Nikolai only drew back the thick curtain when it grew completely dark. He’d stand at the window for a long time, looking at the street. Black trees, blacker than the night, stood motionless in the park across the road. Beyond them lay the cemetery with a few solitary, weak lamps — indiscernible from here, and for the dead quite inessential. Nikolai imagined the small grave of his son, covered by the grey trapezium of an ugly, cut-price headstone made of marble dust, with a broken branch drawn on it in fake gold. It happened a long time ago, and Nikolai no longer became upset when thinking of his son. Besides, he’d learned never to think of the convulsions of that child in his arms. He no longer knew for certain when exactly it had happened. He’d lean his forehead against the windowpane, and enjoy the burning chill on his skin. Except, even now, it hurt infinitely, infinitely, oh how infinitely painful it was that they still hadn’t managed, that he, the paterfamilias, husband and father, hadn’t managed to erect a worthy gravestone for his son, the kind they’d dreamt of, black marble, gold lettering, and the best and most precious framed photograph of him, which he had apparently accidentally burnt, having held a lit match to it, and watched its flame calmly lick the photographic paper and unhurriedly turn it to embers. A blaze of the strangest hues held aloft by fingers slow in sensing the searing pain.
The door behind him opened, and Nikolai heard his wife’s voice. Vera had to go to the theatre, and asked Nikolai to have dinner with her. Sometimes he’d agree, tear himself from the window, walk slowly into the other room, screw his eyes up in the bright light, and Vera would immediately hurry to the light switch, knowing how bright light irritated him after his dim room.
Seated at the table while his wife made trips to and from the kitchen, Nikolai observed her, and agreed with Bertrand: Vera is indeed beautiful, he’d say to himself, she’s spectacular. Her beauty is so flawless that it almost seems unreal, otherworldly, however silly these words may sound. As if she isn’t a real living being of flesh, blood and bones, like everyone else — one who, for some incomprehensible reason and in spite of everything, lived with him in a small two-roomed, Khrushchev-era flat — but a lovely dream, a fantasy, a fine creation of the imagination.
And immediately he’d become angry, because he understood that many must admire her, and he was certain that she had a great many opportunities to be unfaithful to him.
She’d leave for the theatre in the morning, and come home by eleven p.m. at best: rehearsals and performances. She even had lunch there, and dinner, in the cheap theatre canteen, washing the capital’s famed cold meat salad down with tart lemonade from a green half-litre bottle.
Answer this apparently simple and elementary question: who controls what she really does in her beloved theatre? There are glaring shade-less lamps before the dressing-room mirrors, tins of stage paint and powder litter the small tables, they arrange some chairs together by the wall, she lays her bare back upon them — how can I bear this thought? – or she sits astride him while everything is reflected in the triple mirrors, grimy with fingerprints.
** ** **
Nikolai demanded that she forgo the theatre and renounce her dishonourable profession. Vera disagreed, cried, went to spend the night at her mother’s, and her main argument was that they would have no income were she to leave; they would quite simply have nothing to live on, to buy food like potatoes, black bread, white bread, pasta, meat (beef, pork), eggs, milk, tea, fish, herbs (when in season), butter, what else did they eat?
It was a ploy — comfortable like old slippers under the bed, the kind you can slip onto your feet, without looking — an excuse; if she really wanted to heed him and leave the theatre, she could easily find another job, all the more since the pay at the theatre wasn’t exactly generous. But precisely therein lay the crux of the problem: if she only wanted to...
Nikolai knew only too well how a woman could land a plum role, how she could attain it in the simplest way — Bertrand termed it ‘body-wise’. That’s what he would say and chuckle, alluding to Vera. What nasty, repulsive eyes he had whenever he said it: ‘body-wise’ — as if the word was lyrical, and held a special sweetness for him. Oh what a pity I don’t work as a director at that accursed theatre...
Nikolai shouted at her, undressed her and hid her clothes, so Vera couldn’t leave the house and go to the theatre. He beat her eventually, tried to avoid her face so as not to ruin it with bruises, and it was hard to tell who felt the blows more keenly, he or she, and everything remained as before: morning rehearsals, evening performances.
** ** **
She told him there were locks on the dressing rooms, but tell me this: does she always shut the door when she has to change before a show? Though Vera swore that she always locked the door, he didn’t believe her: lies, lies, could one really, in the hurry and nerve-racking anxiety before a performance begins, with minutes to go before the curtain-call, remember about the door? Nikolai imagined how the actorlings — obnoxious, graceful to the point of effeminacy, fawning and lascivious — might come to her door, peek inside, look at her body; look at the body that belongs solely to him!
What a torment it was to wait for her after a performance. Better he had never known her, never met her, never loved her.
He envisioned her before the mirror, in a pool of dazzling white light. The door swung soundlessly open, and the gap between the door and frame grew wider. Someone was watching, waiting most likely for Vera’s reaction, aware as she was of his presence and without doubt, also of his desire; and then he flung open the door and walked in. His hand would brush her cheek, barely touching her skin, come to rest on her shoulder (they would gaze at each other in the triple theatre mirrors), slip downwards, slip down — Nikolai saw an eternity of this gesture. Vera would close her eyes and throw back her head, leaning back over her chair, and lips — cold and adept at such caresses — would touch her skin. Her lips quivered, she whispered something, something passionate, dear Lord, like she used to whisper to him; the hand trailed up and down her body, gripped her shoulder, and Vera cried out in delicious agony, eyes shut, she moaned quietly, her nipples hardened and strained under the fingers that squeezed them, that fondled her breasts. And naturally, the door was now securely locked. Nikolai drank vodka, the vodka ran out but brought no release, and Bertrand sat in the dark room, watching him, laughing, saying all sorts of obscenities about Vera...
At times Nikolai seriously considered killing her, and then himself, to end this torture that had no end nor respite nor any hope of salvation. God, he would say to himself, if our son were still alive, would she then perhaps be different? But our son is dead, just go to the cemetery you darling bastards and see for yourselves, and she need no longer hold back because of him, or be ashamed of the things she does.
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