In which attending his 'perfect' friend's wedding causes a young man to question the future of his own relationship.
Things haven’t been right between us since that gold-edged invitation dropped through our door. A paper-thin wedge dividing us. The creamy cardboard, the curly blue black font all spoke of money. Old money. She couldn’t resist mocking it of course, reading out in a faux-posh voice, while prancing round the kitchen to stay just out of my reach: ‘Oh, bloody hell! The Honourable Lady and Sir David Robertson cordially invite you to join them for the wedding of their daughter, Veronica Jane Robertson to Lord Jeremy Hugh Jones…. What, you actually know landed gentry?’
My reply, that I knew Jaz – Jeremy Hugh Jones – from the rowing team at University, came out as more of a snap than I intended. ‘Oh, yeah, of course, Russell Group,’ she muttered, turning away, and I remembered stories of her horrific polytechnic. And that chip on her shoulder.
It was one of the things that drew me to her first actually, her chippiness. At University, I always felt on the edge. I knew some of Jaz’s crowd in my Classics tutorials. They’d be friendly at first, but once they discovered you didn’t have two houses or a yacht, and your father wasn’t somebody, their eyes would glaze over and they’d politely drift away. With Sophie, what you saw was what you got. There’s no way she’d go off you when she discovered your Dad was a shop owner.
I’m lying in the dark now waiting for her to get back from Veronica Jane Robertson’s hen do. She was pretty resentful at having to go to it, since she’s never met the bride before. It’s because I’ve been drafted into last minute best-man duties. Only Jaz could ring you up a fortnight before the wedding to ask you to do the speech and not make it seem insulting. Oh, his actual best friend’s been deployed to Iraq – he’s something senior in the army. That’s the thing about Jaz, it’s impossible to hate him. He’s so sincere, so thoroughly nice, in a Tory sort of way, that you just can’t hold anything against him. Even if he has always had the perfect life, and probably now the perfect wife. I really am happy for him that he’s found the one. No, really.
Obviously, it’s bad timing as me and Sophie have been together for two years now, longer than I’ve stayed with anyone, and I’m well aware these are the crucial ‘marriage’ years. When we got together it was just after the first spate of weddings, as people panicked their way into their thirties, so as a couple we’ve only had to go to one. That was a tragic tee-total affair: I had more fun at the wake for my uncle’s funeral the month before. But I’m sure this one’s going to give her ideas.
The door bangs and she’s clattering about in the kitchen – she can never do anything quietly, she creeps into the bedroom on tiptoes with exaggerated care.
‘Are you awake?’ she hisses in a stage whisper.
‘Of course I am.’ I cover my face against the lamp she switches on. She crashes down full length onto her side of the bed. She’s so petite it’s surprising how much the wooden bed frame shakes.
‘Just kill me…’
‘That good, eh?’
‘There was paint-balling. There was nail-painting. There was god-damn pot-making. I never want to spend twelve hours straight with anyone ever again. And the drinking: oh god, the mix. I think the hangover’s already started. The things I do for you!’
She sounds as though she’s questioning whether I’m worth it. But soon she moves across the space between us and snuggles her head into my shoulder. Her curls tickle my chin. I can smell her coconut conditioner.
As we lie there, my mind wanders over the realisation that I’ve always been the dumper, if I may put it like that, never the dumpee. I don’t think this says anything about my levels of attractiveness or worth. I think it says volumes about the state of modern men. I’ve found if you’re just reasonably sober and reasonably kind, no one wants to let you go. But that does mean you always have to be the bad guy, in the end. No one has any sympathy for the one who ends it. But there was always something missing. I thought Sophie was different, and she is in a way. But, like all the others, the gloss has worn off; there’s been the odd sharp word, the odd disappointment, the early glory’s been tarnished.
Sophie lifts her head from my shoulder, ‘Oh, and, you know today was only the domestic bit of the thing – there was a week in Milan for all the international friends… Unbelievable.’
‘What’s she like?’ I ask. I’ve also never met the bride, since it’s been such a whirlwind romance. Being a conscientious Facebook objector, I’ve never even seen a picture.
‘Hmm,’ she sighs, ‘Hard to tell. She was on her best behaviour. But probably, all things considered, a bit of a bitch.’
We arrive at the last possible moment at the church, due to Google maps misleading me, and get shunted into one of the back rows. Jaz’s older brother is doing the best man stuff at the front thank god, it’s just the speech he can’t do as he stammers. The only glimpse I catch of the bride is a profile amid clouds of netting and silk as she sweeps down the aisle on her Dad’s arm. She looks pretty enough.
After the ceremony the bride and groom are trussed up on little gold chairs with their backs to us and the vicar gives them a lecture, just like at William and Kate’s wedding. I wonder if they’re copying it intentionally. Hell, they were probably there. The vicar announces that he’s not going to give communion due to the many different faiths attending. As he allows a dramatic pause before launching into his sermon, Sophie opens a tin of round mints and offers me one. The vicar hears the click of the tin and glares right down the church straight at us. I whisper to Sophie, ‘Careful, he thinks you’re doing your own contraband communion in the back’, she snorts, but fortunately the vicar’s already booming again.
We’re outside the church now, gathered round the entrance waiting for the bride and groom. It’s a good thing it’s such a large church with a big gravel driveway as there’s a throng of what must be at least 200 people. Two photographers are getting tripods set up; this is clearly going to be the photo opportunity of the year. There are ‘Ah’s! from the crowd as tiny pipes at each side of the porch start spouting confetti across the church entrance. It’s exactly the same pink as the blossom trees dotting the churchyard. The bride and groom appear in the doorway and pose as everyone claps and cheers, the photographers snap, away and petals dance and billow around the couple. I’m looking at the confetti when it occurs to me for the first time as a whole, coherent thought that maybe I should end it with Sophie. If I don’t know for sure now, after two years, that I want to marry her, that I want this to be us, maybe I’ll never be certain. And I couldn’t go into it not certain.
The bride and groom are heading down between the guests to get to their waiting white Rolls Royce when I see her face properly for the first time. Fuck me, as Sophie would say. A face to launch a thousand ships, as old Kit Marlowe would put it. Jaz, next to her, is a handsome man, but she puts him in the shade. Now it makes sense that Sophie assumed she’s a bitch. It’s not that Sophie isn’t attractive of course, she is. But, as a woman, it must be hard to see someone so perfectly beautiful and not hope she has some massive defect to counterbalance it.
As we filter into the hotel entrance for the reception, we greet the couple first. Jaz hugs me and claps me on the back. I’m not surprised to see he’s got tears in his eyes as I congratulate him. You only get married once, or plan to anyway. She herself greets me sweetly and says a few things I don’t hear, I’m so distracted looking at her. But it occurs to me as I move on that a woman like that was probably only ever required to be beautiful, and having met that condition at the age of 12, it’s likely her personality stopped developing at that point. I suspect that the worst Jaz might suffer in his marriage is boredom, but I’m sure it’s a deal he’s more than happy to accept.
She says to Sophie, behind me, ‘Oh, that’s a nice little outfit’. Veronica must be a foot taller than her and looks down like a benevolent goddess at a serf. Sophie smiles widely and replies, ‘Oh, thank you so much!’
As we’re standing in the entrance there’s a screechy roar and a red motorbike sweeps in and stops right in front of us. The bride turns away. The rider takes off his helmet. It’s Jaz’s younger brother, who I met once two years ago. He’s now a leather-clad skinhead, obviously going for it on the rebellious teenager front.
‘Nice of you to come,’ Jaz comments flatly.
‘I had to come. Sorry I couldn’t be there for the church bit. Just couldn’t bear to see it: my big brother tying the noose – I mean knot!’ He grins at us. We’re creating a backlog of guests and Jaz rolls his eyes and ushers me further in. As I move on I hear his brother say, ‘Nice to see being related hasn’t made your wife any friendlier to me…’ I don’t hear the reply.
After greeting both sets of parents, who have that well-fed look of the rich, we’re turned loose to circulate. Glasses of champagne materialise from thin air. Silver canape trays circle round my head, carried by expert waiters. As I swallow a cold mouthful of sparkling bubbles I remember I’m driving.
You know how you’re always convinced the real party in life is happening somewhere else? Well, that somewhere else is here. Everything shines. The golden glass in my hand, the marble floor, the black vases holding pink rose explosions, the polished shoes of men in suits and the shimmering hair of the women as they toss their heads like defiant thoroughbred mares. The noise levels boom up to the chandeliers.
Sophie is entertaining herself. I hear the tale-end of her sentence to an older aristocratic looking couple she’s talking to.
‘Yes, private detective, that’s right. I got into it quite recently. It’s an agency called ‘Jane Bond’, I know, fun name isn’t it?’ The man smiles at her like a kind uncle. The expensive-looking woman interjects a question I don’t quite catch. Sophie rolls on, ‘Oh, no it’s not as glamorous as it sounds. A lot of sitting in cars for entire evenings waiting for some guy to come out of his mistress’s flat so we can get a shot of him for his poor wife!’
The man’s eyes widen and he pales so unmistakeably that I choke on my champagne. Sophie, oblivious, turns to me, ‘What’s the matter sweetheart?’ she pats me on the back hard, which makes it worse. By the time I recover the man has whisked his wife away to the canape table at the far end of the room.
Sophie loves this game. She’s only started doing it since she became a teacher last year. If she gets asked ‘What do you do?’ one too many times, which as far as I can tell means once, she’ll start making up careers. I’ve heard her be an exotic dancer, a heart surgeon, a tax collector and a librarian in the same night. She says she can’t stand the glazed look people get when she tells them her real job: only occasionally leavened by them going into a forty minute rant about the state of education. I do understand why she does it, although, when she tells the next couple we talk to that she’s an antiques dealer and the man replies, ‘Oh, which house do you work for? I’m at Sotheby’s myself,’ I can’t help smiling.
I leave Sophie trying to dig herself out of that, as one of Jaz’s friends from Uni comes over, conspicuously networking. He asks me what I’m doing now and when I tell him he nods many times, while flicking glances around the room. I assume he’s looking to see if there’s someone more interesting or useful to talk to. He’s something big in stocks and shares, of course. All I remember of him from University is that he used to get unspeakably drunk and break things in the student union; I expect he fits right in on the trading floor. After five minutes he says he must go and talk to the mother of the bride. He networks off and I’m left standing alone for a few seconds until I notice a familiar face wander past; eyes fixed to iPhone.
‘Johnny!’ I say. In normal circumstances I wouldn’t be so keen to talk to Johnny Marsden, who I remember well. He used to come to the same literary circle I went to as a student, read out his bad poetry, and dismiss other people’s efforts with remarkable arrogance. But, this isn’t the sort of do when you want to be standing alone.
‘Ah, Tony!’ he responds, and I’m rather touched by how pleased he looks to see me. ‘How are you? How are you?’ After I’ve sketched in a few details about myself, I find out that he’s living in his parent’s ‘other house’, still hoping to finish that novel that he started on his creative writing MA, and doing some financial wheeler dealing on the side. He refers to the finance stuff as ‘big things in the pipeline, you know’. Something tells me they might have been in it a long time. ‘That’s why I’m glued to the old phone,’ he explains, brandishing it apologetically, ‘Waiting for some news to come through. Fingers crossed!’
I’m struck by how much sadder he is now, and how much more likeable. Life in the last ten years has knocked the stuffing out of him, and most of the ego.
Sophie reappears at the same time as Johnny’s phone chimes and he dives off to the sidelines. We find our way to our table using the seating plans spread across several large boards. We’re on the same table, but at opposite sides. As we make our way to our places I catch sight of Johnny scowling while he listens to his phone, rubbing a hand across his brow.
A blonde with a lot of cleavage plops into the seat next to me and announces, ‘I’m very, very drunk, darling. You must promise to look after me.’ She leans in too close as she says it and makes her eyes wide and innocent looking. Normally this is the sort of woman who sets my teeth on edge. But tonight I don’t know what’s got into me. She’s too drunk to listen or remember when I mention Sophie’s my partner and gesture across the table. I let her touch my hand and knee and smile up into my face, even though I know Sophie can see all this. To be honest, it’s just nice having someone new giving me attention. Turns out, my blonde companion’s head of a private GP practice. Clearly likes to let her hair down where she can. She goes off to get more drinks and I look over to see Sophie riveted in conversation with the ancient woman next to her. The fact she can make friends so easily is one of the things I like about her: throw her into pretty much any setting and she’ll manage, she doesn’t cling on to me. But is that…. is she…. enough?
The scent of roses, sweet, exotic, alerts me a second before the bride appears by my chair; she’s doing the rounds thanking all the guests for coming. I try to listen to what she’s saying, but I don’t think I get more than half of it I’m so transfixed by that face. Then she moves on and the drunken bombshell returns. By the time pudding arrives she’s practically sitting in my lap. I can see Sophie’s noticed now. She’s pretending not to have, but her back’s stiffened while she tries not to look over too much.
I down an espresso to make sure I’m lucid enough for the speech. Then I have to sit through the bride’s father doing his, while I feel nerves building. I don’t know why I’m good at public speaking, since I’m a natural introvert. Tiresome in a way, as I’m always getting asked to do it. Once I’m up there, next to the parents, I look over at Jaz. He’s staring into his plate with the most peculiar expression. I can’t place it. Veronica has her lovely hand on his arm and is whispering in his ear. He looks up at me and attempts a knowing wink. He’s probably worried I’ll mess up and embarrass everyone. He should know I’m a safe pair of hands.
I begin, ‘At University I always hated Jaz, because he was so bloody perfect. Nowadays though… Nothing’s changed.’ Thank god, they all laugh. As I near the end of the speech I see Sophie’s face. I catch her eye and she smiles. She looks proud, completely satisfied with me. I feel ashamed of myself.
Two more speeches follow, toasts to the couple, the caterers, the absent best-man, older brother, and me, then a lot of inexplicable waiting around. Further coffee is served. Into another vast hall now, lights lowered, the disco bit starts and I dance with Sophie. Feeling her warmth against me, I’m homesick for what I’m going to have to do. I don’t want to lose her. I feel as though she’s already gone.
We sway and circle in the gloom and heat: people are getting drunker and the music worse. It stops, and we all have to go out into the hotel lobby to wave goodbye to the bride and groom as they make their way upstairs. They’re off to St Lucia tomorrow, so they’re staying here in the bridal suite tonight. Seeing them standing together on the stairs, she now in a transparent pink dress, I get a sudden vision of them having sex, as they no doubt will be in five minutes. I struggle not to gasp. She throws the bouquet from the landing. I wonder what Sophie’s doing, then I realise she’s hiding behind me to avoid catching it. The bombshell and another girl lunge for it: a scuffle ensues. The blonde emerges triumphant to a small round of applause and smiles over at me, right in Sophie’s eye-line.
As people mill away Sophie puts her hand in mine. ‘Let’s go,’ she says. I’m glad we decided not to stay the night here. We get our coats from the checking place and head out into the night air. They have chauffeurs on hand, so we wait while someone drives our car ten metres to us through the drizzle. I’m cruising towards the exit at last, adjusting the heating, when Sophie says, ‘Oh, wait, can you stop? I want my phone – I shut it in the boot in my coat.’ I sigh and park tucked in next to what looks like a kitchen extension.
Sophie clambers back in and drops the phone on the dashboard. She peers up at my face in the orange light, ‘Feel like I haven’t seen you all day, stranger. I’ve got Tony-withdrawal symptoms. Can I have a fix?’ I lean over and hug her. She clings on and squeezes me. I must admit, hugging Sophie always feels so good. I inhale coconut and the tension leaves my body. She starts to pull away and I find I’m holding her against me to stop her, kissing her mouth. As she responds, I realise how much I still want her, and at the same time I’m grateful; I was expecting to be raked over the coals about flirting with the blonde, but she’s too classy for that. Maybe, and here’s a thought, she trusts me enough not to take it seriously.
‘What a day!’ she says, drawing back and sinking into the passenger seat. ‘I’m so glad it’s over. Though, that older lady at dinner was super interesting, she was telling me all about her childhood in India, it was amazing. Did you enjoy it though?’
I hesitate. I’m about to say enjoyment hardly seems relevant when there’s a scraping sound. We both look up and see, just above a security light, a sash window being pushed up. A leg comes through the opening, followed by another, a torso, and a man perches on the sill. It’s Jaz. He crouches and half slithers half scrambles down the sloped kitchen roof, clings to the gutter, then drops the last six feet to the ground. He rushes right in front of our car and jumps on to a red motorbike. He starts the engine. With a rising roar, he powers through the massive gates, and he’s gone into the dark.
We sit in silence in the gloom of the car.
‘Well, my… fucking, bloody… holy smoke….’ says Sophie at last.
She turns to me and her eyes are sparkling. ‘Poor Jaz!’ she says, looking contrite. ‘Do you think we should tell someone? You know, inside?’
I think for a moment. ‘Why don’t we let the bride do that?’
Sophie smiles, then covers her mouth with both hands.
‘I’ll ring him when we get home.’ I say, ‘Find out if he’s ok. Poor Jaz,’ I echo.
As I drive us out of the car park, a vision springs to mind. A small, summer wedding. In a wood. Sophie would never admit it, but her favourite film is Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves and she always cries at that wedding scene at the end. Yes, a wood, dappled with sunlight. No more than twenty guests. Ten each. Real friends and family. And afterwards a meal in her favourite restaurant. Now, that seems like the perfect wedding day.