- Published: 19 January 2021
- ISBN: 9781405934541
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 432
- RRP: $19.99
The Family Holiday
Escape to the Cotswolds for a heartwarming story of love and family
Luxury rural retreat Ideal for families or groups (no hens or stags)
A charming Cotswold manor house, plus a group of sympathetically restored outbuildings to provide characterful additional accommodation: sleeps 16 in 8 bedrooms (cots available)
Outdoor swimming pool, tennis court, croquet lawn
Outside catering optional
The photographs in Charlie’s smart, glossy brochure seemed to have been taken in high summer. The kind of high summer England collectively dreamt of but hardly ever seemed to experience, of the vivid pinks, lilacs and oranges of a flowerbed, the cobalt of a cloudless sky, and shimmering heat. Charlie wondered how long they’d had to wait to shoot the pictures. Years, maybe. Or perhaps the photos hadn’t really looked like that at all, and they’d laid fancy filters and special effects over the top, like the kids did with the endless pictures of themselves they seemed to take, these days. It looked completely idyllic. Which was, incidentally, the word used most often in the brochure.
The house was pleasingly symmetrical, built of warm Cotswold stone, clad in a flowering wisteria (first trick: wisteria bloomed in the spring). The garden was classic country – seasonally correct, this time – with manicured hornbeam hedges and deep beds of lupins, delphiniums and dahlias. Blowsy full roses curled around metal arbours set along a path down to a small blue lozenge of a swimmingpool with teak sun-loungers and a tiny pastel-coloured summerhouse for changing into your costume. It was the sort of garden Charlie had been trying to grow all his adult life, and here it was. There was a smart tennis court, with a high green fence, and a croquet set.
Small ‘lifestyle’ photographs interspersed the more informative ones – a jug of icy Pimm’s and some glasses, pretty pottery bowls full of tomatoes and strawberries you just knew were still warm from the sunshine under which they had been picked. Or, at least, that was how it looked. It all seemed to be saying, ‘Everything is soft-focus perfect here. Your life could be this way too, if only you’d come . . .’ Selling a fantasy. And Charlie was buying.
There’d been no glossy, professional brochure twelve years ago, when Daphne had seen an advertisement in the back pages of one of the women’s magazines she pored over every month. She’d neatly sliced out the ad, with the special little cutter he’d bought her one Christmas to do just that. Kept it in what she called her file of dreams and schemes, which was one of those paper concertina things, tied with a ribbon. Daphne’s was pink flowers and a yellow ribbon, bought from WHSmith on the high street years ago. It had lived, and still did, on the bookshelf in the kitchen, with her old cookbooks. It was all still there.
She’d annotated most of the cookbooks – adjustments to recipes, notes on temperatures – and he couldn’t bear to throw them away, though he hadn’t used them once since he’d been on his own. He’d got away with it, too. Convention, friends and his well-meaning children had contrived to remove most of her physical presence from the house in the years after she’d died. Her clothes and handbags had gone to charity shops, and their wardrobe hadn’t smelt of her in years. Her jewellery, such as it was, had been spread among the family according to her wishes, expressed on a note left in its box. But no one seemed to have noticed that he hoarded the cookbooks. He could open one at random, run his finger over her big, round handwriting, and summon her up, stirring a pan on the stove in her apron, sipping a glass of wine as she squinted to read an instruction. He’d kept the file as well. That, too, could bring her back to him, as if she was still here, for a moment.
Knitting patterns, places to visit and reviews of books she ought to read. He could see her sitting at the table with the little plastic device. He’d found it in there, the ad, crumpled between a guide to spending forty-eight hours in Copenhagen, and an article on French brocante markets in easy reach of Calais. They hadn’t made it to the flea markets, but they had spent a lovely weekend strolling past the colourful houses of Nyhavn and listening to classical concerts in the twinkling Tivoli gardens in the Danish capital, just a few summers before she died.
He’d booked the house for his eightieth birthday on his seventy-ninth, almost a year ago. Even then the kindly woman he’d spoken to on the telephone had told him he was lucky to get it. She’d already had bookings for July 2020, she said. It was highly desirable, she told him, and he felt very pleased with himself, grateful to Daphne, too, and the file of dreams and schemes. Without it, he might not have known where to start. Ten days. High season. It would have had to be two weeks, a period of enforced togetherness that even Daphne would probably have balked at, but they had a wedding party booked in for a long weekend, Lucy said, so ten days would work. For twelve people. Seven thousand pounds. It was a fortune. A frankly ludicrous amount. His first car had cost him two hundred quid. Their first home, his and Daphne’s, three thousand five hundred, that itself an unimaginable sum to his parents, who’d never owned a home of their own. This was just a holiday, for crying out loud. The deposit had been an even thousand, transferred online. The balance for the accommodation had come due six months ago, and been paid in the same way. The catering he’d organized and some other extras would be settled after the event on the credit card he’d used to secure the booking.
And Daphne’s voice had been in his ear the whole time. Still. He’d long since recognized that she’d been the impetus behind everything that was any good in his life. He thought he’d appreciated it while she was alive, but the full impact didn’t strike him until she was gone. She had been the light of his life. It was a cliché, but it was true. He missed every single thing about her but, forced to say what he missed most, he’d say laughter. Whole days passed now, in his world, without it. Barely an hour had passed without a laugh while she’d been alive, even in the tougher times. She’d brought to his life the colour and the laughter, the fun and the adventure – the joy – and she’d given him all the people he loved most. A daughter and two sons. Four grandchildren now. Ethan, whom she had met and adored, Bea, Delilah and Arthur, whom she hadn’t, although he knew she’d have adored them just as much. It had all come from Daphne. Hers was such a habit of lightness that somehow it persisted from beyond the grave. Of course he knew she wasn’t speaking to him. He wasn’t senile. It was just that he had heard her so often and for so long that he knew, just knew, what she would have had to say about, well, everything, really. And she would have been pleased about this. She’d have said, ‘Bugger the cost. You planning on taking it with you, you old skinflint?’ But there’d have been a twinkle in her eye, a fond smile, and a warm hand on his arm so he’d know she was mostly joking, and he’d do it.
So he’d done it.
He’d meant to tell the kids, meant to invite them out loud, face to face. Maybe it was cowardly to do it this way. The truth was, for all his bluster and front (that was what Daphne would have called it), he had been afraid of the expressions that might pass across their faces before they rearranged them politely. He knew exactly what he was asking of them all, and he was asking anyway. He suspected it would mean far less to them than it did to him, and of all the good fights he’d fought in the years since Daphne had died, the hardest one was not to seem needy. He hated the very idea. So he was, in truth, a bit scared of asking them, even as he acknowledged she’d have snorted if he’d said so to her. He’d do it by post. In front of him now were three large brown envelopes, one addressed to each of his children. To his eldest, Laura, and his sons, Scott and Nick. He slid a brochure into each, with the notes he’d handwritten. Each just a little bit different because they were. Each outlining his singular desire to spend his eightieth birthday surrounded by the people he loved, in a beautiful place.
They’d laugh at the possibility that he might be frightened of them. The family myth was the other way around. He was the formidable one. The disciplinarian. The curmudgeon. The trouble was, that shtick had worked when he’d been half of a double act – the tough cop to Daphne’s soft one. It had never been true, just how they’d managed it. It was one of a million reasons he’d been lost since she died. One of a million reasons he’d been faking it since she died. Willing them to notice. Which they seemed not to have done. Hoping they didn’t all at the same time. They were absorbed, God knew, in their own lives, and comfortable with the family myths. Scott had said to him, about three years after Daphne died, that he’d expected his father to marry again. To be married again already, in fact. Charlie remembered registering that, amazed that his son knew him so little. That, he could never, ever have done. She had been it, for him. Unforgettable. Irreplaceable.
It was only partly true, he knew, that this was about what he wanted. It was about them, too, and their families. Without Daphne as the link, he was further from them now than he had ever thought he would be. And yet close enough to see how much they still needed and missed their mother. Especially Nick. But Laura too. All was not well there. And Scott – he barely understood Scott, these days. He felt almost tearful, suddenly, at his own inadequacy, certain that if his wife had been there, she’d know exactly what to do, how to help, how to make things better. He should have paid more attention to the way she did it. Been less quick to hand her the phone whenever any of them rang. ‘I’ll get your mother.’ He wanted to be better with them than he was. Almost tearful was an all-too-frequent occurrence, these days. He hated not knowing what to do. But he was determined to try. For her.
The October wind twirled coffee-coloured willy-willies south across the Queensland border.
Carra Finlay stood under the clothesline and watched in dismay as all her dreams blew away in the wind.
One hundred and thirty-five metres above London, with one of the most spectacular city views in the world as your backdrop, who could say no?
As I reach for the doorbell, my phone bleeps with a text and my head instantly fills with a roll call of possibilities.
Madison Locke’s heart lifted like the birdsong that woke her that morning – joyous, clamouring, excited.
Love at first sight is a hypothesis (Roland Barthes) – I don’t believe in love at first sight.