When Jean-Paul Sartre said hell was other people, surely he was thinking of a family like ours. We badly needed a holiday. We had just spent a year going quietly mad/alcoholic, living with toddlers in a 7ft two-wide house (subtract space for stairs, chairs and two frenzied little people). We’d tried two mini-breaks that summer, but storms pursued us everywhere. Luckily, our kindest friends, Maria and Gordon, invited us to stay at their immaculate home in the blazing Costa Brava.
Did you spot the problem word? Yes, immaculate.
Around 10pm the night before departure, I noticed my phone flashing: 17 missed calls. I pressed callback.
‘Are you okaaaay? Hello?’
Oh hell. It was Maria. ‘Yes, we’re packing…’
‘Thank God! I rang the airport, hospitals, the police...’
Maria is Spanish but not usually prone to drama. It transpired that although I’d told Gordon we were flying out a day late, I hadn’t copied in Maria, who controls the diary (embarrassing when I was writing a book about how time works). So Gordon spent half the afternoon roasting on their driveway in his wheelchair, waiting to greet us, until they concluded we must have died en route.
‘We must be the worst guests they’ve ever had,’ I told my husband Sebastian. ‘And we haven’t even arrived.’ He opened another bottle of wine.
Halfway from Barcelona I realised our iPhone satnav was sending us to the wrong town. Its battery was fading and the hire car’s charger didn’t work. I rang Gordon and scrawled directions on an envelope. The iPhone died.
When eventually we reached the house, Gordon was on the drive, looking pink. Happy to see us, I told myself. When we got out of the car the children exploded across the lawn. It was like releasing a dozen hyenas in a chicken farm, and there were only two of them. Maria appeared, yelling: ‘Stop! It’s a sheer drop down the cliff!’ I went shrieking after the children.
Maria took us inside. The house was a vision. Shiny floor, white upholstery, fragile artworks and huge, enticing, precious books. Amid them stood the world’s coolest wheelchair — the Formula One version, with toggle controls. I felt sick. Seconds later the children were on it, slaloming back and forth. I glanced around hopefully for a kennel and two leashes.
Maria showed me our rooms: more pale, gleaming perfection. On the way back I admired an antique wood dressmaker’s dummy. ‘Last time we had children here a girl pulled off its arm,’ said Maria. We spent 15 minutes moving the dummy, which weighed more than me, on to towels so it didn’t scratch the floor. Then on hands and knees, we pushed it down an epic corridor to the safety of Maria’s room. As if by magic, my daughter appeared. She shook the dummy’s hand. It came off in her sticky fist.
That night it took two hours to settle the children. Our hosts waited and at 11 p.m. we ate the largest sea bream I’ve ever seen. Except Maria, who was not hungry. I remembered Benjamin Franklin’s line about how guests, like fish, stink after day three. If only.
Over breakfast the next morning we heard screams. The cleaner appeared weeping, arm in a sling, having slipped in water splashed on our bathroom floor. ‘She’s crying,’ explained Maria, ‘because she worries she will lose her job. Summer is the only time there’s work here.’
That afternoon we were enjoying the pool whenour son screamed his sister’s name. We couldn’t see her anywhere. She had slipped silently from her inflatable ring to the bottom. Sebastian put on his glasses, spotted her, and fished her out.
For the rest of the holiday we went out as much as possible. Amazingly, Maria and Gordon managed to give every appearance of enjoying our company. Apart from tearing a rare Shakespeare edition, damage was limited to our last night, when a freak storm hit. I caught the parasols before they cartwheeled over the cliff. Perhaps encouraged by the rain, our daughter wet the bed.
‘Brand new,’ said Maria, politely refusing my help to dab, soak and scour, before putting everything, pillow and duvet included, into washing machines. If only she could sterilise the memory of us, I thought, with sympathy.
On Time: Finding Your Pace in a World Addicted to Fast by Catherine Blyth is out now. See @CatherineFBlythand catherineblyth.com