Two invitations arrived a month before the wedding, the envelopes easily identifiable by the embossed bells and horseshoes in one corner and Cynthia's spidery script. One envelope was addressed to Rachel, with
‘The invitations,’ Rachel said, setting them in front of her mother.
Amy placed her looking-glass face-down on the table and ripped open the envelope. She scanned the silver-edged card with its elaborate cupid design and declared, as she lifted her cup, that Cynthia was a demon for overplaying things.
Rachel poured tea into a saucer for Rex, then filled her own cup and sat opposite her mother. ‘Will you go?’ she asked, attentively watching Rex in case he dribbled tea on the carpet.
‘Certainly. I wouldn't miss it for the world. I get quite sentimental at weddings.’
Retrieving the saucer, Rachel assigned it to the sink. ‘Were you emotional at your own wedding?’ It was a topic that at one time she would not have risked pursuing, but things were different now.
Amy propped the card on the teapot. ‘I'll have you know I was the original dewy-eyed bride. I radiated passion throughout the proceedings.’
Judging by her sudden pensiveness, Amy had bridged twenty years and was reliving that distant ceremony. Curiously, as she returned to the table, Rachel eyed her mother, and puzzled over what it was that caused the marriage to go so dreadfully wrong.
A winsome smile frolicked around Amy's mouth. ‘I remember being upset because the priest didn't seem to know which finger the ring went on. I hadn't ever witnessed the ritual of holding it over each finger and chanting. I kept shoving the ring-finger at him, hoping to solve his problem.’ Amy absently fiddled with a curl, unfurling it, then letting it spring back. ‘The honeymoon was the funniest. I was so naive I hid my underwear under the mattress. I believed it was taboo to let your father see it, yet parading in the nuddy didn't affect me in the slightest.’
Such an intimate disclosure made Rachel feel quite shy. Up to now, it hadn't crossed her mind that parents got fancies, too. Naturally, she knew they had sex, but the subject had never been discussed and the revelation came as quite a shock. Fancy her mother behaving like that. The idea of her cavorting naked in the hotel bedroom produced a giggle that Rachel tried hard to quell, until Amy laughingly joined in. Cynthia won't have such farcical ideas,’ she said, picking up the mirror and teasing her curls with a tail comb. ‘Young people nowadays are substantially more liberated.’
‘Will you invest in a new outfit?’
‘I might, if I can afford it. I'm a bit pushed now that I'm not working Saturdays.’
‘He won't. I have to pay for personal apparel. It's his funny way of trying to get me to pack in my job. I won't, though. I need my independence.’
'There's no surely about it, Rachel. The longer I work, the less he forks out.’
This was the second shock and much more serious than the first. Rachel began to wonder how she could totally have misread the home situation. Her impression of her father was that he was a generous man, a man who put his family before everything. He had been open-handed whenever she asked a favour, denying her only occasionally. It put a different light on the quandary she had thought could easily be solved; with a present to buy, she had intended to beg a sub or obtain her father's authorisation temporarily to pay less rent. Maybe she should reassess the situation.
With her spirits plummeting, Rachel went to her bedroom to get ready for work. As she dressed in the new pleated skirt and fluffy blue sweater, she wondered how
She studied herself in the mirror, captivated with her new trim figure yet cursing the predicament which occurred through dieting: the fundamental necessity to replenish her wardrobe with more fitting clothes that had put such a strain on her resources. She slid her feet into the blue shoes she’d bought to match the sweater and acknowledged that the purchase had not been vital, considering her foot size was the same, but whatever would her colleagues think if she wore a new outfit with worn-out shoes. The expense was worth it, she decided, and resolved to approach
The music from the juke box was so powerful it made Rachel's head ache and she wished with all her heart that
She felt out of place. The strappy, high heeled black sandals, sequined black jumper with scooped neckline, and the sleek black skirt that adhered like cling film to her hips, had seemed superbly seductive when she left the house (a ploy to charm Gary into agreeing to her request), but now, with the supercilious grins the men were bestowing, she felt distinctly cheap.
They sat at the crowded bar on towering stools in an atmosphere dense with smoke. Next to Rachel, a greasy-haired young man was munching his girl friend's spotty face, precariously tilting his stool to get at her. His earrings were particularly stylish; a shame his jeans were so frayed.
Unashamedly, Rachel watched him stab his tongue into the girl's mouth and noticed how her eyes closed in rapture when he caressed her bare midriff. Albeit a performance in which Rachel wouldn't have minded the starring role she wasn't jealous, though she did wish the couple could have waited until they got to bed or wherever it was they got to grips with each other.
With a slight flutter of guilt, she helped herself to a handful of salted peanuts, thinking it was about time she and
‘Whatever you want,’ he yelled. ‘I'm easy.’
The relief was comparable to waking from a bad dream and finding it wasn’t real. ‘I'll choose it,’ she hollered, and cringed when an even rowdier pop-song bellowed forth. It was too much. She grabbed her coat. ‘For pity's sake, let's get out of here. My head's splitting.’ Without more ado, she elbowed her way through the crowd to the exit.
The biting wind was like a sedative after the pollution and clamour in the public house. Rachel leaned against a lamppost, gulping cold air, praying it would sweep the smoke from her hair and the music from her head.
Pulling on her coat, Rachel plunged her hands into the deep pockets. ‘Sorry. I just had to get out. The row was gruelling.’
She tottered beside him, endeavouring to keep up, pledging that in future she would wear more practical shoes. ‘You didn't answer my question?’ she gasped.
There was a touch of long-suffering about his response that convinced Rachel she was labouring the issue about buying the present. Had he replied? She couldn't remember. With her head thumping so cruelly, she had lost sight of where they got to in their conversation. ‘About the wedding present …’
‘I said yes, didn't I? And you said you would see to it.’
Rachel gave him a sheepish grin and raised her hand to rub the tension from her neck.
He's right, conceded Rachel, who had been working overtime for weeks helping Eric update his workload. He'd had them tidying files and practically scrubbing the cupboards in readiness for the man who would succeed him, as well as dictating millions of farewell letters. Cynthia's wedding arrangements had to be slotted into tea and lunch-breaks. It was small wonder she felt as limp as a soggy rag. Even her period was erratic, plaguing her every fortnight, making her irritable and drained of stamina.
‘You must take more care of yourself,’
‘I do,’ Rachel wailed, feeling thoroughly miserable.
Rachel stumbled, forcing
Rachel stole up the entry and entered the gate, damning the squeaky hinge that her father frequently promised to attend to. For a man so meticulous with everything else, it was strange him neglecting such a paltry task.
The house was in darkness when she let herself in, hushing Rex who lay against the door, solid as the Gibraltar Rock, giving her barely enough space to squeeze through. In normal circumstances she preferred someone to be there when she got in but tonight she required solitude, needing to celebrate her new status in glorious isolation.
Flicking on the light, she greeted Rex by taking his head in her hands and kissing him between the ears. ‘I've done it, Rexie,’ she whispered. ‘I'm actually going to get married.’
Rex licked her cheeks several times before wrenching free and prancing round her legs in exultant approval.
‘Get on with you,’ she laughed. ‘You don't know what marriage means.’
Rex halted, one ear cocked, his tongue trailing from the side of his jaw. He offered a paw and inclined his head. Rachel giggled at his quizzical expression. ‘You want to know too much, Rexie, that's your trouble.’
She went into the hall to hang up her coat, pausing by the staircase to listen for voices; when no sounds emanated from the upper floor she retreated to the kitchen to make a mug of drinking chocolate. Her psyche was so alert that sleep was out of the question. She plugged in the radio, moderating the volume before tuning in to a programme of gentle night music, then sat in Toby's chair by the fireplace. She clasped the hot mug in both hands, for the dying embers rendered inadequate warmth.
All her life she had imagined a proposal would be an impressive affair, romantically spoken on bended knee, with hand on heart.
It really did, Cynthia.
Remembering the kiss that had sealed her future, Rachel experienced a delirious, tingling sensation and she abandoned her mug in order to hug Rex and share her unqualified happiness. The dog yawned and imploringly surveyed the door. ‘Okay,’ she said. ‘I can take a hint.’
Ten minutes later they were upstairs and Rex was settled in his bed, legs pointing heavenwards and snoring as though he had been there for hours. Peeling off the black garments, Rachel folded them carefully and draped them on the wicker blanket chest. Contrary to the mid-evening qualms, in view of the marvellous consequence wearing black had been a highly successful venture.
Rachel tossed and twisted, growing warmer by the minute. With an abundance of things to mull over, as well as deciding on the least shocking method of imparting the news to her parents, sleep, when it eventually came, had been intermittent. Outside, the wind carried the
I've got something to tell you.
Do you mind, Mum?
And where were you, Mum, until this morning?
Her mother's furtive entrance had led Rachel to believe they were being burgled, until she heard the casting off of shoes at the foot of stairs, followed by a stealthy climb and tiptoed passage to her room. Rachel had lain stiff as a board awaiting an explosion from her father but one did not arise. Ultimately she’d drifted off to sleep.
There was such pandemonium in the street now: bottles were rattling on the milk float, a window banged to and fro, paper boys slammed gates and shouted abuse at each other. Leaving her tangled bed, Rachel peered out of the window; all she saw was a skinny dog nosing discarded chip papers. The thing Rachel deplored most about late night revellers was the mess they left behind. Relinquishing the curtain, she climbed on the bed and reclined against the pillows to resume her deliberations.
I’m contemplating marriage to Gary, Mother.
What would be your reaction, Ma, if I told you...?
Mum, would you be frightfully cross if I said...?
Unable to lie there any longer struggling to be word creative, Rachel went downstairs to let Rex out for a pee and feed him cornflakes and toast. She told him, as she plonked the earthenware dish marked DOG by his front paws, that he was a very fortunate animal. ‘There's a dog out there looks as if he hasn't eaten for ages,’ she said, sucking a blob of butter off her forefinger. ‘But I don't expect you care one iota.’
Rex devoured the cornflakes as if rationing was imminent, doubtless fearing the anonymous dog would come in and commandeer his breakfast. He was only satisfied when he had given the dish one final lick, then he gave Rachel a contented smirk.
‘You're up early, sweetheart.’
Rachel had been so absorbed she hadn’t heard the door open. ‘Morning, Dad,’ she said, hugging him and slapping a kiss on his cheek.
‘Couldn't you sleep?’
‘I had things on my mind.’
Can I have permission...?
Toby persisted. ‘What things?’
‘I was thinking of
Toby frowned, suspiciously. ‘What's he done?’
‘Nothing, Dad. I love him, that's all.’
‘Besotted, are you?’
Rachel coloured. ‘Yes,’ she admitted, tightening the belt of her gown. She could hear her mother trundling down the stairs and tried to calculate from her steps what mood she was in, waiting with tormented breath for the grim bombardment of directives that was bound to come.
I'd appreciate your consent to get married, Mother.
The door burst open and Amy breezed in. ‘Hello, folks,’ she chirped, flopping on the seat adjacent to Toby. ‘Get me a cuppa, Rachel, there's an angel.’
Rachel was too dumbfounded to move.
Toby touched the cuff of Amy's robe, designed in shiny, iridescent material, its reveres embroidered with peacocks. ‘Very nice, my dear. Is it new?’
Amy affirmed that it was. Her skin glowed and there was a lively twinkle in her eye. Rachel peeped at her father to see if he had anything to do with the newly acquired radiance, but he was occupied pouring tea into three cups, altogether unperturbed.
'Thank you, darling,’ said Amy.
Would the good humour exist after the announcement, wondered Rachel as she slurped her tea and deposited the cup in its saucer. ‘I'm glad you're both here,’ she said, courageously.
Two pairs of eyes bored into her, almost driving her to forsake the speech and dash from the room. Inhaling deeply, she straightened her spine and flexed her shoulder-blades.
The words gushed out of her mouth. ‘Gary-asked-me-to-marry him,’ she cried in joyous haste.
The ensuing flurry was totally unexpected. Amy propelled herself from the table and embraced her daughter, squealing with jubilation. Toby, too, was cock-a-hoop, punching the air and shouting, ‘Yes, yes.’
Rachel gawked at them, amazed and delighted. ‘Goodness,’ she said, seeking to maintain her equilibrium, ‘Anyone would think I'd won a major competition.’
Calming a little, Amy asked, ‘Did you accept, Rachel?’
‘Oh, Toby!’ Misty-eyed, Amy held out her arms to her husband. ‘Fancy, our girl is to wed that delectable young man.’
Toby hugged his two women. ‘Then we'll have a son,’ he replied, ‘Our family will be complete.’
‘Indeed!’ uttered Amy in a hushed voice.
Cynthia's hand crawled blindly towards the ashtray, leaving random flaky mounds of ash on the blotter. Oblivious to Rachel's presence, she turned a page of her library book and pointlessly tapped the cigarette on the ashtray's metal rim.
During her journey to work Rachel had planned to act nonchalantly, as if gaining a fiancé was an everyday occurrence. She reckoned coffee-break would be the best time to tell Cynthia, then Eric couldn't complain about their chattering. Cynthia would be flabbergasted when she learned how
Cynthia lowered her book to stub out her cigarette, noticing Rachel for the first time. ‘What're you standing there for?’ she grumbled, grumpily.
‘It's draughty with the door open.’
What can the matter be?
Rachel let the door slam behind her and scuttled over to Cynthia's desk. ‘I'm getting married,’ she proclaimed.
‘You said that months ago,’ Cynthia retorted, reverting to her book.
Rachel gaped. Where was the stupefaction, the fever of excitement? Her disappointment showed as she gloomily dumped her bag on her desk.
Eric's arrival produced a cursory welcome from Rachel, and compelled Cynthia to swiftly drop the book in an open drawer.
Feeling peeved, Rachel muttered, ‘Serves you right.’
‘What was that?’ queried Eric, consigning his briefcase to the floor and removing his brown trilby.
Eric's brow furrowed as he gazed questioningly at Rachel, observing her cheerless condition. ‘It didn't sound like nothing to me.’
Rachel regarded her boss. Should she tell him? He would be pleased and it would show Cynthia that somebody cared. However, she couldn’t discharge her misery and the statement emanated like a bulletin about an impending bereavement.
Cynthia shot out of her chair, vociferously claiming that she thought Rachel was kidding.
Eric angled round to peck Rachel's cheek. ‘My dear girl,’ he said, ‘What wonderful tidings.’
Embarrassed and happy at the same time, Cynthia reached for Rachel's hand. ‘Oh, Rach. I’m sorry. I thought you were on one of your imaginary trips.’
Without warning, Eric seized Rachel and crushed her to him, pressing her head against the lapel of his navy suit which reeked of cheap scent. ‘Congratulations, dear girl,’ he said huskily, before picking up his briefcase and proceeding to his office.
During the time they had worked together, Rachel had remained silent about Eric's occasional outbursts of affection and she didn’t want to discuss it now. Rather than have Cynthia mention the unfortunate demonstration, Rachel promptly sought to divert her overt interest. To stifle possible comment, she burst out with, ‘Well, Cynthia Mates, don't you want to know the whole story?’
The two girls erupted in a hubbub of questions and answers with felicitations and hugs thrown in by a joyful Cynthia. ‘We could have a double wedding,’ she said, adopting the dreamy demeanour that went with wedding talk.
‘Don't be daft,’ scoffed Rachel. ‘I've only been engaged one night. Any case, Mum wouldn't allow it, not if it deflected the glory from her.’
‘Suppose not. But it would have been beautiful, us attired in floor-sweeping frocks and…’
‘…you gliding down the aisle in stilettos and me padding down in flats.’ With her toes covered in blisters, Rachel could not envisage wearing lofty heels or straps ever again. ‘Honestly, Cynth, I'd spoil your day. Anyway, who'd you get to be bridesmaid if I suddenly switched to being a bride?’
Rachel was thankful when Eric's shouted appeal that she take in her notepad brought a rapid cessation to Cynthia's improbable vision. She wanted to enjoy her betrothal, not indulge in idiotic fantasy. Sorting out her sharpest pencils and a new pad, she stood up, adjusted her skirt, and mentally preparing herself for the onslaught of dictation.
Eric smiled as she entered. ‘If you can bear to slog, that is.’
‘Now then, Mr H. Don't be facetious. If I'm busy the time will fly and I can get home to my
As if to accommodate her, Eric dictated twice the amount he usually did, with some private stuff as well. For once Rachel scribbled enthusiastically, albeit on autopilot. Whenever Eric paused, her head was infiltrated by flashes of sapphires, diamonds, rubies and pearls.
'That's the lot,’ Eric said, handing the papers to her. ‘That should keep you going.’
Rachel removed some paperclips from a glass jar and began clipping documents together.
‘Have you earmarked a date?’
‘Not yet, but I don't relish a prolonged engagement.’ She spread out the fingers of her left hand, still too stubby for her liking. ‘I'm trying to decide on the ring. I don't suppose diamonds will suit me.’
'They suit everybody, dear girl. My wife thought the same when we were affianced. She soon changed her opinion when she sampled a solitaire.’
That settles it, Rachel thought. She would have sapphires and plenty of them.
Rachel toiled like an ant for the rest of the morning, which was as well since her boss appeared after lunch with a bottle of champagne. ‘To be drunk forthwith,’ he said jovially.
The removal of the cork delivered a bang so loud it induced James Provost to pop in. Instead of condemning the drinking of alcohol on factory premises, he sat on the edge of Cynthia's desk, his steel rimmed spectacles in his hand, waiting for Eric to decant the bubbly into four chipped beakers. On discovering the reason for the occasion, Mr Provost proposed a toast: ‘To the two prettiest brides-to-be in the Despatch Department.’
While the two men hoisted their mugs, Cynthia winked at Rachel, who obscured her lower face to suppress her mirth. Silly old codger, didn’t he know they were the only females there.