It was one of those things that married people come to loathe about their spouses with a deep and passionate intensity, along with the timbre of their coughs, their tipsy giggles, the particular, guilty creaks with which they ascend the stairs. In Holly’s case, it was the dismissive flick of thumb and index finger, with which Brion indicated that the subject was closed. That he wasn’t going to come out with them to lunch – and that he didn’t wish to talk to her anymore.
Holly knew that it was involuntary on his part; that Brion’s gesture was a hand-me-down from his headmaster father. Presumably, she thought, Michael McCluskey had inherited it as well, and so the flick went back, for generation after generation, until in the dim, distant past there was a primordial McCluskey in a bothy in Connemara, so dismissing his own, importunate cow of a wife.
“He’s tired,” she tried to forgive her husband as she corralled their twins into the hire car. “This is his one holiday of the year – otherwise he works flat-out. Why shouldn’t he stay behind?” Why indeed? The Tuscan sky was a flawless blue, a tasty bouquet of thyme and rosemary was blowing in from the fields. The loungers by the pool were well-padded. Brion had a good book. And yet… “It’s out of character – his bloody, pushy character! These are exactly the sort of people he usually wants to suck up to. Socio-networking he calls it. The jerk.”
She wrenched the steering wheel of the big Renault and it reversed with a sudden lurch, almost clipping the gatepost. The twins howled with delight, the car’s power steering howled in protest, as Holly wrenched the wheel the other way, and they shot off up the track to the main road, loose stones drumming on the undercarriage. She pictured the sweat-damp swirls of fair hair on Brion’s high forehead. She pictured his hooded, grey-blue eyes. But she felt no forgiveness: only resentment, as acidic and uncomfortable as heartburn.
Holly got lost on the switchback roads, and further confused by the inadequate map. In the little hilltop, medieval towns, the honeyed stone porticos taunted her with their ancient indifference, while the inhabitants bamboozled her with their directions. By the time she reached Monte Felacco, almost an hour late, she was close to crying, while the twins were, as always, bickering with each other. She pulled to a halt and swivelling round let fly with slaps of tongue and hand.
For a moment their two, non-identical – but for all that absurdly similar – faces, were frozen with shock. Holly thought she’d gone too far – that they were about to burst into tears. But at 11 they were too old for that now. Instead, the boy, Peter, muttered derisively “Really, Mum.” Just as his father would’ve done. Then they both got out of the car and sauntered off to find their friends.
Holly redid her sweat-smeared makeup in the rearview. Her white, lace-trimmed smock blouse was last season’s. “My face,” she lacerated herself “is last bloody millennium’s.” Melissa and her posse of smart friends made Holly feel frumpy and inadequate in London – in Tuscany they were bound to be a nightmare. She knew they all hung out together for a month every summer in this idyllic, hilltop compound. Each family with its own perfect villa, the ivied ruins of an exquisite, ancient palazzo looming over the huge swimming pool.
Melissa’s friends were movie people and successful novelists. They were as at home in LA as they were in Tuscany. None of the women had little jobs like hers – they were all beautifully groomed powerhouses. None of the men would even deign to look at her – let alone engage her in conversation. If it wasn’t for the fact that Melissa had children the same age as the twins, Holly would’ve cancelled. If only Brion had been there, he may have been a pushy jerk – but there was no denying he was a charming one, always perfectly at ease. “Bloody Brion!” Holly thought for the thousandth time. Then broke off, because Melissa was standing by the car with a glass of prosecco in her outstretched hand.
“I’m so glad I caught you before you came down to the villa.” She launched straight in after an exchange of cheeks and kisses. “There’s something I absolutely have to tell you before we eat.” She flicked back her great mane of grey, corkscrew curls – which, with her youthful, almost gamine face, made her startlingly beautiful, like some mythical queen. She linked a gym-toned arm in Holly’s and they strolled together. “Jessica Albie is here this summer, with her husband Xavier Suarez. Of course, you know who they are… ” Holly did: she a fashion designer, he a film director. ” … And, well, I wouldn’t mention this – because they sort of fudge it, by pretending one’s a year older than the other – but, well, since you’ve got twins, I thought you might make the mistake of asking about them, which might be awkward.”
“Them?” Holly queried.
“Their twins, I mean.” Melissa gave Holly’s arm a squeeze.
“Awkward?” Holly was feeling very confused “Why?”
“Because, well, to put it bluntly: they’ve got different fathers.”
“Different fathers?” Holly laughed. “Don’t be ridiculous!”
“I assure you I’m not,” Melissa continued as they strolled down a stone-flagged path, between glossy cypresses. “You wouldn’t think it to look at her, but Jessica had half the men in London before she finally settled on Xavier. Settled just in time, because a few months later she gave birth to these twin boys – ”
“Oh,” Melissa laughed again “as non-identical as could be. I mean, clearly not the fruit of the same man’s loins.”
“B-but, how can that be?”
“Come on, Holly, don’t be naive,” another squeeze of the arm, “sperm can swim about in the uterine canal for anything up to three days. It’s not impossible that some other fellow’s different little fellows might dive in there during that time.”
Holly struggled to picture the biological processes involved in this, but gave up: “You’re telling me that one of her eggs was, that it – ”
“It divided, and each half was fertilised with the sperm of two different men. So that in the fullness of time she gave birth to twins with different fathers! Anyway,” Melissa shrugged off this bizarre revelation as if it were any old piece of tittle-tattle, “I thought I’d better warn you. Now come on, everyone’s down on the terrace waiting.”
Lunch went far better than Holly could ever have dreamed. Perhaps it was the large quantities of prosecco – which everyone swilled as if it were elegant 7up. Perhaps it was the exquisite octopus risotto that Xavier Suarez had cooked after – as he informed Holly – “Marinading those suckers in their own ink for two nights.” Or maybe it was the majestic sweep of the view from the hill, across the rolling countryside, with its chiaroscuro of tawny and umber shades, and its jewel-like villages. A view that made one realise that those Renaissance landscapes were, in fact, almost photo-real.
However, on balance, Holly thought that the reason she felt so at ease with Melissa’s ineffably stylish friends was the secret that had been vouchsafed her. Without it the chillily pretty, stick-thin Jessica Albie would have been grossly intimidating; while with the secret inside her, Holly was free to look upon her as a strange freak, within whose own pinched insides the most peculiar marinading had taken place: doubly alien, tentacular, fingers, detaching from a protoplasmic ball. As for Suarez, whose bear-like bulk and grizzled muzzle already suggested some noble beast of the woods, Holly couldn’t forbear from visualising great horns, arcing up from his brows as he browsed on his insalata verde.
Even if the other members of this smart set – a glossy magazine editor, her actor boyfriend, a brace of architects, and an absurdly famous and flamboyantly gay musician – had been inclined towards intimidating Holly, they couldn’t have. For the focus of the whole luncheon – the entire afternoon even – were the Suarez boys. They didn’t just bicker, they kicked and punched each other. They didn’t just play harmless tricks – they smashed the windscreen of the musician’s brand-new 4wd Porsche. They didn’t only pee in the swimming pool, they also – and it was Holly’s daughter who informed the assembled company of this latest outrage – “Did a number two!”
The others expressed sympathy to Jessica and Xavier, offered up tales of their own offspring’s outrageous doings, ventured diagnoses of fashionable new disorders. All in all, everyone had the happy experience of witnessing child behaviour that made them feel deeply smug about their own parenting. Except for the gay musician that is – but then, he was deeply smug all the time.
And Holly – Holly had the double pleasure of being in on the secret. Of being able to read the way Xavier always took the side of Antonio, his own, small, Hispanic doppelganger at a deeper, more sinister level. As for the other Suarez boy, Ferdie, what could’ve been more pathetic than the sight of his mother, taking him aside from the party, time after time, and admonishing him with the same, utterly chilly indifference? Ferdie didn’t resemble her in any way at all – anymore than he looked like his nominal father. Holly couldn’t forbear from peering into his pale face more and more as the afternoon wore on, as if in its pale, unformed contours, she could discern the answer to a half-remembered riddle which had troubled her for years.
Holly stayed far later than she’d planned. It was almost dark when she had finally said her thankyous and goodbyes, tracked down her own twins – who were smoking in a barn – and kicked them back into the Renault. She accepted a basket of porcini from Melissa and bestowed two kisses on her with genuine warmth. “We’ve had a fantastic day,” she said “haven’t we kids?” And they dutifully intoned: “Ye-es.” “You must come over to where we’re staying,” Holly continued “and bring the Suarezes with you too, I’m sure Brion would love to meet them. If only he hadn’t been laid up with this bloody sunburn today.”
When she issued the invitation, Holly meant it. However, within seconds she mentally withdrew it. For, as she shifted into gear, and purely automatically looked in the rearview mirror, the last thing she saw on Monte Felacco was this: Jessica Albie telling off her freakish eight-year-old yet again. This time Ferdie had clearly had enough, and he was dismissing his mother with a familiar gesture, a peculiar flick of his thumb and index finger. Holly’s resentment of that morning flooded back – now with the strength of a tsunami.
No, the Suarezes wouldn’t be visiting the McCluskeys in their, far less salubrious villa. In fact, Holly wasn’t sure she’d even be returning there herself. Jessica Albie had had half the men in London, and the thought of ever sharing a bed again with one of her leftovers, made Holly sick to her stomach.