“You were telling some suspenseful stories of the Blitz,” the Woman in Green prodded.
“Is that what I was doing?” Simon snapped. “I thought I was sleeping.”
She nodded her feathered head. “I was riveted.”
Often the keenest memory of those four years seemed the dead quiet of the evenings. Someone dropped a coin across the Thames and you’d hear. The only way out of the deadness was into a pub, sitting next to a couple drunks talking about the kind of funeral they wanted, where you could get flowers on the cheap.
He was simply lucky. Always it seemed he came upon a scene after the fact—not shortly after but a considerable time after. With the shelled building beyond the alleyway, for instance—it took him several days to notice the light from the kitchen window that had never been there or anywhere before. He pulled back the curtain to see that the Law of Ancient Lights had finally been enforced. The chances of dying or not dying in a shelled building were fairly even. When some neighbor you regularly passed on the street every morning was no longer there, it could be because she had disappeared from the face of the earth entirely, or because she was passing people on some other street now that her home lie in rubble.
“Look at it standing there,” Eddie had said of the perfectly unremarkable Victorian building, eerily demolished only on one side, “trying to be such a big-boy ruin.”
“Why do you bring everything—complex diplomatic issues to smashed buildings—down to the analogy of boys? The weak ones and the mean ones and the ones unhappy with themselves.”
“Because it’s boys who run things. Girls only get their wrists yanked.”
She had much to say about the condition of women—although, being a snob, it was thinking women she was more concerned with. He remembered one morning he’d felt both blessed and tormented to be saddled with a cache of economics papers by a Norwegian economist in Poland. “This Trygve Fenstad is brilliant,” he muttered across the table, “younger than me.”
She was engrossed in her own reading. “Half the world is younger than you, my love.”
“It won’t be for long. Do you know how many children die during wartime?”
She looked up over the top of a French newspaper. “Of course I know.”
“It was a rhetorical question, Eddie.”
“Women are deemed fit to report, to provide so much You Were There drama, and yet when it comes to analyzing and telling the history, why is that the sole provenance of men?”
He didn’t look up, hoping for it all to blow over. “We bully our way to the microphone, that’s why.”
“At a children’s hospital in Barcelona the infants had TB from near-starvation, and then on the front lines you had the division commander all of twenty-six, who three years before had been hauling wine barrels off lorries. I know a thing about war and mortality.”
“See? I knew you’d know.”
“I hate you. Have I mentioned that lately?”
“No, but I’ll scribble it in the margins.”
“You do that. Go back to your intellectual doom-and-gloomers who sit out the blood and guts of it all in their shuttered studies. A Norwegian? What will he do—get his feelings hurt and throw himself into a fjord?”
“I told you he’s in Poland—Warsaw, the epicenter of hell.”
She thought for a moment. “When I die, Simon, you must promise to have me buried near that lake in northern Italy, La Storta.”
He was now more engrossed in the Fenstad paper.
“Did you hear what I said?”
“You want to go to La Storta.”
“When I die, Simon.”
“You’re not going to die.”
“Churchill won’t let it happen.”
“Well he needs the free world’s help if he wants to make sure it won’t happen. He needs your soldiers.”
That got him to look up. “You’re not going to entrap me again.”
“How long do you think we can go on like this?”
“We’ll send more planes.”
“Your country is like a selfish fat boy, sitting in the corner with his enormous bowl of porridge, tucking it in while the other children starve.”
He smiled. “Fat boy? You really think that will be our legacy?”
Her eyes went back to her reading, but her laggard attention was still up for scuffle. “I’m reading more of your rival Camus.”
“I thought my rival was Tobel.”
“The French are the walking dead—have I mentioned that? A nation of typhus victims clutching their cheeses.”
He looked up at her pretty face again. Her shiny hair had more of a wave from the way she’d slept on it. “Why’d you have to go and put that lousy picture in my head?”
“Because the French are so contemptible they ought to be made to give back the title ‘the French.’ I say we give it to the Aussies.”
“What about your lover-boy Camus?”
“He’s a Pied-Noir—they have their own battles to fight. I want to know what the French are going to do after the war. Or will we have to shoot them all to smithereens when we rescue the place?”
He smiled. “No doubts at all, have you?”
“Hannibal, darling. I shall find a way or make one.”
How could two months—wartime or not—feel like an eternity? His workday would start past noon, and he’d be at the desk in his flat till past eight. Once a week he took the train to Cambridge and stayed overnight in a dormitory. Most nights he’d get up from his desk after sundown to open the nearest two windows, regardless of the weather. The room in which he worked faced opposite the big-boy ruin, to a courtyard of discarded furniture and broken pots. He’d listen like a dog to decipher the scratchy recording being played behind some darkened window. He always thought he heard Gene Krupa banging out “Sing Sing Sing,” but usually it was something else entirely, like plumbing. He missed home pretty awfully, thinking in the perpetual dark about the acidic whiteness of standing on Forty-second and Broadway at half-past seven.
On Remembrance Day she went out to fetch a poppy and a ration of bacon but returned instead with a distressed expression. “Simon,” she said. “Listen, we need to break these damned cups. My aunt has come out as a fascist.”
“What do you mean ‘come out’ as a fascist? Come out from where—was she in a cave?”
“She’s photographed at Ascot and boozy with sterling, so in this country that counts as an event. Those Mitford skunks have glamorized aristocratic treason.”
“Will they throw her in Holloway, your aunt?”
“It would serve her right. But I fear no action will be taken as she’s an old cow tucked away in Bournemouth.”
“Tucked away? That’s right on the channel. Isn’t she a security threat all jolly well blinkering to the Germans with her spotlight?”
She laughed. “From the turret of her castle—in her jimjams.”
That night they carried armfuls of the Staffordshire downstairs and across the alleyway to the big-boy ruin. It was her idea. “I’d come across waiters in Nice doing the same at night,” she told him. “What fun it was to join them. So, so intoxicated.”
They hurled the cups against the shell of the bombed-out building—initially like children throwing rocks but then more artfully. She posed like the Leni Riefenstahl photos of shot-put divas, he made like a crazed cricket bowler, winding and winding and winding his long, gangly arm. He’d never seen her laugh so much and felt he’d do anything to keep her from stopping.
She looked at him with a flushed smile. “I’ve always wanted Don Bradman as my batman.”
“Woman, you persecute me!”
“How I do love you, SCF!”
The windows opened one after another. “What are you louts doing down there?” “I’m dialing the police!”
The vowels of Eddie’s tinkling, class-appropriate reply sailed up to the open windows: “I say, we’re out here smashing the china of a Nazi sympathizer. For the good of the crown!”
No one ultimately dialed the police. After all the smashing they rushed to bed with great expectations. “All right, I’m ready. Are you ready?”
But to no success. He was sick and tired of himself and felt the need, at the very least, for more artful forms of self-laceration. “The numbers are in, and they confirm I’m a failure.”
“Success is pending, darling.”
“Do you suppose it’s just with you or am I now a gelding categorically?”
“You need to have a go with some other girl, like in a scientific study. You’ve got my permission if it will get the job done.”
“I don’t want to have a go with someone else. I just want to know.”
“These things happen to men under conditions of stress. Large things are at stake, darling. It will pass.” Then she said in a deep voice, like Garbo: “You must think of smashing plates in the alley like the virile French waiters.”
He turned his back on her.
“I say, SCF. Are you brooding over there?”
“Leave me to die from the most advanced case of semen poisoning the Commonwealth has ever seen.”
There were more of the dishes; there were other nights of acting like louts. But ultimately there was only one day that would live in infamy. In London it rolled in past suppertime, with Simon stationed on a stool at a pub frequented by American journalists—a roomful of smoke and tired men bent over food or drink. He’d been in an argument with a rewrite man from a Chicago paper—middle-aged and doughy but cast by his conscience as cub reporter—when someone from the Associated Press burst through the door, just like in a movie about the gold rush. “Bob Trout says the Japs are bombing bases in Hawaii!”
Eddie had spent the weekend in Surrey, with an insufferable clan of hunters. That morning he refused to believe he felt so lonely for her; now he refused to believe America had been attacked. Attacked? He spent the evening at the consulate attempting to place calls. When he returned to his flat he found her waiting in the floral chair facing the bed.
“Don’t glower at me,” he ordered.
“Oh, heavens, who’s glowering? But can I say, darling . . . Hart and McArthur have already given orders to MOBILIZE! Perfectly breathtaking!”
He lit a cigarette and began to pace. “I need to do something but I don’t know what.”
“Something like enlist, do you mean? Throw down the pitchfork and say, ‘Ma, I’s a’goin’?”
“Who should I be counting cows for, Eddie? Tell me. Where will my brain do the most good?”
“Others can fight over your brain, SCF. It’s the rest of you I want in my hands.”
With that—with her whispering into his ear, Go ahead, New York—he followed his countrymen and entered the war, winning the battle with the customary level of exertion. As he lie in the crumpled, sweaty darkness, breathing heavily on his back, he felt her more of an enigma than ever. “It was you, Eddie—all that time pulling away.”
She reached over him for a cigarette. “How can you say that?”
“You’re like some demented military disciplinarian, do you know that?”
“Darling, let me tell you that living means remembering you are an animal.”
“It’s the Axis acting like animals.”
“Well, we can act like wild animals individually but not as a race or a nation. If you’re a Jew-hater that’s your wretched little problem.” She puffed. “Don’t take it to Wembley.”
Falling in love took SCF practically no time at all—and here is when time began to pass quickly. One night at his flat, the black skies flashing white in the distance in at least two directions, he tapped his bent finger twice before smacking his naked ass onto the seat of the wooden chair, but something made him hold back from bounding into “Honeysuckle Rose.” Instead, one of his hands asked a timid question and the other gave a timid reply.
“Darling, I love ‘Claire de Lune.’ ” She buried her face dreamily in the pillow she’d just fluffed. “You are so good to me.”
He knew she was chomping at the bit to go somewhere miserable where everyone had to crouch to get to the loo. She restrained herself through one raggedy Christmas and then another, accepting assignments that took her away not more than a fortnight at a time. In the interim—in February of ’42—she’d bid adieu to Karl Tobel when he sailed for America.
“He’s going to work on some top-secret scheme,” she told Simon. “I shall miss him.”
“I thought he loathed Americans.”
“I’m sure he will cling to his continental ways and despise the natives.”
“There are no natives, Eddie. They’ve long been killed or rounded up near national parks. What he’ll despise are the Scots-Irish merchants and their fat wives. The Babbitts and their missus in flower-pot hats. They love shaking your hand from inside their cars.”
She made a face. “What do you do with so many dreadful people over there?”
“That’s why God created the Midwest. It’s a giant buffalo-wallowing range for them and their offspring.”
“Well Karl won’t be in the Midwest. He’s being dispatched to some arid state. He told me, ‘I was made an offer I was told not to refuse. I was also told to bring short pants.’ ”
The following spring, on a dreary day in April when Simon had learned that the promising young Trygve Fenstad had died in Warsaw at some point over the previous year, he said to Eddie, “To be living in this time . . . it’s as if we’re all presumed dead until proven otherwise.”
“Simon, I’m going to report on this war, darling.”
“The war does not need you to do its bidding.”
“I need to be in the thick of something.”
He looked up from his reading with the intention of making a cockeyed face. “You are in the thick of something. Last time I looked there was a brand-new swimming hole on the road in front of your flat—just add water.”
“Britain is like the good little wife who lies on her back every night—fully dressed with wrist corsage—for some drunken lout who keeps changing his uniform.”
“You’re making your people sound like the French.”
“No, darling; the French are taking it twenty-four hours a day—both ends. And of course they happily allow themselves to be flipped over first.”
He was wrinkling his brows so frequently these days he feared his face would retain furrows large enough to plant cornstalks. “I thought you were going to do some of that black propaganda for the Foreign Office.”
She shooed away the thought like a buzzing insect. “I’ll gag if I have to speak German into a microphone.”
He looked back down at his papers. “If only Hitler felt the same.”
She smiled coyly. “We’ll have Tunisia very soon, Simon, and you know what that means, don’t you?”
He didn’t look up. “Gentle desert breezes?”
“We’re going into Italy, and I’ve got to be there.”
Now he cast his obstinate gaze directly at hers. “Roosevelt is not going to cave in to an Italian campaign; I told you. The decent thing to do is a direct hit on France, take the load off the Russians. Their people are starving three times as fast as their soldiers can pump bullets. The front is perishing. It’s barbaric.”
“Let me be the one to inform you, darling: this war isn’t about decency; it’s about winning. Stalin should have thought about barbarism while he was licking his chops over the Poles. Any lad from Croydon will tell you ‘Those Yanks are finally having a go at Sicily.’ I want to be there when they parade the fat cretin around Rome.”
“They won’t parade him anywhere. He’ll be drawn and quartered within an hour.”
“All the more reason to see firsthand.”
“There’s nothing pretty about getting killed.”
“I could get killed right here in the loo for heaven’s sake.”
“They won’t let a woman who’s not medical personnel near there—a half-deaf woman anyway.”
She laughed. “You need to get out and about, darling! Hearing every other word is now the height of Allied fashion.”
He had known this was coming, and yet the arguments he prepared didn’t matter.
“Do you want to come with me?” she asked.
He grumbled. “Can’t you wait a few months until I file the report?”
“Tell that to Patton. Oh, I do say, general. Would you mind terribly waiting around the lovely Mediterranean with your men until my chum here files his report—take in some sun, have a dip?”
“Lindemann’s ideas on strategic bombing are sinister rubbish. You know how I feel about this, Eddie.”
She crossed her arms. “Your moral crusade.”
“Bombing German tenements is not going to ‘break down society.’ I’m not going to sit idle while these titled fools with their impeccably clean fingernails bring down more useless carnage on the world. I told you I’m almost finished.”
Her look of determination made her pale blue eyes seem cold and ordinary. This neoclassical expression of hers always forced him to recall a piece of her pre-war writing people loved quoting: “And when the war finally does arrive it will adhere to the same script: the young will die, the best ones first, and the old powerful men will survive to bungle the peace.”
“I’ll go with you,” he insisted, turning his eyes back to his papers, “but I need this completion, Eddie. I need to feel the full arc of achievement.”
“The full arc of what did you say?” The McCall’s interviewer blinked her blackened lashes heavily, like they were part of a toy. “Mr. Frost?”
He had no idea what he’d been telling her.
She sighed with a miserable nasal whine. “I’m afraid I have nothing whatsoever on my steno pad about the French president.”
He looked at her with a new form of contempt—new to the extent that it ought to be given a Latin name.
“I worked for the Strategic Bombing Survey after the war. What we learned was this: Bombing by the Allies did little or nothing to shorten the war. What’s more, the Germans’ management of the war was incompetent for quite a long time.”
Her incorrigible pouting infuriated him.
“It was in a hallway,” he snapped, “a narrow one. There—are ya happy?”
She stared like a first-grade teacher disappointed in a formerly promising charge.
He’d finally been allowed down to see the War Rooms in the Treasury building and then was promptly escorted away, pointed down a corridor. He’d been holding a letter from Eddie, who was following the Americans in their dangerous campaign and awaiting his arrival in seven weeks. “Darling, I cannot tell you how much I miss you! Terribly, horribly! Counting the minutes. Do you know of this thing called Buffalo soldiers, my love? Negro chaps, a regiment. Called horrible names by their own fellow soldiers and yet here they are so brave and strong. I’d never have expected this from your U.S. of A.”
He marveled at what she could orchestrate—such as getting him this letter, uncensored, from a combat zone—and tried not to think of what favors might have made its delivery possible. He missed her terribly, horribly, but his soul and spirit were crushed by the weight of jealousy. He felt this jealously like a terminal parasitic disease, eating him from the inside out. He imagined her banging the entire regiment of Buffalo soldiers.
Suddenly the future was one hundred percent vertical in a narrow connecting corridor. Simon looked into the sad, droopy eyes of a familiar face. If the face was so familiar, why didn’t he have anything to say to it? He moved left and the face moved left; he right and the face right. Finally a tense solution was found, both men yielding but the older one claiming the pronouncement: “We must save the world from short men!”
Ex post facto, after having turned to watch de Gaulle taking command of a set of stairs, Simon called out, “No more seductions on foreign soil!”
The Woman in Green was confused. “Was the French president amused?”
The following missive from Italy was a telegram brought to his flat with the Versailles mirrors by the landlady’s brother in the Observer Corps. Simon had been reviewing American price-control data when he read that Edwina and the photographer Roland Faure were killed outside Palermo on August 3, 1943, their motorcycle having detonated a land mine.
He contained his grief for the ninety seconds it took to finish the cigarette disappearing between his fingers. Then he stubbed out the butt on the singed tin with the enamel paint depicting scenes from Old Brompton Road and wept onto oceans of numbers—cows and cucumbers and casualties. His sobbing was convulsive, an ejaculation unexpected and unprecedented.
Even fourteen years on, he thought of Eddie holding the photographer’s waist—the image as searing as that first instant. Her chin resting on his right shoulder, so as to surrender completely to him her one good ear. Even now, her long opalescent arms embracing the Frenchman, whom he imagined as dashing as Camus—he could see it now as clearly he did when it first caused him to consider walking off a bridge in the dark silent night.
He suddenly realized what all that green—and especially the feathered hat—reminded him of. Two days before he headed back to the States, a bomb dropped a kilometer from Hyde Park and blew the leaves from the trees, mulched them to smithereens so that green snow fell across London from a white sky.
“Typhus victims clutching their cheeses!” he finally shouted. “That’s what fate would hand the French president. No fucking human was amused.”