The long wooden shutters of the Casa Luna, bolted against heat and crime, were flung open, and the light of a new day flooded in. Pia turned her back to it and began to sweep. There was always dust: dust from the ancient, crumbling plaster, dust from the great, dark oak beams of the ceiling, dust from long-forgotten visitors, and dust from the bone-white roads of the country. As Pia’s plump figure bent and stretched, a fine cloud of glittering motes rose, swarming as if alive. She knew they’d be back, as they always were, but she captured what she could with her broom.
Now the cobwebs twirled like fine yarn round a long-handled duster, their spiders scuttling to temporary hiding places in the rafters. Now the scorpions scuttled from the rough stone walls, to lie invisible on burnished stones outside. The deathwatch beetles stayed their clocks, and the mice that lived behind the stairs vanished in a furry blur. The bathroom taps were rid of slime and lime, and the kitchen had had its sink scoured, its cooker chastened, and its fridge defrosted.
“Ai, ai, ai, ai,” bawled Serafina, Pia’s sister-in-law, listening to the local radio station, “why do you always make me cry?”
Pia joined in the chorus:
“You naughty love, you little boy,
"You treat my heart just like a toy!”
They sang with relish, vigorously whacking rugs out of the window with stout cane beaters. A lizard, basking on the warm window ledge like a tiny dragon, shot off and vanished into the star jasmine. As the sun rose higher, a miniature orchestra of cicadas in every tree began to shrill the midsummer music it would play until nightfall. Swallows darted round the house and its cypress trees with high shrieks. It was going to be another very hot day. The two women worked at a steady, untiring pace. They wore flowered pinafores, and an expression of concentration and satisfaction, for they were at peace, unlike those for whom they were preparing the house. How strained these foreigners always looked when they arrived! Of course, travel was never pleasant. Pia herself had never been farther than Arezzo, and had felt most uncomfortable there, surrounded by alien faces and buildings, so much so that she had never returned. The poor foreigners had, no doubt, suffered far worse, hurtled through the air from one country to the next. But it was their complexions that really made her pity them.
“They live in the dark, like mushrooms,” Serafina speculated.
Pia doubted this.
“They don’t know how to be happy, poor things.”
She had an approximate idea of what the rest of the world was like from the large colour TV set that was permanently switched on in her kitchen; it seemed to be a place full of strange agonies. The wisdom of this was confirmed by the extreme reluctance of those who stayed at the Casa to leave.
Pia counted up the sheets that she had bought from the market in Camucia. It was a nuisance that the burglars had taken the antique linen Signor Bill provided, but she had replenished the deficit with new fitted polycotton sheets from the market, so much easier to wash and iron. Burglars were an annual pest, always striking at the holiday homes of foreigners – an easy target because they tended to be isolated and unguarded. They knew that Signor Bill worked in Hollywood, and all of Cortona was immensely proud of this, living in the hopeful expectation that one day he would make a film there in which they would all feature. The Cortonese had a lively appreciation of the photogenic qualities of both their town and their own features, which remained largely undiscovered by the outside world. On discovering that Signor Bill had only a twelve-year-old television and clapped-out hi-fi, the criminals had taken the sheets – luckily, the antique furniture was both too heavy and too sparse to be worth bothering with. Pia sorted through her replacements. One double pair for the king-sized bed. The husband and wife would take that room; it had the best views out across the hills, and an bathroom en suite. Three pairs of buttercup yellow single sheets for the children – two boys and a girl, according to the note left her by the estate agent. Foreigners still had big families, unlike Italians these days….Pia, who adored children, sighed. After some thought, she brought out a tiny china tea-service on a silvery tin tray. It was nothing special – just a white teapot, a jug, and four cups and saucers, each no taller than a child’s thumb, each decorated with a miniature purple flower that might or might not have been a violet. The girl would like it, Pia thought. Perhaps she would have teaparties, as Pia herself had done, once upon a time.
She returned to bedmaking. There were the two smaller double beds, each with its headboard carved from chestnut wood. One of these would be for the children’s grandmother, no doubt. The other was for the couple’s friends. It had been left vague as to precisely how many of these would be staying, so Pia left the beds unmade in the last three rooms. There were enough sheets to go round, but only just. The white waffle towels she carried to the bathrooms were old and balding in places, but generous in size. Nothing in the Casa was new except for the sheets, and the swimming pool, which had been carved out of the garden in order to attract a higher rental fee. Before that, foreigners had been reluctant to come and spend the summer months here; it had been the gentle insistence of the estate agent that had persuaded the owners to see it as an investment.
“Who’s coming this time?” Serafina asked.
They exchanged grins. Quite apart from the large tip they could expect at the end, Americans were always extravagantly grateful for a tiramisu left in the fridge, or the fresh vegetables from the kitchen garden they were paying to keep up. They only ever used the shower, and treated Pia as if she, rather than the signore, were their hostess. Upon departure, they left quantities of strange food in the fridge – boxes of yellow grease that no sensible person would dream of ingesting, and cans of fizzy drink – but the remains of many pleasant soaps and shampoos as well. The Germans, too, were punctilious, and so clean that it was rare to find anything left for them to do. The English, on the other hand…..Pia grimaced. Some English people were charming, even if they never understood that money was always better than a bottle of whisky, or that they were wasting precious water filling the bathtubs. Others made her shudder. She hadn’t forgotten the English party of the previous year that had left the swimming pool surrounded by beer bottles, overflowing dustbins, and the plumbing blocked with contraceptives. Italian Dream didn’t care about which nationalities booked the Casa Luna as long as they had the money to pay for it, but it was always the English who caused trouble. Usually, they just weren’t rich enough for Tuscany.
Pia and Serafina delighted in contemplating other people’s wealth, which they felt reflected honour on their own labours. This would be a busy time, with so many houses let to foreigners. A distant car was sounding its horn. Pia looked down the hillside, past the pool where her nephew Rico was toiling, stripped to the waist, to clean the filters and replace the chlorine, past the long avenue of cypress trees bordering the road below. There it was, a long pale car, the kind that was always driven by a uniformed chauffeur from a top hotel in Florence or Rome. It would be at the Casa in a few minutes, once Rico had helped it round the sharp bend in the road. She surveyed the drawing-room. Her labours were done, for the time being. All traces of the people who had stayed here just a few hours before - eating, sleeping, laughing, crying, loving, hating, and forgiving - were eradicated, just as they always were. That was the way the owner wished it, and the guests, too. It gave them the illusion that the house and its gardens and woods were really theirs, and that nobody before them had ever discovered its charms, or its mysteries.
Theo and Polly Noble waited for their luggage to appear through the slatted curtain of the carousel at Pisa airport with mounting apprehension. Tania and Robbie had been restrained so far by a combination of audiotapes, colouring books, unbridled ingestion of sweets, and, inevitably, forcible midair separation. They were now boiling up to a fight. Polly, aching with tension and exhaustion, waited for the right moment to pounce.
“Are quite you sure you don’t need a wee, darlings?” she asked again.
“Can you turn the volume down, dear?” said Theo. “You’re embarrassing them.”
The children, far from looking embarrassed, took no notice.
“Sorry,” said Polly, “They just don’t seem to hear me unless I talk in a piercing sort of voice. Children! Do you need to use the loo?”
“They’re smart enough to decide for themselves, aren’t they?”
Polly clamped her lips shut. They weren’t, of course, but she didn’t want Theo to go into one of his cold rages. If her children ignored her, they would have to stop on the burning verges of the autostrada, ankle-deep in rubbish, for both of them to empty their bladders. If they could just make it to the villa before the Demon Queen, all would be fine. She so longed for them all to find peace. In her heart, she knew this was highly unlikely. Sweat saturated the fine blue and white stripes of her blouse. Oh, why did it have to be Italy? Of course she adored Italy, but not in midsummer; you never came in midsummer, not if you were sane. However, people with young children never were sane. They were all driven crazy by not getting enough sleep. Half the time, Polly didn’t know if she were awake or dreaming, she was so tired, and now she had to cope with Abroad again. Why couldn’t they have gone to Scotland, as she had done as a child, or, better still, to their lovely house in Rhode Island, with those perfect sandy beaches? Why endure the soaring temperatures, the mosquitoes, the foreign language? But Theo had insisted.
“I have to take this vacation in Europe because of the deal we’re working on. Chances are, I’ll be flying to Milan or Frankfurt in the middle of it, and that’s so much easier if I don’t have to cross the Atlantic. Besides, they’ll enjoy the paintings.”
Theo had a charming belief, untainted by experience, that their children would thoroughly enjoy trudging round the Uffizi with a horde of other tourists, looking at Renaissance art. Polly was too tired to argue. She wondered what a Tuscan farmhouse would be like, dreading the prospect of valuable antiques and china, which would have to be protected from sudden childish arm movements. Perhaps it was a good thing that the children were getting some exercise now, chasing each other round and round the carousels. It was important to look on the bright side.
“If you’d stuck to hand luggage for the kids, we’d be out of here by now,” Theo said. “I don’t get why there has to be such a lot of stuff. These temperatures, all they need is T-shirts and shorts.”
“I’m sorry, darling. I did try. But you know how Tania insists on bringing her entire summer wardrobe.”
“There is a washing machine there, you know.”
Polly was all too aware that much of her time on holiday would be spent doing the laundry and the cooking and the child care and all the other chores that back in London would be shared with her cleaning lady. A holiday with Theo and the children represented three weeks of domestic and maternal drudgery. She did hope the kitchen would have a nice view. Continental kitchens, like continental breakfasts, usually left much to be desired.
“Why did they bring their tennis racquets?” Theo demanded.
“You promised to play with them, remember?”
Robbie tugged on her arm.
“Mummy, Mummy, Mummy, it’s my turn to sit on the trolley.”
“It isn’t, you great big fibber. It’s mine.”
“Get off! I was here first.”
“Guys, guys,” said Theo. They took not the slightest bit of notice.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,” chanted Robbie.
Theo turned on his wife and hissed, “Where did he learn that word?”
Polly flushed. She couldn’t bring herself to admit that it was one that occasionally escaped her lips during the school run.
“I think he decoded those advertisements for the French Connection,” she said, in a flash of inspiration. “You know the ones? FCUK?”
Theo’s expression of fury changed focus.
“In that case, I shall certainly write to their board to complain,” he said.
Robbie began to scream. “She’s pushing me off the trolley! Mum-meee!”
“Time out now, time out,” said Theo, making the T sign.
“Shut up, butt-head,” said Robbie.
Polly, who now appreciated why the phrase of going off your trolley was synonymous with the word madness said, “Lamb, you can’t sit on the trolley. We need it for our suitcases.”
“Then I want a trolley to myself!” said Tania.
“You’ll have to fetch it.”
“All right, then, I will!”
Polly watched her daughter’s figure retreat in an exaggerated flounce of fury. It was still flat and childish, but during the past year her nine-year-old daughter had increasingly been behaving like a teenager. From one month to the next, she had mutated from a sweet little girl who wore pinafore dresses and talked to her dolls to a terrifyingly sophisticated creature who demanded that her ears be pierced and her social life enhanced by a mobile phone. When Polly had refused, she’d screamed, “I hate you, you fat loser!” and sulked for weeks.
When not in school, Tania now wore metallic nail varnish on her soft childish nails and smeared sparkly gel on her flawless cheeks. Her long, coltish legs terminated in lumpen platform sandals, and her body was barely covered by a skimpy lime-green top and a white mini-skirt, carefully pulled down to reveal the waistband of her Calvin Klein undies. She looked, Polly thought, like a miniature hooker. Worst of all, she was always so angry and sulky. What had happened to her beautiful, cheerful, innocent child?
At least Tania still had a child’s imagination. Theo, in fact, worried that she lived too much in a fantasy world – “off with the fairies,” as English people called it. Polly blamed herself for this, having struggled to continue with her career during the earliest years of her daughter’s life. Tania had had a succession of uninspired nannies, who had never known how to contain or control her – not that Polly did either, only she did love her with an awkward, wary passion. She was forever inventing long, elaborate games, which she condescended to play with Robbie when they were not quarrelling. Sometimes, the strength of her beliefs was unnerving. She was quite convinced, for instance, that she could fly, and had sprained her ankle jumping off a high wall to prove it.
“Too much imagination can be bad for kids, just like too much of anything,” her father had said. “She should be concentrating more on her math.”
Regrettably, Tania hated math almost as much as she hated vegetables.
Polly observed her son, who, now that his sister had ceded his right to the trolley, was looking angelic. There was nothing unusual about this, for Robbie always looked angelic. Strangers would stop them wherever they went and exclaim about his beauty, unaware of his propensity to bite if the whim took him.
Robbie beamed up at her now from his position on top of the trolley.
“Love you, Mum.”
“I love you too, scallywag,” she said.
Nothing had prepared Polly for the passion that had taken possession of her when she had a son. She felt bad about it, because modern women were supposed to value daughters more than sons, but it was inescapable. She loved Tania, but with Robbie, it was adoration. He could literally make her heart beat faster just by smiling at her. She wanted to keep every lock of his hair; she shed tears over the small discarded clothes when he was at school, mooning in his bedroom and burying her face in his pillow. However, he, too, was changing. He still allowed her long cuddles, but recently he had stopped coming into bed with her first thing in the morning as a matter of course. The exquisite pleasure of holding him for as long as she liked was gradually slipping away. He said “Ugh!” and “Yuck!” when he saw people kissing on videos and this embarrassment was spreading, so that half the time when she held out her arms for him, he giggled and hung back.
Thank heavens Meenu was coming. It was such luck to have persuaded her, and Ellen too, of course. Ellen was the best person in the world to go shopping with. She could also speak Italian. Oh, it would be good to be together again, just like the old days when they had shared a flat. Perhaps they could manage a girls’ trip to Florence one day. Besides, Bron was bound to get on with Tania; they were the same age. Slowly, as the smells and sounds of a foreign country filtered into her consciousness, Polly began to feel more cheerful. This was Italy, after all, and Italy was always divine. She hadn’t been sure about the way Ellen would fit in, but Polly had a shrewd suspicion that the real attraction was the presence of Theo’s half brother, Daniel. They seemed to have something going. Polly drifted off in a haze of hopeful thoughts. Both Ellen and Hemani were single. What if she could make a match between Meenu and Ivo? Ivo did have something of a reputation, but he was interesting, and good company. On the other hand, so was Guy, though she did rather hope she could keep Guy to herself. That was the point about having a house party. It meant that you weren’t lonely, or alone.
There was the usual despondent rubber plant doubling up as an ashtray by the car-rental booths, and the usual haggling with someone who spoke heavily accented English over whether or not he had booked an air-conditioned MPV from London. Whatever company you travelled with always seemed to lose your booking and take up to an hour to find it again. Theo hated family vacations. Polly joked sometimes that if there were club class seats on a lifeboat, her husband would insist on having them, but there was no such thing as club class anything on family vacations. Of course, he should have booked club for himself and economy for the rest; he could have justified it to his internal accountant, no problem. His legs were too long for the cramped seats in economy, and there was that research about the danger of blood clots while flying. Theo had taken care to buy himself a pair of support stockings, because it stood to reason that he was the one most at risk from a stroke, and he now included an aspirin as part of his daily routine, but flying still made him antsy. His nerves were soothed at first by reflecting that at least all their tickets were free, due to frequent-flier miles. He could even have brought a nanny, but Polly had insisted she no longer needed one now that she had given up her career, much to his relief. He’d never expected Mary Poppins, not exactly, but if there was one who didn’t come with multiple piercings and a built-in hatred of her employers, Theo hadn’t met her. The child-care problem was one the British really hadn’t licked, not having a willing army of Mexicans on their doorstep. Needless to say, as a partner at Cain, Innocent, he couldn’t have employed one of those either, but still…
Two weeks away from the office with Polly and the children was enough to make anybody’s heart sink, in Theo’s opinion. It wasn’t as though he didn’t love them all, especially the kids, but going on vacation with them was another matter. Some of the guys had wives who managed the whole summer alone, occasionally dropping by for the weekend but otherwise keeping well clear. He needed his own space, and the office was where he found it. But Polly would have gone bananas at the suggestion. The trouble was, whatever Theo cared for his spouse and children, he cared more about his work, and his other life.
Nothing, but nothing, compared to the adrenaline highs of a deal going through. Polly didn’t understand; she thought that he was working for the money, or to prove that he could be successful on the other side of the pond, far away from Mother. But to him, a vacation was just that: a vacancy, an empty, unoccupied period of time, and even if people were coming to stay, it didn’t lessen his frustration. At work, he was somebody. He had a position, a function, an occupation; at work, he had stress, yes, but stress was good for you, Theo believed. You were up against the best of the best, and you gave it your best, even if it meant meeting people at seven in the morning on a Sunday. That was how a white-shoe firm worked.
Polly got what was left over from that, and because she was so placid, so calm and undemanding about all the petty domestic matters a partner couldn’t be bothered with, she was the ideal wife, even if she cared more about music and art than was strictly necessary. He occasionally got the impression that the difference between Polly’s experience of their life together and his own was like that between one of them sitting in the auditorium of a theatre and the other seeing the same play on TV. Of course, Theo went often to the theatre, as he did to the opera. It was the kind of thing you did, much as you went to the barber and the tailor, as a partner at Cain, Innocent. Life management was all about staying on an even keel, rolling with the punches, and keeping one’s sunny side up, and culture was therapy in that situation. He wasn’t passionate about music like Danny and Polly. He sincerely hoped that he wasn’t passionate about anything. Theo had long ago learnt that whenever anything seemed likely to disturb him, he could simply watch what happened with perfect detachment. There were some people who might find this uncomfortable, but he found it essential. How else could a rational person function appropriately?
So now, waiting for the Avis girl to find his booking, he concentrated on remaining calm. This didn’t matter. He remembered what his favourite professor at Harvard had quoted to him, “‘The law is reason without passion.’” That was the way to live a lawyer’s life. He loved Polly, while never being in love – a condition he thoroughly disliked, thinking it as bad for business and destructive of property, stability, and conformity. No lawyer, and especially not a partner at Cain, Innocent, could believe in romance. He thought about Polly as the Avis girl finally found his booking and filled out the requisite forms. Going on holiday was downtime, something they both needed. They shared so much - the same interests, the same values, and the kids, who were (by and large) absolutely great. Theo looked back at Tania, who was now perched on top of his big squashy Mulberry suitcase, with her headphones on. She beamed at him. The upside of going on holiday with them was being able to do things together, like teaching them both how to play baseball, getting Robbie going on his crawl. Theo had always wanted children, he was as involved as a working father could be, and this vacation meant that they would be able to catch up on some friends, too. No, all in all, thought Theo, having returned his blood pressure to normal, just as long as Guy fits in with the whole scenario, this is set to be a really great time.
“Uh-oh,” said Ellen von Berg to Hemani Moulik, one hand clenching the strap of her handbag; “Look who’s coming with Danny.”
“Who?” asked Hemani, turning and seeing only a heaving blur of brightly dressed tourists. She knew she really ought to wear contact lenses, as Bron kept saying, instead of these granny glasses, but she never seemed to have the time to sort out her own eyes, only other people’s. Just now, she was too thrilled to care. She was in Italy, the country she had always yearned to visit, and the light and heat and sounds and smells sent an unfamiliar thrill of hope through her.
“Ivo Sponge,” Ellen said, groaning. “God, don’t tell me he’s coming, too…If so, this holiday will be a disaster. How could Danny do this to me?”
“Oh, Meenu, I know you live like a nun, but you must know Ivo. Everyone does. He’s famous for being the worst flirt on either side of the Atlantic. You must have heard of the Sponge Lunge?”
Hemani, not really listening, watched Daniel approach them across the rubbery floor of the Rome airport. She began a flood of bright, nervous chatter, until Bron rolled his eyes and told her silently to stop. She looked at her son’s grave, beautiful profile as he scuffed the floor with his Nike trainers. I must try not to be silly, she thought, and I must not humiliate Bron out of nervous social ineptitude. She, who was so confident and competent as a surgeon, still found she fell to pieces when confronted by a man. She forced herself to concentrate on what Ellen was saying. She was still complaining about Daniel’s friend.
“Biggest slimeball and a total loser.”
“He doesn’t look boring. That’s what I most dread about going on holiday with people.”
“Oh, sure, he isn’t boring,” said Ellen sarcastically. “One thing you can guarantee is that Ivo will be the life and soul of any party. Also the death and damnation of it."
Hemani looked at her friend shrewdly.
“You used to go out with him?”
“Are you kidding?” was Ellen’s answer. “You know, I introduced him to one of my friends in Manhattan who was seriously desperate, and she called me the next morning and said she was going to try for a sperm donor instead.”
Hemani, who had a sinking feeling that Polly was once again trying to set her up with a spare man, looked at Ivo with reluctant interest.
Even at a distance, his eyes snapped with a particular liveliness, and perhaps a hardness, too. He was plump and tall, dressed in a crumpled cream linen suit and a panama hat. A figure out of a Somerset Maugham story, she thought, amused, or perhaps someone not quite at ease in the modern world, like herself. Beside him Daniel, in chinos and a polo shirt, looked the quintessential American academic, his floppy hair framing both a classical profile and a perpetually diffident expression. Who was the woman in black gliding along beside him, though? Hemani squinted. Oh, it was his cello.
“I didn’t think he’d bring that on holiday,” Ellen said.
“His, um, instrument,” Ellen said.
“He must have bought a ticket for it.”
“You can’t just put a cello in the hold, you know. It’d destroy it.”
Ellen shrugged. “Whatever.”
Ellen didn’t really understand this obsession with music, but just seeing him stride across the airport floor was enough. She had two weeks in which to get him to propose to her, and if she failed in a setting like Tuscany, well, she’d be very surprised.
“Hi, sweetheart.” Ellen beamed at Daniel. He smiled vaguely, as he always did, then registered Hemani and her son.
He never looks quite in focus, Hemani thought, even close-up.
“Good flight, angel?” Ellen asked.
“For a sardine box populated by psychotic toddlers specialising in projectile vomiting, it wasn’t all bad,” said Ivo.
Hemani, who had travelled tourist class with her son, grimaced in sympathy. Ellen who had been astonished that Hemani had failed to take up her darling little man had said he could get her tickets at the bargain price of two thousand dollars each, only shrugged.
Addressing the space between the two women, Daniel said, “Hi, how are you?”
“Great!” said Ellen enthusiastically. “My media profile has never been higher. Did you see the article about my new shop in Vogue? I clipped it for you. I still have friends there.”
Daniel looked at Ellen with the dazed gaze that most men seemed to have when they saw her, then smiled nervously. Ivo, on the other hand, lifted his hat revealing short coppery curls dampened by sweat.
“Ellen, my darling. So good to see that if you took your top off you could still model for the prow of a Viking ship, terrorising the Saxon peasantry as you thrust through the waves.”
Ellen said, “Ivo,” in tones that would have made most men shrivel into dust. “I’m glad you haven’t forgotten me.”
“How could anyone possibly do that?”
Hemani caught Daniel’s eye and gave a small snort of laughter.
“Hi,” he said. “Er, I don’t think you’ve met, have you? Hemani, Ivo.”
Ivo seized Hemani’s hand and, to her bemusement, kissed it. She wondered whether she had imagined a slight flick of his tongue on her flesh as he did so. He had the mouth of a sensualist.
“People call me Meenu,” she said.
“And this is?”
“My son, Auberon,” she said, holding him in front of her with both arms crossed over his chest, as if to protect him. She looked hard at Daniel, to see whether he would be surprised. However, the expression on his face was one of perpetual mild wonderment, so she couldn’t tell. She suspected he had looked like this ever since he had discovered Shakespeare.
“Hallo there,” said Ivo.
“Hi,” said Daniel. “How old are you?”
Bron smiled shyly but made no reply.
“Nine,” said his mother.
“Ah.” Daniel rubbed his nose. “Well, that’s a great age to be.”
“Is it?” said Bron.
Daniel suddenly remembered that he had been nine when Mother had left his father. “It can be.”
There was an awkward pause, which Ivo filled.
“So, we’re all travelling to Cortona together. How delicious, how delightful, how delirious. You don’t need to hang about for another hour. Dan has hired a car.”
“Oh, Danny, but I hired a car, too,” said Ellen. “That’s why we’re in the queue.”
“Ours is bigger and better,” said Ivo at once.
“You could come with us,” said Daniel. “That is, unless you’d prefer….”
“Oh, Mum,” said Bron, “can’t we go? I’m so bored of waiting. I just want to get there and swim.”
Hemani looked hopefully at Ellen. It was agony being with a hot, tired, bored child, even one as good as Bron, and she felt very sorry for him. Ellen was clearly torn between her loathing of Ivo and her desire to be with Daniel. She had already taken his arm possessively and was gazing up at him.
“Well…Wouldn’t you mind, honey?”
“Not at all.”
“I take it neither of you has been there before? Neither have I. That makes us all equals.”
“Oh, Ivo,” said Ellen, “you have no equal, surely.”
“You flatter me, my darling, you flatter me.”
Hemani felt sorry for him. She flashed him an encouraging smile, then wished she hadn’t, because Ivo immediately squeezed her hand convulsively in his own warm and pudgy paw.
“Can’t we just go? After all, how many cars do we need?”
So it was settled. They wheeled their triangular trolleys out into the car park together. It was like walking into an oven. Daniel gingerly opened the driver’s side and turned on the air conditioning.
“Is it okay with everyone if I sit in the front? I get motion sickness,” Ellen said. Hemani remembered that in the plane over, Ellen had boasted of never getting it at all.
“Excellent idea.” Ivo beamed. Hemani nodded to Bron, who scrambled into the back with her. It was stuffy, but he was too fascinated by all the palm trees and bright flowers to notice. “You two hop in, and I’ll handle the cases. You do at least trust me with those?”
“No,” said Ellen, “but I can’t resist seeing you try to lift mine.”
Having extracted the cream limousine from the deep, dusty ditch into which it had swerved, the sweating chauffeur from the Hotel Excelsior took his leave without the expected tip. Betty’s face was frozen into an expression of perpetual displeasure, thanks to the Botox injections, which maintained a marmoreal calm in her visage at all times, but her irritation at having to wait was magnified by the realisation that the maid did not speak a word of English. She neither displayed nor felt the slightest degree of interest in the smiling peasant woman before her, who was jabbering away in unintelligible Italian. Where was the agent? Not here, it seemed. Presumably, Polly had not thought to arrange details such as these. She looked around, taking off her straw hat, scarf, and sunglasses.
Throughout her childhood, and during each of her four marriages, Betty had demanded the best. Naturally, as she rose in the world, her ideas about what constituted this had altered, but she hated anything that fell short of her expectations. The Casa Luna was far too small and rustic, although the large gardens, glimpsed below, were pleasing enough. The woods beyond the olive groves looked far too overgrown, and they were bound to be seething with snakes, if she knew anything about this kind of climate. She went indoors. No not much better. The architecture was, dismayingly, that of a farmhouse with pretensions: Some jumped-up farmer had enlarged it, she guessed, before it had been converted. Betty’s heels clacked impatiently across the tiled floors. She had to admit that the drawing room with its great stone fireplace and large sofas was pleasant enough in a distinctly Greenwich Village fashion, but those vases! Not a decent light fixture anywhere, either. That was Italy for you.
Betty sighed. The things she did for her sons! None of them was quite as much trouble as her youngest, Winthrop, but she was still willing to sacrifice a fortnight in order to ensure Daniel got engaged to that charming girl Ellen von Berg. Everyone knew that Ellen was mad about him, and they had been pictured together in People magazine leaving the Ivy restaurant in London, which these days was as good as an engagement. Didn’t she deserve to have at least one of her children married to someone respectable? Polly had been such a disappointment. She had never understood why Theo, who could have married anybody, had chosen such a homebody type. Even a cheerleader would have been preferable, at least first time round. She must also have a word with her daughter-in-law about the unbecoming quantity of weight she had put on since having Robbie. Her own hips were as slim as they had been when she had first captured the heart, and wallet, of Theo’s father, more years ago than she cared to imagine. But the new generation was almost as ill-disciplined and indulgent towards themselves as they were towards their children. She was not looking forward to sharing her space with Robbie and Tania. She didn’t imagine that time had improved their disposition or their habit of creating havoc wherever they went.
The chauffeur had deposited her seven suitcases in the hall. This was a matter of indifference. Somebody would be along to take them up to her room. The main thing, she realized as she ascended the sweeping marble stair, was that she was free to choose the best room. The corridor was long, with a large window at the end that gave onto a view of the opposite hills, of no interest save for the castellated tower of somebody’s palazzo. Now that was the sort of scale she expected for a partner of Cain, Innocent. But Theo, like everyone, was hurting from the recession. She tried the doors. One, to her mild annoyance, was locked. She inspected each of the rest, flinging back the shutters and leaving them open so that the precious shadows were dispelled, and quickly discovered that the room with the largest bed also had the best view and the only really tolerable bathroom.
“Here,” she said aloud to herself.
Gingerly, she sat down on the mattress, then bounced a few times. It was firm. She felt the sheets between finger and thumb, noting with distaste that they were not pure cotton. With a sigh of martyrdom, Betty closed the shutters again, scything off a frond of wisteria as she did so, then kicked off her Jimmy Choos and stretched herself out for a session of meditation that was almost as revitalising as sleep, only infinitely more fashionable.