Three days in Florence
Italy was a place of legend for Kathy Courage. Her middle name was Florence: her mother had fallen in love with the Renaissance city, which she had visited with Kathy’s father on their honeymoon, and insisted on naming their daughter in its honour.
As a child, Kathy had loved to hear her mother Clare’s stories about that long-ago romantic holiday. Not so much about the fabulous architecture, the frescoes and statues back then, but about the ice creams as big as a baby’s head – ‘and so many flavours’ – the endless spaghetti, and the glamorous Italian ladies who carried small fluffy dogs in their Ferragamo handbags. Often Kathy’s mother would get out the honeymoon photograph album and together they would marvel at the joys of la dolce vita. So different from life in the Essex suburbs where Kathy had grown up.
Kathy’s favourite photograph was one of her parents standing together beneath the giant replica statue of Michelangelo’s David in the piazza della Signoria. Her mother, with her flicked-up hair-do – ‘very fashionable then’ – was wearing a red dress with white spots that showed off her tiny waist. Kathy’s father, Eddie, sported a hat – a sharp-looking Panama that he’d bought from a street vendor. It was the only time Kathy had ever seen him in a hat other than the grey knitted beanie he sometimes wore for the office commute in winter.
Her parents looked so young and so happy that Kathy became convinced of the power of sunshine and good ice cream.
Kathy’s mother always promised that one day she would take her to Italy – ‘when you’re old enough to appreciate it’. For various reasons that moment had never come and, somehow, Kathy had never found her way to Italy on her own. As an adult she could in theory have gone anywhere any time she wanted, but over the years Florence had grown to occupy such a special place in the Courage family mythology that it would not have seemed right for Kathy to go there for the first time alone. It was a city she wanted to share with someone special, just as her mum and dad had shared it on their honeymoon all those years ago.
So, when David, younger brother of Kathy’s long-term boyfriend Neil, had announced that he and his fiancée Shelley were getting married in Tuscany, Kathy was over the moon. She might get to see Florence at last.
Shelley and Dave outlined the plan over Sunday lunch with his and Neil’s mother, Margaret.
‘We went for a destination wedding,’ said Shelley, ‘so that people can combine it with a holiday.’
‘If they’ve got time for a holiday,’ said Neil, who worked as a corporate lawyer.
‘We chose the Thursday before the bank-holiday weekend for the wedding day itself so you wouldn’t have to take many days off to make a whole week of it,’ Shelley continued.
‘It sounds wonderful,’ said Kathy, who was very fond of Shelley and Dave.
‘I’ll have to see what’s in my schedule,’ Neil muttered.
‘Neil,’ Dave looked upset, ‘you’re my brother. You’ve got to be there. And so have the children. Shelley wants both my nieces as bridesmaids.’
Sophie and Amelie, Neil’s teenage daughters, shared a not very subtle look of horror at the thought.
‘And Oscar can be ring-bearer if he likes,’ Shelley joked.
Oscar, Amelie’s twin, did not look up from his phone.
Margaret said, to no one in particular, ‘I don’t know if Italian food agrees with me.’
‘Italian food agrees with everyone,’ Shelley insisted, by now on the verge of tears.
Kathy said what she knew Shelley needed to hear. ‘It’s going to be lovely. I’ve always dreamed of going to Italy – and for a wedding? How perfect.’
Shelley gave her a grateful smile.
On the way home, Neil and the children continued to come up with reasons why the wedding could only be a disaster.
‘It’s selfish,’ Neil announced. ‘And pretentious. Typical of my brother to expect people to fly out to Italy. To stay in a palazzo, for Heaven’s sake. It’s going to cost a fortune.’
He said this, though Dave had already assured him that he and Shelley would be paying for the whole family’s accommodation.
‘And it’s the same weekend as the Jolly Farmer Festival,’ Sophie complained. ‘All my friends are going to that.’
Kathy didn’t think that would sway Neil. The Jolly Farmer Festival was not, as it sounded, a weekend of agriculture-based activities but a music festival that should have been banned after three drug-taking teenagers had ended up in hospital the previous year.
Seventeen-year-old Amelie groaned. ‘I can’t believe she wants us to be bridesmaids. I’m not doing it unless I can choose my own dress.’
Oscar didn’t look up from his phone.
Did Kathy really want to go to the wedding? Neil asked, as they got ready for bed that night. Of course she wanted to go. While Neil complained that flying out on the Tuesday to attend the pre-wedding festivities would mean four days away from the office and a lot of inconvenience and catching up for him, Kathy was already planning her mini-break wardrobe and imagining herself standing on the terrace of a Tuscan palazzo, overlooking a splendid garden scented with jasmine and roses.
‘Ridiculous to choose a date right before the bank-holiday weekend,’ Neil continued. ‘The airports are bound to be chaos.’
‘But it’s perfect timing,’ Kathy jumped in. ‘If the wedding party officially ends on the Friday morning, we can have three more nights in Italy without you having to take any extra holiday. We could hire a car and go to Siena. Or Montepulciano. Or Pienza. Even better, if you don’t feel like driving, we could just spend three days exploring Florence.’
As Kathy said the words, the city shimmered in her mind. At last, at last, she would be visiting her namesake. She and Neil could even recreate the photograph of her mum and dad in front of the statue of David. Neil would look good in a hat.
‘I’m sure the children would enjoy it,’ she added hopefully.
In her imagination, Kathy glossed over the fact that Sophie, Amelie and Oscar would be scowling on the sidelines of any photo. Whenever a camera was brandished in their direction, Neil’s children conspired to look like three ghosts come to deliver terrible news.
‘Oh, Chicken Licken,’ Neil sighed, ‘it all sounds like way too much bother to me.’
The one downside about having Florence as a middle name was that it rendered Kathy’s initials ‘KFC’. It was Sophie who had first made the connection with the fried chicken chain and christened her ‘Chicken Licken’. Kathy didn’t like it – the insinuation that she was cowardly or flat-out stupid stung – but Neil and the three children thought it was all great fun and, alas, the nickname stuck.
‘I’ll have had four really tough days at the wedding,’ Neil continued. ‘It isn’t going to be a holiday for me. You know what my family’s like. My brother. My mother . . . Shelley’s lot are even worse.’
‘Then all the better reason to tag on three days of pure fun at the end,’ said Kathy. ‘We’ll be in Tuscany anyway. All we have to do is find a nice hotel for three days of chilling out and doing some very gentle sightseeing but mostly eating pasta and gelato and drinking Aperol Spritzes in sunny piazzas . . .’
Neil patted his flat-as-an-ironing-board stomach. ‘Pasta and gelato
? I’m watching my weight.’ Kathy was sure she caught his eyes flickering to her stomach, which was more waterbed than ironing board, as he said it. Though, technically, Neil had only commented on his
own weight, the implication for hers was there in every syllable.
‘Well, no pasta or gelato, then. Though that would be a pity. We could rack up plenty of steps exploring the city.’
There was nothing Neil liked more than busting through his daily target of twelve thousand steps on the Fitbit. Sometimes, if he was short of steps when he got home from work, he did circuits of the kitchen-diner, pumping his arms as he went. He was wearing a groove in the tiles.
But Neil didn’t respond to the enticement of breaking a record. By this point, he was rearranging things in the dishwasher – nobody else in the house ever stacked it to his exacting standards – and Kathy sensed she was losing the argument. She needed to change tack. If she could just get Neil to an ‘I’ll think about it’ rather than a flat ‘No’, she could do some proper research, find the perfect hotel and persuade him that three extra days in Italy would be a treat rather than a chore.
‘You know I’ve always wanted to go to Florence.’ Kathy tried one last time. ‘Perhaps if we considered it an early birthday present for me . . .’
She thought that might swing it, offering Neil the chance not to have to think about what to do for her big birthday – she would be forty in a year. Surely that was a win-win. But no.
‘I’ve already been to Florence,’ Neil reminded her.
Twenty-five years ago. He’d spent a week in Italy as part of a month-long Interrailing tour of Europe in his gap year.
‘And I really wasn’t impressed. I don’t know why people go on about it,’ he continued. ‘A few boring old
buildings, some dull statues and a lot of overpriced ice cream. Plus, it’s full of pickpockets.’
‘Oh,’ said Kathy.
‘So I really don’t need to go back. Especially after four stressful days doing Shelley’s bidding. Why they can’t just get married in Guildford like I did, I do not know.’
Possibly because that wedding in Guildford was an unmitigated disaster. The thought crossed Kathy’s mind but she didn’t say it out loud. Neil’s defunct marriage was a minefield.
‘All I’ll want to do when this wedding is over is come home and get some decent rest in my own bed. I’ll have Melanie book us all onto the last possible flight out and the first possible flight back, on Friday so I can minimise the time I have to spend out of the office and catching up afterwards. I’m dreading it already,’ Neil added, as he closed the newly tidied dishwasher with a nod of satisfaction. And that was the end of the conversation.
Kathy didn’t give up hope that Neil might be swayed, but the very next day he announced that his über-efficient PA Melanie had already executed his orders and got them on the last possible flight out to the wedding and the first flight home. They’d have to get up at six the day after the wedding to get to the airport. Kathy knew that Sophie in particular would not be happy about that.
Kathy was disappointed, of course, but she focused on the good news. She was still going to get three nights in Italy – her first ever trip to the country of her dreams. She would be staying in a grand palazzo with a view
of the Tuscan hills – the photographs on the Palazzo Boldrini website were pure Instagrammable perfection.
There would be great food, music and dancing. There would be excursions to Tuscan villages to taste wine and watch artisans decorating ceramics. Kathy had always wanted one of those big painted fruit bowls. There would be lazy hours by the pool and aperitivi on a terrace overlooking an olive grove. There would be glorious sunshine. There would also be a whole bunch of Neil’s relatives with whom to make painful small-talk but, in Kathy’s fantasy, they were firmly out of the picture.