By Sunita Soliar
The cold is beginning to hunch over Grafton Street and stiffens Nina’s fingers as she draws. Her model, a rich Russian friend, lies on a thin rug. A black movement in the corner jolts through Nina and she is on her feet, bashing at the floor with a can of petrol.
‘Are you sure you don’t imagine them?’ the Russian asks.
Nina puts the can down. ‘They told me I could only have the place for seven and six if I housed the bugs.’ Her stomach grouses, making her woozy, and she looks out at the weedy light. ‘I hate winter.’
Her friend lights a cigarette. ‘You haven’t seen a Russian winter. One cannot survive without furs. This cold is romantic.’
Nina’s eyes linger outside. ‘There’s nothing romantic about being alone.’
‘Where do you want to go, Nina?’
The Russian gives her a cigarette. ‘Why not?’
‘That thing you call dyengi.’
‘Ah, you need money?’ She blows out smoke. ‘I have twenty pounds doing nothing in my bank. Would you like it?’
‘What a life you lead!’
‘You would have to buy something.’
‘I will buy this drawing.’
‘For twenty pounds?’
‘I’m very rich.’ She waves her cigarette like a wand.
‘Even so, I have to exhibit here in December.’
‘So? Go! As one woman to another, I wish you a season of scandalous passion. Come back in time for your exhibition, in time for Christmas. What do you say?’
Every night in Paris the sculptors and art critics drink liqueurs and stay out until the black, mirthful sky stumbles into morning. Nina dances in red or yellow stockings, and the scent of Christmas and cheap red wine jingles in the air.
For weeks, Nina watches a young man at the Rotonde. He is a gorgeous god, with hair the colour of weak sunlight. Nina’s heart blisters, as though from lying too long on the beach.
She catches his eye now and he smiles. The cold blows in her friend, Arthur Ransome.
‘I didn’t know you were in Paris,’ she says.
‘Been here a couple of weeks.’ Ransome’s moustache muffles his words. ‘Meet my friend, Basil. He’s an aristocrat, you know.’
Basil tries to be mysterious in very old clothes, a black hat and a cloak.
‘You’re a charming woman,’ he says, in a voice of velvet drapes and marble floors.
Nina pulls her hand away. ‘Your shoes are dirty,’ she says.
‘Yes. I’m incapable of putting them outside the door at night.’ He steers her to a corner and they drink small plums in kirsch. All the time she watches the young man in the corner. He talks now to a small group of writers, whom Nina recognises. There is more kirsch, and she begins to laugh at Basil’s jokes, to find him handsome.
She asks, ‘Is it true you pursued a friend of Arthur’s, then left her for a French woman?’
‘She probably had a lucky escape.’
‘I thought I loved her. But you, one could be sure about you.’
The god’s lips glimmer and she wants to catch his eye again. ‘Goodnight,’ she tells Basil.
‘Wait! What if I asked you to marry me?’
‘You need to clean your shoes first.’
‘You could organize that.’
‘I can do that without marrying you.’
‘I’ll send you a postcard every morning reminding you. Goodnight.’
For weeks Nina sends Basil postcards and they go out to salons and cafés. She could almost love him but there is always the blond: she skips meals so she can afford a drink at the Rotonde and watch him. Sometimes she sees him watching her, but that is all, and soon it is days before she must return to England. She goes up onto the roof. He is there, leaning down over the street.
‘It’s quiet up here,’ he says.
‘I did not mean for you to go. Stay.’
He tells her his name is Edgar, that he is Norwegian. ‘I wanted to speak to you.’
‘I leave next week.’
‘The money has run out.’
‘It always does.’
He tells her he is an artist’s model and he does not know many people here. His words are like fluttering spring petals and she giggles. He kisses her, and the world is warm and perfect and wonderful. They hear footsteps and fly apart. It is Basil.
He says, ‘I’ve come to escort you home.’
‘Don’t go,’ Edgar says.
Nina and Basil travel together to London. He asks her again to marry him. And again. The more she says no, the more persistent he becomes.
The exhibition is in Holland Park next to the ice rink where lovers, with muffs around their necks, hold hands and collide into each other. People pause at Nina’s painting, The Dead Soul, and she hopes that someone will want it, that someone will pave the way back to Edgar. But they all move on to look at the lights of the park’s beribboned Christmas tree.
‘They think it’s vulgar,’ she says.
A light snow dusts Basil’s cloak. He gets down on one knee. ‘Nina Hamnett, will you marry me?’
Nina looks at the tree. London is a cold and hungry place and here is Basil offering something at least. The sound of the skaters grates, and she reaches out her hand. ‘Please get up.’
‘I mean it, Nina. We could live in Paris.’
She looks away from him to the skaters.
‘I see,’ he says. ‘Who is it?’
‘He was at the Rotonde.’
Basil’s eyes tumble to his shoes. ‘I could have given you the money to stay.’
‘I couldn’t have accepted that.’
‘Because you are a man.’
Basil smarts, his eyes like embers. ‘Let me do this.’
‘Because you made me polish my shoes.’
Nina looks down at them. ‘Only if you take The Dead Soul. And let me pay you back.’
‘I’m sorry I called you a scoundrel.’
Basil makes what he can of his frayed smile. ‘Come on. I smell chestnuts.’ He buys two packets and gives Nina one.
‘Merry Christmas,’ he says.
She puts the chestnuts’ heat to her cheeks. New snow is fleecing the world. She blinks it out of her eyes, and in the rink the lovers skate on.
© Sunita Soliar 2010