coco & igor
On the morning of her death, a Sunday, Coco went for a drive.
It was the one day of the week she allowed herself off from the shop. Wrapped in a woollen tweed overcoat against the January cold, she sat by the window behind the chauffeur. The face revealed in the driver’s mirror belonged to a woman in her late eighties. Her eyes were scribbled with blood and her lashes long as an ostrich’s. Deeply wrinkled, her skin had a swarthy toughness from too much sun and too many cigarettes.
‘Where to, Mademoiselle?’
‘I don’t care. Around.’
Picking up speed, the car achieved an even hum on the cobbles. Dwarfed in the back seat, Coco was conscious of the empty space around her. A smell of leather rose from the seats. She felt their coldness penetrate her bones.
‘Disgusting, isn’t it?’ the driver said.
He gestured with both hands: ‘This.’
Coco muttered as she put her glasses on. Outside, she registered an untypical stillness. Trees hovered remote as ghosts. Bells rang flatly from the Madeleine, answering in widening circles of sympathy the damp sound of church bells around the centre of Paris.
Slowly she noticed something shocking. The streets were strewn with the bodies of dead birds. Pigeons, mostly. With alert, nervous movements, she glanced first through one side-window and then the other. Her face broadened like a shadow as she spoke. ‘Stop! I want to get out.’
The chauffeur pulled over. His peaked hat slid against the ceiling as he hurried to help her from the car. Though sprightly for her age, she was still frail enough to require the support of the young man’s arm in stepping onto the pavement.
Her eyes blinked quickly as she gazed around. The avenue was littered with the stiffening, horny-toed corpses of birds. Limp-winged, predominantly grey, with dabs of lilac and rhythms of iridescence in bands around the necks, there they lay – their heads to one side and their beaks slightly open. Feathers from the wings of one bird flapped slackly close to Coco’s foot.
‘My God!’ A ripple of disgust ran through her. For an instant, she felt faint.
Beyond she witnessed a scene of even greater carnage. The dried-up bowl of a fountain was choked with the ragged bodies of dead birds. More mute lumps of feathers asterisked the sandy paths.
‘What happened?’ she asked, both puzzled and upset.
‘The mayor ordered a cull. They were filthying the city, flying into windscreens, spreading disease...’ the young man answered matter-of-factly. ‘It was in the newspapers,’ he offered, careful not to imply any rebuke.
‘But how...?’ Her arm attempted to include the scale of the massacre in its sweep.
‘They put poison in the basins of the parks overnight,’ the driver went on. ‘Just strong enough to kill the pigeons.’ He rubbed his black-gloved hands together. Wearing a thin liveried suit from the Ritz, he was beginning himself to feel the chill. Seeing her hungry for more information, he added, ‘They chose Saturday night so the streets could be cleaned up easily on the Sunday.’
Coco noticed for the first time the small army of street-cleaning vehicles already humming about the empty city centre. She watched men in pale blue overalls going about the grisly business of sweeping up the dead birds. They looked, she thought as they raked them in, like gruesome croupiers.
Her limbs went watery, and she clung to a railing to steady herself. Little flecks of rust rubbed off on her gloves. A voice spilled from inside her head, a self-directed chatter, a high insistent hum like tinnitus in her ears.
‘Mademoiselle?’ The driver tilted his head to listen, but guessed correctly that the words were not for him.
Her thoughts had bent elsewhere – towards Igor and his collection of birds. How he’d grieve to see such destruction, how he’d be appalled.
She was startled to discover how much she missed him, even now. She had seen her partners die off one by one to leave her old and unaccompanied. But he was still alive. Odd, she pondered, how they had both survived when almost everyone else had gone. She remembered with tenderness that summer they spent together in her villa, Bel Respiro. Fifty years ago now.
She was surprised to experience an acute sense of loss. A feeling of emptiness possessed her. For a second everything around her seemed so hollow she guessed that, tapped, the world might ring.
The driver stood there patiently, awaiting her next whim. ‘Mademoiselle?’
Recalled to the present, she saw the trees withdrawn to a twiggy thinness, and heard the silence now the bells had ceased. She grimaced as the odour of decay reached her nostrils. ‘I’m cold,’ she said with a sudden shiver. Her fingers were numb inside her gloves. Pulling her coat close about her, she indicated with a quick movement her wish to return to the car.
As they raced away from the kerb, she struggled to fix her jiggling image in the mirror of her compact. ‘Slow down!’ she muttered. ‘What’s the hurry?’ That buzz again inside her head like a wasp inside a jar.
On a day that seemed robbed of it, she felt an urgent need for colour. Even the normally gaudy advertisements seemed bleached of their high gloss. Shakily she manoeuvred her lipstick across the taut line of her mouth. Painted a vivid red, her lips made a small bright space in the morning. As she peeled off her gloves, though, she saw her fingers, stringy and distinctly gnarled. Repulsed, she looked at them as though they were claws, as though the liver spots that afflicted them were a kind of leprosy.
Coco loathed being old. It was the inevitability of it she hated, the sheer relentlessness – like the leaves turning brown, or the cold coming. Effortlessly feminine all her life, she felt at this instant less like a woman and more like just another parcel of skin and bone poised to rejoin the earth. It had all happened so rapidly. Her life was a blur, and had rushed by like the city now pouring past the window of her car.
They returned swiftly to the Ritz, where Coco kept her own suite of rooms. The chauffeur escorted her through the broad revolving doors.
‘I can manage from here,’ she said, dismissing him. ‘I’m not a cripple.’
With a look of contending tolerance and respect, the young man touched his cap and returned to the car outside. Coco felt the change of temperature as the warm air touched her face. She walked on through the foyer, where a vacuum cleaner moved in giant arcs across the floor. She took care not to snag her feet in its wire.
‘Good morning, Mademoiselle Chanel,’ declared the receptionist above the din. Warily, and without looking around, she raised a hand in acknowledgement. The wire, she knew, was all part of a conspiracy to trip her – like the slippery beeswax and the rugs they kept adjusting in her room. They were all out to get her, she was convinced. She smiled at the thought that she had thwarted them again. Another attempt to kill her hindered.
As she walked on towards the elevator, the stench of the Grill Room hit her. Asparagus, this time. And if it wasn’t asparagus, then it might be tarragon, or garlic. It always reeked of something. She blamed the maître d’. He did it deliberately, she was certain. She’d told him several times how dreadful it was having to smell other people’s food. He never listened. It was his way of assaulting her, she decided; his strategy for forcing her out.
Like an avid mouth the lift doors slid open. Behind her they sucked shut.
By this time Coco’s maid, Céline, had arrived and was busy making her mistress’s bed. The key scratched in the lock and Coco opened the door to her room. Standing to attention, the maid wished her good morning. Without stopping, Coco looked her up and down.
‘Your hair’s too long, girl, and your skirt’s too short.’
Céline smiled, half apologetically touching her Alice-band and tugging the hem of her mini-skirt down. She knew she was being teased. ‘It’s the fashion,’ the girl answered.
‘What do you know?’ Coco snapped.
Stung, Céline resumed making the bed. But Coco, placing a restraining hand upon her arm, and in a gentler almost beseeching tone, said, ‘I’m very tired, now.’ She leant for support upon one of the brass balls at the corners of her bed, and saw herself drastically foreshortened in its orb. She felt dizzy. ‘I want to lie down,’ she said.
The maid nodded in response. Her lips leapt into a smile. Coco removed her coat and glasses and, with a kneading effort of her feet, her shoes. Then, sitting on the edge of the bed, she allowed her head to be set back on the pillow. She flinched a little in bringing her legs round.
She had never felt so exhausted. Seeing the dead birds had depressed her. Her stomach churned. Why did she have to confront this on her one day off? She needed rest before returning to work tomorrow. And there were a hundred things she had to do. She’d barely completed the spring collection, and already she was being pressed to submit designs for the summer. The pressure was on. Every year it seemed to get worse. Her mind busied itself with the following week’s schedule, the details merging in an impossible knot. Her head began to throb, and a tension entered her shoulders. She felt the blood run sluggishly to her fingers and her toes.
She closed her eyes and allowed herself to recollect those months she spent with Stravinsky in her villa. The century’s greatest composer living with its most celebrated couturière and perfumer. Who would have guessed it back then? Who would believe it now?
Slowly the tendrilous threads of her current worries un-ravelled, giving way to memories of sunlight and birdsong, and the recreated spasms of a piano. Its rhythms melted imperceptibly into the rhythms of her breathing as she slid into a dream-filled unconsciousness and succumbed to a deeper sleep.
An hour later, she awoke feeling a sharp star of pain in the centre of her chest. The pain spread rapidly to crowd her arms. It pressed down from above upon her skull. Fear seized her body. Her mind filled with alarm. She glanced about. She saw first the white walls of her room, then the table by her bed. A glass of water rested there next to a white-shaded lamp and a triple icon – a present given to her by Stravinsky half a century before.
The white walls. The bedside table. The icon. In panic, Coco tried to orient herself from these reference points. Still she felt displaced.
Abruptly something tilted within her. Her eyes took on a wild expression. A surge of panic filled her head.
‘Lift me up quick!’ she called to the maid, who came running through from the adjoining room. A feeling of suffocation rose in her throat. ‘I can’t breathe!’ Her eyes were wide with fright. Her voice in her own ears sounded disembodied. As though they were responsible for choking her, she pulled at the white pearls strung around her neck. Then unpreventably the room began to spin, whirling in a vertiginous blur. Suddenly covered in sweat, her skin gave off a sharp scent of agitation. The spokes of her irises seemed to form wheels.
Céline grabbed a syringe and with difficulty broke open a phial of Sedol. ‘It’s all right, I’m here, now. Everything will be fine.’
Coco’s eyes were drawn to a corner of the room. Her body drained of colour. Her fingers lost their responsiveness. A high note penetrated her ears. ‘They’re killing me!’ she managed, with a half-silent scream.
At that instant, she felt something irrevocable fit itself around her. And in the split-second before the shape of her death took hold, as the last swatches of oxygen escaped around her brain, a million images processed themselves on a palpitating membrane at the back of her eye.
It all came with the vividness of a mirror, the diffused brilliance of a dream. And in this final clarity she recalled how he looked as he bent to kiss her, remembered sharply his dark eyes.
She mumbled, ‘So this is it!’
Then she fell through into silence. Her face lost its shape. Around her, all she could see was darkness. Everything went blank.
Too late, Céline held the syringe fast against Coco’s arm. Gently she set it down. With a calmness that surprised her, she closed Coco’s eyes.