Naomi Wood Mrs Hemingway Preview

Naomi Wood Mrs Hemingway Preview

1. ANTIBES, FRANCE. JUNE 1926.

Everything, now, is done à trois. Breakfast, then swimming; lunch, then bridge; dinner, then drinks in the evening. There are always three breakfast trays, three wet bathing suits, three sets of cards left folded on the table when the game, abruptly and without explanation, ends. Hadley and Ernest are accompanied wherever they go by a third: this woman slips between them as easily as a blade. This is Fife: this is her husband’s lover

Hadley and Ernest sleep together in the big white room of the villa, and Fife sleeps downstairs, in a room meant for one. The house is quiet and tense until one of their friends arrives with soap and provisions, idling by the fence posts, wondering whether it might be best to leave the three undisturbed.

They lounge around the house—Hadley, Ernest, and Fife—and though they know they are all miserable no one is willing to sound the first retreat; not wife, not husband, not mistress. They have been in the villa like this for weeks, like dancers in relentless motion, trying to exhaust each other into falling.

The morning is already warm and the light has turned the white cotton sheets nearly blue. Ernest is sleeping. His hair is still parted as it was during the day, and there is a warm fleshy smell to his skin that Hadley would tease him about were she in the mood. Around his eyes is a sunburst of wrinkles on the browned skin; Hadley can imagine him squinting out over the top of the boat, looking for the best place to drop anchor and fish.

In Paris, his beauty has become notorious; it is shocking what he can get away with. Even their male friends are bowled over by his looks; they outpace the barmaids in their affection for him. Others see beyond all this to his changeability: meek, at times; bullish at others—he has been known to knock the spectacles off a man’s face after a snub in the Bal Musette. Even some of their close friends are nervous of him—including Scott—though they are older and more successful, it doesn’t seem to matter. What contrary feelings he stirs in men. With women it’s easier— they snap their heads to watch him go and they don’t stop looking until he’s gone. She only knows of one who isn’t charmed by him.

Hadley lies looking up at the ceiling. The beams have been eaten away; she can track the worm’s progress through the wood. Lampshades sway as if there is a great weight to them, though all they are is paper and dowel- ling. Someone else’s perfume bottles glint on the dressing table. Light presses at the shutters. It will be hot again today.

Hadley really wants nothing more than to be in cold old Paris, in their apartment with the smells of pigeon roasting on the coal fire and the pissoir off the landing. She wants to be back in the narrow kitchen and the bathroom where damp spores the walls.

Hadley really wants nothing more than to be in cold old Paris, in their apartment with the smells of pigeon roasting on the coal fire and the pissoir off the landing. She wants to be back in the narrow kitchen and the bathroom where damp spores the walls. She wants to have their usual lunch of boiled eggs at a table so small their knees knock together. It was at this table that Hadley had her suspicions of the affair confirmed. I think Ernest and Fife are very fond of each other, Fife’s sister had said. That’s all she had needed to say.

Yes, Hadley would rather be in Paris or even St. Louis right now, these cities which nurse their ash-pit skies and clouds of dead sleet—anywhere but here, in the violet light of glorious Antibes. At night, fruit falls to the grass with a soft thunk and in the morning she finds the oranges split and stormed by ants. The smell around the villa is ripening. And already, this early, the insects have begun.

Hadley gets up and goes over to the window. When she presses her forehead against the glass, she can see his mistress’s room. Fife’s blinds are closed. Their son Bumby sleeps downstairs, too, having fended off the whooping cough—the coqueluche—which brought them all to this villa in the first place. Sara Murphy didn’t want Bumby near her children for fear the infection would spread. The Fitzgeralds were good to offer their villa for the quarantine—they didn’t have to. But when Hadley walks around the rooms, touching their glamorous things, it feels awful to have her marriage end in the rented quarters of another family’s house.

Tonight, however, marks the end of their quarantine. The Murphys have invited them over to Villa America and it will be the first time this vacation that the unhappy trio has been in the company of friends. To Hadley, the party feels both exciting and dreadful: something has happened in the villa that nobody else has seen, as if someone has wet the mattress and not owned up to the fast-cooling spot in the middle of the bedclothes.

Hadley climbs back into bed. The sheet is tense around Ernest; she tries to pull it back so that he’ll think she hasn’t yet left, but he has the cotton bunched in his fist. She kisses the top of his ear and whispers, “You’ve stolen the bedding.”

Ernest doesn’t answer but scoops her toward him. In Paris he likes to be up early and in his studio by nine. But in Antibes these embraces happen many times daily, as if Ernest and Hadley are in the first flush of romance again, even while both of them know this summer might be the end of things. Lying next to him she wonders how it is she has lost him, although perhaps that is not quite the right phrase, since she has not lost him, not yet. Rather Fife and Hadley wait and watch as if they are lining up for the last seat on a bus.

“Let’s go for a swim.”

“It’s too early, Hash.” Ernest’s eyes are still closed though there is a flicker behind the lids. She wonders if he’s weighing both of them up now that he is awake. Should it be wife? Or mistress? Mistress, or wife? The brain’s whisper begins.

“It’s too early, Hash.” Ernest’s eyes are still closed though there is a flicker behind the lids. She wonders if he’s weighing both of them up now that he is awake. Should it be wife? Or mistress? Mistress, or wife? The brain’s whisper begins.

Hadley swings her legs over the side of the bed. Sunlight threatens to storm the room with a pull of the chain. She feels too big for this heat. All the baby weight seems to have thickened her at the hips; it’s been so hard to shift. Her hair, too, feels heavy. “I’m sick of this place,” she says, pulling her hand around her damp neck. “Don’t you long for rain or gray skies? Green grass? Anything.”

“Time is it?”

“Eight o’clock.”

Ernest paws at her shoulders.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I just can’t.” Her voice catches on the last word. Hadley goes over to the dressing table and she feels Ernest following her with sorrowful eyes. In the mirror her breasts spike under the nightgown. Bone-colored light fills the room when the blinds snap. He pulls the sheet over his head and looks a tiny thing under the bedclothes. Often she doesn’t know what to make of him, whether to class him as a child or a man. He’s the most intelligent person she knows and yet sometimes her instinct is to treat him like her son.

The bathroom is cooler. The claw-footed tub is inviting: she’d like to get in and run herself a cold bath. She splashes the back of her neck and washes her face. Her skin is freckled from the sunshine and her hair redder. She dries herself with a towel and remembers last summer in Spain. They had seen the running of the bulls and gone splashing into the pool. Afterward Ernest had towel-dried her: going up from her ankles, between her legs, then over her breasts. Her mother would have hated such a public show. Touching is reserved for the bedroom, she would have said, but this, too, added to the excitement, as Ernest had gently dried each inch of his wife.

When they returned to Paris that summer, Fife was waiting for them. Nothing—Hadley was sure, or nearly sure—had happened between them until later that year. Winter. Possibly spring. Jinny had not been forthcoming on timings. If only Ernest had more sense than just to throw it all away. Hadley smiles to herself; she sounds like one of those sighing housewives in magazine stories she would never admit to Ernest she rather likes to read.

In the bedroom she throws him his bathing suit which has stiffened overnight. “Come on, Ernest.” An arm emerges for the suit. “Let’s go before it gets too hot.”

Ernest finally gets up and wordlessly steps into the bathing suit. His ass is the only white thing left of him; it pains her to see how handsome he is. Hadley shoves towels into a beach bag with a book (an e. e. cummings novel which she is trying, but failing, to read) and her sunglasses and watches Ernest as he puts on the clothes he wore yesterday

He takes an apple from the pantry and holds it in his palm

Outside the villa, near the lavender in terra-cotta pots, Fife’s bathing suit hangs on the line. It sways, awaiting her legs and arms and softly nodding head. The Hemingways tread past her room in their uniform of Riviera stripes, fisherman’s caps, and white shorts, putting their shoes quietly on the gravel, trying not to wake her. It feels, to Mr. and Mrs. Hemingway, as if they are the ones who are having the affair.