Authors: Madeleine Wickham
'You're saying we're party fodder?' Hugh gave a little smile. 'D-list friends.'
'No,' said Chloe, frowning at Philip. 'That isn't fair. Gerard isn't like that. Not to his real friends.'
Philip gave a shrug, wandered over to one of the full-length, shaded windows, and peered out at the drive.
'What about you two?' said Amanda, wrinkling her brow. She gestured to Chloe and Hugh.
'If you're both old friends of Gerard, do you two already know each other?'
There was silence.
'We may have come across each other once or twice,' said Chloe dismissively. 'I really wouldn't remember.' Her eyes flickered briefly towards Hugh's. 'Do you remember, Hugh?'
'No,' said Hugh, after a pause. 'No, I don't remember.'
'Nice grounds,' said Philip, still peering out of the window. 'This place is quite something.'
He turned round and folded his arms. 'So—are you going to give us the grand tour?'
As Amanda led the way through the house, Chloe lagged behind, looking at rugs and vases and wall hangings, but not really seeing them. The initial novelty of the predicament had worn off. She was feeling a rising anger with the situation; with all the others; with herself for tagging along in this ridiculous procession. Every time she looked at Hugh she felt a shaft of disbelief; an almost light-headed incredulity that the two of them were here, now, in this farcical situation, walking along, not even acknowledging each other. It almost made her want to laugh. But at the same time, deep within her, she could feel older emotions beginning to raise their heads. Like snakes slowly stirring from sleep.
'And this is the main bedroom,' said Amanda, standing aside to let the others pass through the doorway.
Chloe looked around silently. A huge, carved four-poster bed reposed in the centre of the room, its mahogany posts draped with a thick, pale fabric. In the window was a sofa piled high with Turkish cushions. Bookshelves either side of the bed were stacked with leather volumes; a huge gilt mirror was mounted on the wall opposite. Glass doors, framed by climbing, scented flowers, led to a wide balcony on which ficus trees were planted in varnished pots and bamboo chairs arranged around a glass table.
On the floor in front of the bed were two empty suitcases; as Chloe passed a wardrobe, she noticed it was full of clothes. She glanced again at the bed, turned away and met Hugh's eyes. An unwanted tingle came to her cheek and she quickly looked away again.
'You two are in here, I presume,' she said, looking at Amanda.
'Well,' said Amanda defensively. 'Obviously we unpacked our things in here . . .'
'But we don't have to stay,' said Hugh, spreading his arms. 'I mean, we have no more right to this room than you.'
'Quite,' said Amanda after a pause. 'We can easily move. Very easily.'
'No trouble at all,' said Hugh.
'No, please don't move,' said Chloe. 'I mean, you got here first, and you've unpacked all your stuff . . .'
'That doesn't mean anything,' said Hugh. 'And we don't care which room we're in, do we, darling?'
'Of course not, darling,' replied Amanda, giving him a rather tight smile. 'We don't mind in the least.'
'Neither do we,' said Chloe. 'Honestly—'
'We'll toss,' said Hugh firmly. 'That's the fairest way, isn't it?'
'Seems fair to me,' said Philip.
'No, stop,' said Chloe helplessly, glancing at Amanda's rigid face. 'We really don't mind which room we have . . .'
But Hugh was already throwing a coin into the air.
'Heads,' said Philip as it clattered onto the tiled floor. Hugh bent down and picked it up.
'Heads it is,' he said. 'You win. Fair and square.'
There was an awkward silence.
'Right,' said Amanda after a pause. 'Fine. Well, I'll just pack up our clothes again . . .'
'There's no hurry,' said Chloe. 'Honestly.'
'Oh, it's no trouble!' said Amanda. 'And I expect you're longing to get unpacked. I certainly don't want to hold you up!'
She turned to the wardrobe and began to pull garments off hangers with little, jerky movements. Chloe glanced at Philip and pulled a face.
'On the subject of sleeping arrangements,' said Philip quickly, 'erm . . . how many bedrooms are there again?'
'Only four,' said Amanda without looking round. 'Unfortunately.'
'So . . . if our two boys go in together and your two go in together . . .' Philip looked at Chloe. 'That should all work out fine, shouldn't it?'
'Actually, we have a nanny as well,' said Hugh.
'Oh,' said Philip, taken aback. 'Right.'
'Of course you do,' muttered Chloe, turning away. 'Naturally.'
'She doesn't need a room of her own,' said Amanda, dumping a pile of T-shirts in her case. 'She can sleep with the girls. Or in that little room at the back. There's a sofa bed in it.'
'Are you sure?' said Philip. 'Won't she mind?'
'She isn't paid to mind,' said Amanda curtly. 'Anyway, these Aussies are all tough as old boots. I once had a girl—'
'Amanda . . .' said Hugh warningly.
'What?' Amanda turned round to see Jenna standing behind her. 'Oh hello, Jenna,' she said, without flickering. 'We were just talking about you.'
Philip and Chloe exchanged glances.
'I came up to get the sun cream for the kids,' said Jenna. She looked at Philip and Chloe.
'Have we got visitors?'
'There's been a slight . . . change in arrangements,' said Hugh, and coughed. 'It turns out that these people—Philip and Chloe—are staying at the villa this week as well.'
'Oh right,' said Jenna brightly. 'Great. The more the merrier.'
'Ye-es,' said Hugh. 'The only problem is . . . bedrooms. They have two boys—and what with all of us, and only four bedrooms . . .'
There was a taut pause. Philip rubbed his face awkwardly and looked again at Chloe, who raised her eyebrows. The only person who didn't look embarrassed was Amanda.
'Oh, I get it,' said Jenna suddenly. 'You're expecting me to give up my room for these people. That's what you were talking about, isn't it?' She looked around accusingly. 'Chucking me out of my room. Putting me on the sofa.' Her chin hardened. 'Well, think again, mate. If there isn't enough room, you can bloody well put me up at a hotel!'
There was a shocked silence.
'Now just look here,' said Amanda at last, in a voice like gunfire. 'Let's just get a few things straight. First of all—'
'Joke!' said Jenna and grinned at the astonished faces. 'You can put me anywhere you like! I don't care where I sleep. Or who with, come to that.' She winked at a startled Philip, and Chloe stifled a grin. 'Is this the sunblock?' Jenna reached for a plastic bottle on the dressing table. 'Yep. OK, I'll see you guys later.'
She threw back her dreadlocks and sauntered out of the room. The others looked awkwardly at one another.
'Well,' said Philip eventually. 'She seems . . .' He cleared his throat. 'She seems like . . .
Sam and Nat had found the swimming pool.
'Wow,' said Nat as they rounded the corner and took in the sight of blue water cascading down over the mini-waterfall, glinting and rippling in the sunshine. 'Wow.'
'Cool,' admitted Sam, sauntering towards a recliner.
'This house is amazing.' Nat stopped as he saw two small girls, a hundred yards away.
Suddenly he felt as though he were trespassing. 'Who d'you think they are?'
'Dunno,' said Sam, folding his arms behind his head. 'Who cares?' Nat looked at him, then looked at the girls again. They were younger than him, dressed in matching blue swimsuits decorated with daisies. He recognized them as the two little girls from the plane.
'Hello,' he said cautiously to the older one. 'Are you swimming?'
'You can't go in without a grown-up,' she informed him sternly.
'OK,' said Nat. 'I'm not changed, anyway.' He sat cautiously down on a recliner and watched the girls as they sat down on the grass. 'D'you think they live here?' he asked Sam quietly.
'What do you think Mum and Dad are doing?'
'Dunno.' Sam pushed off one shoe with his foot, then the other. Suddenly he froze. 'Holy shit.'
Nat followed his gaze. A girl was coming round the side of the house. The girl with red dreadlocks.
'It's her!' he hissed to Sam. 'The one who was nice to us!'
Sam wasn't listening. He was staring straight ahead in staggered, rapturous silence. The girl with dreadlocks was unselfconsciously peeling off her T-shirt, to reveal a skinny brown body attired in a minute black bikini. A silver ring glinted in her navel; on one thigh a tattooed snake was curling suggestively towards the tiny bikini triangle. As he stared he felt a hardening in his groin; without moving his eyes for even a second, he shifted in his chair. At that moment, as though reading his mind, the girl looked over and saw them.
'Hello, boys,' she said pleasantly. 'Didn't I see you on the plane?'
'Yes,' called Nat. 'We're staying here. I'm Nat—and this is my brother Sam.'
'Hello, Nat,' said the girl. Her twinkling eyes moved to Sam's and held them for a few seconds. 'Hello, Sam.'
'Hi,' said Sam, lifting a nonchalant hand in greeting. 'How're you doing?'
She bent down to pick up a bottle of sun cream, smiled again at the boys, then walked towards the two little girls on the grass.
'OK, you two,' they heard her say, 'who's first with the sun cream?'
'She's really nice,' said Nat, turning to Sam. 'Isn't she?' There was silence and Nat frowned in puzzlement. 'Sam?'
'She's not nice,' said Sam, without moving his head. 'She's not nice. She's a fucking . . .
goddess.' He stared at her for a few more moments, then seemed to come to. He sat up and peeled off his T-shirt, glanced complacently down at his toned, tanned torso, then grinned at Nat. 'And I—' he leaned back in his chair '—am going to have her.'
By the time all the luggage was unpacked, it was evening. Chloe stood on the balcony, gazing over the lush, well-planted gardens. The bright sunshine of the day had gone; the colours before her were muted. There were no voices below, no signs of people; only quietness.
Tranquillity and peace.
But Chloe did not feel peaceful, she felt restless and twitchy. As her gaze lifted from the garden to the mountains beyond, she felt a desire to stride over them. To stride away, right away . . .
'Well,' said Philip behind her, and she gave a start. 'What do you think?' Chloe turned to face him.
'What do you mean?'
'This holiday.' Philip pushed a hand through his dark curls. 'It's not exactly what we planned, is it?'
'No,' said Chloe after a pause. 'Not exactly.'
'But they seem nice enough. I should think we'll be able to make a go of it.'
Chloe was silent. She felt bursting with something, she wasn't quite sure what. Frustration with Philip's easy acceptance of the situation; anger at how things had turned out. Most of all, disappointment. She had been so desperate for the oblivion of a foreign country; for a different horizon and a new atmosphere. She had so craved the chance for her and Philip to shake off the problems that dogged them at home, to lie in the sun and talk, and slowly rediscover themselves.
Instead of which, they would all spend the week performing for another family. They wouldn't be able to talk; they wouldn't be able to behave naturally. They would be on show all week, with no privacy, no time to themselves. This was no escape, this was torture.
And not even a stranger's family. Not even the comfort of anonymity.
Through her mind flashed again Hugh's shocked expression as she'd got out of the car, and she rubbed her face roughly, trying to rid herself of it. Trying to rid herself of the little prickles of antagonism she'd been feeling ever since; the little bubbles of curiosity. Another lifetime, she reminded herself firmly. A long time ago. Two different people entirely. She was no longer affected by him. She wasn't even that shocked to see him. After all, she and Hugh both lived in London—albeit very different parts of the metropolis. The surprise was that they hadn't bumped into each other before.
But did it have to be this very week? she thought, closing her eyes. This week that she and Philip needed so badly?
'What shall we do about supper?' Philip wandered across to the corner of the balcony and peered over. 'I think the boys are fending for themselves. They found some pizzas in the freezer. But we could be a little more ambitious.'
Chloe was silent. She couldn't bring herself to think about food. All she could think about was her own agitation.
'Chloe?' Philip came over and peered at her. 'Chloe, are you OK?'
'Let's go.' Chloe turned to Philip, gazing up at him with a sudden urgency. 'Let's just get in the car and drive off somewhere. Leave this villa.' She gestured towards the rolling mountains. 'We'll find somewhere to stay. I don't know, a guesthouse or somewhere.'
'Go?' Philip stared at her. 'Are you serious?'
Chloe gazed at him for a few silent moments, trying to convey her jumbled emotions. Trying to spark in him the reaction she wanted—without quite knowing what that was. Then, with a sigh, she turned away. She reached for a pale pink flower and began to pull the petals off, one by one.
'Oh, I don't know. I'm being stupid. It's just . . .' She paused, staring down at the half-spoiled flower. 'This isn't what we wanted. We wanted time alone together. A chance to . . .
sort things out.' She pulled out the last remaining clump of petals sharply, and dropped them over the side of the balcony.
'I know.' Philip came over to her side and put a hand on her shoulder. He looked at the bare stem in her fingers and raised his eyebrows. 'Poor flower.'
What about poor me? Chloe thought furiously. What about poor us?
Suddenly she thought she might scream. She felt cramped by Philip's presence, by his apathy. By his very acceptance of their circumstances. Why couldn't he be angry, like her?
Why couldn't he share her indignation? She felt as though her words were sinking into a soft, indifferent nothingness.
As she glanced sidelong at his face, she saw that his eyes were focused on the middle distance, his brow wrinkled in distracted thought. He wasn't thinking about the holiday, she suddenly realized with a jolt. His mind was still in Britain, still fruitlessly worrying. He wasn't even trying to relax, she thought with resentment.