Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood – Extract

Mrs Hemingway

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 dowelling. 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. 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.

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.

PARIS, FRANCE. 1925–26.

It was a letter that finally gave them away.

From the beginning Hadley and Fife had been fast correspondents. They called each other affectionate nicknames and recounted the minor troubles of being American women in Paris. Fife would write, addressing Hadley as mon enfant, and talk about how overworked she was at Vogue, or who was a boring flirt, or how drunk she had been—and still was—as she clattered at the typewriter on the baby grand piano in her apartment on the rue Picot. Fife’s letters were always gorgeously funny. Hadley sometimes had trouble working out the right way to pen a response. She’d always written just as she spoke.

The production of Fife’s letters was always evident. Slugs of gin stained the page, or there was a scratch of mascara near the date, or the bruise of jammed letters where, Fife told her in the postscript, some man had seated himself on the piano keys and made her mistype the Royal typewriter. When Hadley read the letters she imagined her slim lovely friend drinking vermouth in that kimono Fife liked to wear, perfectly huge on the girl’s curveless shape.

Fife had been wearing chinchilla when Hadley first met her at a party. The coat had slipped past in a rush of fur, tickling Hadley’s nose, as this expensive-looking girl filled her martini glass. “Oops,” she said, batting down the fur and giving Hadley a wide grin. “Sorry. It does get in the way like that.” Fife wore chinchilla; her sister Jinny wore mink.

Evidently they were women of means, though Hadley saw from their hands that both sisters were unmarried. When they were introduced Ernest said something wicked about how he’d like to take one of the sisters out in the other sister’s coat. Which animal he preferred left everyone guessing.

After the party Hadley asked her husband what he thought of this woman Pauline, whom everyone called Fife. “Well,” he said, “she’s no southern belle.” And he was right. Black short hair, skinny and small, but it was the woman’s eyes that were remarkable. Dark and lovely and quite bold, not a hint of doubt about herself. That’s what she liked immediately about Fife: how assured she was, almost like a man.

Fife started to call on the Hemingways that fall after they’d seen each other at the Dôme and the Select. When they bumped into her at the club one evening, they included her in the invitation to finish the party at their apartment. After that night, Fife started coming round regularly, as if she’d picked up a taste for their bohemian poverty. Their apartment, despite its shabbiness, she said was positively ambrosial. Hadley wasn’t quite sure what this meant, and with how much irony the woman delivered that statement.

It had been fun at first: the three of them sitting up late every night, talking about books and food and the authors whom they liked for their personalities but not for their prose. Fife would always leave early, saying, “You men need some time alone.” It seemed a very modern thing to do, this referring to oneself as a boy, or a man, or a chap. Hadley disliked it.

When Fife left, the apartment always felt empty. Hadley didn’t feel able to put together little witticisms about their social circle and Ernest seemed deflated. Instead of talking as they normally did, Hadley started to go to bed early. And Ernest stayed up late, working on a manuscript, drinking alone.

Then Fife stopped leaving early. One evening she stayed late (“Oh, only if you chaps don’t mind having me”) and then the next evening she stayed even later. The apartment rang with the woman’s laughter, which had such an instant flourish that Hadley had a hard time making her own heard.

Sometimes, when it was late and they had stayed up talking, Ernest would go down and hail her a cab. She wondered what it was they talked about, Ernest and Fife, as they idled on the street corner, bundled up, their faces close against the cold, the skin of the chinchilla brushing up against his neck.

Suddenly, whenever Hadley walked into a room, Fife would be in it. Often she’d be doing something appallingly helpful: pinning clothes on the wash line, or playing with Bumby, or, to Hadley’s fury, one day changing the bed linens without asking, as if their marriage bed were something she were privy to. And when Hadley came down with a cold that November, Fife was there: feeding her broths and making her compresses, keeping her warm and tucked up in bed while she entertained Ernest in the room next door.

When they went skiing that December, Fife followed. They easily accommodated her, as if there were a space in the bed already waiting. Ernest worked in the mornings, and Hadley and Fife would read by the fire or play with Bumby. In the evenings, they played three-handed bridge. Hadley always lost but she’d usually drunk too much sherry to care. When Ernest returned to Paris that January for business, before setting off for New York, she knew Fife saw him alone. Fife wrote, addressing her as Cherishable, saying she would stick by Ernest’s side even during the dullest of his tasks. Hadley tried to keep her thoughts on skiing and the snow.

She returned to Paris when spring’s blossom flowed in dusty rivers down the gutters, and the air was so full of seeds it stung her eyes. Hadley thought things would return to normal. There was, after all, no evidence: no discovered kisses, no perfume on his coat, no love letters. She hadn’t even heard of any rumors. It was just a flirtation, and Fife rambled so consistently about her paramours that Hadley told herself she was nothing more than jealous.

Perhaps she should have seen more in her friend’s letters. There was that rich woman’s sense of entitlement: of deserving a particular object only by virtue of desiring it, whether it was a bicycle or a Schiaparelli dress or another woman’s husband. How effortlessly Fife charmed others—and how charmless it made her feel. Hadley started forgetting to reply. Hadley, mon amour, Fife wrote that spring, asking why the letters from her quarter had dried up, and dried up quite so precipitously.

Stay away from my husband, Hadley wanted to write or even say; but she did not.

The letter that gave them away was no bigger than a memo.

Ernest had put it in one of his exercise books with the rest of his correspondence. Since the incident with the suitcase, Ernest knew Hadley wouldn’t look in this drawer. At first she didn’t even recognize it as her friend’s hand: Fife always used the typewriter loaned from Vogue. But this note was big and scrawled, boldly penned. She knew instantly what it meant without even reading it: because it was addressed only to Ernest. When Fife wrote, she always wrote to Hadley or to Mr. and Mrs. Hemingway; the letters were never for him alone.

Cher Ernest,

Didnt you think Seb looked SWELL at the club? I must admit I find him ENTIRELY agreeable.

Fife

How he would have loved Fife so nakedly stoking his jealousy. He always wanted to know that he was desired. Was this evidence that they were having an affair? Or was she reading a subtext that was not there?

Ernest called out to her from the living room. “Hash?”

Her hand shook as she replaced Fife’s letter back in his notebook and shut the drawer. In the living room Ernest was pooled in the light of the gas lamp, and he had that frown which meant deep concentration. He wore mittens while writing: they couldn’t afford any more heating until he was paid for his articles. She sat opposite him on the only other chair they had. She could ask him. Just ask him straight if something was going on between him and Fife. Instead, outside, evening came to Paris. Ernest worked, gazing up at her occasionally, giving her a smile, lost in his world of words. And she wondered how they had come to be like this: two unhappy parents, with the possibility of a mistress between them.

ANTIBES, FRANCE. JUNE 1926.

Even at nine o’clock, the sand scorches and their feet burn if left too long on the shale. They’re alone: not an umbrella or a picnic or a string of pearls in sight.

Ernest and Hadley splash out into the water and make for the raft, a hundred yards or so from the shore. “Race you,” he says, and when he gets there before she does, he offers her a hand from the deck. But when she reaches up he quickly retracts his arm and she drops down again into the sea. Hadley goes under with a mouthful of seawater. She kicks water up at him; he laughs and dives into the splash. Underwater, he pulls her by her ankle. As she fights against him, they are awash in bubbles. Legs jackknife against each other. Finally she uses his head as leverage, pushing him down so that she can come up for air.

Ernest surfaces, gasping for breath and smiling so much that wrinkles arc down his cheeks. She gives him her salty mouth and feels the prickles of his wet mustache against her lips. They’re the same height in the water.

They swim over to the bank where the trees shadow the sea. Ernest pulls himself onto the rocks while Hadley stays kicking in the warm green water. They have perfected this dive over the past week. “Is here all right?”

“Come closer.”

Hadley fixes her gaze on the horizon. Antibes is broken in two like an egg: one half sky, the other sea. She hasn’t much liked this game but she goes along with it. Ernest’s preparations can be heard in the slap of his feet against the rocks. That he is nervous only makes her more so. “Ready?”

“Yes.”

And he says, “Ready,” too, to let her know he is about to go.

Ernest dives and she can feel his body whistling past, just over the top of her head and into the spot beside her. “Well done!” she says, when he emerges from the sea exultant. She loves the way he looks when she praises him.

There’s something catlike in his pleasure—as if her words were a scratch behind the ears.

“I didn’t touch you, did I?” “No. Half an inch or so away.”

“Your turn,” he says mischievously.

She smiles. “You always try, don’t you?” He doesn’t push her. “Back to the raft?”

She makes her way back before him and swings her legs under the pontoon so that her feet poke the barnacles under the wood. The soft parts she flattens with her toes. The sun is hotter now on her head.

The raft sinks an inch with the weight of them when they stand up on the deck dripping. He pulls her toward him in another of these Antibes embraces.

“Ernest?” He doesn’t say anything.

In Paris, they were always more playful, so that Ernest could note the angles of elbows, knees, and necks for his

stories. They would get it all exactly right so that he could write it up for his scenes. After a first draft they would set up their bodies again only to end up collapsing and laughing at the impossibility of what he had written: squashed arms, dead legs, a blunt foot breaking imagined lines. Sometimes it seemed to her foolish that he should go to such lengths to put it all down only to cut it all out. But this, he insists, is his method.

Ernest is not writing in Antibes; this in itself is dangerous. His imagination is not well kept when it is not focused; it tends to wander, tends to look for excitement where it should not. She wishes he could be enraptured, now, by a new novel or story, ignore Fife—ignore his wife, for God’s sake—if only that writing might prove an antidote against that woman.

Hadley lies down on the raft and puts her head on the soft bit of his thigh, where the hair is worn from the roughness of his pants. On his right calf a scar bursts open like a firework: a mortar wound from the war. Ernest won’t talk about the moment itself but only the time afterward: how the doctors kept a bowl next to his hospital bed and filled it with the nuts, bolts, screws, and nails removed from the leg; how he let favorite visitors take home a piece of shrapnel as a lucky charm. His biggest achievement, he said, was not getting over the nurse he’d fallen in love with, but persuading the doctors not to saw his leg off.

Sometimes it still wakes him in the night: the fear that he’s about to be buried in mud, bleeding out in an Italian trench. Ernest wakes cold and sweating: frightened out of his mind. She fetches him water and when he drinks his hands shake. She hates that she cannot help him. She hates that these nights of terror sink him for days afterward.

Absentmindedly she has been tracing his scar and he moves her hand away.

“God, I was drunk last night,” he says, looking away and squinting at the beach. He winds a lock of her hair around a finger.

“I’m just starting to feel it,” she says. Her bathing suit has begun to dry in the heat. She feels dulled from last night’s alcohol and tired from the swim.

Ernest traces a line from her brow to her chin and yawns. He is wearing the bathing suit with the double white lines across the chest; Fife may have encouraged him to buy it. Hadley thinks the suit a little flash but it’s probably something approved by Vogue.

He pulls the straps down and rolls the suit to his waist. “Ernest!” she says, “Someone will see!”

He laughs at her and chucks her on the chin. “No one’s here, kitten,” he says. “You should do the same.” She nudges him in the ribs but not hard; after all, she has heard of women sunning themselves half-nude on the Paris rooftops in the summer. But these are women with poetry careers, women with girlfriends, not thrifty women like her from the Midwest who keep the home accounts.

Rocking on the raft with the sun on her face, Hadley is full of a sudden fury to have him all to herself. He is her husband; she is his wife. She curls an arm around his neck and lifts herself to his mouth. “I love you,” she says forcefully. Yes, she would do anything to save her marriage: even invite her husband’s mistress on vacation with them. “You know that?”

“I know it.” He says it oddly, as if he is pretending to be a character in one of his stories, rather than her husband, Ernest Hemingway. The hollow reply makes her falter. She wonders then, not if she is losing him, but if he is already lost.

A pain shoots through her skull, perhaps from last night’s alcohol. The raft rocks her into troubled sleep.

PARIS, FRANCE. APRIL 1926.

Hadley let Fife’s sister into the apartment. She watched Jinny pick her way around Bumby’s toys, strewn across the floor, taking a while to find somewhere to sit. Jinny looked much less at home here in these ambrosial surroundings than her sister. Finally, she chose the seat by the window, a Montparnasse steeple rising behind her shoulder.

Hadley was embarrassed at the gamey waft coming in from the kitchen. Often, Ernest went to the Jardin du Luxembourg and, when the gendarme turned his back, he would choose the fattest pigeon and strangle it in the park, then smuggle the bird out in Bumby’s carriage. One time he had brought a bird home and it was still alive. There was a whiff of it now from the stove. She had grown tired of roast pigeon that winter.

There wasn’t enough space for a sofa in this room, only for two threadbare chairs: one Ernest’s, one Hadley’s. There was no third chair.

The cloche hat was thrust so low that very little could be seen of Jinny’s eyes save a flickering under the brim’s shadow. She had on the mink coat that Ernest had commented on when he’d first met the two sisters at the party. Jinny kept on chewing her lips; she probably knew why she had been invited inside.

Fife, Jinny, and Hadley had just returned from a motoring trip to Chartres. Since the discovery of Fife’s secret letter to Ernest last month, Hadley had not said a thing to anyone. Now that Jinny was here alone, she was determined to extract the truth.

“Where’s Ernest?” Jinny asked. She leaned and her knees edged forward over the tops of her brogues, with her hands placed neatly on her lap.

“I imagine he’s still at the studio. He’ll be back in an hour or so.”

The light was beginning to go and it made the apartment seem more dismal than usual. The dust from the sawmill below settled on their things like a fine layer of hair. Hadley had long since given up on keeping it from the house. “Sorry it’s so cold in here; Ernest must have been scrimping on fuel.” Hadley lit the stove and warmed her fingers near the flames. “We’ve had a lovely time getting to know you and your sister this year,” she began, in a script she had rehearsed as they’d made their way from Chartres to Paris in Jinny’s tin-can Citroën. “Odd to think there was ever a time when we didn’t know each other. But there were years before that, when it was just Ernest and me . . . and then Bumby came along. I can’t really imagine life without you two girls.”

Jinny looked ready to say something but Hadley continued. “We have become good friends, your sister and I. As have Ernest and Fife.”

In the window, slopes of Paris roofs went on as far as the eye could see. Pigeons—dinner—perched on the eaves. Wouldn’t she prefer not to know? To go on in ignorance? But it was as if the discovery of that letter had amplified her senses. Hadley had begun to see shared looks at the market and to hear gossip behind bookshelves, people talking of the Hemingways at parties. That was the most hateful thing: feeling like she was the one person in the dark about the state of her own marriage.

Jinny hadn’t yet taken off the mink. Hadley poured two cups of tea and placed them on the table. When she sat down, her knees bumped against Jinny’s. “Fife was strange in the car when we left Chartres.”

“How do you mean?”

“She hardly said anything.”

“I suppose not.” Jinny didn’t take her eyes from the tea.

“She was like that for the whole trip, though. Talking and talking, then silence for hours.”

“My sister has always been prone to moods.”

“It wasn’t moodiness.”

It wasn’t so much the letter but Fife’s behavior at Chartres cathedral that had made Hadley determined to ask. In the church, she had caught Fife praying. Even from far away, she could see how tightly the white ball of her fingers was held above her head. Fife was desperate for something; that much was clear, since the hands didn’t slacken once in the minutes she sat there. What could Fife be praying for, what did this woman lack, in any way, but a husband? What would be the words of the prayer but Please, God, let me have him. Then Fife’s hands unfurled and she looked straight at Hadley. There was little sacred in that look.

The light outside was bright after the dark of the cathedral. Somehow, Fife had beaten them to it as she and Jinny came out from the church. Fife sat smoking by the entrance, with her shapeless man’s coat and aggressively euphoric eyes.

“Look, I better go,” said Jinny, standing up quickly and knocking over the tea. “Oh God, sorry. Let me get a cloth.”

“It’s fine.”

“Please.”

But when Hadley returned Jinny was already dabbing at the floor with her own browning handkerchief. “These moods of Fife’s,” Hadley ventured, on her hands and knees like a housemaid as she mopped up the spill. “Is Ernest in any way involved?”

Jinny’s slender weight rocked back onto her heels. Her mouth gave a joyless smile. “I think they are very fond of each other, yes.”

She said it slowly and quietly, as if they were once again in the cathedral.

Hadley stood and squeezed the tea from the handkerchief at the sink. She noticed her wedding ring turn greasily as she wrung the hankie out to dry. “I know this doesn’t make any sense,” Jinny said, joining her in the kitchen, “but Fife is very fond of you. As am I. What’s happened . . .” Jinny looked around the room as if trying to find a way of making this sound less absurd. “It’s accidental. She didn’t mean for it to happen. I think Ernest has that effect on women. She just . . . she couldn’t help herself.”

Hadley was waiting with dinner ready and a bottle of muscadet when Ernest came home that evening. Over the meal he was very sweet and inquisitive about the trip and how she had enjoyed the company of the Pfeiffer sisters in Chartres. Bumby played by their feet, looking thrilled to have both Maman and Papa finally at home again. At the end, after putting Bumby to bed, she told him what she knew.

Ernest looked shamefaced and then angry that she had brought it up. She knew this would be his response; she knew he’d somehow try to pin the blame on her—as if by voicing it she had become the architect of the affair. “What would you have me do?” she asked him. “Hold my tongue?” She took the plates and rinsed them in the kitchen and came back into the room. “Fine,” she said, feeling a kick in her temper—and enjoying it. “On the proviso that you will sort out this mess I will not mention it again. But you must promise to sort it out.”

Ernest promised. And the silence opened up between them.

ANTIBES, FRANCE. JUNE 1926.

The day is reaching its hottest. The raft drifts as far as it can before the chain jerks it back to the beach. At the bank the insects are getting louder, upping their pitch as if they are being slowly squeezed. The trees’ shadows pour onto the water like vinegar into oil.

Hadley is sunning herself on the pontoon and Ernest is practicing his diving when they hear a long whistle from the beach. A swimmer is approaching. Though the figure is far away enough to be faceless, Hadley knows it to be Fife. A lacework of waves follows the swimmer and her strong stroke. The Hemingways watch her steady progress.

Fife pulls herself onto the raft and smiles. She waits to catch her breath then says, with a trace of a mock English accent: “Hello, chaps. You both woke early.” The woman shakes the water from her short hair. She is clear-eyed and vigorous. “The shopkeeper in Juan said it’s unseasonably hot. Unseasonably, he said, ce n’est pas de saison. Or does that mean ‘out of season’? I don’t know. He said these aren’t June temperatures.”

Hadley was about to leave—her skin is fair and easily burns—but now she must stay as her husband’s chaperone. The three of them sit on the raft with their legs dangling into the water. Her husband wears that scowl which Hadley hadn’t seen before they came to Antibes. She catches his mistress steal an agonized look at Ernest’s chest. He is bronzed and lovely from this dangerous summer.

“I felt a little worse for wear this morning,” Fife says, returning her eyes to Hadley. Last night they drank and talked till late, gossiping about their mutual friends with an unkindness they knew was directed at each other. Zelda, Scott, Sara, Gerald; anyone was fair game.

“We all drank too much,” Hadley says. “I don’t know why I woke so early.”

“My wife is on a mission to deprive me of my sleep.”

She watches her pale feet in the sea. “Eight o’clock is hardly the break of dawn.”

“I was never an early riser,” says Fife, fiddling with some ribbons on the shoulders of her bathing suit. “That was always Jinny.”

Light buckles on the waves that make a pleasant hollow sound as they hit the underside of the raft. Ernest removes himself and lies down at the back of the deck. Hadley watches him—within minutes she can tell he’s about ready to drop off to sleep. How easily her husband takes his exit from this strange world of his own making! Though she has to admit that this jam is her own fault too. After all, she was the one who invited Fife here in the first place.

Ever the Vogue correspondent, Fife chatters about a pair of white leather gloves she found in Juan-les-Pins yesterday. “Well, they cost no more than a loaf of bread, so I think I shall have them. I’ll telephone the shopkeeper to put them aside for me. I hate to lose anything.”

The two women often gaze at Ernest for as long as they can manage, before one risks being caught by the other. It looks like you could lick the salt right off him.

Fife stands and touches her fingertips above her head— Hadley sees the curveless shadow behind her—and dives into the water. There is only a very small splash where the water breaks. “You know, I bet you could dive, Hash,” she says as she pulls herself back up onto the deck. Seawater leaks distractingly down her inside leg. “You just have to try.” Fife sits close enough for Hadley to feel the maillot against her skin, the wool of it a little rough. Despite the warmth, Fife’s skin is goosefleshed. Hadley notices that when she stoops, it’s as if she’s breastless. How can Ernest love her, this boy-child?

“I don’t want to. I’m scared.”

“Of what?”

“Of breaking something. My back. My neck.”

“You won’t. I promise.”

The memory of her fall comes back to her. She remembers how the handyman waved up to her from the garden in St. Louis; the noise of the chair hitting the floor as she lost her footing; her hands failing to catch the window’s hasp and then the terror of falling through the air and her jaw knocking shut against the brick wall, the taste of blood in her mouth. She had been six years old. Wheeled around for months in a stroller to keep her spine still, she felt as if she had been in a stroller like that all of her life. Her whole life spent in the killing blandness of St. Louis! Then Ernest had arrived, at a party one night in Chicago, unexpected, uninvited, and the world had ripped open with its riches.

“I’ve just never learned.”

“Everyone can dive, silly.”

“My back. I’ve always been worried about it.”

“All you have to do is put your arms up, bend from the knees, aim for a spot, and go in head forward.” Fife goes into the water at a perfect angle and emerges, wet and adorable. Hadley is thankful Ernest’s eyes are closed. “Try it.”

The one thing Hadley does not want to do is dive. She can feel how heavy her body is next to Fife’s, which is as thin as a strap. She can feel the fall: her jawbone smashing, the taste of rust as her tongue split. Madly she imagines the dive breaking her back, and Ernest and Fife wheeling her around Antibes in a baby carriage.

“Go on, Hash,” Ernest says, and the two women turn, thinking he had been asleep. He shades his eyes with a hand so that they cannot see his expression. “Give it a try.” More than not wanting to dive, she doesn’t want to be outdone. If she’s going to be outperformed at the party tonight, she might as well make a decent attempt at this. The beach shines ahead of her. Fife stands close. Hadley grips the edge of the raft with her toes. All she can think of is each stud popping from her spine like pearls coming loose from one of Sara’s necklaces. The raft keeps jerking as the chain gets to the end of its reach. She’s scared it’ll throw her off before she’s ready.

Fife holds Hadley’s hands up above her head. “Arms up. Higher, Hash, yes. Now imagine yourself ”—Fife’s hands follow her words—“your head, your stomach, your hips, and then your legs, following the line of your arms.” Her touch is gruesome and delicate and Hadley wonders how Ernest bears to have it on him. If only to flee, she jumps.

Hadley’s stomach hits the water first in a perfect belly flop, but at least she hasn’t broken anything. She stays a while under the sea, where it’s quiet and warm, and where Ernest and Fife cease to exist. Her hair spreads around her as if it were long again, no longer cut in this unflattering flapper style, which Ernest likes and she detests. She stays unmoving for a while under the sea: suspended, outstretched, blank.

When she comes up for air, the salt smarts her eyes so that the features of the couple blur. Hadley blinks and they become clear: they’re both smiling and looking down at her, brightly encouraging. The memory of the baby carriage surfaces again, and Ernest and Fife grin mawkishly like two proud parents.

Hadley climbs up onto the raft and stands dripping over Ernest. She kisses him and surprises him with her tongue. He’s probably always wanted her to be a bit more reckless. “Not bad,” he says.

“The dive?” she says, “or the kiss?”

“Both.” He smiles, gazing up at her. In the corner of her vision she sees Fife flinch and look to the beach.

“I’m hungry,” she says.

“Have you not had breakfast?” Fife asks, still facing away from them.

“Get something later,” Ernest says and his hands trace Hadley’s spine as if he, too, were remembering her injury. “I’ll go back with you soon.”

They don’t speak for a while. They sit there, all three, as if waiting for something to happen. In the distance the trees on the bank seem to shrink away like dye in an old photograph. Then Fife stands and dives. Once again it’s perfect. As soon as she returns to the raft, her long legs take her back to the sea.

She dives again and again, enjoying her skill, but Hadley knows the performance is misjudged. What Fife can’t hear, or doesn’t notice, is that Ernest lets out a louder sigh each time the raft rocks. He’ll want to sleep off his hangover, she thinks, and will find this cute spectacle maddening.

Wickedly, because she knows he does not want to be left alone with Fife, Hadley says she has a headache and will swim back. Sometimes, she sees Ernest wearing a phony smile, as if he is not quite sure of his mistress, whether or not he likes being alone in her company.

“What about lunch?” Fife says, water dripping off her in a puddle around her painted toes. “Won’t we get it in the village?’

“You two go on without me.” She smiles at Ernest. “See you at home.”

Hadley descends on the ladder and begins her swim toward the beach.

“Will you be at the party tonight?” Fife shouts from the landing.

Hadley turns, treading water, and replies, “Of course! End of quarantine! Hurrah!” She waves and gives them her best smile.

At the road she stares down at the sea: the raft is a spot of brown, unmoving. She squints, trying to make out the two figures on the deck. Perhaps they have gone swimming. Perhaps they have climbed up on the bank to make love and feel the sun’s rich heat on each other’s skin. Hadley can feel Fife’s ache for Ernest as strongly as if it were in her own body.

When she wrote Fife, asking her to come, she was banking on the pressures of Paris transferring to Antibes. She thought this vacation would break their attachment to each other. But it has turned into a boring game of treading water. Their legs keep churning under the surface while their heads nod and smile above it. And she did not take into account how often Fife would be in a bathing suit. Oh no; she did not think of that.

ANTIBES, FRANCE. MAY 1926.

Hadley sent off Fife’s invitation calmly one day: as if inviting his mistress to vacation with them were a matter of ordering a dress from a catalogue.

All this time alone might have turned anyone’s head. Only occasionally was the quarantine broken by visits from the Villa America pack: Scott and Zelda, Gerald and Sara, when they brought eggs and butter and cakes of Provençal soap. Scott sometimes brought flowers, which always made Hadley smile, and they would talk over the fence posts about Bumby’s progress.

Sara always stood at the back of the group. She had a fear of germs, and her eyes darted over Hadley as if the coqueluche might jump like a flea from her clothes. As soon as Sara had learned of Bumby’s whooping cough, it had been no uncertain banishment from Villa America. Hadley’s exile only underlined the fact that Mrs. Murphy held her, not in contempt, but with something approximating indifference. Though Sara paid the doctor’s bills and had her chauffeur drop by regularly with provisions, Hadley had always thought Sara behaved toward her with a certain chilliness. If Fife had had children, Hadley was sure the treatment to her would have been different. She wouldn’t have faced this banishment.

At the end of their visits the group would hand over the basket of supplies and then, like a school of fish come to observe the goings-on on the other side of the pond, they would depart back to Villa America, their silver-flecked skin and fishy scowls flashing in the hot light of midday. Scott was always the merriest, shouting joyous good-byes as he walked down the gravel path, already drunk despite it not yet hitting noon. Hadley would watch them until they were out of sight: imagining the exquisite conversations back in Villa America, where one dressed for dinner and did not always undress in one’s own bed.

The gang came to relieve the quarantine every few days or so, but it wasn’t like having somebody to talk to. The rest of the time, Hadley was alone. She watched Bumby while he was bedridden and burned eucalyptus for his chest. She watered the roses in the garden and waited for the Villa’s next arrival. She tried hard to read the cummings novel but didn’t understand it. The replies from Ernest came in slowly. He was busy writing so much in Madrid that she didn’t want to disturb him. If it was going well he had to apply himself for as long as he could manage, because who knew when it would go well again? He needed to write, and they needed the money. In the days her thoughts looped around the same thing: the matter of her friend, her husband, his mistress.

Behind the invitation was a muddled reasoning. Hadley had seen, in Paris, how the trio made him feel awkward: flummoxed as to what he should do. Long April days spent in the company of wife and mistress would always make Ernest rush back to her in the evenings, as if he could finally see his wife’s merits next to Fife’s empty dazzle. Fife was rich and blowzy and urbane, but Ernest wanted a wife, not a showgirl. Hadley had asked him to sort this thing out after Jinny’s revelation—but what it had meant was a moratorium on speaking about it, and Hadley was pretty sure things between Fife and her husband only continued.

And so she thought that she could perhaps break the affair by setting them up like this, so that the pressure of three would reduce them again to two. In Antibes, there would be none of his little exciting adventures across the Pont Neuf with Fife alone. Nor could there be the intimate walks down to the Seine with his wife to watch the barges and fishing boats. No, they would be a three again, all the time, and she had banked on Fife’s presence here making the spindles of this triangle snap.

With a coldness to her thoughts that morning, a fortnight into the coqueluche confinement, Hadley wrote to her husband’s lover and invited her to Antibes. Wouldn’t it be fun, she wrote, if we vacationed down in Juan this summer; all of us—un, deux, trois?

And when she put down the pen Hadley had even felt triumphant. She wrote Fife’s address on the front, and the envelope’s glue was bitter on her tongue. That afternoon she gave the letter to Scott through the grill when he came, on his own this time, to deliver food and telegrams. In return she handed over the note for Fife to her fashionable Paris address. Scott gave her a strange look, over the shaker he carried of martini, as if asking her if this were a good idea.

And so Fife had come with her Riviera stripes and her fisherman’s hat and her talk of chaps and everything being ambrosial or indecent and her kid-leather gloves. They had tried not to talk about Ernest, or Paris, or Jinny, or Chartres. Instead they sunbathed and ate well and played with Bumby, and the two women waited, as May turned to June, for Ernest to arrive.

ANTIBES, FRANCE. JUNE 1926.

Noon light blankets Antibes. Today is shadeless, and everything, even the walls, even the bathroom tiles, is warm to the touch. Even the grayest of the olive branches sparkle as the sun catches them.

The maid has closed the shutters and the inside of the villa is dark at the peak of day. From up in her bedroom Hadley can hear the insects whir on the roses and in the fruit trees, as if all their cogs were motoring along in constant motion.

She dumps the beach bag on the chair and pulls off her bathing suit. She has burnt out on the raft and feels stupid for having let her jealousies get in the way of her exit. She pulls on a robe, washes the suit, and wonders what it is they are doing now.

Hadley steps out into the day and hangs her suit on the line. When she comes back inside it’s as if the villa has been thrown in ink. Only slowly do the forms of things emerge. She calls out to Marie, the maid, but she doesn’t answer. Perhaps she and Bumby are in the backyard, or out in Juan celebrating the end of quarantine. The house is still; there is a sense that everything has been here for centuries. She calls for Marie again. Nothing.

Hadley makes her own lunch in the kitchen: a salad of leaves, tomatoes, rolled ham, and olives. The French dresser is very fine, as are the long oak counters with baskets of purple onions and papery garlic. She has always admired expensive things, but, unlike Ernest, she has never coveted them for herself. Their Paris apartment is so bare that she knows all the other expatriate women must laugh at her and yet, until this spring, she didn’t much care what they thought of her. They have been very poor, but not without the promise of things getting better. That was all she had needed. In fact, she always thought herself lucky, since it was she among them who could call herself Mrs. Hemingway.


Excerpted from Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood. Copyright © 2014 by Naomi Wood.
First published 2014 by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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