‘Don’t look now,’ John said to his wife, ‘but there are a couple of old girls two tables away who are trying to hypnotise me.’
Laura, quick on cue, made an elaborate pretence of yawning, then tilted her head as though searching the skies for a nonexistent aeroplane.
‘Right behind you,’ he added. ‘That’s why you can’t turn round at once – it would be much too obvious.’
Laura played the oldest trick in the world and dropped her napkin, then bent to scrabble for it under her feet, sending a shooting glance over her left shoulder as she straightened once again. She sucked in her cheeks, the first tell-tale sign of suppressed hysteria, and lowered her head.
‘They’re not old girls at all,’ she said. ‘They’re male twins in drag.’
Her voice broke ominously, the prelude to uncontrolled laughter, and John quickly poured some more chianti into her glass.
‘Pretend to choke,’ he said, ‘then they won’t notice. You know what it is – they’re criminals doing the sights of Europe, changing sex at each stop. Twin sisters here on Torcello. Twin brothers tomorrow in Venice, or even tonight, parading arm-in-arm across the Piazza San Marco. Just a matter of switching clothes and wigs.’
‘Jewel thieves or murderers?’ asked Laura.
‘Oh, murderers, definitely. But why, I ask myself, have they picked on me?’
The waiter made a diversion by bringing coffee and bearing away the fruit, which gave Laura time to banish hysteria and regain control.
‘I can’t think,’ she said, ‘why we didn’t notice them when we arrived. They stand out to high heaven. One couldn’t fail.’
‘That gang of Americans masked them,’ said John, ‘and the bearded man with a monocle who looked like a spy. It wasn’t until they all went just now that I saw the twins. Oh God, the one with the shock of white hair has got her eye on me again.’
Laura took the powder compact from her bag and held it in front of her face, the mirror acting as a reflector.
‘I think it’s me they’re looking at, not you,’ she said. ‘Thank heaven I left my pearls with the manager at the hotel.’ She paused, dabbing the sides of her nose with powder. ‘The thing is,’ she said after a moment, ‘we’ve got them wrong. They’re neither murderers nor thieves. They’re a couple of pathetic old retired schoolmistresses on holiday, who’ve saved up all their lives to visit Venice. They come from some place with a name like Walabanga in Australia. And they’re called Tilly and Tiny.’
Her voice, for the first time since they had come away, took on the old bubbling quality he loved, and the worried frown between her brows had vanished. At last, he thought, at last she’s beginning to get over it. If I can keep this going, if we can pick up the familiar routine of jokes shared on holiday and at home, the ridiculous fantasies about people at other tables, or staying in the hotel, or wandering in art galleries and churches, then everything will fall into place, life will become as it was before, the wound will heal, she will forget.
‘You know,’ said Laura, ‘that really was a very good lunch. I did enjoy it.’
Thank God, he thought, thank God . . . Then he leant forward, speaking low in a conspirator’s whisper. ‘One of them is going to the loo,’ he said. ‘Do you suppose he, or she, is going to change her wig?’
‘Don’t say anything,’ Laura murmured. ‘I’ll follow her and find out. She may have a suitcase tucked away there, and she’s going to switch clothes.’
She began to hum under her breath, the signal, to her husband, of content. The ghost was temporarily laid, and all because of the familiar holiday game, abandoned too long, and now, through mere chance, blissfully recaptured.
‘Is she on her way?’ asked Laura.
‘About to pass our table now,’ he told her.
Seen on her own, the woman was not so remarkable. Tall, angular, aquiline features, with the close-cropped hair which was fashionably called an Eton crop, he seemed to remember, in his mother’s day, and about her person the stamp of that particular generation. She would be in her middle sixties, he supposed, the masculine shirt with collar and tie, sports jacket, grey tweed skirt coming to mid-calf. Grey stockings and laced black shoes. He had seen the type on golf-courses and at dog-shows – invariably showing not sporting breeds but pugs – and if you came across them at a party in somebody’s house they were quicker on the draw with a cigarette-lighter than he was himself, a mere male, with pocket-matches. The general belief that they kept house with a more feminine, fluffy companion was not always true. Frequently they boasted, and adored, a golfing husband. No, the striking point about this particular individual was that there were two of them. Identical twins cast in the same mould. The only difference was that the other one had whiter hair.
‘Supposing,’ murmured Laura, ‘when I find myself in the toilette beside her she starts to strip?’
‘Depends on what is revealed,’ John answered. ‘If she’s hermaphrodite, make a bolt for it. She might have a hypodermic syringe concealed and want to knock you out before you reached the door.’
Laura sucked in her cheeks once more and began to shake. Then, squaring her shoulders, she rose to her feet. ‘I simply must not laugh,’ she said, ‘and whatever you do, don’t look at me when I come back, especially if we come out together.’ She picked up her bag and strolled self-consciously away from the table in pursuit of her prey.
John poured the dregs of the chianti into his glass and lit a cigarette. The sun blazed down upon the little garden of the restaurant. The Americans had left, and the monocled man, and the family party at the far end. All was peace. The identical twin was sitting back in her chair with her eyes closed. Thank heaven, he thought, for this moment at any rate, when relaxation was possible, and Laura had been launched upon her foolish, harmless game. The holiday could yet turn into the cure she needed, blotting out, if only temporarily, the numb despair that had seized her since the child died.
‘She’ll get over it,’ the doctor said. ‘They all get over it, in time. And you have the boy.’
‘I know,’ John had said, ‘but the girl meant everything. She always did, right from the start, I don’t know why. I suppose it was the difference in age. A boy of school age, and a tough one at that, is someone in his own right. Not a baby of five. Laura literally adored her. Johnnie and I were nowhere.’
‘Give her time,’ repeated the doctor, ‘give her time. And anyway, you’re both young still. There’ll be others. Another daughter.’
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