if nothing important were happening. Mother made sure I was aware of her looking at me, then she gathered herself, dropped her napkin on the table, and rushed off again with a stifled sob. She didn't shut the door. We could hear her footsteps rushing up the stairs. I wasn't yet far enough removed from our family life to be able to judge this manoeuvre in the way I did later: to feel exasperated by the melodrama of her distress, or at any rate to know whether I felt exasperated, or what I felt at all. This was just what things were like. So I sat looking down into my soup, making myself small, crumbling my bread with my fingers, crushed by knowing I'd made things worse with my thoughtless question, wondering why we couldn't be more like the cheerful, robust families that I was always reading about in books, and wishing most of all, wishing like hell, that I'd just kept quiet.
Hughie was already by the door, going to her, when he looked around and noticed me.
He's a kind man, my stepfather. He's big and good-natured, with his gut bulging smoothly over his waistband and his round cheeks pink and unlined. When he's not at the office, which mostly he is, he's fond of his golf and tennis and the big shots of bourbon any man would need to keep up with Mother's demanding crises. He's always calm. And perhaps I looked extra downcast. He smiled at me.
'Your mother's a very sensitive woman,' he said, looking for the blandest way of calming the situation. 'And you know she's always had a hard time with your grandmother. She's only upset because she loves you ... and wants to protect you.' He nodded, as if convincing himself. 'It's nothing to worry about.'
I pressed my lips together. 'Oh, I'm not worried,' I said, as defiantly as I could. 'I just don't understand. I don't know my grandmother. She doesn't know me.'
It was more than 'didn't know her'. My grandmother was a part of the past we didn't ever discuss. Mother's life before me, as far as I could piece together from her accounts of it, had consisted only of family vacations with her cousins during school breaks, along with shopping, piano playing, and her brief romance and marriage with Father before he went to the war in Europe.
Father had been a hero, often invoked, painted in unreal bright colours: a distant cousin, invited up here from DC by Aunt Mildred when Mother was eighteen, because choosing your own kind is best; a brilliant advocate for the Preparedness Movement, a rising star in the War Department until he'd volunteered for active service himself because he was a crack shot. Yet his fighting prowess had been tragically wasted. He'd died of influenza when I was two on his way to the Argonne Forest. By the time I was three, the year after the war had ended, Mother had married Hughie, a calm, stolid, moneyed older man, who'd been Father's boss at the War Department but was now in the defence business for himself. She'd known him four years by then. He'd been the best man at her wedding to Father.
I knew, in an abstract way, that Mother's own father had died young, just like mine, even though her father had been a diplomat and not a soldier like mine. Her father had been blown up, along with several others, by a terrorist bomb in Imperial Russia on his first foreign posting. It was easy enough to see why he didn't figure, because Mother, born in 1896 after his death, hadn't even known him, but it was where her mother had got to in the story that was more mysterious. If ever I dared ask Mother about her mother, she'd just kind of wilt. I'd tried once or twice, while watching her brush out her pale hair at the end of the day, preparing for evening, concentrating on the smooth strokes. But as soon as I mentioned my grandmother, Mother would do a slow unhappy thing with her eyebrows, while I cringed, in a quiet agony of contrition. Then, after an eternity of silence, she'd sigh. 'Some things in life are just ... difficult. It's best not to dwell on them ... Just be thankful for your own happy upbringing,' she'd say, and I'd have to leave it at that. All I knew was that my grandmother was called Constance and lived far, far away, in Paris, France, and never came home.
'You did know your grandma,' Hughie added eventually, as if he'd been weighing whether to say even this. 'But maybe you won't recall. You were very small.' He measured the air with his big pink hand, bending slightly to get it down to beside his knee. Toddler height.
This surprised me, all right. But I didn't want him to suddenly remember they'd decided not to talk about it in front of me. So I turned the alert flicker I felt pass across my face into a look of half-remembering politeness – a kind of visual 'Uh-huh? Oh, how interesting.' It was the sort of thing I'd got good at, at home with Mother, with her dangerous sensitivity to slight: staying buttoned up; not doing very much.
It was working, too, I thought. Hughie's face lightened as he started to reminisce.
'It was the only time I ever saw her, either, come to think of it. She showed up from the south of France to stay here with us, a couple of months after your mother married me – right here on Shelter Island. Just after she'd married, too – her Russian count. She brought him with her. I don't expect your mother could have stopped her. It's your whole family's holiday house, after all.' His lips twitched. Keeping my mind blank yet receptive, I smiled and widened my eyes encouragingly. 'You don't remember him either, I guess? The Russian count? Well, he was a real piece of work. Tall, stood like a soldier, impressive to look at, at least till you got close enough to know what you were seeing. And then, well ... to my mind he had too much grease on his hair, collars all gone, even if he did bow all the time and kiss ladies' hands and wear white gloves – grubby ones – at breakfast. Too darn knickerbocker for me. Couldn't stop telling us all the usual stories: about how grand he'd been before the Revolution ... and how tragic his life had become since ... how he'd walked for days across a lake of ice to get to safety ... about the priceless jewels sewn into his dead first wife's corset, you know the kind of thing?'
Despite myself, I felt my smile get more uncertain. It was good talking to Hughie, even if he never told Mother to stop when, for weeks at a stretch, something upset her and the whole rhythm of our life got messed up. We weren't close, exactly, and I sometimes worried that he'd maybe have preferred it if I weren't there and he could enjoy life with his beautiful, emotional wife without the quiet child who'd come attached to her. But I liked his slow way of talking. As he was saying all this, I told myself that I'd figure it out later, when I was alone: put the pieces of this unfamiliar story together in my mind. But what I couldn't understand, right now, in this strange conversational byway we'd somehow gone down, was this: how could any of those wild, romantic stories possibly be called 'usual'? (Continues...)
Excerpted from The White Russian by Vanora Bennett. Copyright © 2014 Vanora Bennett.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.