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The whole ridiculous thing started with Ben saying yes. Or rather, him failing to say no.
‘So,’ Gemma had said, ‘I was just wondering…’ Her voice over the phone was a little slurred; likely she was drunk, which helped explain why she was ringing Ben at one am.
‘Go on.’ He smiled as he pictured her curled up on her saggy sofa, wearing flimsy nightwear, a curl of golden hair twiddled round a finger. He wondered if Scott was there in the background.
‘… whether you’d consider…’ She giggled then hiccupped. If he’d been with her, he could have rubbed her back to help get rid of them. ‘Being my chief bridesmaid.’
His smile froze. Had he misheard? Was this some kind of joke?
‘Well not maid. Well obviously,’ she continued quickly, giggling again.
‘Bridesman, I suppose.’
‘Right.’ He felt deeply tired, hadn’t minded being woken earlier, not really, but he minded it now.
She rattled on about how she’d been reading all these books on wedding-day etiquette. ‘Well not all these books. Just the one. Plus Google. And it all says that the chief bridesmaid is likely to be your best friend. And I thought, well, that’s you.’
‘I see.’ He tried and failed to feel flattered.
‘Oh. You don’t like the idea.’
‘It’s not that.’
‘I mean I’m not asking you wear a dress or anything.’ She hiccupped and he badly hoped Scott was not listening in. ‘Maybe bridesman is the wrong term more like best man. Someone to support me on the day. To have the ring to hand at the altar. Maybe give a speech.’
She wanted to be free of rigid gender-role stuff, was planning to give a speech herself. Had been to a wedding recently where the groom’s best man had in fact been a woman.
It all sounded reasonable enough in its way.
‘Don’t say yes, if you don’t want to,’ she concluded. ‘Well obviously. But I’d be delighted if you did.’
Somehow he always ended up saying yes to her suggestions and it rarely ended up as dire as his predictions. Like seeing Mamma Mia on stage, or countless chick-flicks, which wouldn’t normally be his thing, but when she turned to share her laughter, cat-eyes glinting in the dark, he’d find himself laughing too and he’d allow himself to occupy the moment, infected by her sense of fun.
Helping her choose her dress came as one of his duties as her man-of-honour, chief bridesman, best man (as she variously referred to him). Not an activity he’d have expected to enjoy, and yet, neither was it as excruciating as it sounded.
The bridal shop – one of several duplicates – played slushy music and overflowed with frothy white. Hush-voiced shop-assistants hovered round Gemma as her hand ruffled through railing after railing and she turned to him with under-voice disparagement at the floaty concoctions: looks like a meringue; a snowman; shaving cream. She pulled surreptitious faces as the saleswoman referred to the most important day of your life. ‘As if it’s all downhill from here,’ she whispered. At times it almost almost seemed she wasn’t taking her joke of a wedding seriously herself.
Then somehow she was standing in front of him, a dream in moonlight silk.
‘Does this look any good?’
What could he say but, ‘yes.’
Time swept forward and he continued to say yes, helping to organise things. Venue. Invitation cards. Cake. Seating arrangements. Scott wasn’t terribly interested in all this stuff, she claimed, and her mother would have taken over. It allowed him a way to spend time with her – only her – something that had been in short supply since her whirlwind romance with the fitness trainer she had met at the gym.
He ended up saying yes to her hen weekend too. ‘Not all hens,’ she said, pulling a wry face. ‘Promise.’ But it turned out her brother and male cousin couldn’t make it, or didn’t want to. ‘You don’t mind do you?’ She had a particular look, sweet and supplicating.
‘Guess not.’ Although he did, actually. Except it wasn’t like he had anything more interesting planned.
She’d booked rooms in a London hotel and to keep costs low had doubled people up into sharing twins. ‘Not like we’ll be sleeping much.’ He was the only one to have a double room to himself.
They were due to meet up in twenty minutes back in reception. He made the mistake of turning up on time. He waited thirty minutes, forty.
He was getting bored.
Fifty. An hour.
Surely getting changed and applying make-up could not take this long. Then in a flurry they arrived, a scented mass of pink and glitter, of chirping laughter, all swaying as they perched on high-high heels. They had hen-night balloons and badges with pink backgrounds and images of flowers or knickers. The badges all had individual slogans. Studs wanted. Bad girl. Like a virgin – yeah right. He had helped Gemma order them online. She’d insisted on something tame for herself. Dancing queen, bride-to-be.
Except someone else must’ve bought one too and this one said: you’ve had your shot, I’m tying the knot.
The others dealt with the incongruity of his presence by ignoring him, but she smiled and came across, holding out his badge, the one she hadn’t let him see.
It was the same lurid pink as all the rest. Gossip buddy it said, which could have been much worse. She seemed unsteady on those high heels, her breath already laced with something sweet and alcoholic, and he could feel the warmth of her body as she leant against him to pin the ludicrous thing to his chest.
In the cocktail bar, he was the only one not to ask for a sexual act. He was surrounded by screaming orgasms, leg spreaders and slow screws, all delivered in fancy glasses with an abundance of straws and umbrellas and triggering hysterical giggles. The conversation frothed about him and he felt himself on the outside, disappearing into the leather and glass decor.
Gone midnight and they proceeded to a nightclub where he was made to queue outside in the freezing damp and the women were waved through. Once in, he was assaulted by a throb of music and the pulse of on-off light, turning everyone’s movement robotic. His eyes scanned. Bikini-clad women danced around poles. Men with oiled torsos stood on pedestals from which they gyrated and thrust their hips. His eyes found her eventually, dancing with her arms raised to the ceiling and her hands beckoning to one of those men who seemed to be performing just for her.
He started to push through the surge of bodies towards her and her gaggle, then stopped. Watched. Just now she seemed so utterly banal, so indistinguishable from her trite and silly friends, and he felt a wave of salt-water crash over him, cold and clarifying, the enchantment she had cast breaking, leaving him able to see clearly. He turned and left.
Back at the hotel, the wideness of the bed felt a taunt, reminding him of all that was missing from his life.
He couldn’t sleep, but then must’ve done, because he found himself starting awake at the sound of banging on his door. His imagination. Surely. He turned the lamp on and blinked in its glare. Clock digits glowed 4am. The knocking continued.
He got up gingerly, his fragile state not helped by being upright. He moved silently to the door. Paused. ‘Ben?’ He heard a voice; her voice.
She stood there in her flimsy dress, her high heels dangling from her hand. She looked younger somehow, more vulnerable.
‘Can I come in?’
‘Sure.’ What else could he say?
She moved across the room and flung herself back theatrically across the bed. Her dress clung to every contour. Her legs were bare. She was chattering in that sleazy way she had when she was drunk.
And where had he disappeared off to? Had he hooked up with someone? Though clearly that wasn’t sufficiently plausible to stop her coming round.
She had tales to tell of men homing in and fighting them off. ‘Where were you when I needed you? Man-of-honour. But you weren’t there to protect it were you?’ Honour being a somewhat fuzzy concept right now.
He came over to join her, first sitting and then lying back on the bed, his body stretched out beside her, just an inch of space between them. None of this was different, not really, to the times she’d lain the length of his sofa, her head resting on his thigh to watch telly, or leaning against him in the cinema, or taking his arm as he walked her home in the moonlight after the pub. Her physical ease was a function of the fact that a: she did not fancy him, and b: she assumed he did not fancy her. It was as simple as that.
The upshot of it all was that Cherry, the woman she was sharing with, had hit on someone and invited him back. ‘So I’m homeless,’ Gemma said. ‘Throwing myself on the charity of strangers.’
‘Not quite a stranger.’
‘Well no. Obviously. Just it sounded more dramatic.’
‘Sure. I could…’ sleep on the floor. But why, really, would he suggest that? ‘I mean plenty of room here.’
‘I just need…’ she said and gestured the bathroom, then made her way uncertainly towards it.
He lay on one side of the bed and pulled the duvet primly up. He badly wanted to rid himself of his brushed cotton pyjamas. Then thought of those tanned and oiled bodies from the nightclub and of Scott’s perfect physique, shown off in the tight-fit gear he favoured. And him with his pale skinny rib-cage and narrow shoulders.
The bathroom door opened. Here was an elf-like girl tripping lightly over the carpet towards him, pausing to wriggle out of her tight dress, though keeping underwear on, then slipping between the sheets on the opposite side of the bed, a king-sized bed, which in practice meant two single mattresses bound together by a common sheet, but still leaving a clear line of demarcation, the crossing of which would mark an end, one way or the other, to how things had always been between them.
He lay within his indetermination, not moving, hardly breathing, inhaling her sweat and faded scent. Slowly her breathing deepened, developing a faint wheeze, adding to his current restlessness and leaving him wide awake. He felt deeply bored. By her. By himself. By his failure to act. But she had after all said yes to Scott and they were getting married next week.
The morning of her wedding arrived in a storm of heavy rain. Good! It was perverse and disloyal to think like that, though it wasn’t as if he could actually influence the heavens. He got up and braced himself for the day, going through the rituals of shaving close and dressing smart. Far too late to reverse his decision. He would play his part, just as he had played his farce of a best-friend part all though the time that he had known her.
Her parents’ home was a tempest of female activity, her mother presiding, a number of actual bridesmaids flouncing in big dresses, the younger girls in hyperactive mode.
‘Ben!’ her mother said, and kissed him distractedly. She smelt of something floral as she reached to rub her lipstick off his cheek. They had met a couple of times and he always sensed her puzzlement at his role of just-a-friend. ‘Thank God you’re here. Perhaps you can talk sense into her.’
Gemma was having second thoughts. ‘I mean after all the time and money we’ve put in.’ As if those things mattered more than her daughter’s happiness. ‘It’s far too late in the day to cancel.’
But was it? He took the stairs several at a time and felt his heart levitate. Yes! She had finally seen what had been obvious to him all along, that she was far too good for Scott.
She was sprawled on her bed in a parody of unhappiness, her hair, which had been carefully coiffured into ringlets, was spread across the pillow that her face was buried in. She was wearing nothing but a satin slip while her sleek gown was still hanging up over the wardrobe door. Cherry pulled a comic face before retreating, leaving just the two of them.
He sat beside her and rubbed her shoulder. ‘Hey,’ he said.
She turned and hurled herself at him so her head was now resting against his chest and her hands clutching him. ‘Oh God,’ she said, ‘everyone thinks I’m so stupid.’
‘I don’t think you’re stupid.’ I think you’re… Now was not the time. ‘Tell me.’
She started to talk, half-choked at first and then more calmly, running through her doubts and fears. ‘I mean Scott’s a lovely guy, really sweet, but I’m not sure we really know each other that well.’ She started detailing the things she was unsure of. The things he had done or said that jarred.
He sat, fingers stroking her hair, all the things he longed to say pressing hard yet failing to cohere. From what he’d seen, the guy was a good-looking jerk with barely two brain cells to rub together. Though it was hard to be objective given Scott looked through Ben as if he was invisible.
Launching into all-out attack felt too blatantly self-serving.
‘Well,’ he said, when eventually she came to a halt. ‘If you really have doubts then you don’t have to go through with it and as for all the preparations and so on, well they don’t matter compared to what you feel. You can still say no.’
She moved to sit up and they sat with shoulders touching. ‘Not quite that simple, is it?’
‘Yes, it is. You can’t get married to fulfil other people’s expectations. It’s you that’s important.’
She took his hand and squeezed it. ‘Thank you. You’re the only person to say that.’
He carried on, asking questions, because it wasn’t as if his own opinion was actually relevant and it would be too crass to denigrate Scott and what really could he say that might direct the course of her mind. He allowed her to talk herself out, leaving a pause into which he might speak. If only he knew what to say.
Abruptly Gemma grasped his wrist. ‘Oh God, is that the time?’
Her resolve seemed to set and she was in a frenzy of pulling on stockings, spraying a mist of perfume and reaching for that dress. ‘Could you help me?’
He ran the zip up her spine and tried not to picture Scott doing the reverse.
‘Thank you,’ Gemma said, their eyes meeting in the mirror. ‘For being such a friend. Being so balanced.’
Once again he had failed to express any of what he actually felt. It never seemed the right moment.
Not when he first met her and she was dating his complete prat of a flatmate. Not when the prat dumped her and she turned to Ben to pour out her heartache. Not when she was getting over it but confidently asserted she didn’t want any kind of a relationship right now, but wasn’t it great how she and Ben had become such firm friends.
Then she had met Scott, who as far as Ben could see was an identikit for the previous guy, and that didn’t seem like the right time either.
The morning of her wedding was way too late.
The weather had settled a little by the time the taxi arrived at the church. The wind still blew, but the rain had stopped. He got out of the car to lend her his arm and she looked mind-blowingly lovely in her close fitted ivory.
‘You’ve got the ring?’
‘Yes,’ he said for the hundredth time.
Her father took over and Ben followed. She turned to smile at him, the kind of smile that made him feel like he was the only person in existence but which actually meant no such thing, meant nothing, nothing at all. It was just the way she was.
He thought of those crappy soaps he’d watched, because being with her had made it amusing. Of how every soap wedding involved someone doing a runner. Sometimes the bride, sometimes the groom, occasionally both. Never the bridesmaid, though.
He turned. He started walking briskly away, wondering if absconding with the ring would mean they had to postpone the wedding. Unlikely. It would cause no more than a ripple in the proceedings, which would continue on inexorably to the exchanges of, I do.
He imagined all his yeses strung out like razor edges on wire and pictured rewinding them to discover the crucial juncture, the point where if only he’d known how to ask the question, he’d have received his own yes in reply. Or failing that, the definitive nature of no which might have freed him from her spell.
He reached a small park with a duck-pond. His hand disentangled from his pocket and, before he had time to reconsider, his arm was forming a long arc and the ring – inscribed with the words you have my heart – was flying through the air. And even as he knew that he had crossed some line from which there was no return, he could feel the pace of his steps slow.
He was seeing a certain type of film, one in which if he listened carefully he would hear the clip-clop of her heels on the tarmac as she ran after him. He would stop and turn and a fairytale vision in moonlight silk would jump into his arms and he would hear the magic of her answer.
Yes, Ben. Yes.