There was a black-and-white photograph of Anna Sergeyevna* in Spanish dress, standing on one of the many cluttered, dusty surfaces in her Cimiez flat. It stood out amid numerous pictures of family members scattered around the world and assorted knick-knacks she’d accumulated on her extensive travels.
“Don’t touch anything, darling,” my mother said, then, when she noticed the photograph that had grabbed my attention, whispered, “She was a very beautiful woman.”
“That was shortly after my first cosmetic surgery,” Anna Sergeyevna said from across the room. “The man was a genius: took fifteen years off my face.”
In the silver-framed picture, Anna Sergeyevna stood in a proud pose, her shoulders back and her chin raised just enough to signal her unchallenged authority, the brightness and piercingness of her blue eyes captured even on a black and white film. She wore a dark dress with a wide sweatheart neckline, a tall peineta rising from behind her blonde hair gathered in a soft chignon, and a black lace mantilla cascading on her shoulders. I was ten years old and thought that, with that fair colouring, Anna Sergeyevna would have looked better in a Dutch costume with a lace cap or a brightly-patterned Russian shawl with tassles.
My grandmother and I had met Anna Sergeyevna on the Promenade des Anglais. We were sitting on a bench, chatting, looking at the cyan-blue sea, my eyes squinting in the winter sun, and my grandmother had taken a small metal file from her handbag to sand down the sharp corner of a fingernail. A broad old lady, considerably older than my grandmother, sat down heavily on the edge of the bench. Her white hair, yellowed at the tips, was secured in a tight bun, her grey coat was threadbare and there was a hole in her tights, just below the knee. I immediately fell silent, as I always did on such occasions, to avoid attracting attention to us as foreigners. I couldn’t bear any more questions from strangers. What language are you speaking? Where are you from? The old lady produced an apple and, saying something in French, extended her hand towards my grandmother. We had only been in France for a few months and I was only just learning the language, but made out the word Prêter. My grandmother handed her the nail file. I frowned at her, trying to catch her eye. The old lady was probably going to walk away without returning it and we couldn’t afford a new one. She then proceeded clumsily to peel her apple with it, the juice running all over the metal. Once she’d finished, she gave the sticky file back without even wiping it clean, said, “Merci, Madame,” and started eating her apple. I wished we could get up and leave, but my grandmother resumed talking to me. Sure enough, I sensed the old lady leaning forward and eavesdropping. Everything inside me shrank. “Vi govorite po Ruski?” she said a few seconds later.
Meeting Russians, Old Russians, as my grandmother called them, was a frequent occurence on the Promenade des Anglais. After losing the world as they’d known it, Nice seemed to have become a refuge for many such émigrés. We would see them stroll along the picturesque seafront, their furs the worse for wear, quiet resignation and indelible pride on their faces. At least that’s how I remember them. I also recall their Borzois, as aristocratic-looking and as wistful as their owners. I would stroke and hug the dogs while their owners engaged in the usual exchange. “How long have you been here?”, “When did you leave Russia?”, “And your family? Oy, kakoi ujas – how awful!”, “And your granddaughter speaks Russian? Molodetz – well done – my grandchildren speak only French, sadly.”
“Vi govorite po Ruski?” the old lady said, more as a happy observation than a question. A half hour or so later, as we finally stood up from our bench, my grandmother had Anna Sergeyevna’s card in her handbag and we were expected for tea the following Sunday.
We made our way up the hill to Cimiez, to the address on the business card: an upper-floor flat in an expensive building with sliding French windows and cantilevered balconies with frosted glass guarding. A dull, caramel Murano glass chandelier that had obviously been intended for a larger room and a higher ceiling spread its tentacles over the lounge. We sat on the canapé and armchairs with ornate gilded legs, and were served tea in china cups and saucers decorated with girls in straw bonnets and abundant lace petticoats, swaying on swings, watched by young men in redingotes. Anna Sergeyevna had settled in France after spending years decorating apartments various countries, then renting them out or selling them. She remarked on how overpriced everything in France was, but at least the climate in Nice was kind to her rheumatism. She apologised for the mess. Apparently, she’d recently dismissed her maid and was looking for another, easier said than done, since everybody demanded absurdly high wages. Her daughter-in-law, who was squandering her son’s hard-earnt money as if it grew on trees, had the nerve to call her stingy. She’d told her son so many times that marrying an aristocrat’s daughter would only bring ruin, but when men fall in love with a pretty face, there’s no reasoning with them.
Having recently moved to France ourselves, we had no other acquaintances, so calling on Anna Sergeyevna became a regular feature in our lives. Occasionally, she came to our tiny flat on Boulevard Pasteur, but since our furniture consisted of the bare minimum and we had no sofa or armchairs, we ended up accepting her hospitality more often than we were able to return it. Still, in the name of her pride, my grandmother would never let us head up to Cimiez without a freshly-baked priannik, kalach or a tray of coffee éclairs from the pâtisserie. Sometimes, since Anna Sergeyevna still didn’t have a maid to cook for her, my grandmother would take her a pan with something delicious she had prepared herself.
When Anna Sergeyevna did come to visit us, she would appear not in the grey, threadbare coat I’d seen her in on our first meeting, but in one of what I soon discovered to be a large collection of fur coats. “Guess what it is, Katia,” she’d order. The only one I’d recognise was the umistakable leopard and the tightly-curled Karakul. My grandmother had told me how newborn or even foetal lambs were slaughtered to make these coats, so, much to Anna Sergeyevna’s disappointment, I refused to feel its softness. Instead, one weekend, I wrote a story about a leopard fur coat that comes back to life and sinks its fangs into the neck of its owner, in order to avenge the murdered animal.
“How can you expect to get ahead in life if you can’t tell good quality fur from bad?” she once said to me, getting me to stroke her prized, chocolate-brown mink coat. I felt like Gigi in Colette’s novella.
Once, she came to see us after vanishing for a couple of weeks to have cosmetic surgery abroad, where the procedure was cheaper than in France. “Wait, don’t move!” she said as soon as she stepped out of the lift at the end of our corridor. “Now be honest: how old do you think I am?”
I could see my mother and my grandmother struggling to find the right answer. The skin of Anna Sergeyevna’s face had been lifted and stretched, but her bulk, her heavy step and her swollen ankles were unchanged.
As we made more acquaintances and I became fluent in French, Anna Sergeyevna became the unhappy, lonely woman my grandmother was kind to after my mother ran out of patience and I refused to frequent an accessory to animal murder. My grandmother continued to call on her, take her cakes and humour her, until we left France, six years later.
I still always think of Anna Sergeyevna whenever – increasingly seldom – I see a woman in a mink coat, and find myself automatically assessing the sheen, length, thickness and quality of the fur.
* Name changed.