The Wedding Night
Effie read the email again and looked down at her fingertips on the computer keyboard in front of her. They were pale and chewed, nails as red-rimmed as her eyes.
Un-f***ing-believable. She had been looking forward to that holiday for months.
When Lizzie—happy, carefree, in-love-with-love Lizzie, lit from within by the sort of glow that comes only from the joy of somebody having weighed you in the balance and decided that, yes, they would like to spend the rest of their existence by your side—had first mentioned her plan to get married abroad, Effie had made all the right impressed, positive noises.
In fact, she had never seen the point of marrying in another country neither of you were from when your own had more than enough venues and your guests all lived in it. Lizzie even came from the sort of commuter belt family for whom home is a village with a Norman church tucked away for the precise purpose of rendering its prodigal City-worker daughters Elizabeth Bennet for a day.
Supposing the couple didn’t fancy that option, there were plenty of municipal buildings near where they lived in London to choose from. Proud borough town halls built in civic red brick that would appear nice enough in the background of the photos as long as you positioned someone in front of the fire escape signs. Deliberately derelict warehouses and deconsecrated chapels gone just enough to rack and ruin to look good on Instagram but not to pose any real health and safety risks, beyond an enduring chill that storage heaters would never quite take the edge off. Wood-paneled rooms upstairs in pubs, where the groomsmen could nip down to catch the football highlights between the speeches.
Or conference suites in five-star hotels that rich tourists paid to stay in and Londoners only ever went to on somebody else’s money, full of regimented chairs with covers that slipped over them to guard against the worst of the stains. Were the covers, Effie wondered, lined with something waterproof? Otherwise, what was the point in providing two different layers of fabric for the inevitable nuptial spillages of red wine, gravy, and stomach acid to soak into?
Effie noted that nobody who got married abroad ever seemed to do it in a climate colder than their own. It was always in a château, a trullo, or a vineyard located in some hot-blooded country, in the hope that the terroir would imbue the pallid Celts who booked them with the same body and top notes—zest, even!—it did the grapes it nurtured.
No, when the time came, Effie had always presumed she would do what most people seemed to: book a registry office, where tidy men and women in bank manager suits presided over efficient, non-Latinate words exchanged between couples who filed in and out on the hour like cuckoos from a clock.
Of course, for this to be any sort of viable option, Effie needed somebody who was interested in marrying her. She closed her eyes at the thought—briefly, but for a beat longer than a blink, in case she started crying at her desk. Again. She had managed not to for a whole month now; it was a record she didn’t want to break.
Especially not now that things might finally be looking up again.
Despite Effie’s initial misgivings, her best friend’s obvious and utter delight had been enough to sell Effie on the idea of a wedding abroad eventually. Over the months, she’d come to see the wedding as the least important part of the holiday anyway—not that she’d let that on to Lizzie, of course.
The rest of the week Effie intended to spend nursing her poor battered soul and steam-rollered self-esteem on a sun lounger, trying to discover who she might be able to become when she arrived home again—hopefully less lonely—and unlocked the door to her flat, where nothing would have moved while she was away and nobody would be waiting for her.
Six months to the day, it’d be, by the time her plane touched back down at Heathrow. Almost half a year of desolate pain, bleak, pointless anger, and regrets. This Provençal break was going to be a coda, she’d decided: after it, she would have turned a corner.
No more craziness. No more blurriness. No more drinking the pain away as evening turned to night and night to dawn, then waking up a few hours later with a sense that the sky was falling in.
Already, these past few weeks, Effie had begun to feel less doom-laden. Upbeat even. Excited. She had hoped the wedding might have been the moment to share with her friends the reason why.
Effie knew she was reacting selfishly. As she read the email over again and took in the quiet, dignified hurt contained in its wording, her own indignation and disappointment lessened in the face of Lizzie’s anguish.
Effie had suspected that her best friend of a decade was having some niggles about marrying the man she’d been with for the past eighteen months. Quiet, sensible Dan had been a port in a storm after Lizzie’s last long-term boyfriend, who had been yacht-mad and permanently on some kind of far-flung gap year, with whom she had literally broken up while at sea. But what if, Effie had worried, Dan was too quiet, too sensible?
Effie had wondered if her friend was trying to breeze through her doubts by organizing the wedding at breakneck speed and with her usual enthusiasm, but she also knew that Lizzie’s gusto could be a tiresome force at times. Hadn’t Effie gladly borne the brunt of it for years? The elaborate homemade brunches, the “adventure” holidays Lizzie insisted her two best friends go on, the theater trips, the countless book clubs she’d tried to corral them into—Effie loved Lizzie’s organizational streak, but thank goodness she didn’t have to live with it anymore.
Lizzie had told her that Dan had said they didn’t really need a big wedding unless it was what she wanted.
But she hadn’t let on that it was serious enough of an issue to bring things to a head. Effie supposed that once you were engaged, had agreed to be on the same team, you were no longer able to kvetch to your friends about your partner’s shortcomings—that sort of whinging suddenly became disloyal once you’d both plighted your troth. No, bitching and gossiping were for single people and those who found themselves in the wrong relationships. Effie knew that feeling all too well.
She reached down to her handbag where it sat by her feet, nestled among the wheels of her desk chair, and pulled out her phone.
“Just saw your email. That was brave—are you okay? Sending love, call me when you’re ready.”Anna
Anna opened the email on her phone before her first court session of the day and felt her stomach slide into her black leather Chelsea boots as she read it. The disappointment inside her weighed heavier even than the trolley full of legal briefs she had been wheeling around behind her for the best part of ten years.
A week of respite gone!
Surely the two of them could work it out. As the words on the screen traveled from her retina to her brain, Anna could hardly believe that Lizzie and Dan hadn’t simply decided to go through with the wedding next week and then sort out whatever the problem was afterward, like normal people do. Like all Anna’s celebrity clients certainly did—although whether hiring a £900-per-hour divorce lawyer within the first year of wedded bliss counted as “sorting out” was up for debate, she supposed.
Anna sighed and chewed her lip. Of all the friends to have! Trust hers to be of the honest minority who would rather the mortification of a wedding canceled, and the bone-grinding awkwardness of jilting the guests, in the face of a forever after with the wrong person. Anna had to admire the girl she had met in her first week at university for that much, she admitted to herself as she huffed her wheelie of straining foolscap folders up yet another flight of stone steps.
Anna’s heart was a limp balloon. Not, it had to be said, at the prospect of Lizzie’s own upset—although that was the second text message the frazzled-looking barrister would send in the wake of this bombshell—but at the idea of relinquishing the glorious week in the south of France that she and her husband had planned minutely, and looked forward to accordingly, around the fact that their three-year-old, Sonny, would be unable to accompany them.
No, the first text message Anna sent was to the only other person in the world who would be as devastated at the collapse of Lizzie and Dan’s relationship—and its subsequent effect on their holiday plans—as she was: Steve, Sonny’s father.
“Wedding’s off,” she texted her husband, thumbs flitting around the screen faster than she could have voiced her disappointment but almost as forcefully. “Beyond gutted. Reckon your mum can still take Son that week anyway?”
It wasn’t that she wanted to spend less time with her child. Anna adored the solid, knee-high mass of flesh and curls that bounced around their house like a pinball, pepped up on blueberries and story books and the never-ending buzz of discovering things for the first time.