This is a character sketch from my novel in process “White Acts.”
She had only met her mother’s cousin once. When she was a teenager, already fully ensconced in her ballet training, she and her mother, Marie, had gone for a visit. Her father had not gone for some reason. Work probably. The luxury of a week off probably did not come along very often.
They took a morning train. It was a hot summer day. Olga had taken very few train journeys but she had an idea of adventure and elegance that did not match up with the blue linen skirt she had carefully selected from her modest wardrobe and briskly ironed. The skirt stuck to her legs in creases of starched pleats on the dirty mustard yellow seat. She was annoyed to miss a week of training, even in the breathless summer, as some of the lucky girls disappeared to family homes in the country or to seaside treats. She knew enough to be vague about their destination. A farm outside Lyon could not be anyone’s idea of an extravagant summer adventure.
The train was full so smells. Cheese, meat, sweat, perfume. The window would not open and she tried to disappear into her book. At the station in Lyon, her mother craned her neck on the platform, finally furiously waving in a manner that was not at all like her. A petite woman near the concourse waved back and took long determined steps to meet them.
She was beautiful. There was no other word for it. Dark, dark hair pulled into an elegant bun, cornflower blue eyes, pale, clear skin, full cherry lips. She looked nothing like Olga or her mother, pale washed out versions of this.
“Nadia,” her mother called out and pulled the woman to her. The skirt of Nadia’s blue and white printed dress billowed against her legs, making Olga feel even hotter and stiffer in her skirt. Nadia was much younger than Marie. Olga could not judge her age and was trying not to get distracted in trying to remember possible birthdays, the revolution, the exodus. It had all only been half-explained to her, many times but only in a particular, practiced way that did not invite questions.
“This must be Olga.” Nadia spoke French, with no telltale Russian undertones, almost as pure as Olga’s. Nadia turned to her and held her at arm’s length, as if to study Olga. Her eyes were bright and lively. “How lovely,” she said, after a few seconds. “I’m so happy to finally meet you.”
“You met her when she was a baby,” Marie said with some impatience, starting to organize their suitcases. She pushed a small white fabric bag toward Nadia. “Here are some treats from Paris for you.” Nadia peeked in the bag but Olga knew it would not be obvious what was in the carefully wrapped package. She had been given the delightful task of buying the little gifts. Her mother declining to leave the apartment yet again to go anywhere unfamiliar. Her father handed her a banknote, more than was usually spent on a week of groceries. Olga spent an entire rainy afternoon after class dreaming and buying. Glaceed fruits, jasmine tea, small chocolates in a bright orange box that was perhaps prettier than the chocolates themselves. She looked forward to watching Nadia unwrap each item and hoped her mother would approve of her choices.
“Come, come. Emile is waiting outside.” Nadia waived her hand toward a side entrance and took Marie’s suitcase. Outside a black car was at the curb. At the sight of them the driver hopped out and came around to the curb. He took the suitcase from Nadia and held out his right hand.
“Welcome,” he said, first to Marie and then to Olga. He was balding with bright blue eyes and a compact body fitted into a suit that looked like it had served him for many years. Olga relaxed when she saw his tobacco-stained fingers.
“Thank you.” Marie stood and watched him arrange the suitcases in the car. “I am Maria Matayeva. Thank you for allowing us to visit Nadia. It is very kind.” She waited for Emile to straighten up and face her. She had used the full power of her name, as she often did when she met a new person. Olga saw her get taller and stiffer as she pronounced her full name, fueled by the knowledge that she had been named after the tsar’s mother and his favorite daughter by one of the tsar’s own circle, even if without the knowledge of her father’s family or the benefit of a wedding ceremony. That mixed inheritance was a constant presence in the family.
Olga climbed in the back of the car. She did not listen to the others talking as they drove, although she did notice that Emile called her cousin Nadine and Nadia smiled every time he addressed her.
Only when they go to the farm and she had unpacked their few things did Olga realize she was confused. She had understood that Nadia was an employee at the farm, assisting with the geese and ducks that were Emile’s specialty, handling part of the business end of supplying the traditional restaurants in Lyon. As they sat down to a late lunch in the big sunny kitchen, just Emile, Nadia, Olga and Marie, it became obvious that Nadia was the lady of the house, serving up lunch with the assistance of a sturdy, unsmiling older woman.
They ate braised leeks and a sausage that was unfamiliar to Olga, but delicious. As was her practice, she nibbled and delayed, making her bites last until she was no longer fully hungry and could pretend she was satisfied. Her mother’s ever-present pretensions of gentility and plenty let her allow Olga to get away with not eating every bit on her plate. At home she avoided serving Olga just the small amounts she would actually consume, displeased by the spartan look of the plate with so much empty space.
After a piece of apple tart, Emile asked if they wanted to see the operation of the farm. They walked carefully across a gravel yard that would be a lifesaver in wet or mud but was a challenge in the city shoes. By the time they reached the white building that housed the geese and ducks whose livers were so prized, Marie’s mouth was a flattened line, her kips pressed tight against each other in disapproval. Olga wanted this tour to last as long as it could to delay the time when Olga would be alone with Marie and Marie’s displeasure with Nadia would be spilled onto Olga.