One Day, Page 27David Nicholls
It was mid-afternoon before Emma found herself, late and exhausted, at the security gates of the stately home, wondering if they would let her in. A vast estate in Somerset, shrewd investors had turned Morton Manor Park into a sort of all-in-one marriage compound, complete with its own chapel, banqueting hall, a privet maze, a spa, a selection of guest bedrooms with walk-through showers, all surrounded by a high wall topped with razor wire: a wedding camp. With follies and grottoes, ha-has and gazebos, a castle and a bouncy castle it was an upmarket marital Disneyland, available for whole weekends at breathtaking expense. It seemed an unusual venue for the wedding of a former member of the Socialist Workers’ Party, and Emma drove along the sweeping gravel drive, bemused and disconcerted by it all.
In sight of the chapel, a man dressed in the powdered wig and frock coat of a footman lunged in front of her, waving her down with frilly cuffs and leaning in at the window.
‘Is there a problem?’ she asked. She wanted to say ‘officer’.
‘I need the keys, ma’am.’
‘To park the car.’
‘Oh God, really?’ she said, embarrassed by the moss growing round the window seals, the mulch of disintegrated A to Zs and empty plastic bottles that littered the floor. ‘Okay, well, the doors don’t lock, you’ve got to use this screwdriver to hold it closed and there’s no hand brake, so park it on the level or edged up against a tree or just leave it in gear, alright?’ The footman took the keys between his finger and thumb as if he’d been handed a dead mouse.
She had been driving barefoot and now found that she had to stamp her swollen feet into her shoes, like an ugly stepsister. The ceremony had already started. From the chapel she could hear ‘The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’ played by four, possibly five, gloved hands. She hobbled across the gravel towards the chapel, her arms raised to evaporate some of the perspiration, like a child pretending to be a plane, then with one last tug on the hem of her dress she slid discreetly through the large oak door and stood at the back of the packed congregation. An acapella group was performing now, clicking their fingers maniacally, singing ‘I’m into Something Good’ as the happy couple grinned toothily at each other, wet-eyed. This was Emma’s first sighting of the groom: a rugby player type, handsome in pale grey morning suit and razor burn, he moved his big face at Tilly, working though different variations on ‘my happiest moment’. Unusually, Emma noted, the bride had opted for a Marie-Antoinette theme – pink silk and lace, a hooped skirt, hair piled high, a beauty spot – causing Emma to wonder if Tilly’s degree in History and French had perhaps fallen short of its mark. She looked very happy though, and he looked very happy, and the whole congregation looked very, very happy.
Song followed sketch followed song until the wedding began to resemble a Royal Variety Performance, and Dexter found his mind beginning to drift. Tilly’s ruddy-cheeked niece was reading a sonnet now, something about the marriage of two minds not admitting impediment, whatever the hell that meant. He tried hard to concentrate on the poem’s line of argument and to apply its romantic sentiment to his own feelings for Sylvie, then turned his attention back to how many of the congregation he had slept with. Not in a gloating way, not entirely, but with a sort of nostalgia. ‘Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks . . .’ read the bride’s niece, as Dexter made it five. Five ex-lovers in one small chapel. Was this some kind of record? Should there be extra points for the bride? No sign of Emma Morley yet. With Emma, five-and-a-half.
From the back of the church Emma watched Dexter counting off on his fingers, and wondered what he was doing. He wore a black suit with a skinny black tie; like all the boys these days, trying to look like a gangster. In profile, there was the beginning of a slight sagging under his jaw, but he still looked handsome. Stupidly handsome actually, and far less pasty and bloated than before he had met Sylvie. Since their falling out Emma had seen him three times, always at weddings. Each time he had thrown his arms around her and kissed her as if nothing had changed, and said ‘we must talk, we must talk’, but it had never happened, not really. He had always been with Sylvie, the pair of them busy looking beautiful. There she was now, a proprietary hand on his knee, her head and neck like some long-stemmed flower, craning to take it all in.
The vows now. Emma glanced across in time to see Sylvie reach for Dexter’s hand and squeeze the five fingers as if in solidarity with the happy couple. She whispered in his ear, and Dexter looked up at Sylvie, smiling broadly and a little dopily, so Emma thought. He mouthed something back, and though not a practiced lip-reader Emma thought that there was a good chance it was ‘I love you too.’ Self-consciously, he glanced around and caught Emma’s eye, grinning as if he’d been caught doing something he shouldn’t.
The cabaret ended. There was just time for an uncertain rendition of ‘All You Need is Love,’ the congregation struggling to sing along in 7/4, before the guests followed the happy couple outside and the reunion began in earnest. Through the crowd of people, hugging, whooping and shaking hands, Dexter and Emma sought each other out and suddenly there they were.
‘Well,’ he said.
‘Don’t I know you?’
‘Your face certainly rings a bell.’
‘Yours too. You look different though.’
‘Yes, I’m the only woman here who’s drenched in sweat,’ said Emma, plucking at the fabric beneath her arms.
‘You mean “perspiration”.’
‘Actually, no, this is sweat. I look like I’ve been dragged from a lake. Natural silk my eye!’
‘Sort of an oriental theme, isn’t it?’
‘I call it my Fall of Saigon look. Chinese technically. Of course the trouble with one of these dresses is forty minutes later you want another one!’ she said, and had that feeling, halfway through the sentence that she would have been better off not starting it. Did she imagine it, or did he roll his eyes a little? ‘Sorry.’
‘That’s okay. I really like the dress. In fact me love it long time.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘There you go; now we’re quits.’
‘What I meant was that you look good.’ He was peering at the top of her head now. ‘Is that a . . . ?’
‘Is that what they call a Rachel?’
‘Don’t push your luck, Dex,’ she said, immediately scrubbing at her hair with her fingertips. She glanced across to where Tilly and her brand new husband were posing for photographs, Tilly fluttering a fan coquettishly in front of her face. ‘Unfortunately I didn’t realise there was a French Revolutionary theme.’
‘The Marie-Antoinette thing?’ said Dexter. ‘Well at least we know there’ll be cake.’
‘Apparently she’s travelling to the reception in a tumbril.’
‘What’s a tumbril?’
They looked at each other. ‘You haven’t changed, have you?’ she said.
Dexter kicked at the gravel. ‘Well I have. A bit.’
‘That sounds intriguing.’
‘I’ll tell you later. Look—’
Tilly was standing on the running board of the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost that would take them the hundred yards to the reception, the bouquet held low in both hands, ready to be tossed like a caber.
‘Want to go and try your chances, Em?’
‘Can’t catch,’ she said, placing her hands behind her back just as the bouquet was lobbed into the crowd and caught by a frail and elderly aunt, which seemed to anger the crowd somehow, as if someone’s last chance for future happiness had been squandered. Emma nodded towards the embarrassed aunt, the bouquet dangling forlornly from her hand. ‘There’s me in forty years’ time,’ said Emma.
‘Really? Forty?’ said Dexter, and Emma pressed her heel down on his toe. Over her shoulder he could see Sylvie nearby, looking round for him. ‘Better go. Sylvie doesn’t really know anyone. I’m on strict orders never to leave her side. Come and say hi, will you?’
better go and talk to the happy bride.’
‘Ask her about that deposit she owes you.’
‘D’you think? Today?’
‘See you later. Maybe we’ll be sitting next to each other at the reception.’ He held up crossed fingers, and she crossed her fingers back.
The overcast morning had settled into a beautiful afternoon, high clouds rolling across the huge blue sky as the guests followed the Silver Ghost in procession to the Great Lawn for champagne and canapés. There, with a great whoop, Tilly finally saw Emma, and they hugged each other as best they could across the bride’s vast hooped skirt.
‘I’m so glad you could make it, Em!’
‘Me too, Tilly. You look extraordinary.’
Tilly fluttered her fan. ‘You don’t think it’s too much?’
‘Not at all. You look stunning,’ and her eye drifted once more to the beauty spot that made it look as if a fly had settled on her lip. ‘The service was lovely too.’
‘Awwww, was it?’ This was an old trait of Tilly’s to precede each sentence with a sympathetic ‘aw’, as if Emma were a kitten who had hurt her little paw. ‘Did you cry?’
‘Like an orphan . . .’
‘Awww! I’m so, so glad you could make it.’ Regally she tapped Emma’s shoulder with her fan. ‘And I can’t wait to meet your boyfriend.’
‘Well me too, but unfortunately I don’t have one.’
‘Awww, don’t you?’
‘Nope, not for some time now.’
‘Really? Are you sure?’
‘I think I’d notice, Tilly.’
‘Awww! I’m sorry. Well get one! QUICK!!!! No seriously, boyfriends are great! Husbands are better! We must find you one!’ she commanded. ‘Tonight! We’ll fix you up!’ and Emma felt her head being verbally patted. ‘Awwwww. So! Have you seen Dexter yet?’
‘Have you met his girlfriend? With the hairy forehead? Isn’t she beautiful? Just like Audrey Hepburn. Or is it Katharine? I can never remember the difference.’
‘Audrey. She’s definitely an Audrey.’
The champagne flowed on and a sense of nostalgia spread across the Great Lawn as old friends met and conversation turned into how much people earned now, how much weight they had gained.
‘Sandwiches. That’s the future,’ said Callum O’Neill, who was both earning and weighing a great deal more these days. ‘High-quality, ethically-minded convenience food, that’s where it’s at my friend. Food is the new rock and roll!’
‘I thought that comedy was the new rock and roll.’
‘It was, then it was rock and roll, now it’s food. Keep up, Dex!’ Dexter’s old flatmate had transformed almost beyond recognition in the last few years. Prosperous, large and dynamic, he had moved on from refurbished computers, selling the business at a vast profit to start up the ‘Natural Stuff’ sandwich chain. Now, with his trim little goatee and close-cropped hair, he was the very model of the well-groomed, self-assured young entrepreneur. Callum tugged on the cuffs of an exquisite tailored suit and Dexter found himself wondering if this could really be the same skinny Irishman who wore the same trousers every day for three years.
‘Everything’s organic, everything’s made fresh, we do juices and smoothies to order, we do fair-trade coffee. We’ve got four branches, and they’re full all the time, seriously, constantly. We have to close at three o’clock, there’s just no food left. I tell you, Dex, the food culture in this country, it’s changing, people want things to be better. No-one wants a can of Tango and a packet of crisps anymore. They want hummus wraps, papaya juice, crayfish . . .’
‘In flatbread, with rocket. Seriously, crayfish is the egg sandwich of our time, rocket’s the iceberg lettuce. Crayfish are cheap to produce, they breed like you wouldn’t believe, they’re delicious, the poor man’s lobster! Hey, you should come and have a talk to me about it sometime.’
‘About the business. I think there could be a lot of opportunities for you.’
Dexter dug at the lawn with his heel. ‘Callum, are you offering me a job?’
‘No, I’m just saying, come in and—’
‘I can’t believe a friend of mine is offering me a job.’
‘—come and have lunch! None of that crayfish crap either, a proper restaurant. My treat.’ He draped a large arm over Dexter’s shoulder, and in a lowered voice said, ‘I haven’t seen you much on TV these days.’
‘That’s because you don’t watch cable and satellite. I do a lot of work on cable and satellite.’
‘Well I’m doing this new show called Sport Xtreme. Xtreme with an X. Surfing footage, interviews with snow-boarders. You know. From all around the world.’
‘So you’re travelling a lot then?’
‘I just present the footage. The studio’s in Morden. So yes, I do travel a lot, but only to Morden.’
‘Well, like I said, if you ever felt like a change in career. You know a bit about food and drink, you can get on with people if you put your mind to it. Business is people. I just think it might be for you. That’s all.’
Dexter sighed through his nose, looked up at his old friend and tried to dislike him. ‘Cal, you wore the same pair of trousers every day for three years.’
‘Long time ago now.’
‘For a whole term you ate nothing but tinned mince.’
‘What can I say – people change! So what do you think?’
‘Alright then. You can buy me lunch. But I warn you, I know nothing about business.’
‘That’s alright. It’ll be nice to catch up anyway.’ Half admonishingly, he tapped Dexter’s elbow. ‘You went very quiet on me for a while.’
‘Did I? I was busy.’
‘Not that busy.’
‘Hey, you could have called me too!’
‘I did, often. You never returned my calls.’
‘Didn’t I? Sorry. I had things on my mind.’
‘I heard about your mum.’ He looked into his glass. ‘Sorry about that. Lovely lady, your mum.’
‘S’alright. Long time ago now.’
There was a moment’s silence, comfortable and affectionate, as they looked around the lawn at old friends talking and laughing in the late afternoon sun. Nearby, Callum’s latest girlfriend, a tiny, striking Spanish girl, a dancer in hip-hop videos, was speaking to Sylvie who stooped down to hear her.
‘It’ll be nice to talk to Luiza again,’ said Dexter.
‘I shouldn’t get too attached.’ Callum shrugged. ‘I think Luiza’s on the way out.’
‘Some things don’t change then.’ A pretty waitress, self-conscious in a mobcap, arrived to top up their glasses. They both grinned at her, caught each other grinning, and tapped their glasses together.
‘Eleven years since we left.’ Dexter shook his head, incredulous. ‘Eleven years. How the fuck did that happen?’
‘I see Emma Morley’s here,’ said Callum, out of nowhere.
‘I know.’ They glanced over and saw that she was talking to Miffy Buchanan, an old arch-enemy. Even at a distance, they could tell Emma’s teeth were gritted.
‘I’d heard you and Em fell out.’
‘But you’re alright now?’
‘Not sure. We’ll see.’
‘Great girl, Emma.’
‘Quite a beauty these days.’
‘She is, she is.’
‘Did you ever . . . ?’
‘No. Nearly. Once or twice.’
‘Nearly?’ sniffs Callum. ‘What does that mean?’
Dexter changed the subject. ‘But you’re alright, yeah?’
Callum took a sip of champagne. ‘Dex, I’m thirty-four. I’ve got a beautiful girlfriend, my own house, my own business, I work hard at something I enjoy, I make enough money.’ He placed his hand on Dexter’s shoulder. ‘And you, you’ve got a show on late-night TV! Life’s been
good for all of us.’
And partly from wounded pride, partly from a revived sense of competition, Dexter decided to tell him.
‘So – do you want to hear something funny?’
Emma heard Callum O’Neill whoop from the other side of the Great Lawn and glanced across in time to see him holding Dexter in a head-lock, rubbing his knuckles on Dexter’s scalp. She smiled then turned her full attention back to hating Miffy Buchanan.
‘So I heard you were unemployed,’ she was saying.
‘Well I prefer to think of myself as self-employed.’
‘As a writer?’
‘Just for a year or two, a Sabbatical.’
‘But you haven’t actually had anything published?’
‘Not as yet. Though I have actually been paid a small advance to—’
‘Hm,’ said Miffy, sceptically. ‘Harriet Bowen has had three novels published now.’
‘Yes, I’ve been made aware of that. Several times.’
‘And she’s got three kids.’
‘Well. There you go.’
‘Have you seen my two?’ Nearby two immense toddlers in three-piece suits were rubbing canapés into each other’s faces. ‘IVAN. NO BITING.’
‘They’re lovely boys.’
‘Aren’t they? So have you had any kids yet?’ said Miffy, as if it was an either/or situation, novels or kids.
‘Anyone on the horizon?’
‘Even so, you look much better than you did.’ Miffy looked her up and down appraisingly, as if contemplating buying her at auction. ‘You’re actually one of the few people here who’s actually lost some weight! I mean you were never massively fat or anything, just puppy-fat, but it’s fallen off you!’
Emma felt her hand tighten around the champagne glass. ‘Well it’s good to know the last eleven years haven’t been wasted.’
‘And you used to have this really strong Northern accent, but now you just talk like everybody else.’
‘Do I?’ Emma said, taken aback. ‘Well, that’s a shame. I didn’t lose it on purpose.’