Part one of this story can be found in last week’s post:
I keep my head down as we step outside into glaring, unforgiving daylight but as I begin to make my way along the path to the gate Solange grabs my arm, preventing me from escaping. “Wait Mum. I’ve got us a lift to the reception. Emilia’s uncle has room in the car for us.” I’m about to reply, to tell her to go on and I’ll see her at home, when Sonya appears. My old friend stands in front of me, blocking my way, clutching my hands in hers, her face wreathed in a wide smile.
“Claire, you look wonderful!” she cries. “I’m so happy you’re here! The day wouldn’t be the same without you and Solange. You are like family to me.”
Her eyes glisten with tears that threaten to follow those she’s shed in church, judging by the faint channels down her cheeks. We hug and I’m crying too. “Emilia looks beautiful”, I tell her. “You must be so proud.”
She nods. “I want us to sit down together and have a glass of champagne later; just the two of us. It’s all been so frantic I haven’t had a chance to gossip with you!”
I pull away. “Actually, Sonya I wasn’t planning on coming to the reception, but Solange will. She can be my representative.” I give her a weak smile. From the corner of my eye I catch a glimpse of rust-red curls amongst the guests milling about on the grass. The throng has thinned out as people make a gradual move towards the road to find vehicles and make their way to the wedding feast.
Sonya’s face puckers. “Oh, but you must come, Claire! We’ll have a dance together, won’t we? It’ll be like the old days! And I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you about Giles, but I really didn’t know! Nobody did…” Someone is plucking at her arm now. Mother of the bride is in high demand at a wedding.
“Yes! Come on Mum, you can’t wriggle out of this. And our lift is waiting!” Solange is looking stern, parenting again. I’m sighing, bowing to the inevitable. I follow her to a car and climb obediently into the seat beside her. As we pull away I catch a glimpse of them, of Giles and his wife, standing on the grass a little apart from the other guests, her hand on his arm, his blank face staring out into the distance.
There is a melee at the hotel as guests flood into the foyer, taking glasses of champagne and drifting into groups to chat while they wait for photographs to be snapped. I hold my glass and stand with Solange, glancing around for them. I think as long as I know where they are, I can avoid contact. Now and again, one or two of Sonya’s friends and relatives come over to chat to us and I know Solange would like to mingle with her own set, the friends she shares with Emilia but I’m clinging to her like a drowning woman to a life-raft so she stays.
“I’m going to find the bathroom”, I tell her, disciplining myself not to ask her to stay put until I return and she nods and smiles, looking over my head for someone she knows. I make my way to the Ladies and when I get there I stand at a basin and lean my head against the cool glass, eyes closed. A woman enters behind me and goes into a cubicle. I wash my clammy hands and blot my lips, straighten my skirt and adjust my hat. I can’t stay here in the toilets. I must go out there. I only have to get to Solange. I must hope that she’s in the same place I left her.
I re-emerge, hesitate as I scan the crowd. Solange is nowhere to be seen. I begin to make my way towards the throng, taking a second glass of champagne from a proffered tray as I pass the waiter. I scan right and left as I move between the groups, searching for my daughter or for Sonya then a hand grasps my arm, halting me and I turn. I’m staring straight into Giles’ face, a few inches from my own. His eyes are burning into mine with a strange intensity, then he barks my name,
“Claire! There you are! I’ve been looking for you! Where have you been? I want to go home! Please, take me home! I want to go now!”
She’s there, his wife, on the other side of him, pulling at his sleeve. “Giles!”, she hisses, “Sh…shush now.”
I’m frozen to the spot as she makes ineffectual attempts to pull him away and he yanks his arm from her. “Get away from me! I’m with my wife. Leave me alone!”
The surrounding guests have all turned to watch us now, where we stand, the three of us like a tableau, glued together. A small trickle of moisture is trickling from the corner of Giles’ mouth as he begins to pull away from her, his agitation growing. I try to speak. “Giles”, I say, but he is too disturbed to listen, shouting and pulling.
I’m aware of a presence at my elbow. Sonya’s husband, Marcus is there, his voice low and soothing. “Alright Giles? Let’s go and get a drink now, shall we?”
On my other side Solange has appeared, her face aghast. She mouths at me. “What’s happening?” and I shake my head. Marcus seems to have persuaded Giles to let go and leads him, stumbling through a corridor in the surrounding crowd. A space opens between Giles’ wife and me and I look into her eyes and see a myriad of emotions; shame, fear, despair. The spectators have lost interest and begun to drift away. Solange puts an arm around my shoulders. “Let’s go and sit down, Mum. We’ll get another drink.” In the scuffle my glass has plummeted to the floor, the contents spilling into a champagne puddle like a teardrop.
“I’m sorry”. The red-headed wife is still there, alone now.
I stammer. “Oh, please don’t apologise, there’s no harm done.”
“I’d better go and find him.” She bites her lip, looks away.
Sonya comes to find Solange and me, perching on the arm of the sofa we’re occupying. Are we alright? She is so sorry for what happened. Marcus has offered to get them a taxi but she, his wife has insisted they’ll be fine and she can drive them home.
“How long have you known?” I ask Sonya.
“Goodness! I only found out this morning when they arrived at the church. Giles didn’t seem to know who I was. She just said he’d been unwell but that he’d be ok; he’d enjoy the wedding, she said. I didn’t like to ask what the problem was but it’s obvious now, isn’t it? How are you feeling, Claire?”
“I don’t know-numb, mostly.” It’s too soon to analyse my feelings.
At last we follow everyone into the dining room, where the tables are bedecked with flowers, glasses, sparkling cutlery and place cards bearing our names. The fellow diners at our table are friends we share with Sonya and Marcus and their friendly chatter is soothing. I can listen and smile without contributing much. During the speeches I’m lost in thought. How should I feel to discover that Giles, my husband of twenty-five years, who left me for a young girl my daughter’s age, has developed dementia? When he left I fell apart for a while, as if he’d taken my life away with him; all the best years. Then I’d begun to discover the benefits of not having him around; the joys of selfishness, having the house to myself, choosing how to spend my time. What to eat. When to eat. What to watch, who to see.
If Giles were still married to me I’d be caring for him, just as she is having to. I wonder how long she’ll feel obliged to look after him, since she is still such a young woman? What will happen to Giles when she decides to quit? I look around me at the guests, their attention rapt as the speeches continue, ripples of laughter, smiles and nods ensuing from them. Life is fragile; increasingly so as we age. Solange has a whole life of opportunity ahead of her and I have, if not a whole life, then a great deal of it. What do I feel? Lucky.