Featured Excerpt: The Vacation by T. M. Logan
By T. M. LoganJune 15, 2020
We drove north, away from the coast.
Through the outskirts of Béziers and deeper into the Languedoc. Vineyards heavy with fruit lined the road on both sides, ranks of low green vines marching off into the distance under a deep blue Mediterranean sky. Sean driving, his eyes hidden behind aviator shades, the kids in the back with hand luggage wedged between them, Lucy dozing while Daniel plays on his phone, me staring out the window as the scenery rolls by, the rental car’s AC just about keeping the sticky mid-afternoon heat at bay.
If I’d known what was coming, what we were driving toward, I would have made Sean stop the car and take us straight back to the airport. I would have grabbed the steering wheel myself, forced the car off the road, and made him do a U-turn right there.
But I didn’t know.
My instincts had been telling me for a couple of weeks, as we wound down toward the summer holidays, that something was up. Something was wrong. Sean had always been the one to look on the bright side, to make the kids laugh, to bring me a gin and tonic when I needed cheering up. In the unconscious allocation of roles in our marriage, I was the organizer, the rule-setter, the guardian of boundaries. Sean was the light to my shade—always open, funny, patient, the optimist of the family.
Now he was defensive, secretive, serious. Distracted, constantly staring at his phone. Perhaps work was getting on top of him—hassle from his new boss? He’d half suggested that maybe he should stay at home this week, because of work. Or perhaps it was his fear of reaching forty, which seemed to grow stronger as his birthday drew nearer. Some kind of midlife crisis? I’d asked him if he thought he might be depressed—if I knew what was wrong, we could tackle it together. But he had brushed my questions aside, insisting he was fine.
I flinched as he touched my thigh.
“Sorry,” I said, forcing a smile. “Miles away.”
“How long until we turn off this road?”
I checked my phone.
“About another ten minutes.”
He took his hand off my thigh and moved it back to the steering wheel. The warmth of his fingertips lingered for a moment and I tried to remember the last time I’d felt his touch, the last time he had reached out to me. Weeks? A month?
The fact that you’re even thinking it means something isn’t right. That’s what Rowan would have said. The holiday had been her idea, two years in the planning. Rowan, Jennifer, Izzy, and me—best friends marking our fortieth birthdays with a week together in the south of France, husbands and children included.
“Grand,” Sean said. “You OK?”
“Fine. Just want to get there, get unpacked.”
“Have you heard from Jennifer and Alistair?” He glanced up at the rearview mirror. “Since they lost us?”
“No, but I’m sure they’re not far behind.”
“I told them I’d lead the way and they could follow.”
I turned to look at my husband. It wasn’t like him to worry about Jennifer and her husband—he got along with them OK but had little in common with them, apart from me.
“You know what Alistair’s like,” I said. “He could get lost in his own back garden.”
“Sure, I suppose you’re right.”
I went back to staring out the window at the lush green vineyards rolling past, dark grapes ripening in the summer heat. Off in the distance, the conical black towers of an ancient château stood out against the skyline.
After ten miles or so, Google Maps directed us off the main road and up through one tiny hamlet after another. Puimisson, St. Geniès, Cabrerolles—sleepy villages of narrow streets and ancient stone, old men sitting impassively in the shade watching us pass by. We peeled off onto an even smaller road that climbed higher, winding back and forth up a hill where the vineyards gave way to dark pine trees, finally emerging onto the crest of a hill above the village of Autignac, a tall, whitewashed wall flanking the road. The wall ended in black metal gates tipped with faux spearpoints and my phone inform us that we had arrived at our destination.
Sean slowed the car to turn in and the black metal gates swung noiselessly open. Gravel crunched softly beneath the wheels as we turned onto the estate and headed for the villa, tall cypress trees, slim and straight and perfectly pruned, lining the long driveway like a guard of honor. On both sides were lush lawns of thick green grass, watered by sprinklers circling lazily in the midafternoon heat.
Sean pulled up next to Rowan’s Land Rover Discovery, already parked in front of the villa’s sweeping stone staircase.
I turned in my seat. Lucy was still asleep in the back, head tucked into her balled-up sweatshirt, long blond hair falling across her face. Since hitting her teens she seemed able to sleep anywhere, at any time of the day, if she sat down for more than ten minutes: she had slept on the way to the airport, and on the plane, and was fast asleep now. I had always loved watching her sleep, right from when she was a baby. She would always be my baby, even though she was sixteen now—and taller than me.
“Lucy, love,” I said, softly. “We’re here.”
She didn’t stir.
Her younger brother, Daniel, sat next to her, headphones on, absorbed in a game of something on his phone. He was her opposite in many respects—a little ball of energy who had never been keen on sleep, either as a newborn or now, an excitable nine-year-old. He uncovered one ear and took his first look out the window.
“Are we there?”
“Give your sister a nudge,” I said. “Gently.”
He grinned mischievously and poked her arm.
“We’re here, Sleeping Beauty. At the vacation house.”
When she gave no response, Sean unclipped his seat belt.
“Might as well let her have another five minutes while we take the bags in. Come on.”
I opened my door and stepped out, stretching my arms after the journey, the air-conditioned chill vanishing instantly as the late-July heat enveloped me like a blanket. The air smelled of olives and pine and summer heat baked into the dark earth. There was no sound—no traffic, no people—except for the gentle swishing of the breeze high up in the cypress trees, the car engine ticking quietly as it cooled.
We stood there, stretching and blinking in the dazzling sun, taking in the villa. Rowan hadn’t exaggerated: three wide stories of whitewashed stone and terracotta tiles, the parking circle shaded by olive trees, broad stone steps leading up to a double front door in dark, studded oak.
“Wow,” Sean said beside me, and for a moment he looked happy, like his usual self—his old self.
I slipped my arm around his waist, needing for a moment to feel his physical presence as we stood side by side, admiring the villa. I needed to feel his warmth, the touch of his skin, the solidity of muscles beneath his shirt. To anchor him to me.
But after a few seconds he moved away, out of my grasp.
Rowan appeared at the top of the stone staircase, holding her hands out in greeting.
“Welcome to Villa Corbières!” she said with a grin. “ Isn’t it marvelous?”
She made her way down toward us, the heels of her expensive looking sandals clicking on the stone. Since starting her own business she always looked immaculate, and today she was wearing a pale cream cami dress with Cartier sunglasses pushed up into her straight auburn hair. How far my slightly awkward student friend—who’d had braces on her teeth and New Kids on the Block posters on her wall—had come since we’d first met. I guess we all had come a long way, but Rowan definitely felt the furthest from her past self. She hugged me and I closed my eyes for a second, letting the smell of her expensive perfume surround me.
“This place is even bigger than it looked in the pictures!” I said, forcing myself to smile, watching Sean out of the corner of my eye as he ducked his tall frame into the car and checked his phone.
“Wait until you see the interior,” she said. “Come on, I’ll give you the tour.”
Inside, it was all white marble and smooth stone walls, one exquisitely furnished room after another, full of light and beautifully decorated with discreet abstract paintings here and there. It was also deliciously cool, thanks to the air conditioning.
“It belongs to a client.” Rowan flashed me a conspiratorial smile. “We’ve been getting on particularly well, recently.”
“It’s amazing,” I said, and it really was: like something out of a coffee-table magazine. “Have you heard from the others?”
“Jennifer’s crowd are still en route—they went the wrong way on the A9, apparently. And Izzy’s flight from Bangkok gets in tomorrow morning. I’m going to pick her up.”
We had met on the first day of university in Bristol, the four of us neighbors in the same hall of residence, then went on to a shared house until we all graduated. For a moment, I wished myself back to our shared house so powerfully that I could almost smell Izzy’s weird and wonderful vegetarian cooking from those days, the perennial post-tennis Bengay smell of Jennifer’s room, the heady cocktail of perfume and nail varnish and rosé as we got ready in Rowan’s room for a Friday night out. Back then, it seemed like all four of us were essentially the same—same starting point, same university, same hopes and dreams for the future, just waiting for life to happen to us. We all wanted the same things. Then we had graduated and left our younger selves behind, like snakes shedding their skin.
For more than ten years after finishing university we had made a point of going away for a long weekend every summer, each year somewhere different: Dublin or Prague, Edinburgh or Barcelona. We’d kept the tradition going despite everything—despite babies and work and other commitments—but then one year, when Rowan was heavily pregnant with Odette in the summer, we didn’t get organized, and we just . . . stopped going after that, until we’d missed five years’ worth of trips. I didn’t really know why.
This vacation was supposed to kick-start the tradition again, doing something together to mark the year we all turned forty. The big four-oh. It felt as if, if we didn’t do this all together now, we never would, so for the first time ever we were going to break with tradition by bringing all the children too, plus husbands, for a whole week rather than just a weekend. Spend some proper time together.
And so here we were, half a lifetime after we’d first met.
A little girl appeared at Rowan’s side, holding both hands up to her. Her wavy red hair was tied in pigtails, her chubby cheeks lively with freckles.
“Pick me up, Mummy!”
Rowan scooped the little girl up and balanced her on a hip.
“You’re getting a bit big to be carried now, Odette.”
“I’m not too big.”
“Hello, Odette,” I said to the little girl. “You are getting big. How old are you now?”
She studied me with big hazel eyes, fingers gripping the strap of her mother’s sundress. I realized that mother and daughter were wearing virtually identical outfits.
“Daniel’s around here somewhere. I’m sure he’d love to play with you.”
“Don’t like boys,” she said firmly.
As if on cue, Daniel raced into the room and skidded to a stop in front of us, his pale skin flushed.
“Have you seen the TV?” he said in an awestruck voice. “It’s massive.”
Rowan gave him a wide smile.
“There’s a gym, a games room, a sauna and pool, too.”
“Mum, can I borrow the camcorder later to make a house video?”
“Yes, but ask your dad first.”
“Cool. I’m going to find the pool!” he shouted, haring off again.
“Be careful,” I said to his retreating back.
Rowan opened the sliding French windows and led the way out onto a wide stone balcony. There was a long table and twelve chairs, all shaded by sun umbrellas, a view over a large vineyard on a hill sloping gently away from us. Fields and woods and low, rolling hills stretched out beyond.
“People have lived here since the first century,” Rowan said. “There was a Roman villa on this site originally, then a medieval château which fell into disrepair, and now this. It’s west facing so you get the most amazing sunsets.”
I stood on the balcony, drinking in the French landscape. A rainbow of greens dotted with light brown terracotta roofs, villas and farmhouses spaced far apart, vineyards and olive groves, wheat fields lined with fruit trees. I felt a little ache inside, a feeling of how the other half lives: we could never normally afford to stay in a place like this. Not even close. Was that why Sean was acting so strange? Self-conscious because this place was so far out of our reach, so far beyond his salary—both our salaries combined?
“It’s absolutely breathtaking, Rowan. Thank you so much for arranging it and having us all here—I dread to think how much it would cost for a week.”
She squeezed my arm and followed my gaze across the perfect scene.
“Probably about twenty thousand in high season,” she said. “But they don’t hire it out to the public—it’s just used for corporate events, jollies, schmoozing. You know the kind of thing.”
I nodded, but in truth I didn’t know: jollies and schmoozing didn’t really ever come into my working life, and standing there with Rowan, the reality of how far apart our worlds had grown stung a little. I loved my job; I’d been a crime analyst with the Metropolitan Police for thirteen years now, collecting data and tracking patterns in crime, but maybe I only noticed everyone else changing because I felt rooted to the same spot—same job, same house, same path—as I had been for years. Maybe it was all about perspective.
Or maybe it was all about Sean.
“With the vineyard, the gardens, and the wall, we’ve got total privacy,” Rowan continued. “All the vineyards inside the wall are part of the property, sloping down toward those trees.” She put Odette down on the tiled floor and ignored her complaints, pointing instead to a thick line of trees about two hundred yards away. “We should all go down there later to have a look: apparently there’s the most spectacular gorge beyond the trees, with a little path cut into the rock face so you can get down to the pools below. Purest water you’ll ever bathe in—comes straight down off the mountains.”
“Sounds a bit cold for me.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth I knew they sounded ungrateful, although Rowan didn’t seem to notice. What is wrong with me? I needed to be happy here, in this remarkable villa, with all the people I loved together for a week.
“Over there,” Rowan said, pointing at a church steeple, “is Autignac, ten minutes’ walk away. There’s a bakery, a little supermarché, and a lovely little restaurant in the square. On Wednesday mornings they have the most wonderful street market—lots of local produce, food and drink and crafts. You’ll love it.”
She pointed down at a tall, dark-haired man in a white linen shirt and chinos, talking on his phone, pacing by the side of the pool.
“Look, Odette, there’s Daddy.”
“Daddy!” the little girl shouted, her hands pressed against the stone balustrade of the balcony.
The tall man continued pacing and talking, raising a cigarette to his lips.
“Daddy!” Odette shouted again, louder. “Daddy! Daddy!”
He still appeared not to have heard, even as the echo of Odette’s call rolled away down the hillside.
“DADDY!” she shouted again, her voice so piercing that I had to lean away.
Finally he acknowledged her with a half-smile and a distracted wave of his cigarette before going back to his phone call.
I instinctively reached out to touch Odette’s arm, trying to calm her growing anger, but she batted my hand away and started pulling again at her mother’s dress.
“Does Russ always have to be contactable for work?” I rested my elbows on the parapet, the smooth stone warm against my skin.
“Pretty much twenty-four seven,” Rowan said. “Money never sleeps—or whatever Gordon Gekko bullshit his boss comes out with.”
I was only aware of Russ’s job in the vaguest terms: something high powered to do with hedge funds and currencies and city trading. I knew it involved lots of money, but none of the details.
Rowan’s phone beeped with a message and she checked the display.
“Mummy! Pick me up again!” Odette was still pulling at her mother’s dress, leaving little sweaty hand marks on the beautiful fabric.
Rowan began typing a rapid reply on the phone’s screen with her thumbs.
“Why don’t you . . . go and see what Daddy’s doing?”
“No!” Odette stamped a pink-sandaled foot on the stone floor, her cherubic little face screwing up. “Pick me up!”
“Just a minute, darling,” Rowan said, moving back into the house and the vast living area.
Odette shouted one last time and then ran into the house after her mother, her long ginger bunches bouncing with an angry rhythm.
I had to suppress a smile at her display of temper. Odette had thrown the most incredible tantrums from before she could walk, and she didn’t show any sign of stopping. If anything, it seemed her outbursts were getting worse the older she got.
My own daughter wandered out onto the balcony, phone in hand, yawning and stretching.
“You’re awake!” I said. “Oh, Lucy, come here and look at this amazing view. Isn’t it incredible?”
She came to stand next to me, glancing at the landscape for perhaps a second.
“Cool,” she said, turning to me. “Have you got the Wi-Fi password?”
There were ten bedrooms, split between the ground and first floors. Ours was off the first-floor landing, with a creamy marble floor and antique wooden furniture, gauzy mosquito nets tied at each corner of the four-poster bed. Sean heaved our suitcases up onto the bed and we began to unpack.
Daniel appeared in his swimming shorts, all skinny legs and arms and pale English skin. “I’m ready!” He put his goggles over his eyes and gave us a double thumbs-up. “Are you ready for the pool, Dad?”
Sean broke into a smile, shaking his head.
“I want to be the first in!”
“J’ai presque fini,” Sean said, putting a stack of T-shirts into the chest of drawers.
“It’s French for ‘I’m nearly ready.’ ”
“Hang on, they speak French here?”
Lucy leaned on the doorframe, arms crossed. “Duh,” she said. “That’s why it’s called France?”
Daniel pulled a face. “I can’t really do French. Can you, Dad?”
“Sure and us Irish have always had a lot in common with our French brothers and sisters.”
“Neither of us can stand the English.”
In spite of myself, I threw a towel at him, smiling.
“Just kidding,” he said, catching it against his chest.
“Daddy’s just being silly, Daniel,” I said. “We get along very well with the French, that’s why you’re learning it at school.”
“Can’t really remember anything we’ve learned, apart from bonjour and pommes frites.”
Sean found his swimming shorts in the suitcase, plucking them out from under a pile of shirts.
“That’ll actually get you a long way, big lad,” he said. “Hey, do you know why the French only eat one egg for breakfast?”
“I don’t know, Dad.”
“Because one egg is un oeuf!”
Daniel laughed for a hysterical moment, then stopped. “I don’t get it.”
“Un oeuf? Enough? An egg in French is—”
“Jesus, Dad.” Lucy rolled her eyes. “That’s literally like the worst joke I’ve ever heard.”
Sean retreated into the en suite to get changed as Lucy turned and went back to her own room.
Daniel wrinkled his nose.
“Tell me it again.”
Sean repeated the joke as he emerged in his swimming shorts, bare chested, tossing his jeans, shirt, wallet, and keys into a pile on the bed. He had started going to the gym and exercising regularly in the last few months and it was easy to tell—his chest and shoulders
Were broader and more defined, his waist slimmer. He hadn’t been in bad shape before, but he’d definitely been putting the work in recently. I felt a strange pang of insecurity and something else—jealousy?—as if he’d been working out to try to impress someone else. Someone other than me.
Daniel was laughing again as he skipped out of our bedroom and into the hallway.
With our son gone for a moment, the smile on Sean’s face faltered and died, and for a moment he looked grim faced and serious. Deadly serious.
I froze, a pair of shoes in each hand, not sure how to react. His expression was so unexpected, such a change from a moment ago, that it took me completely off guard.
He caught me looking and plastered his smile back on. “Just going to the pool with Aquaboy, then.”
“Sure. You OK, love?”
“Grand. Never better.”
“I’ll finish here. Quick shower, then I’ll come and join you.”
“Right you are.”
I watched him as he walked out of our bedroom. He started in with the jokes again as they headed for the stairs, his deep Irish brogue echoing down the hallway.
I turned and went back to unpacking clothes into the wardrobe, a feeling of fear and sickness building so fast inside I had to sit down on the bed. I knew Sean better than I knew anyone else. I knew when he was unhappy, when he was telling jokes to hide nerves, when he was lying. And the look on his face as he’d said he was grand? I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen him like that. At his father’s funeral, perhaps.
My phone beeped with a muffled singsong Messenger tone and I stood up, digging it out of my shorts pocket, unlocking it with my thumbprint.
No new messages.
I frowned and put it back in my pocket.
The beep came again, still muffled. Across the room.
I went to the clothes Sean had left on the bed, a short-sleeved shirt and jeans. Without thinking too much about what I was doing, I picked up the jeans and felt the pockets. A few coins, but no phone. I dropped his jeans back on the bed and listened to the silence of the villa around me. From downstairs, outside, came the faintest sounds from the pool. Splashing, laughing, Daniel’s excited voice.
The muffled Messenger tone sounded for a third time.
Sean’s bedside drawer.
From where I stood, it was close enough to touch. I put my hand out and snatched it back. Sat for a long moment, without moving. Then reached out again and pulled the drawer open slowly.
It was empty apart from his phone, facedown. He’d started going everywhere with it, as if man and phone were connected by an invisible umbilical cord. So much so that I’d started watching him these last few weeks, only half-deliberately, looking out of the corner of my eye whenever he picked up his phone, trying to see what was absorbing so much of his time and attention. Trying to see the unlock pattern he traced on the screen. Trying to see if I really was going mad, or if this was the start of something unimaginable.
I watched my hand reach in, pick his phone up. Watched my thumb press the power button. Watched the screen light up with a picture of the kids from our last vacation together.
Just a quick look, I told myself. To put my mind at rest.
Before I could talk myself out of it, I drew his unlock pattern, my heart racing.
I know I shouldn’t have looked. I know.
But I did.
And that was when everything started to come apart at the seams.