I very much doubt he has any idea what Sarah would say if she was here right now, but I nod my head at him quickly and take my seat again. I don’t know why I’m even surprised that Jack’s role in my wedding just became more significant; he seems to have been there at every important event in my life, one way or another.
‘You see, me and Sarah were together for a while – until quite recently in fact – sorry, you don’t need to know that, erm …’ He looks at the woman sitting next to him as a couple of titters start up from the far corners of the room.
‘And when I say I was the third wheel, I mean it in the loosest sense, obviously. I mean we were close, but not that close …’ He trails off again as people start to laugh. ‘Sorry,’ he says, glancing at me and pulling a bit of a grimace.
‘Okay,’ he says. I only realize that he’s nervous when he rubs his palms down his thighs. ‘What might Sarah have wanted to say about Laurie? Well, that she’s a good friend, obviously, that goes without saying. I know Sarah always said she’d won the roommate lottery at university – you two have a once-in-a-lifetime kind of friendship. You’re the gin in her tonic, Laurie. Sarah loves you very much.’
A few people clap, and my mum dabs her eyes. Oh God. I hold myself together and pinch the skin on the back of my hand. Pinch, release. Pinch, release. Pinch, release. I daren’t let even a single tear slide out, because if I start crying I don’t think I’ll be able to stop it from developing into full-on body-racking sobs. I’ve missed Sarah so very much today. My precision-planned wedding has a Sarah-shaped hole in it, and I’m scared to death that the rest of my life will too.
Jack sighs, taking a breath. You could hear a pin drop in here.
‘You know, even if I’d known I was going to speak today I think I’d still have struggled over what to say, because there aren’t really any words to explain what it is that’s special about Laurie James.’
‘Ogilvy-Black,’ someone heckles. Gerry, I think.
Jack laughs, pushing his hand through his hair, and I’m sure I hear the entire female contingent of the wedding party sigh. ‘Sorry. Laurie Ogilvy-Black.’
Beside me, Oscar reaches for my hand and I shoot him a reassuring little smile, even though my new name sounds clunky and strange on Jack’s lips.
‘Laurie and I have been friends for a few years now, good friends even, and right under my nose you’ve turned from Sarah’s clever, unassuming friend who once forced me to watch Twilight into –’ he pauses and holds his hands out towards me, even though he’s three tables back – ‘into the woman you are today, someone with such incredible poise, someone spectacularly kind; you have a way of making every single person feel like the most important person in the world.’ He looks down, shaking his head. ‘It’s no exaggeration to say you once saved my life, Laurie. You saw me at my very worst and you didn’t turn your back on me, even though you had every reason to. I was revolting and you were lovely. I’d lost sight of who I was, and you made me remember. I don’t think I ever said thank you, so I’m saying it now. Thank you. You tread lightly through life, but you leave deep footprints that are hard for other people to fill.’
He stops and takes a slug from his wine glass, because he’s speaking as if we’re the only people here and I think he realizes that he’s veering close to too personal.
‘So there you have it. You’re bloody wonderful, Laurie. I miss you now we’re on opposite sides of the border, but I’m glad to know you’re safe in Oscar’s capable hands.’ He raises his glass. ‘To you, Laurie, and you too of course, Oscar.’ He pauses and then adds, ‘You lucky bastard,’ making everyone laugh, and making me cry.
‘Jesus Christ, Jack. You may as well have just shagged her over the top table and been done with.’
I stare at Verity, who right this second resembles an angry feral kitten. Pretty, but she wants to scrape my eyes out. We’re in a corridor of the hotel, and I gather that she didn’t appreciate my impromptu speech.
‘What the hell was I supposed to do? Let Laurie die on her arse at her own wedding?’
She fires bullets at me with her eyes. ‘No, but you didn’t need to make her out to be fucking Wonder Woman, either.’
‘She doesn’t wear her knickers over her jeans.’ I know it’s a mistake as soon as it leaves my lips, but I’ve had three glasses of toast champagne and I don’t like being mauled on my home turf.
‘You’re clearly on intimate fucking terms with her knickers,’ Verity snarks, her arms crossed over her chest.
I relent, because she’s here as my guest and I can see that it must have been slightly irksome hearing your new boyfriend praise another woman quite so fulsomely. ‘Look, I’m sorry, okay? But you’re wrong, Laurie and me truly are just friends. It’s never been anything more than that, I promise you.’
She isn’t ready to soften yet. ‘What was that crock of shit about big footprints?’
‘I was being metaphorical.’
‘You said she was wonderful.’
I check there’s no one else in the corridor, then press Verity against the wall. ‘You’re more wonderful.’
Her hand snakes round and grabs my backside. She doesn’t mess about, Verity. ‘Don’t you forget it.’
I kiss her, if only in an attempt to stop that conversation going where it was heading. In response she bites my lip and starts tugging my shirt out of my trousers.
‘It was good of Jack to step up for Sarah.’
I smile at Oscar, even though his words have sharp edges. ‘It was.’
We’ve retired to our suite to freshen up in that lull between the wedding breakfast and the evening reception. I think ‘freshen up’ is supposed to be a polite term for having sex, but that isn’t what Oscar and I are doing. He’s been tense since the speeches, and I’m desperate to work out how to clear the air because we should remember today for ever for the right reasons.
‘Where’s Sarah again?’ Oscar frowns and pinches the bridge of his nose, as if he’s struggling to remember the details of her absence. That’s probably because I didn’t provide him with many, a bad attempt to minimize the lie.
‘Back in Bath.’ My tone is deliberately flat, and I turn away because my cheeks are flaming. I don’t want to argue, so I cast around for something to distract us and spot a gift bag standing on the hearth of the grand fireplace. Everything about our honeymoon suite is grand, from the size of the sunken bathtub to the four-poster bed that has a boarding-step beside it because it’s so ‘Princess and the Pea’-like.
‘What’s this?’ I read the tag on the gift bag aloud. ‘To the happy couple, with love and gratitude from Angela and all of the wedding team. We hope you’ve had the day of your dreams.’ I turn back to Oscar. ‘Ah, that’s lovely, isn’t it?’
He nods as I take a seat in one of the armchairs in the window and unpick the ribbons. ‘Come and look?’ I say, trying to ask him other things with my eyes too: Please don’t push the issue about Sarah. Please don’t overanalyse Jack’s speech. Please let’s concentrate on what’s important today, each other. His eyes hold mine for a few seconds from across the room, and then his expression softens and he comes to kneel beside me.
‘Open it then.’
I run my hand lightly over his glossy blue-black hair and smile. ‘Okay.’
Inside the paper and tissue, we find a delicate glass Christmas bauble, hand-blown and engraved with our names and the wedding date.
‘Isn’t that gorgeous?’ I say, swallowing the lump in my throat as I place it carefully down.
‘You deserve gorgeous,’ he says, kissing the back of my fingers. Then he draws in a breath. ‘Are you happy, Laurie?’
I’m surprised by his quietly spoken question. He’s never asked me before. ‘Do you even need to ask?’
‘Just once.’ All of a sudden he looks deadly serious.
I take a breath too and look into his eyes. I know that our marriage hinges on my answer to this question.