About the Author
Rose Tremain is a writer of novels, short stories and screenplays. She lives in Norfolk and London with the biographer Richard Holmes. Her books have been translated into numerous languages, and have won many prizes including the Orange Prize, the Whitbread Novel of the Year, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the
, the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Angel Literary Award and the
Book of the Year.
was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and made into a movie;
was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and selected by the
Reading Club. Rose Tremain's most recent collection,
, was shortlisted for both the First National Short Story Award and the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. Three of her novels are currently in development as films.
ALSO BY ROSE TREMAIN
Short Story Collections
For Vivien Green, with love and gratitudeTHE DARKNESS OF WALLIS SIMPSON
& Other Stories
The Darkness of Wallis Simpson
Love is so short, forgetting is so long.
They say she's gaga. That's the word she's heard them whispering.
It sounds like something a baby would say.
She knows she's in Paris, city of dreams. Her companion in the shadowy room, who kisses her forehead, who strokes her hands, keeps telling her that she has a duty not to die, not now, not
âWallisseÂ .Â .Â .' murmurs this person, who smells like a woman with peppermint breath, but whose cheeks are hard as a man's. âWallisseÂ .Â .Â . I shall not let you die until you remember.'
Remember what? There are plenty of questions Wallis would like to ask, but she can't get them out. What a bitch. Words compose themselves in her mind. They're in the proper order, usually. Except she can hardly ever say them. Her throat has a disease. What comes out of her mouth is dribble. Dribble and some droll, incomprehensible language. Afrikaans?
The woman-man companion lifts her up in the wide bed, cradles her against her anatomy, which is bulky-thick, like a bale of packed cotton, and begins brushing her hair. âBeautifulÂ .Â .Â .' whispers the bulk as she brushes. And Wallis tries to say: âOh yes, it was always
becoming. In fact, it was my best feature, dark and sleek as a Shanghai girl's. It transfigured me. It sprang from blood. Not
blood. From the tumbler of raw-steak blood I was made to drink every day after school, to ward off TB, and my mother would say: “Drink it down, Bessiewallis. Make your tresses shine.”'
But her sentences turn to goo. The stench of lilies is on the pillow. And the room is so damn dark â with just these thin movements in it, these shadows she can't make out â it's mortifying, like she's watching some old flickering TV picture, or even not watching, but trapped
an old TV, a ghost made out of light, longing to join the world beyond the screen, the world of the TV watchers, pink as candy, warm and rounded, with their haunches nudging up close to each other on their chintzy divan. How comely these brightly coloured people seem! As if nothing cold would ever touch them. As if they would rise up in a line and dance a conga, hands-to-ass, hands-to-ass, swaying along, in and out of the furniture, singing sharp, singing flat, not caring a dime, untouched by tomorrow, heading pell-mell into the hall, waking the servants, opening the door and shimmying out under the summer moon.
The companion has said in her strange, difficult-to-understand English: âWallisse, for you, this state of forgetting is a mortal sin.
A mortal sin
! Do you want to die with this stain of sin on your soul?'
âStain of sin'. No, sure she doesn't want to die with this on her. It sounds revolting. But just what is it a girl's supposed to remember? She tries to say: âI remember Baltimore in spring. Is that it?' But the companion never answers. And now she's gone out the door, closing it, locking it, leaving Wallis alone, a prisoner. And the sound of that key turning, that's the lonesomest sound in the world, the one that can bring the Nightmare onÂ .Â .Â .
Wallis clutches the bed sheet. Once, she hid her too-large hands in white gloves; now, her hands are small, like the claws of a marmoset â another mystery. She calls out: âDon't leave me alone!' But she hears the sound she makes. Not proper words, just an oddball noise. Nobody's going to answer an animal noise. They'll assume wolves have come back to the Bois de Boulogne. The door remains tight shut.
And here comes the Nightmare. Always the same scene. Florida palms. A bright white glare on the edge of the veranda. And Wallis sits in a wickerwork chair, waiting. 6 Admiralty Row, Pensacola. Waiting for her husband to come home. 1916. Waiting with her arms folded, woollen dress neat, slip one inch and a half shorter than the dress, tortoiseshell barrette holding back the soft waves of her long lovely hairÂ .Â .Â .
Waiting with such pride! Waiting to see his shadow moving ahead of him down Admiralty Row, moving towards her, she bandbox-smart as a US Navy wife should always be. When she met him, she cabled her mother in Baltimore:
Last night, I danced with the world's most fascinating aviator.
Poor schoolmates, poor debutantes of Baltimore, poor Mother, poor American girls everywhere, who'd never known the embrace of Earl Winfield Spencer Jr. And now he was hers, her husband, and any moment she would see him: gold stripes on his shoulder boards, dark moustache, sunburned skin. He would smile as he caught sight of her, his bride, his Wallis, who was teaching herself to cook from
Fannie Farmer's Boston Cooking School Cook Book
, who already knew how to season Campbell's soup and make a gravy without lumps, and who was progressing to omelettes and fruit pie.
But then. The bright glare of the sun on the veranda is gone. The sun's going down over the bay. The houses on the other side of Admiralty Row are already in deep shadow. The air is cooling. It's wintertime. And Fannie Farmer's perfect gravy can't be made yet because the fascinating aviator hasn't come home.
At Pensacola Naval Air Station there is a gong which sounds whenever a plane goes down. A gong. As though a motion picture were about to begin, except there were no motion pictures then. But the base goes silent, and the wives put their arms round each other and you can smell their fear even through talcum powder, and all you can do is hold on, all you young wives together, with your hearts beating. Hold on until you know. And the wind blows. It seems always to be blowing sand in your eyes and you can hear it in the high palms: death trying to flirt with the leaves.
But the gong doesn't sound that evening. It gets dark and Wallis goes inside and takes the joint of beef out of the oven and stares at it, the yellow fat turned brown, blood in the pan. She doesn't know what to do to prevent it from spoiling, so she places it on the draining board. And then she realises she is cold, the night is cold, and she goes towards the bedroom to find a shawl, a white one, which will complement her beige-and-brown dress.
She never reaches the bedroom because Win is at the front door. She can hear him jabbing at the lock with his key and she knows what this means.
When they checked in at the Greenbrier Hotel, White Sulphur Springs, on the first night of their marriage, Win ordered whiskey to be sent to the room, but the desk clerk said: âI'm sorry, sir, but West Virginia is a dry county.' And Win cursed, he cursed like the devil. He said: âImagine this happening to a man on his honeymoon!' and took out of his suitcase a silver flask and sank into an armchair and drank, drank every drop in the flask, and Wallis tried to protest: âWin, you're hurting a girl's feelings kissin' that ole flask when you could be kissin' your brideÂ .Â .Â .' And he told her: âDon't you dare. Don't you
tell a man what he should or should not be doing.'
Win's breath is fiery and scorches her face, but the rest of her is shivering.
Why didn't she get the shawl from the closet? Because she ran to the door, to open it for Win, to say: âOh, Win, I pictured you dead! I was listening out for the gong.'
His white uniform is stained yellow down the front. His eyes are huge and wild. âListening out for the gong? Guess you want me dead then? Bet you darn well do.'
âOh, don't say thatÂ .Â .Â .'
âMight as well be dead as live with you. Frigid bitch.'
He shoulders her aside and goes to the kitchen and she follows and he opens the refrigerator and takes out a jug of milk and begins drinking from the jug. Then he sees the meat on the draining board and says: âWhat's that hunk of excrement?'
âWin,' she says, âthat's our dinner. I'm going to make a gravyÂ .Â .Â .'
âPast tense,' he says. âI'm not eating that.' And he takes up the joint, dripping with its half-cold fat, and hurls it at her. She ducks, but it slams into her head, bruising her ear, spoiling her carefully arranged hair. And this makes her mad. Mad at him for not seeing what a good wife she's trying to be â with her cooking, with her neat appearance, not to mention doing
for him when all it does is burn her, burn her inside â and so she flies at him and beats on his chest with her fists. He's her husband and he never treats her like a wife and this makes her so mad, so mad and sad. But he's a strong man. He grabs her arms. He twists them round, like he's trying to snap them, her thin arms in the wool dress. She begins screaming, but it doesn't move him. He pushes her forward, kicking her legs, making her walk.
His hand, which stinks of something bitter, is now over her mouth. Within the cage of his reeking hand, her screams die. How could marriage be
? She'd worn a gown of white panne velvet with a bodice embroidered with pearls and a petticoat of heirloom lace. A long court train had fallen from her shoulders. A coronet of orange blossoms had circled her lovely hairÂ .Â .Â .
Win picks her up now, as they go into the bathroom. He dumps her in the cold white tub. There's pain in her spine. She's crying and pleading: âI'm your wifeÂ .Â .Â . I'm your wifeÂ .Â .Â .' He holds her body down in the tub with one foot, his shoe heavy on her stomach. He unbuttons his fly. She screams louder, covers her face. His burning urine drenches her. She gags. She's the wife of an animal. But how can this be, when, at the altar, he'd looked so much like a handsome man, when, as she moved down the aisle towards this smart and upright groom, she'd carried a bouquet of white orchids and lily of the valley, tied with white silk ribbonsÂ .Â .Â . ? She cries without ceasing. She thinks she'll never stop crying as long as she livesÂ .Â .Â .
Then comes the night. Lying in the bathroom in her soaking dress. Sick and shivering. Alone. Alone as she has never been. Alone in the dark, because Win tore out the bulb from the light, grabbed the key, turned it in the lock. Alone for ever? For why should a man who could do this to her ever come back to rescue her?