Authors: Madeleine Wickham
ALSO BY MADELEINE WICKHAM
Cocktails for Three
A Desirable Residence
Swimming Pool Sunday
The Tennis Party
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.
THOMAS DUNNE BOOKS.
An imprint of St. Martin's Press.
SLEEPING ARRANGEMENTS. Copyright © 2001 by Madeleine Wickham. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Wickham, Madeleine, 1969–
Sleeping arrangements / Madeleine Wickham.
1. Problem families—Fiction. 2. Vacations—Spain—Fiction.
3. British—Spain—Fiction. 4. Chick lit. I. Title.
PR6073.I246 S64 2008b
First published in Great Britain by Black Swan,
an imprint of Transworld Publishers,
a division of The Random House Group Ltd.
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
For my parents, with love
The sun was a dazzling white ball, shining brightly through the window, making Chloe's tiny sitting room as hot as a roasting dish. As Chloe leaned closer to Bethany Bridges, she could feel a bead of sweat beneath her cotton dress, making its careless way down her backbone like a little beetle. She inserted a pin into a fold of heavy white silk, yanked the fabric hard against Bethany's skin, and felt the girl take a panicky inward gasp.
It was too hot to work, thought Chloe, standing back and pushing tendrils of wispy fair hair off her forehead. Certainly too hot to be standing in this airless room, corseting an anxious overweight girl into a wedding dress which was almost certainly two sizes too small. She glanced for the hundredth time at her watch, and felt a little leap of excitement. It was almost time. In only a few minutes the taxi would arrive and this torture would be over, and the holiday would officially begin. She felt faint with longing; with a desperate need for escape. It was only for a week—but a week would be enough. A week had to be enough, didn't it?
Away, she thought, closing her eyes briefly. Away from it all. She wanted it so much it almost scared her.
'Right,' she said, opening her eyes and blinking. For a moment she could barely remember what she was doing; could feel nothing but heat and fatigue. She had been up until two the night before, hemming three tiny bridesmaids' dresses—a hasty last-minute order. The hideous pink patterned silk—chosen by the bride—still seemed to be dancing in front of her eyes; her fingers were still sore from clumsy needle pricks.
'Right,' she said again, trying to muster some professionalism. Her gaze gradually focused on Bethany's damp flesh, spilling over the top of the wedding dress like overrisen cake mixture, and she pulled an inward face. She turned to Bethany's mother, who sat on the small sofa, watching with pursed lips. 'That's about as good a fit as I can get. But it's still very much on the tight side . . . How do you feel, Bethany?'
Both women turned to survey Bethany, whose face was slowly turning puce.
'I can't breathe,' she gulped. 'My ribs . . .'
'She'll be fine,' said Mrs Bridges, eyes narrowing slightly. 'You just need to go on a diet, Bethany.'
'I feel sick,' whispered Bethany. 'Honestly, I can't breathe.'
She gazed with silent desperation at Chloe, who smiled diplomatically at Mrs Bridges.
'I know this dress is very special to you and your family. But if it's really too small for Bethany . . .'
'It's not too small!' snapped Mrs Bridges. 'She's too big! When I wore that dress, I was five years older than she is now. And it swung around my hips, I can tell you.'
Involuntarily, Chloe found her eyes swivelling to Bethany's hips, which pressed unhappily against the seams of the dress like a large mass of blancmange.
'Well, it doesn't swing round mine,' said Bethany flatly. 'It looks awful, doesn't it?'
'No!' said Chloe at once. 'Of course it doesn't. It's a lovely dress. You just . . .' She cleared her throat. 'You just look a little bit uncomfortable around the sleeves . . . and perhaps around the waistline. . . .'
She was interrupted by a sound at the door.
'Mum!' Sam's face appeared. 'Mum, the taxi's here. And I'm baking.' He wiped the sweat elaborately from his brow with his T-shirt, exposing a tanned, skinny midriff.
'Already?' said Chloe, looking at her watch. 'Well, tell Dad, would you?'
'OK,' said Sam. His eyes shifted to Bethany's miserable, trussed-up form—and an ominous mirth began to spread over his sixteen-year-old face.
'Yes, thank you, Sam,' said Chloe quickly, before he could say anything. 'Just . . . just go and tell Dad the taxi's here, would you? And see what Nat's doing.'
The door closed behind him and she breathed out.
'Right,' she said lightly. 'Well, I've got to go—so perhaps we could leave it there for today?
If you do want to go ahead with this particular dress—'
'She'll get into it,' cut in Mrs Bridges with quiet menace. 'She'll just have to make an effort.
You can't have it both ways, you know!' Suddenly she turned on Bethany. 'You can't have chocolate fudge cake every night and be a size twelve!'
'Some people do,' said Bethany miserably. 'Kirsten Davis eats what she likes and she's size eight.'
'Then she's lucky,' retorted Mrs Bridges. 'Most of us aren't so lucky. We have to choose.
We have to exercise self-control. We have to make sacrifices in life. Isn't that right, Chloe?'
'Well,' said Chloe. 'I suppose so. Anyway, as I explained earlier, I am actually going on holiday today. And the taxi's just arrived to take us to Gatwick. So perhaps if we could arrange—'
'You don't want to look like a great fat pig on your wedding day!' exclaimed Mrs Bridges.
To Chloe's horror she got up and began to tweak her daughter's trembling flesh. 'Look at all this! Where did this all come from?'
'Ow!' exclaimed Bethany. 'Mum!'
'Mrs Bridges . . .'
'You want to look like a princess! Every girl wants to make the effort to look their best on the day they get married. I'm sure you did, didn't you?' Mrs Bridges' gimlet gaze landed on Chloe. 'I'm sure you made yourself look as beautiful as possible for your wedding day, didn't you?'
'Well,' said Chloe. 'Actually—'
'Chloe?' Philip's mop of dark curly hair appeared round the door. 'Sorry to disturb—but we do have to get going. The taxi's here . . .'
'I know,' said Chloe, trying not to sound as tense as she felt. 'I know it is. I'm just coming—'
—when I can get rid of these bloody people who arrive half an hour late and won't take a hint, her eyes silently said, and Philip gave an imperceptible nod.
'What was your wedding dress like?' said Bethany wistfully as he disappeared. 'I bet it was lovely.'
'I've never been married,' said Chloe, reaching for her pinbox. If she could just prise the girl out of the dress . . .
'What?' Mrs Bridges eyes darted to Bethany, then around the room strewn with snippets of wedding silk and gauze, as though suspecting a trick. 'What do you mean, you've never been married? Who was that, then?'
'Philip's my long-term partner,' said Chloe, forcing herself to remain polite. 'We've been together for thirteen years.' She smiled at Mrs Bridges. 'Longer than a lot of marriages.'
And why the hell am I explaining myself to you? she thought furiously.
Because three fittings for Bethany plus six bridesmaids' dresses is worth over a thousand pounds, her brain swiftly replied. And I only have to be polite for ten more minutes. I can bear ten minutes. Then they'll be gone—and we'll be gone. For a whole week. No phone calls, no newspapers, no worries. No-one will even know where we are.
Gatwick Airport was as hot, crowded and noisy as it had ever been. Queues of charter-flight passengers lolled disconsolately against their trolleys; children whined and babies wailed. Tannoy voices almost triumphantly announced delay after delay.
All of it washed over the head of Hugh Stratton, standing at the Regent Airways Club Class check-in desk. He felt in the inside pocket of his linen blazer, produced four passports and handed them to the girl behind the desk.
'You're travelling with . . .'
'My wife. And children.' Hugh pointed to Amanda, who was standing a few yards away with the two little girls clutching one leg. Her mobile phone was clamped to her ear; as she felt his gaze she looked up, took a few steps towards the desk and said,
'Amanda Stratton. And these are Octavia and Beatrice.'
'Fine,' said the girl, and smiled. 'Just have to check.'
'Sorry about that, Penny,' said Amanda into the mobile. 'Now before I go, let me just check the colours for that second bedroom. . . .'
'Here are your boarding passes,' smiled the girl at Hugh, handing him a sheaf of wallets.
'The Club Class lounge is on the upper level. Enjoy your flight.'
'Thank you,' said Hugh. 'I'm sure we will.' He smiled back at the girl, then turned away, pocketing the boarding passes, and walked towards Amanda. She was still talking into her mobile phone, apparently oblivious that she was standing bang in the path of passengers queuing for Economy check-in. Family after family was skirting around her—the men eyeing up her long, golden brown legs, the girls looking covetously at her Joseph shift dress, the grannies smiling down at Octavia and Beatrice in their matching pale blue denim smocks. His entire family looked like something out of a colour supplement, Hugh found himself thinking dispassionately. No imperfections; nothing out of place.
'Yup,' Amanda was saying as he approached. She thrust a manicured hand through her dark, glossy crop, then turned it over to examine her nails. 'Well, as long as the linen arrives on time . . .'
Just a sec, she mouthed at Hugh, who nodded and opened his copy of the Financial Times. If she was on the phone to the interior decorator, she might be a while.
It had emerged only recently that several rooms in their Richmond house were to be redecorated while they were in Spain. Which ones precisely, Hugh still wasn't sure. Nor was he sure quite why any of the house needed redoing so soon—after all, they'd had the whole place gutted and done up when they'd bought it, three years ago. Surely wallpaper didn't de-teriorate that quickly?
But by the time Amanda had brought him on board the whole house-doing-up project, it had been obvious that the basic decision—to do up or not to do up?—had already been made, presumably at some level far higher than his. It had also become crystal clear that he was involved only in a consultatory capacity, in which he had no powers of veto. In fact, no executive powers at all.
At work, Hugh Stratton was Head of Corporate Strategy of a large, dynamic company. He had a parking space in front of the building, a respectful personal assistant, and was looked up to by scores of young, ambitious executives. Hugh Stratton, it was generally acknowledged, had one of the finest grasps of commercial strategy in the business world today.
When he spoke, other people listened.
At home, nobody listened. At home, he felt rather like the equivalent of the third-generation family shareholder. Permitted to remain on the board because of sentiment and the family name, but frankly, most of the time, in the way.
'OK, fine,' Amanda was saying. 'I'll call you during the week. Ciao.' She put her mobile phone into her bag and looked up at Hugh. 'Right! Sorry about that.'
'That's fine,' said Hugh politely. 'No problem.'
There was a short pause, during which Hugh felt the flashing embarrassment of a host unable to fill the silence at his dinner party.
But that was ridiculous. Amanda was his wife. The mother of his children.
'So,' he said, and cleared his throat.
'So—we're meeting this nanny at twelve,' Amanda said, looking at her watch. 'I hope she works out OK.'
'Sarah's girl recommended her, didn't she?' said Hugh, eagerly taking up the threads of the conversation.
'Well,' said Amanda. 'Yes, she did. But these Aussies all recommend each other. It doesn't mean they're any good.'
'I'm sure she'll be fine,' said Hugh, trying to sound more confident than he felt. As long as she wasn't like the girl from the Ukraine who had once come to stay with them as an au pair, wept in her room every evening, and left after a week. Hugh was still uncertain what precisely had gone wrong: since the girl had had no English lessons before she left, her final stream of tearful wailing had all been in Russian.
'Yes, well, I hope so.' There was an ominous tone in Amanda's voice; Hugh knew exactly what it meant. It meant We could have gone to Club Med with babysitting thrown in and avoided all this hassle. It meant This villa had better live up to its promise . It meant If anything goes wrong I'm blaming you.