And Now You're Back by Jill Mansell

Chapter 1


‘My God, my ears.’ The person in the corridor outside their hotel room was cracking up. ‘What’s that horrible noise?’

Didi, wearing only a bath towel, pulled a face at the closed door and shouted back defiantly, ‘It’s called singing.’ Honestly, here they were in Venice, one of the most miraculous cities on the planet, and there always had to be one comedian trying to bring you down.

‘You can call it singing,’ her critic observed. ‘Some might call it caterwauling.’

They heard the sound of his footsteps fade as he clattered up the rickety staircase to the boys’ rooms on the top floor.

Didi said, ‘Shay Mason thinks he’s so hilarious.’

‘You were a bit out of tune,’ Layla told her. ‘To be fair.’

Layla was always fair; it was really annoying.

‘I don’t know why you invited him. He doesn’t even go to our school.’ Well, she could hazard a guess. As Layla carefully applied a second coat of turquoise mascara, Didi met her friend’s gaze in the age-spotted antique mirror and raised an eyebrow.

‘Don’t go giving me one of your looks,’ said Layla. ‘He’s been kind to me, that’s all. I told you about the time those other boys were taking the mickey, and he stopped them doing it. I don’t fancy him.’

‘Not even a bit?’

‘No!’

‘OK, I believe you, thousands wouldn’t.’ Didi broke into a playful grin and turned up the radio as her favourite Elton John track began to play. ‘I only asked.’ Grabbing her hairbrush and holding it like a microphone, she sang off-key at the top of her voice, ‘I’M STILL STANDING, YEAH YEAH YEAH.’

‘He’ll be able to hear that.’ Layla pointed at the ceiling.

‘Oh I’m counting on it,’ said Didi.

What had just happened? Didi’s eyes snapped open; something had woken her. Turning her head to one side to check the alarm clock, she saw that it was 3.10 in the morning.

‘Don’t put the prawns on my feet,’ muttered Layla from the other bed.

Right, OK. Now she knew what had interrupted her sleep.

‘Just get into the washing machine,’ Layla mumbled. ‘You’re all blue.’

Didi smiled to herself, because listening to Layla talking in her sleep was always fun. But that was it; after an irritable ‘Not the dog biscuits,’ Layla turned to face the opposite wall and began snoring gently once more.

Wide awake now, Didi saw an eerie greyish light and flickers of movement filtering through the gap in the curtains. Sliding out of bed, she crept across the room and peered out of the window. Incredibly, it was snowing outside, fat flakes falling like feathers from an inky sky. Snow in Venice, during February half-term; who’d have thought it? When they’d come upstairs to bed four hours ago, it had been bitingly cold, but still no one had expected this to happen.

She pressed her nose against the icy glass and peered left and right, drinking in as much of the view as she could see. But there really wasn’t much of one; Calle Ciati was a winding back street, dark and silent. She’d be able to see so much more from the front of the hotel, which overlooked the canal.

Venice. In the snow. But what if it all disappeared by morning?

Layla was completely out for the count; she might no longer be actually snoring, but her lips were making a small pfff noise with each regular exhalation. She loved to sleep and couldn’t bear being woken even a minute before it was time to get up.

Five minutes later, bundled up and clutching her yellow bobble hat, Didi crept down the ornate staircase, reaching the deserted vestibule and silently letting herself out of the hotel. Oh wow, it was amazing; the snow was already several inches deep, soft and creaking underfoot as she turned left and made her way along the narrow street. A couple of other people had taken the same journey earlier, their footprints already disappearing as the snow fell faster, but there was no one else in sight. Didi was alone but felt entirely safe, although she took care to keep away from the potentially slippery edges when the next pathway led her to one of the back-street canals.

Then she made the final turn and there it was, the vast expanse of St Mark’s Square stretching out before her. Her heart soared at the sight. It was spectacular enough in daylight, but now, blanketed in white and with the snowflakes tumbling down, it was utterly magical. St Mark’s Basilica, topped with gold and fronted by the ornate sky-high flagpoles, looked like an illuminated wedding cake. Over to her right, a couple were locked in each other’s arms, kissing. To the left, someone else was building a snowman. A few other people, drawn by the snow, were taking photographs and a woman in a full-length white faux-fur coat carried a dachshund in her arms as she made her way diagonally across the square and passed the Campanile before disappearing from view.