“Anyone here? Where are you?” The lady stood in the middle of the large, empty room, her chocolate-colored eyes flashing with anger as she stared at the incomplete renovations. Buckets of creamy white paint, brushes, and other painting paraphernalia were scattered around the cloth covering the floor. “Where is everyone?” she cried again. There was no answer. With a sweeping motion she flung her embroidered, elegant black shawl around her shoulders, and without removing her black fur hat, which added considerable height to her already slim and tall figure, strode up the stairs, negotiating her high heels with ease. “The pigs,” she murmured, quickly correcting herself and saying “Les cochons.” One must keep one’s style even when alone, as she was always trying to remember.
On the upper story’s little hall she burst into one of the rooms, then stopped suddenly and gazed at its perfection. The walls glowed with their fresh coat of paint; the parquet was polished to a deep shine. She sighed with relief and went downstairs again, reaching the empty room just as the two workmen returned from their lunch.
“Why have you not finished the house?” she asked, her voice shrill and accusing. “You absolutely promised to finish by tomorrow! I fully relied on you! The furniture is arriving on Friday, and where shall I put it? I will not pay! I will complain! You will be instantly dismissed!” She almost stamped her foot but must have remembered the danger it could present to her high heel, and stopped herself in time. Instead she decided to wring her hands, a most impressive gesture since it allowed the many rings she wore on top of the white gloves to flash and sparkle in the sun-drenched room.
“But Maidum Koska, she is going to be finished tomorrow. There is only one wall left, and then we polish the floor, easy,” said the older man, smiling at her. “And look at the windows, them too is done so beautifully.”
Madame Koska, somewhat mollified, went to the window. She had to admit that the windows were very well repaired, the terrible drafts that came from the loosened glass all gone. And not a single drop of paint landed on the glass! She smiled at the workers with utmost good nature that no one would have believed could be achieved so quickly after the tempest, and stepped over to the door as another lady entered the apartment.
“Annushka, dorogaya,” exclaimed Madame Koska, hugging the lady and speaking with a deep, velvety voice. “Vill yu see the lovely vork these good men did? Ve are almost ready to start!”
The younger painter’s mouth opened. He looked at Madame Koska as if she started foaming at the mouth and speaking in tongues. “Vat is this, young man?” she said sternly.
Too bashful to talk to her directly, and perhaps a bit scared, he turned and spoke to the older man. “The lady has two voices,” he said timidly. The one referred to as Annushka burst out laughing. “I keep telling you, Vera, you must remember to stick to the right speech…”
“Vat is he talking about, I do not know,” said Madame Koska complacently. “This class of people, I vill never understand them… not at all like the serfs we had in St. Petersburg… Come, Annushka, ve go and have some tea and talk about the reception.”
Seated comfortably at the little tea room around the corner with a spread of tiny sandwiches and petit fours to accompany their tea, the ladies were drinking, eating, and taking notes at the same time.
“Yes, it is exactly right,” said Madame Koska. “You really are a caterer in a million, Annushka.”
“Thank you, Vera. I am glad you like my suggestions. This is going to be a grand party,” said Annushka, or rather, Countess Anna Petrovna Golitsyn, a scion of one of the noblest families of old Russia. She was, unfortunately, booted out of her elegant mansion and expensive lifestyle after the Revolution into what she liked to call ignominious exile.
“I will never understand how easily you managed to get used to the working life,” said Madame Koska. “You were born with not just a silver spoon, but a platinum one in your mouth, and
here you are, working for a living and making a success of it.”
“Every one of us had only two choices after we escaped,” said Madame Golitsyn. “I could have starved in a tiny Paris apartment like so many of the other exiles, maintaining the dignity of my royal blood and waiting for the Tsar’s resurrection. You know my older brother, Vasily, is still driving a taxi? And his daughter Natalya is selling needlework? I keep sending them money, poor things. Yes, I could starve with dignity, dreaming about past glories, or I could acknowledge, albeit with great sorrow, that the royal family is not going to return, learn to adjust to the new life and be comfortable and successful. I chose the latter and never looked back. And cooking was always one of my favourite pastimes, even when we had all the money and servants and the huge pantries and kitchens… I used to cook quite often, for amusement. Once I realized that having a business was an option, I knew I was not locked in a gilded cage. It gave me such a sense of freedom.”
“But you could have stayed in Paris, at least be surrounded by your people.”
“Not really. They accepted the need to work, and forgave those who struggled as waiters, piece-work seamstress, dance masters, or singers… but a successful business woman was another matter. They would have never forgiven me that. Besides, so many great cooks and caterers live and work in Paris, the competition was daunting. So once I completed the culinary course and got my certificate, London seemed ideal. Not enough French cooking for all those who wanted it, so I was assured of success.”
“Indeed. And now, with my new business, if all goes well I’ll be able to send many great ladies your way, and you can send yours to me.”
“Paris brought luck to both of us, Vera.”
“Except for the pig I married,” said Madame Koska without any show of anger. She sipped her tea.
“Le cochon,” corrected Madame Golitsyn automatically.
“Yes, sorry,” said Madame Koska. “Le cochon.”
“If you prefer, you can use the Russian word for pig, sveenya.”
“I like that, but I think most people would recognize the French term more easily,” said Madame Koska. “Still, once in a while, sveenya does sound, well, piggish… nice word.”
“Ah, well… le cochon is gone now, and the dressmaking skill you learned in Paris did you much
“This is true. If I had not married le cochon, I would know nothing of haute couture. He was very good at it.”
“Do you have an idea where he is now?”
“No, I have not heard from him since he left, after the terrible scandal at the atelier. He was probably killed in the War, or maybe emigrated somewhere... what does it matter?”
“If you ever decide to marry again it would help to know if you need a death certificate or a divorce…” said Madame Golitsyn.
Madame Koska burst out laughing. “Marry again? Whatever for? Would you?”
“Baw zhe moi, no, no no! I am making a good living. What do I need a husband for? And anyway, just look at me, who would be interested in a short, fat, middle-aged woman? You look like a noble Russian more than I do,
“I think you are lovely,
Annushka, just the way you are, and plenty of men would agree. But yes, my good
looks helped when I was young… and now it would help in the haute couture
business. Yes, it’s the business world for us, Annushka, and I am enjoying every
minute of it. We leave the romance to the girls.”