An Almost Perfect Holiday

Lucy Diamond | 16 mins

Chapter One

FIVE DAYS EARLIER

There was a lot riding on this holiday, thought Em, folding T-shirts and packing them into a suitcase. Back when she’d made the booking – miserable and alone on Christmas Day – she’d had no idea that it would turn out to be anything other than another summer break for her, Izzie and Jack: two weeks of trying to force her teenagers out of bed before midday to enjoy the beautiful Cornish countryside and beaches, plus at least one waistband-punishing cream tea for good measure. But now . . . Well, everything was different now. Their fortnight away was shaping up to be a whole new kind of trip.

If only someone could have told her, back on that desolate afternoon, that life was about to take an exciting upward turn! She still hadn’t quite forgiven Dom for making it the worst Christmas ever. Off she’d gone on Christmas Eve, driving the kids over to the posh new Cirencester house he shared with his bimbo girlfriend Michelle, with him assuring her – promising her – that of course he would drive them back home after lunch the following day. And what had he done? Forgotten his so-called promise and tucked into the gin, champagne and port over his roast turkey and trimmings so that he was over the limit, the selfish jerk. ‘Michelle’s plastered too,’ he’d told her sheepishly over the phone when he rang to confess. ‘Christmas spirit and all that. We’ll drop them back tomorrow, okay?’

No, it was not remotely okay. Em had gone from shocked to devastated to downright fuming in the space of about ten seconds. And of course, by then, she had already put away two massive glasses of wine herself – well, you had to, didn’t you, when you were without your kids and finding the whole solo Christmas thing horribly unfestive – and didn’t feel it was her destiny to get arrested for drunk-driving on Christmas Day, either. The upsetting news that she was now unable to see her own children for the whole day had sent her nosediving straight into the Baileys, as well as polishing off an entire family pack of pigs-in-blankets and most of the cheeseboard, hacking into the Stilton as if she was committing a murder. If only. Afterwards she’d resorted to quite a lot of spontaneous spirit-boosting online purchases in order to endure the festive marathon – including a holiday, she had discovered, waking up on Boxing Day and blinking at the emailed receipts with a thumping head. A holiday in a gorgeous four-bedroom barn conversion down in Cornwall, which had cost practically a month’s wages, no less.

She had clicked on the details with a degree of trepidation – her impulsive nature had seen her paying for some particularly duff decisions over the years (those neon-yellow ski boots for one, when she’d never been skiing in her life) – but Briar Cottage still looked lovely in the cold light of day, thankfully, despite being far roomier (and far more luxurious) than they actually needed. There were three holiday homes altogether, arranged around the sides of a pool, as well as a separate games-room building that Izzie and Jack might make use of. Plus the cottages were situated in the middle of gorgeous countryside, with the shops and beaches of Falmouth a short drive away. Good work, drunken me, she had congratulated herself in relief, before going on to examine her subsequent purchases with rather more eye-rolling and despair: a home rowing machine (why? she hated exercise!), several wildly extravagant cocktail dresses that she’d never actually wear and a fabulous black bouclé coat that she absolutely could not afford. And then, of course, January had begun with the usual hangover and list of impossibly strict resolutions, at which point she’d put the holiday entirely out of her head.

By the time summer eventually rocked up, with its delights of chilled rosé and dreamily golden evenings, everything had changed anyway. Changed for the better! In a nutshell, George Macleod had appeared in her life and cast a new and wonderful haze across it. George was her perfect fit – easy-going and comfortable in his own skin, so much more her kind of person than moody, controlling Dom had been. He had the best laugh she’d ever heard: loud and unrestrained, the sort you couldn’t help joining in with. How could anyone not fall in love with a man who laughed with such generous abandon? Added to which, he was successful in his career, confident at all times and there was just this steadiness about him, this unflappable nature that Em really appreciated now, as a forty-four-year-old woman, in a way that her feckless twenty-something self hadn’t particularly cared about. Plus – had she mentioned it? – he was sexy as hell. Sexy. As. Hell.

My God! It had been such a shock for her, all of that. Five years of smarting from the divorce and its fallout, five years of assuming no way would she ever so much as play footsie with another man under the table, let alone find herself romping and flirting with hedonistic glee. Not least because the post-divorce years had been relentlessly tough; a juggling act of single motherhood, career ambitions and domestic grind. As she tried to keep herself sane and her children happy, as she paid each bill, heaved the bins out every week, swore at the lawnmower and hung out a thousand loads of laundry single-handedly, she had felt herself ageing, as if the fun, free-spirited Em of her youth was shrivelling grimly away into this tight-lipped middle-aged drudge, with no way back.

It had therefore hit her like a landslide the first time she and George had kissed. They’d gone for dinner in Martino’s and somewhere between the risotto verdure and the peppermint tea, he had leaned forward across the table without warning, his mouth grazing hers, and it was as if her body had woken right up following its years-long state of coma, shocked into life by his touch, like someone on an operating table receiving the 500-volt defibrillator pads. Stand clear! WHAM!

Just a kiss, and yet she’d experienced this physical force of lust that had swept through her entire body like a randy tornado. His mouth felt urgent yet confident against hers, as if he knew exactly what to do (and oh, he did know what to do, he really did). There had been stars in her eyes afterwards, like a dazed cartoon character. Hello, brave new world. I like the look of you.

‘Sorry,’ he’d murmured, seeing her stunned expression as he leaned back, although he was smiling as if he wasn’t actually all that sorry. ‘I couldn’t help myself. You just looked so pretty and lovely. Was that outrageously presumptuous of me?’

‘No,’ she’d said, blinking. Pretty and lovely! she repeated to herself rapturously, storing up the phrase to bask in later on. She collected compliments with the avidity of a miser hoarding pennies; her own private Greatest Hits moments that she could replay in times of low morale. ‘Not in the slightest. In fact why don’t we do it again?’

Her friends, of course, couldn’t believe what they were hearing. They were so used to her being Poor Em that they struggled to get their heads around this glittering new version. After all, they’d known where they stood with sad old divorced loser Em, who was doing her best but had such a tension about her jaw, bless her, it must be hard. (And didn’t we always say that Dom was a bastard? Cheating on her all that time with that fake bitch Michelle. We never liked him in the first place.)

Yet look at Em now: getting her nails done and buying skimpy knickers in her lunch-break, blushing like a teenager at the drop of a hat. Her body, which had resembled an abandoned field in recent years, with numerous unpleasant weeds sprouting here and there, was now waxed and plucked, smooth and scrubbed. Alive and kicking. She walked down the street and felt her bottom swing with a new jauntiness. She looked in the mirror and arched an eyebrow at her own sassy reflection instead of ducking her head away to avoid eye contact. Poor Em had been banished, replaced by Delighted Em, this fabulous new edition who couldn’t believe her luck.

‘Have you lost weight?’

‘Have you had your hair done?’

‘You look different!’ her colleagues commented in surprise.

Her friends were rather more blunt. ‘Are you having loads of sex?’ they asked, some with more horror than envy, admittedly. Perhaps even a certain measure of mistrust. ‘I mean, how do you have the energy?’ a few of them wondered aloud. ‘Or the inclination? Don’t you feel too old to be doing that sort of thing?’

As for her sister Jenny, she had cut straight to the chase, as she invariably did. ‘It’s all sounding a bit too good to be true,’ she had remarked. ‘What’s the catch?’

Em deflected these questions with her radiant shield of happiness, but in truth, there was a tiny catch. Wasn’t that simply a part of being a human, though? Surely no person on earth reached their forties without some kind of baggage trailing along behind them, unless there was something a bit odd going on. Right?

In George’s case, the baggage was fairly minimal at least; practically hand-luggage levels, really, consisting of one ex-wife, Charlotte, and one small daughter, Seren. Em hadn’t yet met Charlotte, but had done enough furtive Internet searches to have discovered that she was both glamorous and beautiful in a way that freckle-faced, soft-bodied Em was never going to be. Charlotte was also an intimidatingly successful high-flier in the field of genetic engineering and often jetted around the world to present scientific findings to other brainy types.

So far so disconcerting, admittedly, although Em was trying not to let any of this get to her. According to George, he and Charlotte had split up because they had grown apart, but further prying had revealed that Charlotte was now living with another man, one of George’s mates, just to put the boot in. From what Em could gather, they had got together very quickly after the split – suspiciously quickly, you could say – and were now engaged, so at least that was her off the scene. Technically, anyway. The sticking point was that, due to the fact that Charlotte and George had a child together, their lives would be linked pretty much forever, like it or not.

Em herself knew the score, of course. Despite the anger and loathing she’d felt towards Dom since their marriage broke down, there were still school parents’ evenings and concerts to attend together, still weekends and holidays and Christmases to negotiate, in terms of the children and who had them, and you just had to be grown-up and civil about it all, even if that meant rictus grins and swearing under your breath each time. Even if, deep down, you would rather never see that cheating, lying, Christmas-wrecking pig again. George and Charlotte appeared to have avoided quite such bad blood, though. In fact they seemed positively amicable with one another. What decent, caring people they both were, Em tried to convince herself admiringly, although it did seem at times as if Charlotte was on the phone to George every ten minutes with some new query or update regarding their daughter. This had happened! That had happened! Had George remembered this? Would he be able to do that?

Em was making a supreme effort not to comment or get involved, but Christ, it was really starting to get on her wick.

As for George’s daughter Seren, she was seven years old and Em wasn’t quite sure what to make of her. Prior to their meeting, she had felt – not super-confident exactly, but on safe ground at least. She knew kids. She was good with kids, everyone said so. ‘Hello. Lovely to meet you! Those are very cool trainers,’ she had said warmly the first time they’d been introduced.

Seren’s expression had been downright withering in response. ‘I’m not a baby, you know, you don’t have to talk to me like that,’ the scornful retort had come. ‘Anyway, Mummy says that it’s patronizing and sexist when people talk about my clothes. Would you say that if I was a boy?’

Em had blinked, thrown off-guard by this irate young feminist. ‘I might have done,’ she’d replied weakly, to which Seren had merely snorted.

That was just the start of it. Seren had a very direct stare – the type that seemed to measure a person and find you wanting every time. Her favourite topic of conversation was how wonderful, clever and talented Charlotte was, and she made it abundantly clear that she found Em lacking, in comparison. Em was not used to dealing with such disdain. She worked in marketing and was surrounded by enthusiastic, smiling people who could put a positive spin on anything. Was it melodramatic of her to say that she found Seren quite unnerving?

Just the other evening, Em had gone round to George’s flat, where Seren was already present. She’d been taking her shoes off in the hall when she overheard the little girl say, ‘I don’t like this girlfriend, Daddy. She has mean eyes’, and Em’s hand had flown straight to her throat, her mouth a shocked O. For starters, it sounded as if George had had loads of girlfriends (which he’d assured her he hadn’t); and for another thing, she so didn’t have mean eyes! She’d always flattered herself that her eyes were one – two, rather – of her best features!

‘Do you like my eyes?’ she had found herself fretting on the phone to her friend Kathy the next day. ‘They don’t seem mean to you, do they?’ It was as if she was fourteen again, and crying because one of the boys at school had made fun of her pimples. When she was forty-four, for heaven’s sake! For the record, Kathy had told her she had sexpot, bushbaby eyes and not to worry for a second, and it was all Em could do not to get a fridge magnet made up with the words, like some kind of proof.

Anyway. So that was Seren: basically, like no child Em had ever come across before. Her own two, Izzie and Jack, were both easy-going, sporty types and there were always hordes of their friends trooping in to sprawl all over Em’s sofa and ransack her fridge. Some of Izzie’s friends – Lily, for instance – called her ‘Ems’ as if they were mates themselves; she couldn’t in a million years imagine Seren ever being so pally and affable. She’d be more likely to kick Em in the shins and flick her the Vs when George wasn’t looking.

Not that Em was moaning. Of course she wasn’t. Well, maybe just a tiny bit. But it wasn’t as if they were joined at the hip and Em had to deal with Seren twenty-four/seven or anything, was it? Until now, that was. Until this very summer holiday in fact.

It had happened like this: as June had ripened into July, it had dawned on Em that she wasn’t actually looking forward to getting away quite so much now, luxury cottage or not. All she could think about was George, and how desperately she was going to miss him while they were apart. She would pine for him like a doomed heroine, a swooning girl. Was that completely tragic of her or wildly romantic? (‘Wildly romantic,’ Kathy assured her. ‘Completely tragic,’ Jenny had decreed. ‘Pull yourself together!’)

Whichever, a few weeks ago Em had rashly taken the plunge and asked George if he’d like to join them for the break. As soon as she said the words, she knew it was too much, too keen of her: ridiculously short notice, for starters; he surely wouldn’t be able to get time off work and must already have his own plans for the summer. So she’d been both thrilled and astonished when instead he’d said yes.

‘He said yes!’ she had whooped down the phone to Jenny, unable to believe her good fortune.

‘Wow, that’s brave,’ her sister replied, in a voice that meant ‘Wow, that’s insane’. ‘And you’ve been seeing each other for, what? Three whole months? How well do you actually know this man?’

‘Five months,’ Em corrected her, stung by this palpable lack of excitement. ‘And I wouldn’t say it’s brave,’ she felt compelled to go on. ‘More like, when you know, you know. And I just know.’ Did that sound smug and annoying, when Jenny and her husband were constantly sniping at one another and lived in a permanent state of acrimony? Em didn’t care, she discovered. In fact she hoped it did sound smug and annoying, seeing as Jenny was being so damn unenthusiastic about the whole holiday business, when if she’d been any kind of supportive sister, she’d have been cheering her on with pom-poms. ‘Besides – it’s a fortnight in a very nice barn conversion in Cornwall, with a pool,’ she’d added scathingly. ‘It’s not as if we’re trekking across the Sahara together. What could go wrong?’

‘Er . . . you decide you hate him? The kids hate him? He hates you?’ Jenny suggested with naked unhelpfulness.

‘Thanks for your support. Ever thought about volunteering for the Samaritans?’ Em had replied, before hanging up and making a loud growling noise, as she often seemed to do following their sisterly conversations.

She rolled her eyes now, remembering Jenny’s pessimism, and stuffed her hiking boots into a plastic bag. Damn it, but it had almost been the perfect getaway, as well! Two weeks with her wonderful new man, two weeks of waking up together every morning, blissful days in each other’s company, not to mention the even more blissful nights she’d been imagining. George was the reason she had ceremoniously ditched her sensible, years-old one-piece swimming costume with the baggy elastic for some flattering new bikinis (she could just about get away with them if she didn’t breathe out). And you bet she was packing all her frothy new undies, with their lace, ribbons and hand-washing instructions too. Into the case also went some sensual massage oil and bubble bath, followed by a rather slinky satin dressing gown she’d bought recently, which, when it wasn’t screaming ‘Fire hazard’, was most definitely pouting, ‘Come and get me.’

Granted, this was still a holiday in the UK and she wasn’t a complete fantasist, so there was a hoody and a jumper amidst the pile of clothes too, as well as five pairs of hiking socks and some comfortable bras, but hey. This already felt like a huge departure from her usual frigid single-mum holidays, where she avoided all the perfect nuclear two-parent families on the beaches, where she felt under torturous, stifling pressure to give her children a great time. Or, at the very least, a better time than they’d have with Dom and sodding Michelle.

Until the phone call two days ago. There’s been a slight hitch, George had said. Yeah, you’re telling me, mate. The slight hitch being that Charlotte had been asked to go abroad at the last minute, to speak at a conference in Berlin, and, because she was currently ‘between nannies’, George had been lumped with Seren instead.

Not ‘lumped with’, Em corrected herself in the next moment. Because George had actually sounded quite excited about the prospect of getting their children together like this, as if they were one of those modern blended families who moved in and out of each other’s spheres with ease. ‘I know it might seem a bit sudden, but I’m sure the kids would get on okay,’ he had said.

‘Mmm,’ Em had replied, unable to sound very convincing.

‘And didn’t you say it was a big place you’d rented? So there’d be room for another little one, right?’

‘Ye-e-e-es,’ she’d said, reconfiguring bedroom allocations in her head.

‘Otherwise I guess I would have to miss the first week and just catch up with you guys for the second half of the holiday,’ George suggested regretfully, when Em didn’t offer any further encouragement. ‘What do you think?’

What did she think? Her instinct was that George plus Seren would almost certainly be better than no George at all. Even if it did mean the slight risk that she would wake up in the night to find Seren leaning over her with a bread knife, of course. Or that she would receive a hard, unexpected shove down the stairs by the girl and end up paralysed for life, even dead. Perhaps Seren would spy on Em and send video evidence of her dreadfulness to perfect Charlotte. Oh God, the possibilities were endless and alarming. The holiday could easily turn into a nightmare!

‘Em?’ George prompted, before unwittingly going on to crank her doubts right up to What-the-Hell? level. ‘Charlotte’s really sorry,’ he’d said. ‘And don’t worry, I asked her to come and pick up Seren when she’s back, so that I don’t have to go shuttling back and forth again, and she said that was fine. Which is something.’

Em had gasped for breath like a goldfish plucked from its bowl. ‘Right,’ she somehow managed to say weakly. Yeah, George, that was something. The ex-wife turning up on holiday, passing judgement on Em, her kids, her choice of accommodation, her step-parenting skills? George cheerfully telling her, ‘Don’t worry’ as if it wasn’t a big deal, like she wasn’t going to be tying herself in knots over the encounter from now until then? That really was something. Could a holiday get any more stressful?

Em was not the sort of person who went hating on other women – she’d never done that competitive-girlfriend thing, not even with Michelle, Dom’s new wife. (Well, okay, she’d done it a bit with Michelle, she supposed, but then she had been severely provoked, in fairness. Many times.) But she really tried not to be judgey and sneering about other women for the sake of it; she’d always seen herself as better than that.

Turned out she wasn’t all that much better. Turned out, in fact, that as soon as she heard that Charlotte was going to be joining them, however briefly, on holiday, Em had dissolved into a puddle of self-loathing, instantly putting herself on a crash diet, booking in an emergency haircut and doing brutal sets of sit-ups whenever she remembered. What was she going to wear? How long would Charlotte want to spend with them? Should she organize food? A sit-down meal? Should she bring some recipe books or nice accessories from home? Perhaps some summer lanterns, which she could string up along the front of the cottage so that it looked like a holiday straight from the pages of a catalogue; or . . .

Standing now in her bedroom, supposedly packing for their imminent departure, Em found herself clutching the flattering fitted evening dress she’d just taken from the wardrobe as if it was another person. She had to remind herself to breathe before her head exploded. Come on, Em, get a grip. It was one measly encounter with one other human being that would probably last less than an hour. She could do it. Of course she could do it! Charlotte would probably be just as terrified as she was. Okay, perhaps not terrified, but at least slightly trepidatious. At the very least curious, anyway. Interested. Wouldn’t she?

She stared glumly at herself in the mirror, worried that her new haircut – meant to be breezy, choppy and young – actually looked a bit wonky and amateurish. Did her neck look strange now? Would Charlotte think she was odd-looking? ‘God, George has lowered his standards big-time since me,’ Charlotte might laugh unkindly to her new partner. ‘Such a weird haircut. And—’

Stop it, Em. Seriously. STOP. IT!

Folding the dress, she rolled her eyes and tried to channel Kathy, the most chilled person she knew. A devoted fan of self-help books, Kathy had once told Em that you should stand in front of a mirror every day, look yourself in the eye and say affirming things. It was worth a go, she supposed.

‘It’s going to be a great holiday and everyone will get on brilliantly, and Charlotte won’t judge me,’ she mumbled to her reflection.

Whoa, whoa, whoa, is that seriously the best you can do? Rubbish! Try again, this time with a bit of oomph, Kathy chided her. She was quite bossy at times, for someone so laidback.

‘It’s going to be a great holiday and everyone will get on brilliantly, and Charlotte better not bloody well judge me,’ Em repeated to herself. Not so much with oomph as savagery, but never mind. It would have to do.

‘First sign of madness, you know, Mum,’ Jack said, passing the open bedroom door just then and making her jump.

She pulled a face at her reflection, hoping he hadn’t heard the details of her cringey mirror affirmation. ‘Only the first?’ she called back. ‘I’m doing better than I thought.’

Deep breath, she told herself, chucking the last few things into her case and heaving the zip along. Seren coming with them was not a disaster, just a slight change of plan. Charlotte turning up as well was not an experience to be dreaded, but a chance for Em to show her best self. Yeah! She would not let either of them ruin her perfect, romantic holiday, that was for sure. Em was a born optimist, after all. These two weeks away were going to be absolutely wonderful. The best.

‘Kids? Are you ready?’ she yelled as she lugged the suitcase downstairs. ‘Going in ten minutes. Repeat: ten minutes. Let’s do this!’

It was going to be a great holiday and everyone was going to get on brilliantly, she said once more under her breath as she put her shoes on. Just see if they didn’t!