I can’t lie. ‘Once. I kissed him once. It was –’ I break off because she holds her hands up in front of her, as if my words are bullets.
‘Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare make excuses for yourself, I don’t want to hear them.’ Her face crumples. ‘It hurts right here,’ she says, banging her fingers against her chest, vicious. She bends and grabs her discarded shoes and her suitcase, then makes a dash for the hall. I follow her, begging her to stay, and when she spins round by the door her face is a study of disgust.
‘Good luck for Saturday, because I won’t be there. You know who I feel sorry for? Oscar. Poor fuck doesn’t even know he’s second best.’ She’s saying things I know we’ll never come back from. ‘Keep your precious bracelet. I don’t want it. Keep your bracelet and your secrets and your fake friendship. I’m done here.’
I stand and stare at the door after she’s slammed it, rooted to the spot. I’m paralysed; I don’t know what to do. She obviously can’t stand the sight of me. But how will I do this without her? My family are arriving tomorrow. Our guests are coming. Even bloody Jack is coming, probably with his new girlfriend in tow.
I stuff everything – the cards, her dress, the box of surprises, into the cupboard – then go to bed and curl into a ball with my arms round my head. I’ve never felt so alone in the world as I do right now.
I know already what she’s going to look like. I’ve seen her dress, I’ve felt the sucker punch. So I should feel prepared for today. But as I sit here in the packed-out church with Verity beside me, I realize I am anything but. I shiver. You’d think they’d put heating in these places; maybe they feel that a bit of discomfort is part of the experience, a way of showing commitment to your faith. I’m just itching to get the whole thing over with, to get out of this suit, to get a beer inside me, and then get back to Edinburgh as soon as I can without looking rude. My life there is fast and full-on; the show is gaining a bit of a cult rep and I’m working hard to build good relationships with everyone at the station. It’s still early days, but I think this might be my place. I’ve made some friends, I can even afford to rent a flat on my own there. Brick by brick, I’m building myself a new life, and it feels good.
I still don’t know if bringing Verity was the best idea. She was keen to come and meet my old friends, and in truth I imagined that having her here would put on a bit of a ‘look how well I’m doing’ show, because she’s an eye-catcher. To be honest, she fits this crowd better than I do; she’s even double-barrelled. We met at a charity social thing. She presented a colleague with an award in her capacity as local gentry and took me home as her own reward at the end of the night. The girl owns a horse. Do I need to say more?
I haven’t seen Sarah yet. I’m hoping we can all be polite and grown-up about things. She texted me for the first time since our break-up to say she was looking forward to catching up, and casually mentioned that she’s bringing Luke. I got the feeling she was telling me in advance so I didn’t land one on him in church, not that I ever would. I told her it was cool and that I was bringing Verity down to meet everyone, and after that she didn’t text back. It’s bloody awkward all round. God, suddenly I’m really hot. This damned shirt is sticking to my back. I wonder if it’s grossly inappropriate to take my jacket off? Oh, hang on, here we go. The organist has started up, way too loud, and everyone’s roused out of their botoxed skin and is craning their necks towards the door.
Verity is on the end of the pew nearest the aisle, and it’s only when she leans back in for a second that I get to glimpse Laurie. I was definitely wrong about being prepared. I feel that sucker punch again in my solar plexus as I look at her, serenely beautiful, white flowers and jewels threaded into her curls and yet more flowers in her hands. She isn’t one of those perfectly coiffed and primped brides. She looks bohemian, beautifully undone, herself on her best day; she shines. As she draws level with me, her summer hedgerow eyes find mine and settle. She’s walking slowly beside her dad, and for a second I feel as if she’s the only other person in the church. If I were on the end of the pew, I think I’d reach out and squeeze her hand and tell her that she looks like a goddess, but as it is, she shoots me this tiny, barely there trace of a smile and I nod, fierce in my wish to convey my feelings. I try to say all the things I want to say with my eyes. Go and marry the man waiting at the altar for you, Laurie, and then live the glorious life that’s waiting for you. Be happy. You deserve it.
And as she walks past me, her eyes on Oscar, I feel something in me break.
I woke up at five yesterday morning with a jolt. I could barely believe what had happened. That my best friend hates me; that I have to get married without her by my side. I’ve told Oscar and anyone else who has asked that Sarah had a family emergency and was needed urgently back at home in Bath, that she feels wretched about it but there was nothing she could do. I’m not convinced Mum fully bought the lie, but I’m grateful that she chose not to push me on it because I’d have broken down in tears and blurted out the whole sorry truth.
On the surface I put on a good show, but inside I’m dying. I’m haemorrhaging the people I love and I don’t know how to stop it. Is this just a fact of life? You have to grow up and shed your old friends like papery snakeskin to make room for the new? I sat propped up against the bed pillows in the shadowed hours before dawn yesterday and looked at Oscar’s painting, wishing I could snap my fingers and be there again. He’s moved it from my original hanging place so he can look at it when he lies in bed. It soothed me to see it yesterday; it reminded me that there are other places, and there will be other times. I knew as I lay there that Sarah wouldn’t change her mind about coming to the wedding. I can’t expect her to. I’ve lived with my secret for four years, she’s had less than twenty-four hours to get used to it. It’s too soon. I don’t know if there will ever be a time when it isn’t. I’m on my own now, and because there was no choice but to focus on the wedding, I decided to shut down all other thoughts.
So here I am, standing in the entrance of the church, the same church Oscar’s mother’s parents married in. I couldn’t argue; I was hardly going to drag everyone back to the suburbs of Birmingham, was I? Besides, this place is ridiculously pretty, especially given the sprinkle of frost on the ground. It looked like something out of a fairy tale when the Rolls-Royce – one of Oscar’s choices – pulled up in the picture-perfect village a few minutes ago, and I had a bit of a moment when I wasn’t sure I could breathe. Dad was a trooper; he just patted my hand and let me take my time, steady as a rock.
‘You’re sure this is what you want?’ he asked, and I nodded. I’m as sure as anyone can be.
‘Thank God for that,’ he said. ‘Because, to be perfectly honest, I’m terrified of Oscar’s mother. I had a whisky earlier to be on the safe side.’
We both laughed, and then I choked up a bit so he told me to pack it in and helped me out of the car, wrapping my gran’s fur wedding stole round my shoulders for the walk to the church.
And now we’re in position at the head of the aisle, arm in arm, me in my beloved vintage dress, him splendid in his morning suit. He’s not much of a fan of the top hat, but he’s promised he’ll don it dutifully for the photographs later. Mum phoned me last week to talk about the wedding, and she let it slip that he’s been practising his speech every evening before dinner because he’s terrified he’s going to let me down. I give his arm an extra little squeeze and we share a last ‘let’s do this’ look; I’ve always been a daddy’s girl, and losing Ginny brought us closer still. We’re quite similar, both a bit reserved until we trust someone, both slow to anger and quick to forgive.
Inside the church is a riot of fragrant, tumbling white flowers, all stunning and slightly less tamed than Lucille would have liked. That’s my doing, inadvertently. I’ve been in to see the florist on several occasions about my own flowers and we’ve become quite pally. She could obviously see the gulf between my own informal choice of bouquet and the far more regimented pieces ordered for the church and reception venue. I didn’t expressly ask her to change anything, but I was truthful when she quizzed me on how I’d really like it to look and she’s worked a little magic to give us both something we approve of. I take a deep breath, and we’re off.