November is Fiction Month at Anecdotage. This year’s Fiction Month is starting later than usual because I didn’t want to interrupt my travelogue memoir: Solo to Africa. Here then, beginning today is the first of a two-part, brand new story, ‘Three Marriages…
It feels hopeless. I’m staring at my reflection, sitting here on the stool at my dressing table and I’m thinking I might just feign sickness and send Solange to the wedding on her own. I let go of the soft concealer brush. I can do nothing with the sallow shadows under my eyes, the furrows around my mouth, my sagging, fleshy cheeks, thin, pale lips and wrinkly neck. I can’t pretend I’m younger than my age, can’t compete. Instead I pull the comforting folds of my ancient, towelling bathrobe around me and consider my options for the day.
I could don gardening gear and make a start on the rose border; or I could walk the dog-a long, leisurely stroll across the meadows, returning via Mabel’s Coffee Shop. I could come back and do some baking. I could loll about in a hot, fragrant, bubbly bath with a large glass of Merlot and listen to an audio-book. I could heat up a ready meal and slob around on the sofa watching a film. Yes. It sounds a perfect Saturday. I take the towel from my head and begin dropping make-up items into the drawer, leaving a dusty pink trail across the glass top, then there’s a knock and my daughter enters before I’ve a chance to answer, bustling up behind me looking like she’s stepped from a page of Vogue magazine, wearing a cream silk jumpsuit, her honey-coloured hair swept up into a twist.
She is exclaiming before she reaches my stool. “Mother! What on earth are you doing? Do you know what the time is? The taxi will be here in twenty minutes! You haven’t even started your hair. Whatever is the matter?”
So many questions. But she knows the answers. She knows how I feel about my wedding invitation. Emilia, the bride, is the daughter of my oldest friend, Sonya, and the same age as Solange. The two girls were born in the same month, grew up together, in and out of each other’s houses here in this sleepy corner of our Wiltshire village. It would be unthinkable not to attend the wedding, this most important event in our friends’ lives. Wouldn’t it?
Solange is opening the wardrobe and taking out the dress and jacket we spent days looking for, scouring the shopping centres of several cities, trudging around clothing departments, searching the independent boutiques until I felt that if I was to try on one more floral shift or fitted, peplum jacket I’d run screaming up the High Street in my baggy, grey underwear. I watch in the mirror as she hangs the outfit on the outside of the wardrobe, smoothing it down. It is a dress in muted tones of dove grey silk with a loose linen, duck egg blue jacket on the top. I gaze at it. On the rail it looked beautiful. On anyone else it would look wonderful. The lure of the gardening gear is stronger than ever.
Solange is thrusting a hairbrush into my hand. “Here”, she says, “Start brushing your hair while I delay the taxi and get some bits.” She rushes from the room, leaving me to drag the brush through my mangy locks.
She returns with a hair dryer and some cosmetics, dropping items on the glass. “Tilt your head up!” she instructs, and begins to sponge foundation on to my face, then “lids down!” as she dusts my eyelids with a deft sweep.
I try to protest. “Sh!” she hisses, continuing with her mission to make me presentable. “Did you get that sculpting underwear on yet?” I shake my head and she tuts. “Next job then.”
Together we squeeze my protesting body into the dress before she teases and coaxes my wayward locks into a semblance of style. I’m relieved to see that the veil on my chic, blue-grey hat conceals some of my face. Solange stands back like an artist assessing a portrait. She darts forward to adjust the hat then turns me towards the mirror. “Ok, Mum. Stand up now and take a look.”
I can barely breathe in the constricting underwear and I wonder how I’ll cope in these heels but I admit she’s done the best she could, although not enough to allay my humiliation in the face of young, beautiful competition.
She is glancing out of the window. “Come on. Taxi’s waiting.”
She thrusts a small, matching clutch bag into my hands, pops a creamy hat with a broad, sweeping brim on to her head and grabs my arm as if I’m about to escape. Moments later we’re in the taxi and she’s instructing the driver. I study her as she sits beside me, cool, sophisticated, adult and I wonder at how she’s becoming the parent here, to my diminished, fearful self.
My hands feel clammy in my lap as we pull up outside the church. Solange steps out of the cab and waits for me, then tucks her arm in mine. “You look gorgeous, Mum”, she says. “I’ve done a brilliant job!” She’s done her best, I think.
I’m breathing fast, my heart thumping as we enter the sunlit churchyard. The guests must be inside by now and as we approach the stone archway of the porch, I can hear organ music; the last few notes of ‘The Wedding March’ dying away. The oak door is open a sliver, policed by an usher, the bride’s younger brother; he pulls it open enough to allow us to slip through and indicates a space on the last remaining back pew, on the bride’s side, of course. No one notices us slipping in to sit on the hard, wooden pew. All eyes are facing ahead, to the couple in front of the altar.
Emilia is in place, half-turned towards James, the groom, as the vicar prepares to speak. Now I’m feeling hot and cold, scanning the assembled guests for a familiar head, for another couple, an older man with a much younger woman, a couple who could be father and daughter, except they’re not.
I think I’ve spotted them half way down the row. I nudge Solange, who is engrossed in the ceremony. “Is that them?” I hiss and she looks where I’m pointing, at a balding grey head next to a red-haired one, an auburn cloud of hair cascading, hatless in riotous ringlets over slim shoulders. My daughter shrugs. Even though the back of Giles’ head is as familiar to me as my right hand I feel a tingling jolt that he is there, only a few pews in front of Solange and me. Does she feel the same way? He is her father, after all, although she’s disowned him since he left us for a woman her own age. But Solange has eyes only for her best friend, a vision of ethereal beauty in French lace.
I drift into a trance of memory, the heady scent of wedding flowers like a drug as I recall my own wedding to Giles in the tiny Normandy village of my birth; processing along the village street followed by the guests, braving a cacophony of trumpets, shrieks and whistles, standing before the mayor, solemn in his finery, emerging into the sunlit courtyard, white damask clad trestle tables adorned with gleaming, silver cutlery and small bags of candied almonds tied with white ribbons. Canapés and champagne flowed before we sat for the meal, after which, the speeches. Giles took my hand and led me into the middle of the space as the band struck up the first dance and I thought I could never be any happier in my whole life than at that moment.
There is a sharp pain in my side. Solange is elbowing me. It is time to stand as the couple prepare to exit the church. They advance, sedate and glowing, glancing right and left to give a smile and acknowledgement, three small bridesmaids in pink satin stumbling and giggling as they follow. As they pass us all I want is to slide out now, to slink from this place and go home, home to a comfortable cardigan and a cup of tea.
Why is Claire so reluctant to attend the wedding? And what will she discover as the celebration continues? Check in next week for the conclusion to Three Marriages…