This is not a book review.
Husband and his school contemporaries often mention their English teacher. The man, by all reports, was something of a legend. He fed his students a diet of modern novels, mostly American, and they devoured it. I’m still trying to catch up with his reading list.
I wouldn’t have enjoyed A Farewell To Arms by Ernest Hemingway when I was fifteen. I can’t say that I liked it much now. It’s dreadfully depressing. The theme, it seems to me, is life is shite. The ending is as miserable as any ending could be. That’s the point, you see, the ending is miserable. Life is shite. I suppose that would resonate with an adolescent boy. I, on the other hand, have always read to escape that knowledge.
Luckily enough, as the consequences might have been dire, I never did read Hemingway. Until now.
The boy who loved Hemingway and the girl who loved Fitzgerald arrived at Milano Centrale railway station with two enormous suitcases and a diamond ring on her finger.
The train was packed and they couldn’t find seats. They stacked their bags between the carriages and sat on them, holding hands, watching the mountains and lakes and station names flicker past. Brescia. Verona. Vicenza. Soave.
Men were sleeping on the floor all down the corridor. Others stood holding on to the window rods or leaning against the doors. That train was always crowded.
It was April. They were lit up, burning with courage.
Feltrinelli International provides Italian university students with the classics.
I read every single book in the English language section. Secretly pining for a dose of Jilly Cooper, I brooded through two pregnancies with Dickens, Dumas and Wilkie Collins. La Feltrinelli also featured, naturally enough, books set in Italy. Under a Tuscan Sun, Italian Hours, Italian Neighbours…I read them all. But, never Hemingway. A Farewell To Arms wasn’t published in Italy until 1948 as it was considered detrimental to the armed forces. I have to wonder whether Hemingway was still persona non grata in that region. Anyway, I didn’t know Hemingway had walked the same streets and travelled the same train lines.
Obviously, I wasn’t blown to pieces by a mortar bomb. The combination of a hot bath, baby oil and a marble floor landed me on bed rest. You never can tell where calamity is lying in wait for you. However, just like Lieutenant Frederic Henry, I was the happy recipient of contraband to my Italian hospital bed. It would be nice to say it was a copy of Corriera della Sera and a fiasco of Chianti but rather, it was a box of rice krispies and a Hello magazine.
He was nervous when the doctor said she would induce labour that evening. The baby was small-for-dates, she said, and needed to come out.
This was the end of the trap.
Nervous, but not terrified. He didn’t think she was going to die or anything. No-one ever does.
People don’t die in childbirth nowadays.That was what all husbands thought. Yes, but what if she should die? She won’t die.
His wife was assessed by the doctor (‘everything’s looking good’), by the midwife (‘you’re an old pro, you know what to do’), by the tea lady ( ‘fourth baby? It’ll fall out of you at the first push’) and he was reassured that this baby would come easily with just the tiniest bit of encouragement.
‘I don’t think you’ll need the gel,’ said the membrane-sweeping doctor.
‘I doubt you’ll need a second dose,’ said the gel-inserting doctor.
‘You’ll be gone by morning,’ said the tea lady.
‘This way you won’t need the syntocinon drip,’ said the second-gel-inserting doctor.
‘Will you have some toast?’ said the tea lady.
‘Would you walk up and down for a while?’said the mid-wife.
‘Let’s put up the drip and it will be all over by lunchtime,’ said the drip-putting-up doctor.
‘Would you sit on the yoga ball?’ said the mid-wife.
‘Will you try taking some gas?’ said the mid-wife.
‘I love your playlist,’ said the mid-wife.
‘Is she moving along?’ said the doctor.
‘No,’ said the mid-wife.
‘I need to take my lunch break,’ said the mid-wife.
‘More gas?’ said the next mid-wife.
‘She’s getting tired,’ said the first mid-wife, back from lunch.
‘Baby is getting tired,’ said the doctor.
They stood, the mid-wife and the doctor, muttering over a heartbeat monitor. Not progressing. Distress. Theatre.
‘There’s something wrong,’ whispered his wife.
‘They know,’ he said.
‘Can I have the epidural now?’ asked his wife.
The doctor nodded and left to prepare herself.
So, another doctor came and turned his wife on her side and just as he held a syringe to her spine, she groaned.
‘What is it, sweetheart?’
Alarms rang and hearts stopped. The smallest heart in the room really did stop. Bodies tilted at full speed through the door.
‘Crowning,’ said someone.
‘You know what to do?’ asked a senior mid-wife, pushing knees to abdomen.
‘Yes,’ said the younger mid-wife, and threw herself across the bed as if the pregnant belly was a tube of toothpaste.
No pushing or panting or breathing at all. Just brute force. Fingernails leaving five moon-shaped scars on a tiny scalp.
‘Can you get it?’
‘I’ve never read Hemingway,’ said his wife as they perused the shelves of her favourite bookshop three days before Christmas. She ran her finger down the spine of a pristine hardback and looked at him with longing eyes.
It’s thirty years since he read A Farewell To Arms. The book he read was about the stupidity of battle, the futility of war. He doesn’t remember the nineteen pages of vividly described labour at the end of the book. That brutal scene wasn’t all that disturbing for a fifteen year old boy.
He didn’t know then that he would marry a girl and bring her to Italy and get her drunk on way too many fiascos of Chianti. He didn’t know then that he would stand and watch his dark blue infant daughter being dangled upside down and unwound from a stranglehold of umbilical cord.
He couldn’t have known then that he would have to hold his wife all night long after she got to the end of that book.
When you’re fifteen you think that life is shite. When you’re forty-five you know that the ending is miserable. But we hang on in there. What else can we do? We cling to life by the very crescent moons of our fingernails.
The baby was handed first to him.
‘Good girl,’ said the doctor, patting his wife’s leg.
‘You did well,’ said the mid-wife, tucking in her sheets.
‘Will you have some toast?’ said the tea-lady.
‘Oh, Lynda, she’s so pretty,’ said the boy who loved Hemingway. He lifted the log off the fire and the ants ran away.