We’re in a coffee shop a few doors down. I can’t believe I’ve stumbled upon my dream dress by accident; Jack’s right, it’s as if it was waiting patiently for me. When I was standing there looking at myself I knew that Oscar would love it, and that I would love him loving it. It’s the most special dress I’ve ever seen, slim fitting with tiny capped sleeves and a scooped neckline. I imagine it’s the kind of dress Elizabeth Bennet would have worn when she married Mr Darcy.
There’s a tag included in the box, scraps of information about its previous owners. I know it was made from parachute silk and French lace in the 1920s, and worn first by a girl called Edith, who married an American businessman. In the sixties, someone named Carole wore it for her barefoot wedding, and they held their reception in the park because they couldn’t afford a venue. There must have been others too, but now it’s mine, for a while at least. I’ve already decided that I’ll return it to the shop after our honeymoon, adding our name and wedding date to the tag. It’s a dress with a history, and though I’m its latest custodian, it’s journey doesn’t stop here.
‘What’s going on, Jack?’ I don’t beat around the bush when he sits down opposite me with two mugs of coffee. I realize that I’ve been caught up in the wedding plans, and in being a good friend to Sarah, and somewhere along the line I’ve relegated Jack to the subs bench.
He stirs sugar into his cup slowly. ‘I wanted to tell you myself.’
‘So it’s true? You are leaving?’
He hands me a slim paper tube of sugar, and then a second one just in case. ‘I’ve got a new job,’ he says.
I nod. ‘Where?’
Scotland. He’s moving away, to a different country. ‘Wow,’ is all I can think to say.
‘It’s a promotion. Too good a chance to pass up,’ he says. ‘My own evening talk show.’ He sounds excited.
I realize it’s the first time I’ve heard him sound positive in a long time, so I’m furious when my eyes well with tears.
‘It’s good news, Jack, it really is. I’m thrilled for you.’ I know that my face doesn’t look thrilled. I expect I look as if I’m being tortured, as if someone is drilling holes in my kneecaps beneath the table. ‘I don’t want you to go.’ The words blurt from me.
He reaches across the table and covers my hands with his own, warm and real and soon to move miles away.
‘You’re one of the best friends I’ve ever had,’ he says. ‘Don’t cry or I will.’
Around us, the cafe is bustling with office workers grabbing takeaway lunches and mothers bouncing babies, and we sit amongst them, letting each other go. He asks me to let Sarah know because he can’t do it, and he tells me that he needs to do this, to start again somewhere where the past isn’t all around him.
‘I have something for you,’ he says, letting go of my hands to reach inside his coat, pushing a brown paper parcel towards me. It’s soft, and I pick open the taped edges and fold the crumpled paper back to look inside. It’s a hat, folded in half. A heather-purple tweed baker boy cap. I smooth out the paper with my fingertips, reading the familiar Chester’s stamp embossed inside it, remembering when I tried it on.
‘I’ve had it for years and never really found the right time to give it to you,’ he says. ‘It was for Christmas, really.’
I shake my head, half laughing. It’s always been like this for me and Jack. ‘Thank you. I’ll think of you when I wear it,’ I say, aiming for decisive and hitting desolate. ‘You’re doing the right thing,’ I tell him. ‘Be happy, Jack. You deserve to be. And don’t forget us – we’re only a phone call away.’
He rubs his hand across his eyes. ‘I could never forget about you,’ he says. ‘But don’t worry if it’s not for a while, okay? It might be a good idea to find my feet for a bit.’
I try to smile but it’s a struggle. I understand what he’s saying; he needs time to start over, to build his new life without us in it.
He picks up the hat and puts it on my head. ‘Just as perfect as I remember,’ he smiles. I realize too late that he’s leaving; he’s on his feet before I’ve gathered my things together.
‘No, don’t come out with me,’ he says, laying his hand on my shoulder. ‘Finish your coffee, then go back and tell Oscar you’ve found your wedding dress.’ He leans down and kisses my cheek, and I catch hold of him, an awkward half-hug because I don’t even know if I’ll ever see him again. He doesn’t push me away. He sighs, his hand gentle on the back of my head, and then he says, ‘Love you, Lu,’ as if he’s exhausted.
I watch him shoulder his way out through the cafe, and when he’s gone I take the hat off and clutch it. ‘Love you too,’ I whisper. I sit there for a while, the hat in my hands, my wedding dress at my feet.
In two days’ time I’ll become Mrs Laurel Ogilvy-Black, which is going to take a lot of getting used to after twenty-six years as Laurie James. I can’t even say it without sliding into the Queen’s English, all plummy and clipped.
Oscar left for his mum’s this afternoon and my parents are arriving here tomorrow. They’re staying with me in the flat, and then we’ll be going together to the church from here on Saturday morning. Once they arrive it’s going to be all systems go, so tonight is officially the calm before the storm. Sarah’s coming over any time now, and we’re having a mani-pedi and movie night with champagne cocktails to celebrate. I don’t have the kind of nails that grow; only women with the same kind of nails will understand. They get to the end of my finger and consider their work done, flaking and breaking. I’ve tried all of the oils, serums and creams known to man in the run-up to the wedding, because all the bridal forums tell me it’s essential that my hands are in tip-top condition. Well, I’m forty-eight hours away from the altar and they’re as good as they’re going to get; Sarah’s going to French polish them for me.
Everything about this wedding is planned, controlled and listed on Lucille’s spreadsheet. For someone who thinks her son is marrying beneath him, she sure has invested a lot of her time in dictating how it’s going to happen. To be honest I realized quite early on that she was going to steamroller her way through proceedings whether I liked it or not, so I’ve gone for the path of least resistance. By that, I mean I’ve agreed graciously to eighty per cent of her decisions, and held the other twenty per cent close to my chest and refused to be moved on them. My dress. My bouquet. My matron of honour. Our rings. They’re the only things that really matter to me anyway. I don’t mind which champagne is served for the toast, and though I’m not a huge fan of salmon mousse as a first course we’re having it anyway. Oscar has been grateful for my unterritorial approach; as he and his mum are so close, it would have made waves if I’d been difficult about things.
Thankfully, Sarah’s been there the whole way, allowing me to vent.
‘Let me in, Lu! I’ve got no hands to knock!’
Sarah’s voice rings down the hall, and I jump up to let her in. When I open the door, I see what she means. She’s dragging a hard silver suitcase behind her, has two bags hanging off her arms and a large cardboard box in her hands. She peers at me over the top of it and puffs her fringe out of her eyes.
‘Travelling light?’ I laugh, taking the box from her.
‘This is light for me.’ She smacks my hand when I try to peak under the flap of the box. ‘That’s my box of surprises. Wine first?’
‘No arguments here.’ I shut the door with my foot before I follow her down the hall. I didn’t want a traditional hen night, it’s just not my thing, but this is perfect.
‘Are we alone?’ she whispers, looking for Oscar.
She busts out a disco chest pump and then falls flat on her back on the sofa with her arms spread out wide and her feet in the air.
‘You’re getting married in the morning, ding-dong the bells are gonna chime!’ she sings out of tune.