The postman’s shadow slipped past the window as I walked out into the hallway. A pale blue parchment envelope lay on the doormat. I picked it up and turned it to check the postmark… Oxfordshire, hmmm. Looked like Jon’s handwriting. For a second or two I dangled the envelope over the paper bin, holding it by the merest corner, then set it aside on the windowsill.
The good thing about a busy day on the wards is that everything outside the work in hand gets pushed right to the back of the mind. There’s simply no time to ponder or fret. Consequently, it was only as I nipped into Tesco’s on my way home that I remembered the morning’s post.
Groceries put away, coffee in hand, I peered into the opened envelope as though it might bite me. Turned out it was a wedding invitation: Mr & Mrs Jonathon Butler have the pleasure of inviting you to attend the wedding of Lily Matilda Butler and Nathan Jeremy Brookes at … I put the card down on the kitchen table and sat back, watching the rain drizzle down the window as I sipped my coffee; the bitter liquid burning my throat reflected my mood.
It was quite a shock, receiving that invite. I’d not spoken to my sister, or Jon of course, for… how many years? I hated her… or did I? I sipped again and thought about it. So much of a lifetime had passed by that I’d almost forgotten I had a sister. Did I still hate her? I rolled the thought around my mind, poked it and teased it and found that, actually, I didn’t much care one way or the other. That was a surprise.
Later that evening, I cracked open a bottle of red and delved to the back of my cupboard. Discarding old shoes, ridiculous hats and forgotten bric-a-brac, I unearthed the green and black shoebox. Heaven knows why I’d kept it, but I had. I downed one glass of the wine for fortitude, and tipped the contents of the box out onto my coffee table. With the second glass poured, I leaned forward to study the photos, a little gingerly at first, but in the absence of any sudden stabs to the heart, more boldly. I even put them into chronological order. It was quite fun in a bitter, teeth clenched kind of way.
I clutched the very first photo and briefly closed my eyes, hearing again the party clamour of raised voices and loud music. I could even smell the alcohol and… herbal cigarettes. Petite and curvaceous, I was dancing in a too short dress, my long blonde hair flying around my laughing face. He was doing his foot-to-foot hop, that heart-stopping soppy grin half hidden under his curls. I’d been a student nurse at the time and he was working as a porter, delaying his university studies until he’d got a bit of cash together.
We were always bumping into each other after that party – around the hospital, the staff canteen, the grounds. Most of these ‘chance’ encounters, he confessed later, he’d engineered. He was adorable. If I closed my eyes I could easily picture that shy, crinkly-eyed smile fighting its way out through waves of rich auburn hair… his gentle, self-deprecating manner… and those deep blue eyes. I shook myself and took another big swig of wine. Bastard.
I’m not sure, exactly, when he met Emily. She was, is, my twin and as un-identical to me as it’s possible to be. Emily was taller and gamine; her faultless elfin features set off by short cropped, always glossy, chestnut hair. I tended to get flustered and blush at the drop of a hat, whereas Emily had a cool, controlled personality that always made me feel inept. She had a way of drawing people in, managing to combine ‘come hither’ with a slightly contemptuous antagonism. For some reason men found her completely irresistible. As far back as I could remember Emily always got what she wanted.
Jon and I had been sharing my tiny flat for about six months and I could never have imagined being so utterly and completely satisfied with life. The nightshifts were a struggle, it was true – leaving at seven in the evening to battle across town on public transport, next day not getting home ’til after nine in the morning. An unavoidable part of my training, but I hated the anti-social hours.
I was feeling a bit rough that particular night but, stupidly, went in for my shift as usual. Sister packed me off home again, shivering miserably with the start of a ‘bug,’ only an hour after I’d signed in.
It was about half eleven by the time I got back. I let myself in quietly and left off the lights – Jon started his working day at the crack of dawn and I didn’t want to disturb him. I gently clicked the door to behind me, slipped off my shoes and waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. Surprisingly, faint glimmers of light were moving around the edges of the not quite closed living room door. Ah bless, I thought fondly, he’s fallen asleep in front of the telly. I eased the door open a few inches and peered into the room.
Yes, the TV was on low, but Jon? No, not asleep, far from it.
The back of the sofa was towards me, topped by two heads leaning intimately together. I stood frozen in the doorway, bathed in the half-light cast by a clutch of flickering candles around the room. Before my disbelieving eyes, Jon lifted a hand to trace with one finger those oh so perfect features.
‘My little pixie,’ he murmured, drawing a low seductive laugh from Emily.
I backed out silently and headed for the bedroom; I needed somewhere to compose myself, to think how to deal with this. Just a silly moment, I was thinking, nothing serious, he loves me, he really does… but one look at the bedroom shattered that illusion; that rumpled and still warm bed… and my heart seemed to freeze. It couldn’t have been a sudden ‘heat of the moment’ thing either; Emily’s clothes lay folded neatly across the chair with Jon’s, a little see-through plastic sponge bag complete with toothbrush mocked me from the bedside cabinet, and through the open bathroom door drifted the scent of recently extinguished candles…
I swept the photos into the shoebox and sat back, irritably drumming my fingers on its lid. I think I sat there for quite some time, until for some reason I noticed the white label on the side of the shoebox. It was a sketch of ridiculously high platform shoes. Had I really managed to walk in those? I chuckled a little into the dregs of my glass and poured the next. So, I asked myself, did I still care? It was a long time ago and life had been good; I loved my career and there’d been a succession of very enjoyable romances. Certainly, by the time I lobbed the second empty bottle into the recycling crate and headed for bed, the answer was NO!
The wedding speeches were in full swing and my jaw and cheeks ached badly from the smile I’d held rigidly in place all afternoon. I coughed politely, shook out my napkin and buried my face into it, wriggling the tense muscles with relief under cover of cream linen. The ceremony, it had to be said, had been lovely. The little country church resplendent with flowers; the radiant bride, the image of Emily at the same age, couldn’t fail to look stunning. The handsome besotted bridegroom doing everything but drool. The look of startled surprise on Jon’s face when he caught sight of me as he escorted Lily down the aisle was priceless. I pretended not to notice, of course. And, I said to myself, how good it felt to have closed the book, drawn a line under things, to have healed old wounds…
I even found I could be pleasant to Emily. She’d grown stout and had soured, her elfin features weathered into something a bit more, well how should I put it, witch-like? Yes. Not the sign of a happy woman, I thought smugly, the first genuine smile of the day twitching at the corners of my lips. We exchanged cordial pleasantries and barely contained our mutual relief when she was called away to Mother-of-the-Bride duties involving some distant relative.
Jonathan, if anything, was more attractive than ever. Our eyes met briefly during the speeches, and during the toast he looked more pointedly in my direction. I turned deliberately away to my neighbour, and took secret pleasure as I noticed from the corner of my eye, the smile fall from his face.
When the guests began to socialise, I studied him from a carefully maintained distance, congratulating myself on my clinical detachment. A bit gangly when younger, he now had the mature, muscular physique of someone who kept himself in trim. The deep auburn of his hair had faded to copper and was complemented by a golden tan. I tugged my sleeves down over my pale arms; obviously he hadn’t just spent a week in soggy Tenby, unlike some of us.
He moved amongst the guests, effortlessly engaging everyone with his easy smile and ever laughing eyes. This time I was off-guard when he glanced over. He smiled and nodded, started to lift a hand in acknowledgement, but I moved on hurriedly. Seeing him was one thing, but I certainly didn’t want to speak to him. If he still had a guilty conscience, I certainly wasn’t about to soothe it. The rat.
At last, with feasting completed and dancing underway in the marquee, the newly wed couple were waved off to their future. I had a dance or two with Jon’s old friend William, smugly noting Jon’s eyes upon me – my figure was as good as it’d ever been. After that I felt quite free to slip away home. I popped into the loo and stared at myself in the mirror. A kindly, slightly weary face looked back. It smiled in a self-congratulatory way. Well that was that, all done and dusted, easy peasy.
I made my way back to the darkened car park, almost floating without the weight of the past to weigh me down. The inky black sky was dotted with a tapestry of stars and I raised my head to marvel at the infinity of possibility displayed above me. At last, sated by the flavour of freedom, I heaved a sigh of satisfaction, unlocked my car and got in.
I’d barely got the key into the ignition, when someone opened the door and climbed in beside me.
‘Anne,’ a hand gently enclosed mine where it was frozen to the gear stick. ‘I made a terrible mistake… all these wasted years, I’m so sorry.’ He was silent for a moment, staring blankly out through the windscreen, and then he reached over to hook one finger under my chin, gently turning my face towards his. His eyes glittered in the starlight. ‘I’ve always known I married the wrong one…’
What was that warm fuzzy feeling? Was that my ice-block heart beginning to thaw? Oh shit!
Susan C. Russell asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work