Curious how much pleasure she took from saying, ‘My daughter . . . actually my stepdaughter . . . is getting married.’ It ran against the grain of her own experience but her pleasure was not to be underestimated . . . that visceral need to see a child settled.
She had got used to answering questions such as ‘What sort of wedding?’ and ‘Do you like him?’ (To the latter she would reply, ‘Yes, I do.’)
Did she like Andrew? The little she knew of him, yes. She could list the pluses: affable, well mannered, liked a joke, normal. He was also – she was assured on all sides – brilliant at his banking job, and unusual because he was a man who took the long view. These were all excellent attributes to offer up in conversational exchanges.
As for the wedding, Eve had always been the sort of person who would want a traditional one. Everything about it would be bound to appeal to her love of beauty and social drama ‒ the dress, the flowers, the ancient vows in church, the staging of dinner, and the dancing.
There were many such conversations. With the friends and neighbours who said, Of course you’ll be doing this, that or the other. Or, That is the convention, you know. There were the sly, covert appeals for an invitation: ‘I know we’re not strictly connected but we’d love to be there.’ And all the delicious, jokey chats with the girls.
‘You’re pleased, then?’ Lara’s friends would say, with varying expressions – some were envious at her good fortune in having a child settled.
Yet at night, in the half-wakings and drowsings, Lara sank through what seemed to her the layers in her mind . . . through the bitter-sweet, the dark, the half-forgotten and half-remembered. There, in her deepest imaginings, a bride glimmered. Sacrificial. Luminous.
When, on those white and violet nights, she finally fell asleep, it was to find herself in her own wedding dress, running towards a church with a long train hooked over one arm, a torn veil streaming out behind her.
Why was she was running? She never understood. Only that when she awoke from the exhausting, debilitating dream, her heart seemed to be shuddering with grief and longing. For the dead? For the past? For the shadowy image of the girl she no longer was?
One cold autumn evening Lara inserted Eve’s engagement announcement in the bottom right-hand corner of the photo collage that hung in the kitchen. The photos reflected the two ages of the family: pre-divorce and post-divorce. Her favourite was one of Jasmine, Eve and baby Maudie in the pushchair, with herself and Bill standing behind. The girls were grubby – ‘I’m not in the mood for washing,’ Eve had informed them. Lara liked this photograph in particular because it showed them real, solid, breathing . . . and happy.
Maudie’s best friend was called Tess. Over the years Vicky, her mother, and Lara had become a team, welded together by school runs, sleepovers and dramas. (The earpiercing drama had been a major one – ‘If you don’t let me, Mum, I’ll get my tongue done too.’ )
‘How do you survive?’ Vicky asked occasionally.
Usually Lara replied, ‘I just do.’ But survival had been more cunning than the lightly tossed-out reply suggested. Compared to the world’s great wrongs, her position had not been dire, but it had taken all her energy to deal with it. She had learned to tackle each day, each minute even, with patience and no flights of imagination whatsoever.
The nights were different, of course.
‘It’s as if you’re punishing yourself,’ said Vicky.
‘As it happens, I did go for a manicure,’ said Lara. ‘With a sadist.’
‘Avoiding the issue,’ said Vicky.
Lara stepped back, knocking a poinsettia with her elbow. It fell to the floor, the pot broke and earth scattered. Never mind. The floor needed a wipe and she had only ever tolerated the poinsettia, a present from a patient who ran a garden nursery. Its crimson foliage was so wilfully cheery.
‘If you hate it, throw it out,’ Jasmine urged her.
‘I can’t do that,’ she said. ‘I can’t kill it.’
Now stalk and roots lay in a welter of the dry potting compost favoured by nurseries – the stuff that tried to look like proper soil but didn’t. She swept up the mess, plus a posse of dead flies that had met their fate behind the pot, and dumped it outside in the garden – if you could dignify such a scrubby, neglected patch with that name.
The phone went and she picked it up. ‘Bill.’
Her ex-husband didn’t often phone. Fifteen years on from the divorce, their relationship wasn’t easy but both he and she had learned to accommodate the fact that they had failed. What had happened had been, so to speak, placed inside a cabinet. The door had been shut and locked, thus hiding the grief and poison. But, it had got better. Of course it had.
‘I thought you should know . . .’ He paused, and her stomach did a small flip. He began again: ‘How do I put this, Lara? I’m getting married too.’
Her eyes snapped shut – and the door to the cabinet swung open. ‘I suppose I should be surprised.’
‘I suppose.’ Bill sounded put out.
‘Only – and I’m quoting – because you’re a useless husband.’
‘Correction. I said I was your useless husband.’
He had always made her laugh, and she did so now. ‘Oh, Bill.’
The tension dissipated a little.
On their respective phones, each waited for the other to resume.
Bill went first: ‘I wanted to say . . . I wanted to say . . . This sounds ridiculous, but I hope this is all right . . .’
She caught her breath. She wasn’t going to go back over that now. She had been Bill’s wife. Then she wasn’t. End of story. ‘You’ll be happy,’ she said. ‘I know you will.’
(‘Do you like your husband’s new wife?’ How would she reply to that one?)
‘Why now, after all this time? You’ve been with Sarah ten years.’
‘Things change. I’ve changed.’ He added, unnecessarily, ‘And so have you.’
She could still spot his evasions. A thought occurred to her: ‘I take it you’ll be getting married after Evie’s wedding.’
‘Possibly before.’ He sounded cautious. ‘There are reasons.’
‘Oh? Obviously . . .’ She was tempted to say, Obviously Sarah can’t be pregnant . . . but it lacked grace. ‘Won’t you be taking some of the spotlight off Evie?’
‘I think she might feel a bit put out.’
‘It’s a wedding, not a coronation,’ he said.
‘But you know what store she sets by everything being perfect, and perfectly planned.’
‘Too much fuss?’
‘Only if you’re a flinty killjoy. Anyway, you don’t believe that.’
‘Since I’m footing a large part of the bill, I might.’ He cleared his throat. ‘But you don’t honestly think I’d do anything to overshadow Eve’s wedding? Do you?’
‘No.’ Lara changed tack. ‘Have you told the daughters yet?’
‘Our girls?’ The idea appeared to startle him. ‘No, just you.’
She flashed back to the time when their instinctive response had been to turn to each other first.Tell me, tell me everything. ‘That was nice, Bill, but shouldn’t you?’
‘I wanted to discuss a few things.’
That was unexpected. ‘The girls . . .’ She groped for the appropriate words. ‘The girls will be . . .’ She wasn’t sure if ‘pleased’ would do. ‘The girls will be intrigued and . . . happy.’
So many dealings with Bill – tender, ecstatic, estranged, dark . . . and bitter. From the moment she had clapped eyes on him in the Cornish café and the flare had gone up in her heart (her life had changed, just like that), to the naked moment when, pregnant with Louis, she had undressed and reached for her nightdress, only to sense Bill’s gaze raking her body, and experienced a chill at what she had done.
Someone – Maudie? herself? – had left the sugar jar on the sideboard with a trail of silvery grains. The weekend’s newspapers still colonized the table and a couple of supermarket coupons for reduced-price coffee and cereal had fallen to the floor by the sink. Phone tucked under her chin, Lara retrieved them. Tenpence off instant coffee. An introductory offer for a bathroom cleaner. She totted up the savings they represented.
‘Don’t be fooled, Lara,’ Jasmine might say. ‘What you save here in the supermarket is grabbed from you there.’
‘I like the illusion of saving.’
‘That’s why my business is growing.’
She smoothed them out on the table.
‘Lara, will you come to the wedding?’
‘No.’ The word plummeted from her lips but she managed the gracious rider. ‘Thank you.’
‘Pity. I’d like you there.’ He paused. ‘I really would.’
She forced herself not to say, And I would have liked you there while I brought your daughters up. To say, or to imply, any such thing would be unfair.
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