by Sarah Evans
Ben’s insides are a triple twisted knot. There’s the two-fold tangle – now familiar – of happiness and the fear it will be lost. The third thread is simply embarrassment. He’s about to make the biggest pillock of himself.
He strikes his glass with the silver spoon. Its sonorous ring pricks the bubble of chatter round the horseshoe table that hugs in their luck. Everyone turns. Exactly as intended. Exactly as he wishes they wouldn’t.
All very informal, they’d insisted. No best man. No maid of honour. No giving away the bride. And no speeches.
He doesn’t know why over the last few days, words have turned up uninvited, the bare struts of a speech attracting embellishments, like a fleece of iron filings to a magnet.
‘You don’t mind do you?’ he had asked last night, when he realised he was serious. ‘Siobhan?’ he prompted her, when there was no response. He loves the softness of her spoken name, so at odds with how hideous it looks written down.
‘No, if it’s what you want,’ she said eventually, her voice low and fluting.
He’s standing. He hopes his hands are doing all the trembling, so his vocal chords will be left free. It’s not as if he isn’t used to this. Addressing Court. Chairing meetings. He gave the proxy father of the bride speech at Pat’s wedding.
He glances round the expectant hush.
Siobhan is staring down at the backs of her hands. The three long bones from wrist to knuckle stand up, like an ivory carving, interlaced with fine blue veins.
Pat sits squarely, forbidding in her big-sister protectiveness, her navy cardigan taking informal a bit too far. His nephews wriggle round her in support.
Kathleen is also darkly dressed. The two sisters-newly-in-law could almost be sisters themselves. Except Kathleen is beaming widely at him. She’s willing him to succeed, as are the glamorous trio of Siobhan’s closest friends.
The various add-on men wear work day suits and good taste ties. They fade, disinterested, into the dimmed lighting.
‘I know I promised no speeches.’ His voice has not yet betrayed him. ‘I lied.’ The joke is weak, the laughter warm.
‘I also know it’s a dreadful cliché to say that today I’m the luckiest man alive.’ He hopes that acknowledging it as a cliché, makes it less of one. He judges the slight pause. ‘Of course in my case, it happens to be true.’ It sounded better playing in his head, but his audience doesn’t care. Those generously inclined to laugh, do so. Pat glowers. Siobhan is still looking down at her hands. The waves of her hair fall forward to caress her face, veiling her expression. His words, however trite, are for her.
‘The last eight months of knowing Siobhan…or to be more accurate the last eight months, one week, three days…’ The canned laughter is right on cue. But this isn’t an affectation. The evening he intended to surprise her with a naively large bunch of roses – blood red for passion – was their three month anniversary. Since then he has notched up each day. ‘…have been the most extraordinary of my life.’ His tone is serious now, the silence is broken by disquieted foot-shufflings. It’s not as if he can ignore it.
‘I don’t want to dwell on the times of distress, which you all know about, have shared in.’ It wasn’t painful, she said afterwards, not at first. He wouldn’t have believed it possible to hurt so much.
‘But it has also been a time of profound happiness.’
Profound isn’t quite the right word, though he failed to find a better one, to describe the seam of conviction, wide and deep. Happiness is even worse, but he doesn’t want to use a muted word, suggesting qualification. He doesn’t, of course, mean the champagne exuberance of their early days. Of his rapturous infatuation – and he knows now that was what it was – with her firework brilliance, which sometimes fizzled without warning to a darkness he had no way to understand.
Siobhan won’t mind all this will she? Her pale linen is embroidered in an intricate network of gold thread, spreading out in ever dividing branches. A sleeveless jacket hangs over wide trousers and billowing white sleeves pinched in at the wrist with delicate cuffs of lace. As she stepped out from the taxi to where he waited before the red-brick office, she’d never looked so beautiful. He’d been touched at her insistence on this one point of convention, that her attire remain a surprise.
‘I know what some of you are thinking.’ Pat, of course, but the others too. ‘That we’re being rash, that we should have waited, taken our time.’ They only invited their guests two weeks ago, giving the impression this was a moment’s impulse. It felt unlucky to count on it.
‘And it would be hard to argue with the rationale of caution. But our decision to marry today was, as perhaps it must be, a decision of the heart.’
Before he’d never seen the point of getting married at all. What difference can it make? The witnessed promises, the signing of a piece of paper. People stay together for love; they part for lack of it. Divorce is expensive. It’s his job to oversee it, to battle over settlements, to profit from it.
‘It’s a decision we took several months ago.’ He’ll leave it to his audience to judge which side it fell, of the fracture between before and after. ‘A decision I’ve always felt to be entirely right.’
He remembers the irony in her tone when he first suggested it. ‘Marry? Why would you marry me?’ He knew by then, it isn’t him she mocks.
‘And I’ve never felt so sure of anything in my life.’ The repetition is for Pat, whose clamped hands have become a sculpture demanding full attention. For years she’s told him to grow up, settle down, get married.
‘But today is not about the past. Today we ask you to join us in celebrating the future.’ It’s this, above all else, he wants to convince them of. His voice prepares to switch from serious to the gauze of wedding day speeches.
‘Today, Siobhan signed a legal document promising she would love me. And – if I’ve understood the small print correctly – sleep with me…’ He pauses for the studio laughter, as he borrows from the dullness of his trade. He’s his own best man, and after all a wedding is an affirmation of the body’s pagan rites. ‘…forever.’ Earlier he’d faltered on till death do us part. Why should a marriage ceremony already foreshadow death? Siobhan’s voice was unflinching.
‘And all I have to do to fulfil my side of the bargain … is the same in return.’ Kathleen is still smiling encouragement as he heads towards his punchline.
‘I can’t imagine anything easier.’
He can’t account for the surge of joy, or something like it, at the hospital. The psychiatrist offered book learned sympathy and advised, ‘She shouldn’t be left alone.’ He expected to yield his silent vigil to the greater claim of family. But it was him she singled out, chose to take her home. Kathleen’s look of hurt was swiftly overtaken by relief.
‘Of course,’ he interrupts the easy laughter. ‘If I understand the legal niceties, the contract won’t take effect, not until it’s ratified…’ He counts to three by the beating of his pulse, ‘…by a somewhat more private declaration of love.’ He wonders how long the evening will go on, before he can be alone with her. A bullet of wanting is lodged permanently within, deeper and more complex than just desire.
‘I’ve checked. No amount of pre-consummation counts.’ This goes down well in the galleries. They all know that she’s shared his bachelor pad for months.
Pat radiates disapproval like a dying sun. But it’s his wedding day, he’s supposed to fancy his wife. Pat thinks she knows him, that sex is all this is about.
‘Why?’ Pat asked him. ‘Why her?’ As if love is arrived at through analysis and careful reasoning.
‘A toast,’ he says, his voice loose and free as he capers towards the end. Siobhan’s seemed so relaxed the last few weeks.
‘To happy endings.’ Impossibly simplistic, but he believes it.
‘To decisions of the heart.’ His own is still tied in knots.
‘To love everlasting.’ He faces his audience, addresses the words to her.
‘And to being very thoroughly married by tomorrow morning.’ The air vibrates with willing laughter.
He sits. Her hand covers his, tickling it with the criss-crossed lace which covers up the scars. He catches the scent of her quiet amusement. Then her fingers squeeze briefly their resolve, before she rises in a graceful arc, one side of her mouth turned down.
‘Well I can’t let Ben have the last word.’ An easy quip. When she’s on a high, she talks too much.
‘I don’t have to tell you about all Ben’s qualities, about how lucky I am. In fact I think most of you recognised it before I did.’ How grateful her glittering circle were for his calm presence; how warmly he was drawn into the problem that is Siobhan.
‘Today you can celebrate that, for once, Siobhan has done the right thing, has managed not to screw things up.’ The tone is almost light and brings forth complicit smiles.
‘And for the same reason, Ben’s family are perhaps not celebrating quite as much.’ It’s there again, the rueful, half down-turned smile.
‘I hope Pat will forgive me if I presume to suggest what she perceives.’ Pat bristles non-forgiveness. Just be happy for me, he tried to plead. Ever since they were left orphaned teenagers, she’s adopted the maternal right of knowing what’s best for him.
‘Which after all is probably not that different from the slightly softer perceptions of my own family and friends.’ Her smile is slow and poised as she looks down at her clasped hands.
She lifts her eyes to fix her gaze. Confronting Pat directly is rarely the best way to persuade her to see reason.
‘That I’ve been a recipient of Ben’s love.’ Her words are clear and practised, as if she’s reciting a line of poetry. ‘I’ve taken his devotion, his care, his comfort.’ Siobhan’s eyes and voice drop. ‘And given very little in return.’
He reaches out to touch her arm, the contours of her name hovering on his lips. She doesn’t have to do this.
After the first impossible days in hospital followed weeks of sleepless nights and twilight days, in which she was his to hold but not to have. Amidst the unmarked midnight time, the open artery honesty, in which she listened as well as talked, he surrendered more of himself than in years of after work happy-hour drinks, law society dinners and city breaks.
She moves, almost imperceptibly stroking away his objection. His hand knocks clumsily against the glass, the wine spills in a spreading stain, the bubbles draining away into the starched white.
‘I’m not going to defend myself.’ She recovers her strength. ‘To explain or justify. I want only to return – as Ben has done – to the promises we made today.’ The waitress hovers in the shadows, waiting to judge the moment to provide coffee.
‘Today, I promised to love Ben. For ever and ever.’ His insides squeeze tight; there isn’t room to breathe. ‘I gave that promise with the same seriousness and conviction,’ her tone gives meaning to the words, ‘that I know he gave his in return.’ She stops in meditative reflection. She’s speaking to her audience, but this is for him.
She picks up her glass.
‘Ben has already made a very complete toast. For once I can’t think of anything to add.’ Her voice has returned to levity. He can almost hear the tensed muscles all around, relaxing. ‘So in true wifely fashion, I will simply paraphrase my husband’s words.’ It’s enough to get the gaggle giggling. She knows the rules of speechmaking as well as he. Light. Dark. Light. This is the stuff of wedding day banality, playing on the labels which don’t quite fit, not yet, like the way his fingers are fidgeting with his wedding ring.
She sways backwards slightly on her heels and forward to raise her glass.
‘To love.’ Her voice lilts upwards, like an incantation, or a prayer. Pat is still purse lipped, unwilling to be moved, but she’ll come round eventually.
Siobhan sways lightly back and forth.
‘To happiness.’ Her voice gently mocks the absurdity of this. Kathleen’s mouth is taut with the wanting to believe in it.
‘To wedding nights.’ Only recently has there been the return of desire. It was him who wanted to wait until today, unable to explain why, except that, like all of this, it felt right.
‘To the nights and days, to come.’ She picks up those twisted threads and in a conjuror’s trick they uncoil and fall away.
Bio: Sarah Evans has had dozens of stories published in magazines and competition anthologies, including: the Bridport Prize, Momaya Press, Earlyworks Press, Tonto Press and Writers’ Forum. She lives in Welwyn Garden City with her husband