‘Maybe after a while you’ll both feel differently? Maybe you just need a bit of a break?’ I say, feeling like a kid whose parents are divorcing.
She half smiles, far away, as if she knows it’s fanciful. ‘We won’t. Or I won’t, anyway.’ She swirls her wine before drinking some. ‘Do you know how I know?’
I shake my head. ‘No.’
‘Because there’s a part of me that’s relieved.’ She doesn’t look relieved. She looks more bereft than I’ve ever seen her. ‘Don’t get me wrong, I feel as if someone literally cut my heart out of my body. I don’t even know how life works without Jack in it, but there’s this bit of me –’ she breaks off and looks at her hands – ‘this bit of me that feels relieved. Relieved, because being in love with Jack has always been, to one degree or another, bloody hard work.’
I don’t know what to say, so I just let her talk.
‘Oh, he’s so lovely and, God, he’s good-looking, but when I think back our entire relationship has been a million tiny compromises, his or mine, so our differences weren’t big enough to pull us apart. It’s been a constant effort, and I don’t know if love should feel like that, you know? I don’t mean making an effort for each other … I mean making an effort to be someone ever so slightly different to who we really are. I watch you and Oscar together, and it seems to come so naturally to you both, as if you don’t have to try because you just fit.’
It’s in that moment I know there’s no going back for Jack and Sarah. I never realized – they made their love look so easy. And I’m quietly devastated; for them, mostly, but for me too. It feels as if part of my life is splintering away, floating off into space.
‘What can I do?’ I ask her.
Her eyes fill with tears. ‘I don’t know.’
I wait and let her cry it out on my shoulder, stroking her hair.
‘You c-could d-do one thing.’
‘Yes, anything.’ I’m desperate to do anything I can; I hate this feeling of powerlessness.
‘Will you still be his friend, Lu? Please? I’m scared he’s going to shut everyone out again.’
‘Of course,’ I say. ‘You’re my best friend, but I care for him too. I’ll keep an eye on him. If that’s what you want.’
I put my arms round her and she rests her head on my shoulder. I hear her breathing slow as she falls asleep. As I close my eyes too, I remember the first day I met Sarah, and the first time I saw Jack, and how very tangled and complicated our lives have become over the years. We are a triangle, but our sides have kept changing length. Nothing has ever quite been equal. Perhaps it’s time to learn how to stand on our own, rather than lean on each other.
‘You have to be on my side in here,’ I say, clutching Sarah’s arm before we push the door open at the bridal boutique in Pimlico. ‘My mum is all over the meringue dresses and I just want something simple. It’s a small church. Don’t let her bully me into something that won’t fit down the aisle.’
Sarah grins. ‘I’m quite partial to those big sparkly numbers. I think you could pull it off.’
‘I mean it, Sar. She’s one step away from ringing up that woman off Gypsy Weddings to see if she can fit me in at short notice. Don’t encourage her, for God’s sake.’
We step inside the boutique, still laughing, and I spy my mum already deep in conversation with the sales assistant, a glamorous fifty-something with a tape measure slung round her tanned neck.
‘Here she is now.’ Mum beams at me as we approach and I see the assistant’s eyes light up at the sight of Sarah, and then dim a little when she realizes that I’m the bride. I’m sure she has a million dresses in here that would suit someone tall and curvy like Sarah, whereas my shorter, more regular-girl body needs more skilful dressing to make the best of it. The assistant’s glasses are balanced on top of her auburn up-do, and she reaches for them and slides them on to study me as I hang my coat on the hanger she’s holding out.
‘So, you’re my bride!’ She says it as if she’s the one I’m getting hitched to, all panto over-emphasis. ‘I’m Gwenda, otherwise known around here as the fairy godmother!’
My smile is thin; if there’s one thing I’ve come to realize about weddings, it’s that pretty much everyone who works in the industry has perfected a false air of perpetual excitement, like nothing delights them more than making your every wedding wish come true. I get it. More gushing equals more money spent. The mere fact that something is wedding related seems to make it instantly three times more expensive than it might otherwise be. You want a couple of bay trees to put either side of your front door? Sure. These beauties are fifty pound a pair. Wait, you want them for your wedding reception? Ah, well, in that case let me tie ribbons round the pots and charge you double! But I’ve got their number now. I try not to throw the bridal bomb in until the very last minute, if at all. Not that Oscar is interested in cutting corners; he and his mother have gone into a full-scale wedding mania. I’m having a hard time reining them in. What I’d really love, if they cared to listen to me, is a small wedding – and unlike most people who say that, I really mean it; something intimate and special, just for us and our very dearest. The only people I really want there from my side are my immediate family, Jack and Sarah, and the couple of old school friends I’ve stayed in touch with. As for my colleagues, I like them well enough, but not well enough to want them at my nuptials. Not that it matters a great deal what I think. It seems I’m going to end up with something lavish and public. I mean, I don’t have a religious bone in my body, but apparently a church wedding is non-negotiable, preferably the same church Oscar’s parents married in. A family tradition to uphold, even though Lucille’s own marriage was hardly one to aspire to.
I’m just glad I’ve managed to ring-fence choosing my own wedding dress and Sarah’s maid of honour dress – believe me when I say that it wasn’t a given. My mother-in-law-to-be has been sending me dress links for weeks, all of them suitable for Kate Middleton, or perhaps more accurately, Oscar’s previous girlfriend, Cressida. Oscar rarely mentions her. I wish the same could be said for his mother; she keeps their photo in a frame in their sitting room, on the piano, naturally. I say naturally, because Cressida was – is – a concert pianist. She has long, skinny fingers. She has long, skinny everything, to be honest.
‘I find that a sweetheart neckline makes the most of a more modest cleavage,’ Gwenda says, eyeing my chest with something like pity.
Sarah turns away into the wall of dresses because she’s laughing. This is the second time today I’ve been made to feel as if my boobs leave something to be desired; we’ve just come from an equally depressing shopping experience being measured for a bridal bra, which of course was twice the cost of the non-bridal underwear beside it. I’m now wedged into this eight-way basque one-piece that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to get off or have a wee in, so Gwenda’s unimpressed reaction to my assets riles me. My mother, bless her, steps in.
‘I quite agree, Gwenda,’ she smiles. ‘Laurie takes after me in that department.’ Mum rolls her eyes down towards her own chest. ‘Perhaps if we could have a bit of a glance around first and then come and find you?’
Gwenda smarts a little, fast flutters of her eyelashes behind her horn-rimmed spectacles. ‘As you wish, ladies. Your appointment is for the whole hour, so take your time.’ She steps behind her counter, then looks up again. ‘Just so you know, we do all of our adjustments in-house, no sleepless nights for you worrying your dress might get misplaced while it’s away being shortened.’
Lovely. Now I’m flat-chested and short. Some fairy godmother she’s turning out to be.
‘How are you doing after all that business, Sarah, my love?’ I hear my mum whisper her question as she puts an arm round Sarah’s shoulders over by the rack of meringue dresses I’m purposefully avoiding. Mum’s met Sarah several times over the years, and they share a sense of humour – mostly at my expense – that bonded them from the outset.