… “I would have killed Cousin Frederick.” Hyacinth’s black eyes sparked…
“On your marks, get set, smile!” Crouched behind a camera worthy of Lord Snowdon, Dorcas dropped her left arm, signalling action. Alas, one of the tripod legs buckled. The crowd closed in to proffer advice.
As the bridal party-Ben and I, flanked by Jonas and Sid-stood on the church steps, bombarded by pealing bells, and stung by the wind, I refused to meet my husband’s eyes. I felt no great need to kill Freddy. My cousin Frederick Flatts was born with his brain trickling out of his ears and had attained the age of twenty-nine still believing the world hungered for his sublime wit. On Rowland’s advising him to go confess his sacrilegious prank to the congregation and inform them he would be returning the infant to its parents forthwith, he had replied gloomily, “If they’ll take the little monster back.”
Ben was the one I longed to murder. I could still see him sagging against the vestry wall, weak with laughter, while that sticky baby tugged at my veil and yanked tufts out of my bouquet.
“I love you, Ellie.” His breath brushed my face like a kiss. Too little, too late.
His hand moved up my arm. “I’m sorry, darling, but I was so unsettled by your arriving late that Freddy’s stunt sent me over the edge.”
I should have tossed my train over my shoulder and stormed from the church.
In years to come my children would say, “Mummy, why do you have that wicked look on your face in your wedding pictures?” And I would have to explain to those innocent mites what it feels like to have the words “I do” drowned out by the babbling of the guests. They were still at it now as they stood grouped at the base of the steps.
“Hold that pose, lovebirds! Best profile forward, Ben. Love the Mona Lisa smile, Ellie.” Dorcas pegged her jockey cap on the head of a marble statue of the great local hero, Smuggler Jim Biggins, and jamming her red hair behind her ears, squared her shoulders and got down to the serious business of twiddling dials.
“Looks like we have to wait for these clouds to move, so go on, make a break for it, old son.” Ben’s eyes were on me as he spoke. I closed mine to keep my righteous anger intact.
“Do I get to kiss the bride?” asked lachrymose Sid, and I felt my hand lifted and pressed to a pair of lips-his, presumably.
“Sidney, how gallant!” I tapped him playfully with my bouquet, entirely for Ben’s benefit.
“Tall women bring out that side of me,” he mourned. “I refuse to stand on tiptoe to kiss even the best of them. I suffer enough indignity having people use my ass as a door scraper.” And with that he hunched off down the steps. Jonas stumped after him.
“Hold fast, Mr. and Mrs. H.” Dorcas was grimacing at the clouds now rolling like dense smoke across the sky. “Should brighten any minute, if it doesn’t pour first. Want some nice snaps to send Ma and Pa, don’t we, Ben? Must show the stay-at-homes what they missed.”
“Absolutely,” he replied.
I straightened the seed pearl tiara, fanned my veil over my shoulders, and smiled for the crowd. I could see my ex-neighbor and Freddy’s amour, Jill-the mystic, built like a toothbrush and with the same sort of bristly hairdo, wedged between Uncle Maurice and a woman in a busby. And there, next to Smuggler Jim’s statue, stood Mrs. Swabucher, all pink tulle and gusts of ermine. Rowland was wending up and down along the edge of the gravel path, the black book clasped in his hand. A sweep of overhanging branches cast shadows in his wake. He seemed to be looking over to the lich-gate.
“I wish my parents had been here.” Ben drew me close.
I addressed the buttons on his shirt. “Your mother would have thought her novenas answered when Freddy called a halt to the proceedings.”
“I wanted them to see that they made a success of me-I’m happy.”
And I was hungry. Would I always have that deplorable tendency when emotional?
“Here.” Ben’s fingers closed over mine. When he let go, he was holding my tattered bouquet and I was holding a chocolate rose.
He wasn’t looking at me; he was smoothing out live petals.
“Take a bite and tell me how you like it.”
“Rather rude surely, with all these people watching.”
“We’ll pass some around when we get home. I made two hundred and ninety-one. One for every day since we met.”
“Say honeymoons!” cried Dorcas.
I must have been faint with hunger because the world went all fuzzy round the edges. The wind had dropped and the bells ceased, leaving a vibrating silence.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to save this one and press it in a book?” My voice came up from a mine shaft. I nibbled a leaf off the rose and, eyes on Ben’s chin, handed him the rest.
“A fraction too much vanilla, do you think?” he asked.
I could have destroyed his day, his week, his year simply by saying yes.
My ring flashed between us. We were married. Really and truly married. (Did it matter that I could remember nothing of the words spoken at the altar?) A shiver of wind touched my neck. I smiled for Dorcas, then looked up as I felt a spatter of rain. Somehow Ben’s face got in the way.
All the laughter had vanished from his eyes, leaving them darker, even more brilliant, and so ardent my breath caught in my throat. I traced a finger through his hair. I loved him. Why shouldn’t he laugh at Freddy’s little prank? I wanted a husband with a sense of humour, didn’t I? And he had been under tremendous emotional strain over his parents, which wasn’t to say they weren’t perfectly lovely people in their narrow-minded, bigotted ways. Ben’s dark head bent over mine. The church clock chimed the quarter hour.
“Two hundred and ninety-one days, one hour and thirty-seven minutes,” I whispered against the delicious warmth of his mouth.
“Good shot!” bawled Dorcas. “Should get it enlarged. Nice one for Ma and Pa to put out on the piano.”
“Happy, Ellie?” asked my husband.
“Blissful!” Our marriage was stronger for having come through the fire. I curved my arms up around Ben’s neck. Jonas came stumping up the steps.
“Are you two going to stand gawking at each other all afternoon, or are you going to be sociable and drop in on the reception?”
“Certainly we are.” Reaching out a hand, I helped Jonas up the last step.
“Good,” he snorted. “Because left alone with the family, I might forget me place and poison one of them.”
Jonas went to assist Dorcas in packing up her equipment. I took my bouquet from Ben and waved it at Rowland, trying to attract his attention. But at that moment Aunt Astrid, resplendent in a pale mink and a black hat with spotted veiling, accosted him. Poor Rowland, no wonder his shoulders looked so tense. Aunty was directing a gloved paw toward darling daughter Vanessa, artistically posed against a backdrop of tombstones. I snuggled my arm through Ben’s and indulged in momentary smugness. Would mother and daughter never learn that a woman needs more than a stunning figure and flawless face to attract a man of true worth?
The crowd was beginning to disperse, heading toward the line of cars parked against the railing. Coming through the lich-gate were five or six laughing teenagers, members of St. Anselm’s youth group, I supposed. I had heard they met on Friday afternoons. They must be the reason Rowland kept glancing-
“Ellie, Bentley-my precious children!” Mrs. Swabucher swept up to us in a flourish of gauzy pink and swirls of ermine.
“Dear, dear Ellie! So beautiful! Although possibly a little too thin! And Bentley, handsome as ever!”
“Hated to take me off the books, didn’t you?” He grinned at her and received another squeeze.
“I cannot tell you how delighted I was to be included in this joyous culmination of that day, Ellie, when you came to Eligibility.”
Everything about her-the grandmotherly perfume, her energetic kindness-brought back the rainy afternoon when I had sat in her powder puff office and begged her to find me Mr. Right.
“We must have a long talk at the reception.”
“I wish, dear, but I’ve a granddaughter expecting a baby any second and have promised to be available to boil water. No choice but to leave at once and…” She paused. “Perhaps it is for the best. Someone is bound to ask me what my connection is to one or both of you and-”
Ben and I started to speak, but she shushed us.
“My dears, I am proud of the services offered by Eligibility Escorts and the work you did for me, Ben, but villages such as this are like the Whispering Gallery at St. Paul’s. And considering today’s practical joke… My advice is don’t let on how you really met. Say a fond aunt introduced you.”
Rain began coming down in splotches. Mrs. Swabucher’s chauffeur appeared with an umbrella.
“You both take care of yourselves,” she said. “We don’t want you catching colds. Speaking of health matters, you don’t patronize that awful Dr. Bordeaux, do you? I didn’t bring you darlings together to have anything happen to either of you. And now, take me away, James.” She tucked an arm through that of her chauffeur and was gone.
What people remained in the churchyard started turning up collars and unfurling umbrellas, fast-trotting to the cars. I heard Uncle Maurice and Aunt Lulu urging Jill to accompany them in their vehicle. Oh, cripes! They must think her relationship with son Freddy was serious, thereby making her good for a loan of at least twenty pounds.
“We can’t have Jonas getting wet,” I said to Ben, but I needn’t have worried. Dorcas, camera case slung around her neck, was buttoning Jonas up at the neck. Rowland was less lucky. In a voice that cut through the wind, Aunt Astrid assured him that she would see him at the reception.
“Won’t we, Vannie?”
“I hope so, Mummy.”
The wind heightened to a hard shrill whistle, echoed by the sea breaking against the cliffs below. The sky went suddenly quite dark.
“Home,” urged Ben, but as we stepped onto the gravel path, three teenagers, lurking behind tombstones, came scampering up, laughing and pelting us with confetti. It was, I thought, rather like being inside a kaleidoscope.
“Better wed than dead!” yelled a burly girl in school uniform.
The dizzying swirl ebbed. A boy with stubble hair grabbed for my hand and, amazingly, kissed it. Rain made some of the brilliant patches stick to our faces. Another multi-coloured shower went up and when the air cleared, the kids went roistering off toward the church hall which abutted the vicarage. All except one. A girl, the smallest of the group, remained on the path. We stared at each other through a shimmer of rain.
“I must look like I’ve got some exotic form of measles,” I said.
“You do realise this sort of thing is against the law.” Ben was shaking out his jacket.
Perhaps she didn’t realise we were joking. She didn’t smile. She had sandy-coloured plaits, a small retrouss? nose, a wedge-shaped face, and skin which seemed almost translucent under the sheen of rain. She kept staring at Ben and me. A bit spooky, considering the tombstone surroundings. This girl’s eyes were very green in the wavering half-light, eyes at odds with the two youthful plaits. Those plaits touched me. I found myself remembering myself at fourteen-always the outsider. On an impulse, I tossed my bouquet to her.
“I love you, Ellie,” whispered Ben.
The girl didn’t say thank you. She stood under the quivering branches, my roses pressed against her face like a painted fan, their scent drifting between us. The wind bit through my gown and grazed my veil against my cheek. I drew closer to Ben. What more could I want from life than to be warm and dry and alone with him?
“What’s your name?” I asked the girl.
“We’re pleased to have met you,” Ben said.
“Me, too.” She looked at me.
“Well…” Ben squeezed my arm. “Darling, our carriage awaits, unless it has turned into a pumpkin.”
He laughed and I joined in, but only to gain time. Unwelcome memory slid into place. There was no white-ribboned taxi to pick us up in state and deliver us at the portals of Merlin’s Court. I had been so angry with the taxi driver who had failed to get me to the church at all, let alone on time, I had not only told him to get lost, I had informed him I would puncture his tyres the next time I saw his vehicle. I had planned to thumb a ride from one of our guests. And, I brightened, it might still be possible to leap onto a running board if we hurried.
“Ben, I don’t know how to tell you this…” Evading Ben’s frown, I smiled at the solemn girl with plaits, who was now sitting on the bottom church step, fingering the roses.
“Ellie darling”-Ben rubbed the rain from his brow and worked up a smile-“wouldn’t a smallish tip have sufficiently made your point?”
He was right, and with a quiver of repentance, I realised that a certain heedlessness which may be thought appealing in a fianc?e is unacceptable in a wife.
“Let’s go, Mrs. Haskell,” he said. At least it had stopped raining. And he’d called me Mrs. Haskell.
We were halfway down the path when Rowland stepped out from between trees into our path. The last of the cars vanished through the gateway.
“A charmingly eventful wedding.” He smiled as we joined him.
“Thank you.” Was that…? Yes it was!
A vehicle approached. Rubbing my chilled arms, I saw Ben’s face relax. A samaritan was coming back for us. A long dark car broke through the gloom, and immediately my optimism evaporated. No hope of this conveyance offering us a lift home. It was a hearse.
“I’m sorry about this unfortunate er… scheduling overlap,” Rowland touched my arm, then moved to walk alongside the hearse with measured steps, silvered head bent, cassock fluttering in the wind. Poor Rowland, this wasn’t his fault.
A procession of vehicles grimly slid through the gates.
“We’d better duck out of the way,” said Ben. “We strike a disharmonious note.”
“Won’t we be more conspicuous fleeing between the graves?”
He looked unconvinced. The cars drew to a standstill. Doors opened and closed. Were we to move a foot, we would be trapped in the surge of mourners and swept back into the church. Out from the lead car stepped a tall woman with silver blue hair, clad in a military-style mulberry coat. A handkerchief was clutched to her eyes. Soldiering up beside her were two tweedy, middle-aged women. The other mourners kept a respectful distance. As the woman in the mulberry coat and her companions neared the church steps, they suddenly halted. I realised why when a white scrap of cloth streamed toward me. The wind had grabbed her hanky. A few mourners futilely snatched at the air. The hanky blew right into my hand.
“I thought you couldn’t catch,” said Ben.
“Sorry.” I hitched up my skirts and hastened across the gravel to the woman.
“Frightfully kind of you. I do hope…” Her voice broke. Pressing the hanky to her eyes, she turned away. “I do hope that this”-she blindly waved a hand toward the coffin being lifted up the steps-“has not cast a blight on your day.”
“Oh, not at all!” I hastened to assure her, then realised I must sound callous. “Please do accept my condolences on the loss of… of…”
“My husband, my dear, wonderful, irreplaceable…” She couldn’t go on. The words I did not remember saying, but must have said, only minutes ago seemed to rise between us.
“Madge, we should be getting into church.” Its owner prodded the new widow gently. With a feeling of escape, I hurried back to Ben. Several of the mourners stared.
“Are you all right, Ellie?” Ben asked.
“Yes.” I was watching the widow mount the steps.
“We’re going to miss the reception.”
We made for the lich-gate and had just reached it when the wind swooped up my veil and swirled it around my face. Laughing, Ben spun me around to unwind it.
The mourners had entered the church and the pallbearers were coming around the side of the building. Slowly they made their way up the steps. A flash of sun broke through the clouds. The girl with sandy plaits stepped forward and gently placed my bouquet on the coffin lid.
It began to rain again.