Philippa, on the chaise longue, draws her knees up toward her shoulders. The clouds have come in, and her stomach hurts. The Mediterranean is dark, the coastal forests are dark. She is glad to put on a robe; she’s bloated, her nipples show through her swimsuit, her inner thighs are red with razor burn. The robe doesn’t hide her bruised knees or the scrapes on her toe knuckles from the bottom of the swimming pool, whose surface fuzzes with the light beginning of rain.
Her sister Blanche says, “Oh no, it’s actually raining.” Their stepmother Jeanne is putting on her wide-brimmed hat, stepping back into her sandals. She says, “We’ll stay in for dinner, then.”
On the safer side of the glass doors, Jeanne runs her fingers through her long dark hair, combing out the superficial damp. She watches the sea like the wife of a sailor. But she is the wife of the Duke of Lancaster, and the housekeeper is running out onto the terrace, rescuing the cloth cushions and umbrellas.
When Philippa wipes after peeing, the tissue comes away with a slick dark stripe down its center. She looks between her legs just in time to see a heavy teardrop of—what is it, placenta? no, uterine lining? was that the same thing?—splash into the water. This is such a fucking joke, she thinks. As of three hours ago she was five ten and eight-and-a-half stone, 16.5 BMI, data she tracks even though she knows it means nothing. She gets dizzy when she stands, her stomach aches, she’s perpetually constipated. Still her body punishes her for having failed to let a man come inside her.
Philippa is eighteen. Her mother had been twenty-one when she had her first child. Then she had five others, of which Philippa was the last. She had died aged twenty-nine; if she had started at eighteen, she might not have even lived to twenty-six. What right did Jeanne have, marrying Philippa’s father at the age of forty-five and never giving birth to a single one of his children?
The villa is nice, though. The shower in her suite is so big Philippa feels wrong being naked in it, kicking blobs of uterus down the drain.
Philippa’s brother Tom is an associate at a boutique investment firm. Her brother John is an associate at a private equity firm. Her brother Humphrey teaches tennis to the children of oligarchs. Her brother Hal is their father’s heir, and that is what he is. But even the son and heir has got to “do” things. At school he did tennis, at uni it was drugs; then an internship at a Tory think tank, then something unimpressive at their uncle’s energy company. Now he manages the estate: he meets the needs of the tenant farmers out of spite for his boyfriend, who thinks the thousand acres should be rewilded.
Tonight Tom and John are at work, and Humphrey is on a superyacht near Corfu, flirting with the hot governess. God knows where Hal is; Philippa says a prayer for him. She stands on the balcony of the bedroom Jeanne has assigned her and smokes her French Marlboros with the label that says FUMER TUE. The rain is clearing, but the sun has just set. The sea breaks on the rocks. Philippa scrolls through her Instagram, comparing her thighs to those of the girls she'd gone to school with and not really liked.
She is still on the balcony when the darkness is full and the air is dry and a person appears on the terrace below. The pool is lit, glowing turquoise, throbbing with subaqueous shadow. The person walks down the steps into the water. It’s Jeanne, of course, or else a trespasser: the hair is black, Philippa and Blanche are blonds. She walks till the water is too deep to stand in, then pulls her legs up and floats.
Cramps wake Philippa at four in the morning. The painkillers she’d taken have worn off. She sits on the toilet, squinting in the sudden bright light, and looks at her phone as she sheds huge red-black clumps into the water. She imagines her mother’s hemorrhoids and the stitches in her vagina. Motherhood, Philippa is given to understand, means having bowel problems and a torn vagina and a husband who hates your fat, ugly body. But you have also created life, which makes you better than everyone but the Virgin herself.
In one of her group chats, a girl who annoys her has sent the link to a designer handbag made to look like a green bean. The girl has written: Just dropped 8k on this randomly sksksksk
A boy they know, gay and snobbish, responded: omg that is literally the best thing I’ve ever seen
Philippa writes: omfg we get it youre rich stop acting like anyone cares
The bubbles appear that indicate people are typing. Before the messages come through, Philippa puts her phone facedown on the counter and vigorously uses the bidet.
The sun comes out and the sea is beautiful again, translucent cerulean. The pines are green, the orange-red cliffs cut by sharp shadow. A friend of Jeanne’s takes them out on his yacht (not super), which is so white it hurts the eyes. They wear sunglasses.
Jeanne’s friend has a son about Humphrey or John’s age, one of those clean-cut Europeans who also do something in finance. Philippa is always being introduced to these boys. A lot of girls Hal’s age are getting engaged to them, complaining about the stress of planning big weddings, calling the boys their soulmates in public and agonizing over their fidelity in private. Philippa would rather die than let this boy come inside her. But Blanche is in one of those high-cut swimsuits that show most of her ass, and she lets the boy lift her shoulder straps to rub in sunscreen.
“You’re already burnt,” the boy tells Blanche. He pokes her skin where it is red and she says, “Ouch, that hurts,” then looks over her shoulder and laughs.
Philippa sits far enough away that they are not obliged to include her. She’s wearing a polo shirt that had belonged to one of her brothers, with stitching that reads RYDER CUP CELTIC MANOR 1927-2010, and loose, floral cotton trousers that Blanche had said look like little girls’ pajamas. Philippa supposes it makes sense. Young women have eating disorders because they do not like their bodies to be sexually appealing. This is because they were traumatized by having had their bodies found sexually appealing before they were meant to. But when young women are sluts, it is because they like their bodies to be sexually appealing, because of the same trauma. So people think the same thing about Blanche as they do about Philippa, and that is what makes them both women.
The boy dives off the platform and Blanche slips in feet first, pinching her nose shut. Jeanne comes to sit next to Philippa; she gives her a glass of champagne.
Philippa says, “Didn’t you push a girl off a yacht, once?”
“I was very young,” says Jeanne.
“Well, a teenager. Not so young it wasn’t your fault.”
“I did apologize.”
“Did you do penance?”
“I don’t remember. I must have. I’ve done much worse since.”
“Like letting me and Blanche do things Dad won’t let us do?”
“Worse than that.”
Jeanne laughs at Philippa like she laughs at the friend whose yacht they are on. Restrained, beautiful; not too much noise, not too much teeth. It’s true that she’s done worse. Jeanne knows their father, she keeps his secrets, lets him mix sleeping pills and alcohol.
Blanche and the boy bob like bits of sea litter. He tries to hoist her onto his back; she pushes him under. When he surfaces, he is pouting, blinking the seawater out of his eyes. In his accented English he says, “Hey, don’t do that, I could drown.”
“Don’t be a baby.”
“I’m not joking,” the boy complains.
Hal’s boyfriend Percy (Percy is his surname) has sent Philippa a video on WhatsApp. He and Hal are in a pub garden, in the country. That is to say, in England. Hal’s pack of cigarettes and Percy’s pouch of tobacco are on the table next to their half-empty pints. Hal is wearing aviators; his nose is red and peeling. A wasp buzzes around his face, looking for something to eat or to pollinate. He is still, his lips are slightly parted.
Percy says, “Aren’t you going to swat it?”
“I thought you loved every living thing.”
The wasp lands on Hal’s hanging bottom lip and crawls into his mouth. He lets it, even though Percy freaks out. “Oh my God, it’s in your mouth, oh my God, is it stinging you?” Hal keeps his mouth open and the wasp gets bored and flies out, goes back to its indiscriminate circling.
The boy waits until they disembark to invite Blanche to a party. It’s this upcoming Wednesday, at his father’s villa (his father won’t be there, he stresses). He glances toward Philippa without exactly looking at her, saying, “You can come too if you want.”