SPLOSH!” shouted Giles, as soon as his head broke the water. “Haw haw!” And with that, he snorted – actually snorted – like a pig in the proverbial. Maud lowered her wet copy of the new William Boyd onto her wet knees and looked down at her husband with what a passer-by might have mistaken for affectionate exasperation.
Yet again, as she rubbed her book with a towel and moved her lounger further from the pool, Maud regretted agreeing to her husband’s plans for a villa holiday with his two schoolfriends. Oh, the villa was nice enough: one of those umbrageous, architect-converted jobs in the Tuscan hills, complete with crystalline pool, marble horizontals, a bosomy Italian mama in the kitchen and adorably obliging poolboy‑cum-driver.
It was the company that irked her. Giles wasn’t usually the boorish type – the type who thinks “bombing” his wife is funny – but once he got together with Eric and Mike they all reverted to the age of 16; nicknames, the lot (Eric’s “The On” was not short for The Honourable, as she’d first assumed, but The Onanist), and all they wanted to do was play high-stakes poker, drink duty-free single malts and sing dubious rugby-club songs.
And as for the wives! What was Maud, with her handbag business and two teenage boys (currently in Mykonos with friends), to say to these women? Eric’s second wife Maggie, the actress, was young and sweet and burbled away, bless her, but never seemed to say anything. Apparently, she was once in Doctor Who. And Beatrix was a chilly number, some sort of don who seemed to be in training for the world arching-one-eyebrow championship.
The cataclysm came on day three – an eruption of shouting from the other side of the house where the husbands were playing hacky sack. It all had something to do with Mike discovering that it was Eric and Giles who grassed him up to their housemaster when they were 16 and got him expelled. And when Eric wouldn’t stop laughing – “It was AGES ago!” – Mike told him that he and Giles had both (separately) slept with his old girlfriend at uni. Then Eric had shouted at Giles and Giles had hit Mike and now all three men arrived at the side of the pool as one and declared: “We are LEAVING.”
And the ladies, who – united in irritation at their husbands – had started to get on rather well, looked one to the other and said, almost in unison, “Oh no we’re not.” By the end of the afternoon three dusty taxis had screeched up and removed three sulky men carting hastily stuffed suitcases in the general direction of Florence. And over Villa Efflorenza, the balm of silence descended.
The holiday vastly improved. Beatrix turned out to be friends with an old acting pal of Maggie’s, and Maud and Maggie turned out to have a year at the Courtauld in common. Left to themselves – spreading their limbs nightly across those acres of Egyptian cotton unsullied by drunken husbands snoring like bushpigs – the ladies thrived. Days were spent poolside – a stately breaststroke here, a sun- warmed copy of Donna Tartt there – evenings with pasta puttanesca and local biodynamic prosecco.
“You know,” said Maud, smoking a Vogue in honour of their last afternoon at the villa, “I think we should do this again next year.” Her eyes followed Riccardo’s well-muscled legs as he bent over the pool to fish out some leaves. “Just us girls.” There was no answer. Maggie had fallen into a catlike sleep on her lounger, wide-brimmed hat over her face. “Eh, Bea?” said Maud.
“Hmm?” said Beatrix, looking up from the old copy of The Daily Telegraph she’d been worrying at with a pen. “Sorry. I was miles away. So: 13 down, nine letters: ‘Cheat: sounds like a mistake a grown-up would make.’”
“Can’t help,” said Maud with a little smile. “Never been much good at crosswords.”