God, I feel sick. It’s six o’clock in the morning and I haven’t slept a wink all night. Today the door to a wonderful new life is supposed to open for me, but I’ve spent the past few days looking for the key to keep it locked.
Agreeing to marry Colin seemed like the natural thing to do at the time. We’d been seeing each other for almost two years and I loved him. I think I still do, but I don’t know if it’s the right kind of love. It’s something I didn’t really think about until the dress was bought, the invitations were accepted and I felt well and truly trapped.
We saw The English Patient the other day, which didn’t help. I’m sure I must have felt that kind of burning passion at the start, but if I did it seems a long time ago now. Extinct. Is that normal? Is that really the way it should be after only two years?
Recently I started to notice Colin’s best friend, Andrew. His university education and City job have suddenly become potent aphrodisiacs and I can’t believe I didn’t notice his striking resemblance to Brad Pitt before now. I’ve found myself fantasising about getting married to him instead. He will be at the altar, but as the best man, not the groom. I know it must just be nerves, but right now the thought of Andrew passing the ring to Colin is unbearable. I want to die.
The veil of death is lifted from me as my mother pulls back the duvet that I am trying to suffocate myself with. She proceeds to impart information I am already well aware of as if it must be new to me. There is a scary, happy smile on her face which I try hard to match, but it’s difficult when it feels like the last minutes of my life are ticking away.
I see that my mother is still in her dressing gown, a pink fluffy affair that matches her slippers. I can’t recall what she will change into today, but it’s unlikely to be a great improvement.
“Today’s the big day, Cathy,” she beams. “It’s quarter past six and you’d better get a move on if you’re going to be on time.”
“I’m not supposed to be on time,” I groan.
She isn’t prepared to accept this and pulls open the curtains with a vigour that is obscene for the ungodly hour and given the fragility of my nerves. I have tried to tell her about my growing fear of marrying a man who no longer sets my pulse racing, but in twenty-two years we have never really connected, so to speak, and she just muttered something about cold feet and how everybody gets them.
Well, it isn’t only my feet that are cold now she has ripped the duvet from the bed. She leaves the room, a chilly draft in her wake, telling me that a bath will be run for my benefit. Three and a half hours ’til D-hour. D for doom, disaster, drudgery, dead-end. There are plenty of candidates for the best D word to describe how I feel about my wedding.
I lever myself to a sitting position and rub my eyes, hoping to see that the world has changed when I open them again. No. The dress is still hanging like a shroud on the wardrobe door. I hadn’t realised how awful it was until now. Did I really choose that dress? I think hard, but I can’t remember the joy that should come with buying the gown for The Big Day. My mother must have chosen it. She seemed to take over the organisation the minute Colin and I announced our engagement. My dress, the bridesmaids’ dresses, the church, reception, car; you name it, she arranged it. It was futile trying to protest.
“Cathy, your bath’s ready,” my mother tells me, her head hovering without a body around my door. Like a robot I walk towards her and continue to ride the carousel that hasn’t stopped to give me a chance to get off since I said ‘yes’.
I find the bath half full of lukewarm water. Opening the hot tap as far as it will go, I contemplate the various merits of death by scalding or by drowning. I immerse myself in the water and find that my pain threshold for scalding is reached quite early on and I close the tap on that idea. Leaning back, I shut my eyes and slip gracefully below the waterline, but for the second time today I am pulled back from the brink by a member of my family.
“Are you nervous, Cathy?” my sister Rachel asks as my submerged head reappears, summoned by a prod from her finger. I presume she means about D-hour, rather than my attempt at suicide by drowning, but I can’t bear to talk about it so I turn the conversation to her.
“Are you excited about being a bridesmaid?” I ask cheerily.
“Oh yes,” she answers with an angelic smile. “I love the dress.”
Rachel is my youngest and sweetest sister. Only eleven years old, she was a late gift to my mother from my father. I had been surprised by his generosity because, like all children, I’d assumed that my parents had long given up sins of the flesh.
Rachel disappears again, saying she is going to put on her dress, and I try hard to chase away the black clouds hanging threateningly above me.
After ten minutes, my mother barges into the bathroom to urge me to get a move on. I’m not left alone long enough to commit suicide anyway. I feebly rub soap along my body and fail to use enough shampoo to make a decent lather. A fleeting thought of drowning myself races through my mind one last time, but I face up to my cowardly nature and extricate myself from the bath.
Hearing the water gurgling down the plug hole, my mother reappears and guides me forcefully to my bedroom.
“Cynthia’s here to do your hair,” she announces, pushing me onto the stool in front of the dressing table.
“Already?” I ask incredulously, glancing at my bare wrist in a vain search for the time.
“It’s seven o’clock, madam,” my mother scolds me, “we haven’t got much time left.”
Not enough time to save myself, anyway. Perhaps Andrew will find a just cause why I shouldn’t say ‘I do’ to Colin and we will run out of the church together and onto a passing bus, just like Katharine Ross and Dustin Hoffman.
Cynthia comes bustling in with my mother in hot pursuit and I see my face in the mirror and notice I look nothing like Katharine Ross. I look positively awful and doubt even Cynthia can do anything about that.
“Hello, Cathy,” she squeaks. “Not too nervous, I hope?”
I manage to smile at her reflection in the mirror.
“I’ll leave you to it then,” my mother says. “I don’t want to be in the way.” She waits for someone to respond, but is obliged to leave when no one does.
Cynthia works at the hairdresser where women of my mother’s generation and beyond go to have their washes and sets. For a moment I panic that I will walk down the aisle with a blue rinse, but then can’t imagine it would make me feel any worse than I already do. Cynthia is somewhere in her twenties. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where, as her face is hidden beneath a thick layer of make-up and her hair has been dyed so often it looks like the merest hint of a sneeze will send it falling to the floor. She looks too radical to give me a blue rinse, but then she must have ended up at Betty’s Hair Salon for a reason. She starts talking to me just as she switches on the hairdryer. I watch her lips move, but soon stop attempting to acknowledge what she’s saying. My mind escapes through the mirror and I think of Andrew again.
I suppose if he really was the man for me it would have hit me sooner, but then maybe it took getting engaged to the wrong man to make me see the right one. I’ve started looking forward to going to bed so I can escape the noise and distractions of reality to enjoy the more exciting world that exists in my mind. I imagine Andrew pleading with me not to marry Colin, melting into his arms and tasting the sweetest of first kisses that almost bursts my heart. I’ve told myself that the thrill of a first kiss can’t last with anyone, but the thought of being denied that pleasure for the rest of my life never lets my mind rest for long. Perhaps we do all have to settle for a more platonic love eventually, but does my eventually have to be right now?
I am suddenly startled by the sound of Cynthia’s voice squeaking in my ear and notice that she has done something unexpectedly decent with my hair. I mutter words of appreciation that go unnoticed as she is too busy forcing me to move my chair so she can start work on my face. With hers now looming large I battle with the next worry that she will make me look like her. A blue rinse is one thing, but a face plastered in beige foundation and painted with garish colours is another. I stare in horror at her palette, filled with multi-coloured hues I didn’t know existed, and stress that I want minimal adornment.
“But your features are so insipid, Cathy,” she tells me bluntly, “and we don’t want you to look washed out in your photos, do we?”
“Well, I don’t want to look like a clown,” I reply flatly, feeling justified in my rebuke after her insult.
A petulant look reveals itself through her mask. She refuses to speak to me again except to say ‘there’, which is emphasised in a ‘if that’s what you want’ tone, after she labours for ten minutes on my features. I twist myself to face the mirror and am pleasantly surprised, for the second time, by her efforts. Despite my generous thanks she is not to be placated and wanders off to complain about me to my mother, who duly comes charging up the stairs to assess the situation.
“Let me look at you,” she demands before she has both feet in the room. I oblige by turning to face her. “Mmm,” she ponders. “Are you happy with that?” she asks, her mind not quite made up. I’m sure this is the first time my opinion has been sought about this wedding and I feel strangely unsettled by it.
“I don’t want to look like Cynthia.”
“No,” she agrees. “That would be a bit too vibrant for you,” she adds, rather unnecessarily I think.
I am spared further insults by the piercing ring of the telephone.
“Cathy, it’s for you,” Rachel calls, her innocent voice skipping its way up the stairs.
“Who has the nerve to call at the most important moment of her life?” my mother demands as I begin to lever my heavy body up from the chair.
“Colin,” Rachel replies.
Mother pushes in front of me and steams downstairs like a runaway train. I watch helplessly from the landing as she continues to run my life.
“He can’t speak to her before the wedding, it’s unlucky,” she announces and wrenches the receiver from Rachel’s hand. “You can’t speak to her, Colin, it’ll bring bad luck.” I presume he tries to clarify the superstition to her, because she proceeds to mutter, “Well, I don’t care, I know it’s bad luck and you still can’t speak to her. What can be so important it can’t wait a few hours?” Obviously nothing, I conclude, as she duly puts the phone back on its hook.
“What did he want?” I ask, knowing she doesn’t know.
“Nothing. Now come downstairs and have some breakfast,” she orders me. “I’m going to make an energising fry-up for everyone.”
I’m surprised there is any time for me to eat and the thought of greasy bacon and fried eggs on a normal day is too much, but today it makes me feel decidedly nauseous.
“I’m not hungry,” spills out of my mouth more insolently than intended.
“You have to eat something, Catherine.” (I am always Catherine when scolded.) “We can’t have you fainting at the altar before you can say I do.”
Now there’s an idea I hadn’t thought of.
“Really, Mum, I’m not hungry,” I insist, the new escape route increasing my determination.
“Well at least have a cup of tea,” she says, retreating for the time being. “And perhaps I’ll get a slice of toast into you.”
I hesitate at the top of the stairs, contemplating the importance of Colin’s phone call. What did he want? Perhaps he doesn’t want to go through with it either. Although it would be somewhat humiliating to be jilted on my wedding day, I would be saved and get all the sympathy into the bargain. I’m about to sneak to the phone in my parents’ bedroom when a shout from the kitchen summons me once again. There is no escape and I plod downstairs to find my clan fuelling themselves for the auspicious day ahead. Only Rachel is dressed and I see that my sisters will be wearing flouncy pink dresses. How will my mother ever persuade my tomboy of a sister Louise to be seen in that? Money will have to change hands.
“There she is,” my father announces. “There’s my beautiful daughter, about to leave her dad for another man.”
He can’t be drinking at this time of the morning, surely?
“Have some champagne with your old dad and let’s celebrate your last day in this house in style.”
Oh God. My father has been weaned off alcohol since mother ensnared him more than a quarter of a century ago. Now the only pints allowed at the pub are those on his birthday, and one glass of port is permitted at Christmas. She has obviously not been able to deny him champagne on his daughter’s wedding day and I am sure the years of prohibition will backfire on us all today.
“I can’t drink alcohol at half past seven in the morning, Dad,” I whine.
“Oh, come on,” he says, pouring me a glass of froth. “Dutch courage.”
Well, there’s a point. I take the illicit substance from him and find fizzy fluid beneath the foam.
“That’s my girl,” he says, giving me a hug more suited to the football pitch after the deciding goal has been scored. “We’re going to give you a grand send-off.”
He makes it sound like a funeral, which I guess it is after all. The coffin lid slamming down on my freedom.
“Gordon, stop drinking so much champagne,” my mother orders, as she sees him topping up his own glass. “Give me the bottle,” she demands, realising that intervention is the only way to control the situation. My father complies with her wishes, his obedience the result of years of training.
“You must have some breakfast, Cathy, you can’t drink that alcohol on an empty stomach,” she says, turning her attention to her second problem.
“I can’t have a fried breakfast, Mum,” I insist.
“All right. I suppose you’re far too nervous for that, but at least have some toast and jam, you really will feel better for it. I didn’t eat anything before I married your father and I felt pretty queasy by the time I said my wedding vows, I can tell you.”
I feel pretty queasy now and it’s got nothing to do with food. For the sake of peace, I toy with a slice of toast and force it down with the help of the champagne. This ‘relaxation’ isn’t permitted for long and, together with a reluctant Louise, I am suddenly herded upstairs to get dressed. When Rachel tries to come with us she is instructed to stay behind to ensure that Dad and the champagne remain estranged.
My mother disappears with Louise and tells me to wait while my troublesome sister is dealt with. I hear loud complaining from the next room, but eventually Louise is placated and I hear her stomping back downstairs as Mother emerges to take care of me. She is carrying a shoebox, but my wedding slippers have been buried at the back of my cupboard for weeks.
“I’ve got all the requirements for a long and happy marriage in this box, Cathy,” she reveals, resting the apparently precious cargo on my bed. I don’t think Andrew could fit into a shoebox, but I have to admit to a slight curiosity after this proclamation and shift my position to get a better view when the lid is removed. As it’s lifted, I see a collection of objects none of which bear any relationship to Andrew.
“You have to wear something alluring for your wedding night and tradition dictates you wear something blue, so I bought you this lingerie,” she says, holding up a navy blue, lacy affair. I didn’t think she was capable of buying something as raunchy as this and nearly faint when I discover this particular all-in-one has a thin strip of lace that can’t possibly be expected to cover my entire backside. The thought of me parading in front of Colin in this does little to rekindle the dying embers of my passion for him.
“When I got married my mother gave me this silver brooch. She found it on the day she met my father and from then on believed it must be a lucky charm. Now it’s your turn to have it.”
I find this solemnity somewhat out of place, given my emotional turmoil, and feel guilty accepting such an heirloom when I feel like calling the whole thing off. I’m too embarrassed to say anything, and I know it must be difficult for my mother, as our family is not normally given to such sentimental displays.
“Of course your wedding dress is the new thing and I thought you could borrow my pearls to add the finishing touch to the dress,” she says, pulling the string out of the unlikely treasure chest. These are only brought out on the most momentous of occasions.
“Thanks, Mum,” is all I can muster, but the kiss on the cheek I give her seems to bring satisfaction.
“Now, I’ll go and get dressed while you see if this lingerie fits you. It is your size, so it should be all right. It’s sure to get Colin’s heart racing,” she adds with a smile as she leaves the room. But will it get my heart racing?
I try it on and am horrified to find not only my ample buttocks fully revealed, but also my nipples and pubic hair. I have never worn anything this risqué for Colin before. Perhaps my mother knows this is what it takes to spice up tired relationships, but at eight o’clock in the morning I just feel like I’m about to embark on a career she wouldn’t be too proud of. I quickly whip the obscenity from my body and cover my modesty with a pair of Sloggi sports knickers and a Wonderbra; my concession to sensuality. I bury the piece of lace in a thick, woolly sock and quickly cover my crime with my wedding shroud before mother catches me red-handed. I doubt if the lack of something blue will make a great difference to the day.
God this dress is depressing. I managed to escape the Gone with the Wind affairs my mother really wanted, but this one is plainer than a bed sheet. Not the kind of thing that lifts the spirits. Obviously I wasn’t the happy bride-to-be when I surrendered to my mother’s second choice. I reach behind me for the buttons, desperate to conceal the absence of blue beneath the white before mother returns, when I hear a soft, but unmistakable rip. Feeling a waft of cool air under my left arm I locate the source of the tear. If ever there was a sign to a bride that her wedding day was a mistake, this was it. The angel Rachel suddenly floats into the room and manages to button me up without ruining her own dress.
“You look beautiful, Cathy,” she flatters me. What can you expect an eleven year old to know about fashion?
“So do you,” I reciprocate, giving her a sisterly kiss.
Mother, suspicious of any mutiny in the ranks, sweeps into the room at the first hint of voices.
“Oh, you’re dressed already,” she observes with disappointment. “Did it fit?”
I am somewhat distracted from the question by the rather odd green-coloured outfit she is wearing. At a pinch she might have got away with the plain skirt and jacket, but the yellow blouse with blue flowers turns her into a psychedelic nightmare.
“Perfectly,” I stutter. “Still, I felt it was the kind of thing best kept for Colin’s eyes only.” I even manage a knowing smile, which I find worthy of an Oscar under the circumstances.
“What’s best kept for Colin’s eyes only?” Rachel wants to know.
“Nothing that concerns a young girl,” she is duly informed and sent downstairs to guard father again, Louise being considered unreliable.
“Look Mum, I’ve ripped my dress,” I whine, holding up my arm to support my confession. “Isn’t that a bad omen?”
“Oh, what superstitious nonsense,” says the woman who refused to let Colin speak to me. “It’s a tiny hole. No one will ever see it as long as you don’t wave your arms about.” There is simply no way she is going to let me call this wedding off. She vanishes in a swirl of colour.
Mother’s supervision has ensured that we still have an hour before the car arrives to transport me to my doom; in style. The Rolls Royce must have been mentioned on a daily basis since the arrangements were taken out of my hands.
“There was no way we could afford such luxury for my big day,” Mother told me a hundred times, “but it’s something I’ve always dreamed of.” Of course, any dreams I might have are completely irrelevant.
I pull my wedding slippers out from the depths of my wardrobe and follow my mother downstairs to face the alcohol-induced emotion of my father.
“Oh, you look like a princess,” he slurs as he pushes himself up from the armchair when I appear in the living room. His cheeks are an incredible fiery red and I notice the champagne bottle has reappeared somewhat emptier than when I last saw it.
“Gordon, you’re drunk,” Mother rages. “I thought I told you to keep the bottle from him,” she says turning her fury on Rachel, who makes a brave attempt to defend herself but fails nevertheless. “You’re not going to ruin your daughter’s wedding day,” she insists, snatching his glass and the as good as empty bottle. Not much chance of him making it any worse I don’t think. “I want this to be a day to remember, but not because of your inebriation. Go and splash cold water on your face before the heat from your cheeks starts a fire. This is exactly the reason I can’t let you drink.”
“I’ve only had a couple of glasses, Peg.”
“Don’t bother me with your excuses, just pull yourself together. I don’t want you swaying down the aisle and making me a laughing stock.”
Realising the hopelessness of the situation, Dad duly retreats and is not seen again until the Rolls Royce arrives. This is accompanied by uninhibited excitement by all but Louise and I, who remain unmoved by the pomp. I am ushered to the door and call on my acting skills yet again as I see our neighbours gathering around the white, beribboned classic car. I hurry to get in, but am hindered by my mother’s hollering. I turn to find her rushing out of the house with my wedding bouquet.
I try desperately to sink down in my seat as we drive sedately to the church. I feel such a fool. The rest of the world is wearing jeans, getting onto buses, going shopping, and I’m swanning about like Cinderella twelve hours too early for the ball. It feels as if that recurring dream of being naked in the street has finally come true. Dad seems to have recovered somewhat, but I notice that he is still much more emotional than normal and dread the speech he’ll make after he has guzzled more champagne during the ‘celebratory’ meal.
Not long now. I think I have finally come to terms with my fate. I feel calm, like at the beginning of an exam when you know it’s too late to do anything other than get on with it. After all, marriage isn’t forever, is it?
We turn the final bend and the church looms into view, the only building I can see in the whole street. There isn’t anyone outside the church. Have I turned up for my wedding on the wrong day? Perhaps it has all just been a frighteningly real nightmare after all. We pull over and Dad bursts out of the car to make a song and dance about helping me out. Just behind us the rest of my entourage pull up in the family Camry.
The vicar is here and seems to be expecting us, so it looks like I will have to go through with it after all. He approaches us and before he can utter a word, Mother is by my side.
“Although it is traditional for the bride to be late,” he says thoughtfully, “I’m afraid that on this occasion it is the turn of the groom.”
“Colin isn’t here yet?” mother screeches.
“I’m afraid not.”
“What about Andrew, the best man?” I inquire hopefully.
“He isn’t here either.”
“Well, they’ve obviously got stuck in traffic or something. Perhaps they’ve misplaced the ring after the stag night. You know how men are?” mother says to the vicar, looking for agreement.
“I’m afraid I will only be able to give you another five minutes as we have four other weddings to get through today. Summer is such a popular time of year, and we do have the prettiest church in the area.”
Before anyone has a chance to protest we are startled from our shock by the sound of an approaching car. Colin’s Volvo. It pulls up behind our Camry and Andrew emerges from the driver’s side. I wait for Colin to come into view, but Andrew is beside me before I realise he isn’t going to.
“I’m sorry, Cathy,” he says, his beautiful blue eyes casting their now familiar spell. “I’ve come to tell you that I persuaded Colin not to go through with the wedding.”
So that is what he wanted to tell me when he called. Suddenly the implication of Andrew’s words frightens me more than the thought of marrying Colin. My mind has turned to putty and I don’t know how I feel about either of them any more.
“I don’t know what to say,” I whisper softly, gazing into his eyes.
“What’s going on?” My mother demands, pushing her way forward.
“Andrew has persuaded Colin not to marry me,” I explain.
“What?” she shrieks in disbelief.
I stare at Andrew. “I hope you’re sure, because I can’t think straight any more.”
“I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life,” he says. “I’ve always loved Colin.”
Everyone is too engrossed in Andrew and me to notice my mother losing her grip on consciousness and she hits the pavement with a tremendous thump. At least her dream has come true. It is a day we will all remember.
Corinna Weyreter asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work