Antibes, France, 1926
Everything, now, is done a trois. Breakfast, then swimming, lunch then bridge, dinner and 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, without explanation, suddenly ends. The husband and wife are accompanied wherever they go by another, a third; she 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 single room, meant for one. There is a tension when they are all together in the house, which is only broken by the arrival of the maid or one of their friends, pausing at the garden’s fence-posts, as they wonder whether it might be better to turn back, to leave them be.
They lounge around the house – Hadley, Ernest and Fife – a trio of jealousies, and, though they are all miserable, no-one is willing to sound the first retreat; not wife, not husband, not mistress. They have been here for weeks, now, like this, like dancers in relentless motion, trying to exhaust the other into falling.
The morning is already hot and the light has turned the cotton sheets near-blue. Ernest is sleeping. His hair is still parted where he parts it during the day, and there is a warm fleshy smell to him which Hadley would tease him about, were she in the mood. By his eyes are white lines on the browned skin; she can imagine him squinting out over the top of his 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 outdo the barmaids in their affection for him. Others, less friendly types perhaps, see how mercurial Ernest is: meek, at times; bullish at others. He has been known to knock the spectacles off a good friend’s face after a snub in the Bal Musette. Some of their friends are scared of him, though they are older, richer, more successful, it doesn’t seem to matter. Even Scott is nervous of him. What contrary feelings he stirs in men. With women it’s easier: they snap their heads to turn and watch him go. All women – most – are charmed by him.
Ernest’s arm falls out of the bed. Hadley is tempted to draw her body closer to the softly snoozing figure but resists How did she lose him, she wonders – although she knows that this is not quite the right phrase, since she has not lost him – it is just that another has joined them, and now Fife and Hadley wait and watch proceedings as if they are queuing for the last seat on a bus.
Hadley lies on her back, keeping away from her husband, looking at the ceiling. The wood has been eaten away on the beams; she counts seven of them, perpendicular to the bed. She can follow the progress of the worm. Japanese shades 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 shades. It will be hot again today.
Hadley really wants nothing more than to be in cold old Paris, in the grey apartment, with the smells of cooking meat and the pissoir coming from the floors below. She wants to be back in the narrow kitchen and the bathroom where damp sponges the walls. She remembers how, over lunch, after Ernest has done a morning in the studio on the rue Mouffetard, their knees would knock against each other as they squeezed around the tiny table for boiled eggs and a bottle of Tavel. It was under this table, oddly enough, that Hadley had confirmed her suspicions about her husband’s love affair.
Yes, she would rather be in Paris or even in Saint Louis right now, these cities which nurse their ashpit skies, their skies of dead sleet – anywhere but here, in the violet light of glorious Antibes. At night, fruit falls to the soft grass with a thunk and in the morning she finds the blood oranges split open, stormed by black ants. The smell around the villa is ripening; when the fruit does turn, the air will stink. And already, this early, the insects have started; she supposes they start at dawn. Hadley hates the cicadas and their song. The villa seems under siege from them, from the wailing in the trees.
She leaves the bed quietly so as not to wake Ernest. At the window she squeezes open the blinds’ slats. The house is shaped like an ‘L’ and when Hadley presses her forehead to the window she can see his mistress’s room. Fife’s blinds are closed.
Hadley’s son, Bumby, is downstairs too, fending off the whooping cough, the coqueluche, which brought them all to this villa in the first place. Their friend, Sara Murphy, didn’t want Bumby near them for fear the whooping cough would spread to their own children. Sara was good to offer the house for the length of the quarantine; she didn’t have to. But there is something eerie about the end of Hadley’s marriage being played out in the rented quarters of another: it is as if they are characters in a play with a firm set and a hopelessly unraveling script. Hadley, for one, feels miscast, and she no longer has the passion to play the cuckoo.
But tonight is the end of their quarantine, and so there will be a respite, of sorts. The Murphys have invited them over to Villa America to celebrate the end of the coqueluche that has kept husband, wife and lover detained here for the past two weeks. It will be the first time this holiday that the three have been in the company of their friends. To Hadley, it is exciting and dreadful: something has happened in the villa that nobody else has seen, as if someone has wet the bed and not owned up to the fast-cooling spot in the middle of the sheets. The shame of it surely must carry on them like a smell. She wonders if their friends will notice the changes in them; it is as if the villa has allowed all three to be the wickedest versions of themselves, and they have behaved with exultant nastiness. Now they must somehow scrub up clean and play nice in front of the adults.
Hadley climbs back into bed. The sheet is tense around him; she tries to pull it back around her so that Ernest will think she hasn’t left, but the corner of the sheet is bunched in his fist. She kisses the top of his ear and whispers, ‘You’ve stolen the bedclothes.’
‘Sorry,’ he says, pulling her toward him. Hooking her leg between his, he holds her head under his chin. They don’t usually hold each other like this, but in Antibes these severe embraces happen almost daily. A clinch like this one can go on for some minutes, as if Ernest and Hadley are in the first flush of romance again. Everything, however, is privately catastrophic: both unsettled by the idea that this may be ending, and yet both unwilling to talk about the end itself.
‘Are you cold?’
‘You feel cold,’ he says.
She pulls away a little. ‘I want to go for a swim.’
‘It’s too early, Hash.’ His eyes are still closed, though there is a flicker, now, behind the lids. And so the brain’s whisper begins. Fife. Hadley. Hadley. Fife. He is as confused by Antibes as she is, and sometimes, because he will be the one who has to decide, she even feels sorry for him.
Hadley pulls away from him and swings her legs out of 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 and her rear; it’s been so hard to shift. Her auburn hair, too, feels too heavy for the weather. ‘It’s too hot here,’ she says, pulling her hand round her damp neck. ‘I’m sick of this place. Don’t you long for rain? Or grey skies? Green grass? Anything.’
‘What time is it?’
‘Too early.’ Ernest paws at her shoulders, trying to pull her back. ‘Come back to bed, Hash.’
‘I just can’t,’ she says, and her voice catches on the last word.
She can feel him following her with sorrowful eyes; Ernest will be alarmed, having heard her voice like that. She goes over to the dressing-table, in her flat-footed slap, to where the horsehair brush points its bristles and she sees her breasts spike from her night-gown in the blue laddering of the blind. Bone-coloured light fills the room when she snaps the blind. Ernest shields his eyes and pulls the sheet over his head. ‘Time to get up. Time for a swim,’ she says, but he doesn’t move. He looks tiny amongst the winding-sheets. Often she doesn’t know what to make of him; whether to class him as child or a man. He is the most intelligent man she knows and yet sometimes her instinct is to treat him like her son.
The bathroom is cooler. The claw-foot tub is as clean and wide as an open mouth and she’d like to get in it just to cool herself down. The heat can still be felt near the window. A bead of sweat rolls from under the half-moons of her breasts. She washes her face, going hard into the oily bridge between her eyes, her ears, the flat curve of her nose; she splashes the back of her neck. She looks at her face, very freckled from the sun, and the red hair at her shoulders. As she dries herself with the towel a memory flashes through her of last summer, when Ernest had towel-dried her on the beach at Pamplona. He was very thorough, going up from her ankles to the long gap between her legs, then over her breasts where she felt the nipples stiffen from the fingers under the toweling; it had been so exciting to be doing that sort of thing in public. Fife had been there, on that holiday, with their other friends. That time, though, had been innocent: nothing – Hadley was sure – had happened between them until later in the autumn. But the illusion, now, of the three happy sunbathers on the hard baked sand is scratched, as if someone has applied a key to a car’s hood with the purposeless task of ruining something lovely. If only he had more sense than just to throw it all away.
‘Come on, Ernest,’ she shouts from the bathroom. Hadley returns to the bedroom and throws him his bathing-suit which is stiff from hanging on the wicker chair. An arm emerges, patting down the bed for the suit. ‘Let’s go, before it gets too hot.’
‘Why are you so awake? It’s not past eight!’ Ernest sits upward, blinking with sleep, and the sheets drop. He is as brown and lovely as a coin. He pats the side next to him. ‘Please? Just a few more minutes?’ He grins. He looks wonderful. She contemplates joining him again, curling up in his arms, going to sleep, but as soon as she decides to get back into bed he shrugs and stands and the moment is lost. He does one big long stretch which spasms the muscles in his arms. Then he steps into the bathing-suit, doing just as she has asked. His bottom is the only white thing left of him.
The towels are shoved into a beach bag with a book (an EE Cummings novel, which she is trying with, but failing) and her sunglasses. Ernest takes an apple from the pantry but holds it neatly in his palm rather than eating it, as if wary of the sound of the bite.
Outside the villa, near the big lavender bush and empty terracotta pot, they notice Fife’s bathing-suit, dry on the line. It sways, awaiting her legs and arms and softly nodding head. They tread past her room, their sandals quiet on the gravel, their nerves cocked. They both anticipate their dismay if they woke her; it feels, to Mr and Mrs Hemingway, as if they are the ones who are having the affair.