There was only one free seat at the café by the fountain, and it was at a table for two. The other small tin chair was already occupied.
Probably Miranda's husband, certainly her two adolescent sons, would have given up on the idea of the cafe forthwith and settled for coffee in the plush dining-room of the hotel where they were staying, or, better yet, a Starbucks with air-conditioning, instead. However, this morning Saul Weber was giving a speech at an aseptic conference centre near the airport; and the Weber boys, offered a choice between an educational tour of Milan or a lazy morning in their hotel room with the complimentary games console, had unanimously voted for the horrors of Kickbox X-Treme 3 over the horrors of Bernabo Visconti and were probably even now lying around on the unmade beds with the curtains drawn and ordering from room service.
Miranda approached the table. "Is this seat taken?" she asked in English. She prepared to repeat it in Italian. The blonde woman at the table hooked her large sunglasses down with one finger, to look over them with meditative grey eyes. She nodded, and cleared her coffee and newspaper politely back into her half of the table.
The waiter arrived, skirting a tableful of querulous middle-aged Americans in brightly-coloured casual-fit trousers and a hunched British family blinking in the bright sun. She ordered a capuccino. The waiter snaked off towards the Americans, who were loudly offended that the menu did not feature iced tea. The British woman at the table in the sun wiped her childrens' noses with a hanky and looked despairing. Miranda felt a momentary half-pitying squeamishness of the kind that more usually surfaced when Aaron and Michael got onto swimming teams or played solos with the school orchestra, and she had to sit next to some woman with eyes like a week-old fish and what Miranda had always thought of as second-divorce hair.
Miranda was the sort of person who always got served first in restaurants. It was a skill that had flowered some time after she'd left school. Which, thinking about it, was probably a good thing; she wasn't sure she'd have wanted first goes at fish pie or stewed damsons and custard.
Miranda suddenly found herself remembering rehearsals and flurried goodbyes and postcards, and the dusty-sharp smell of Kingscote's corridors. She hadn't thought of that smell in ages. In fact, if someone had waved it under her nose, competing with the coffee, she'd probably have guessed airport.
She looked across at the other woman on the other side of the table, who was sipping coffee and watching the world go by in a cool-water silence that would have been forbidding if it hadn't so clearly been nothing to do with any other human being. Miranda wondered whether it was simply the effect of running into British reserve again after her years as not-quite-an-expatriate. Her husband had always laughed at her, asking how any Jew could possibly feel out of place in New York.
"It is you, isn't it?" she asked. The woman across the table pushed her chair back a little. Now she was forbidding. Miranda persisted, heart thumping unreasonably. "Jan Scott?"
Jan smiled - a surprised, serious, but genuine smile - and pulled the chair back towards the table again. The table rocked on its wrought-iron feet, setting its umbrella dancing. "Yes. Still Jan Scott. Despite my in-laws' best efforts - they will address their letters Mrs Tremlow. One really wishes they wouldn't bother." She paused, assessing the sleek and very well-dressed dark-haired vision in front of her. "I'm sorry, I can't quite place where we - Miranda? But you sound American."
Miranda nodded, feeling more pleased than could be accounted for just by being remembered, and warmer than could be accounted for by the sun. "Miranda Weber. I married an American. Tim - do you remember Tim Keith? - sent a telegram to the wedding saying I'd done it so that I wouldn't have to change the monograms on my stuff. Though that was just Tim being Tim - I don't really have monograms on everything. On anything, much."
Janice nodded, still looking mildly amused at the coincidence, as far as could be told from behind the sunglasses. "Of course I remember the Tim child. She was an original. What is she doing now? I don't suppose you kept in contact." From anyone else, the last sentence would have been a question, a polite incitement to further talk; from Janice, it was a simple statement and as neutral as I don't suppose it's going to rain.
A younger Miranda would have been certain that she was an original was praise, and surprised and offended to hear it applied to Tim of all people rather than herself. These days, she was very much better armoured and insulated against that kind of thing. "No, we didn't stay in touch. I still look at the posters, though, and the film credits, to see whether I see Producer, Thalia Keith."
"And you never do?"
"Well, no. But it's not surprising, is it? It's not as if any of us have made much of a mark. Unless you count Val Longstreet."
Janice made a small dismissive noise in her throat. Miranda supposed it might be an expression of how she felt about seeing Valentine Longstreet, junior minister in the troubled Conservative government, turning up on breakfast television in a disastrously boxy suit and pontificating earnestly about teenage mothers. Val was often in the British media, partly, Miranda thought, because no one was sure whether she was a lesbian, and partly because her first name lent itself so well to headlines about massacres. She had shown up on a celebrity makeover show that Miranda had caught the last third of on BBC America once, but it hadn't made the slightest difference.
"I live in hope that no one finds out I ever knew her," said Janice finally, and presumably in case the noise hadn't registered. Miranda bit back I can't think how they would in case it sounded like sarcasm.
A cloud swept across the sky, trailing its skirt of shadow over the courtyard. Janice took her sunglasses off. Miranda was surprised at the net of small lines around her shot-silk grey eyes, and the slight weary slackness of her skin. Through all the years in which Miranda had grown up, taken a more than competent interest in the direction of her late father's business, sold it to a large consortium for a colossal amount of money, started another business and made an unexpected and very happy marriage to Saul Weber, she had still somehow expected Jan to remain eighteen.
"Good Heavens, as bad as that?" asked Jan, sounding remarkably unmoved. "The life of a provincial solicitor must have taken much more of a toll than I imagined."
Miranda shook her head. Embarrassment assailed her in a way that it hadn't done in years. It felt wrong, entirely too intimate, to be assessing Jan's looks. Jan's looks were the standard by which everyone else was counted. The words came unbidden: you are still, absolutely, beautiful. "Not at all. I just... I expected you to stay the way you were, I suppose."
Jan pushed her blonde hair back behind one ear. "Eighteen forever. How shattering. I can't think of anything worse. Being forever just about to discover that you don't know anything at all, at the same time as caring passionately when you make a fool of yourself." She shook her head and ducked it a little to put the sunglasses back in her handbag. There were a very few silver hairs amongst the well-kept, gilt-on-Doulton gold.
"You never did," said Miranda. "Make a fool of yourself, I mean. And if you cared passionately, it never showed."
"Really? What a set of unobservant little tykes you must have been," Jan said lightly, wrapping the tips of her fingers around the coffee cup. "You, and Nicola, and Lawrie - I have to say, I'm surprised I never saw her name on the billboards, either..."
"The last I heard, she was working at GCHQ."
"Lawrie? Not Nicola?"
"Lawrie." Miranda gave an it's-always-puzzled-me-too shrug. "Actually - I know this sounds deranged - but I did wonder whether she was a spy."
"Feeding the ducks and sidling up to men in trenchcoats? I wouldn't have thought so." Jan shook her head again. Her hair brushed against her throat. "Lawrie in the civil service and Val in government. No wonder the country's going to rack and ruin. Sensible of you to get out while you could."
Miranda wondered whether she was being teased. She felt an odd, joyous hotness at the back of her throat, like the first time she and Saul had laughed at the same joke. Or maybe it was just that the way she felt about Saul had reminded her of the way she'd felt about Janice; and this was a reflection of a reflection. The sun came out again. The fountain flung itself skyward out of its rather nasty baroque arrangement of verdigris-covered trays and flounces, looking like the triumph of hope over experience. The British family stumbled off, thumbing over a guidebook; the Americans had long since departed and been replaced by some people in expensive suits. "Are you here with Mr... Mr Tremlow?" she asked, hoping she'd remembered the name right.
"Oh, yes. He's back at the hotel with a migraine. Tiny room with a sweaty tobacco-coloured ceiling and a bed the size of a small tablecloth. I thought that quite the best thing I could do was go away and leave him to it."
A lot of questions buzzed in Miranda's mind: do you love him and is it all what you expected and so on. Behind them all, she could taste a very, very slight relief.
There was a migraine-ridden husband in Jan's room and her own two delightful boys a connecting door from her own (probably kickboxing on the beds or paging their father to complain that they'd only had minus one second on the games and the other one was hogging the console, if she knew Aaron and Michael). That being so, all manner of things that she might have said - have asked - have offered were functionally impossible, and she was safe from them. It was like watching a door open, and seeing through it another universe where she was possessed of infinite daring and actions were weightlessly devoid of consequences; and then seeing the door close again, and being, mostly, glad of it.
She would never have said any of those things, anyway. They and her feelings for Jan belonged to another century, just as surely as the shuttered buildings overlooking the courtyard, and the domed, oddly Slavonic-looking church beyond with the pigeons roosting on its cupola. But her heart raced, still, and she thought that when Saul came in she wouldn't make a point of using their theatre tickets, but instead would let him tell her all the details of the conference several times over dinner, as she knew he'd secretly want to.
She knew there were other things she wouldn't say to Jan, more sensible, more possible things; shall we all have dinner together, for example. Nor would she ask for Jan's address.
"As a way to spend one' s honeymoon, it's better than Butlins, I suppose," said Jan in those detached tones that didn't seem to have changed at all in thirty-odd years. "Not that I've ever tried Butlins. I may be wronging the place."
So it was that way, after all. Miranda felt a catch in her throat, and a strong glad feeling that she hadn't mentioned... things that she hadn't been going to mention, anyway. She smiled. "Congratulations," she said, and then, not that Jan had asked, "Saul and I have been married sixteen years - Aaron's fourteen and Michael's ten."
"I can't but imagine two little Ariels in briefer-than-briefs and glitter." Jan paused, looking up at the fluttering edge of the umbrella. "At least - it was the Tempest, wasn't it? I can't remember."
Miranda felt full of tears, but completely disinclined to actually cry any of them. They just remained inside her. The only time she had felt so heavy and so light at once, before, was at three in the morning when Aaron had first opened his eyes. "Yes, it was."
Janice finished her coffee, left a tip, and gathered up her handbag. She pushed the chair out neatly. Her linen skirt fluttered around her legs. She hesitated in a most un-Janlike manner; though really, Miranda supposed that these days she had no idea what was, or was not, like Jan.
"If I was ever... off-hand to you. At school," Jan said finally, sounding as if whatever she had to say was difficult. "It wasn't intentional."
"You weren't," said Miranda. "At least, no more than you were to everybody."
Jan looked mildly startled. "Yes. Well. I don't flatter myself that everybody..." Janice waved a hand, bridging the gap of I knew how you felt. "I just never understood what you expected me to do about it."
Miranda tasted her capuccino. It had gone cold in the cup and she hadn't noticed. "You didn't need to do anything. You just needed to be," she said finally, finding the words that her fourteen-year-old self - Aaron's age, she realised with a sudden hot pang - couldn't.
"Oh." Janice looked poised and amused. Through an arched alleyway, Miranda could see the crowds of Milan, whirling behind her. "And was I?"
Miranda let out a final soft breath. "Oh, yes," she admitted at last, still feeling that strange urge not to weep. "You were."