A short story
The wedding was at four, which meant the men in the wedding party and male guests could wear morning coats. The women could wear hats. Afterwards, everyone would change. The women would put on evening dresses and the men black tie.
Shaw paced up and down outside of the church, distractedly handing out wedding programs. Annabel was late. She was driving down from her parents’ place in the Cotswolds and should have been here half an hour ago. He wasn’t worried. Annabel was a good driver. But he suspected that she had left late and now wouldn’t be on time.
It was a fine afternoon. Tipping Bruton’s twelfth-century church stood on a hill and the sunlight slanted over the village below while across the valley it appeared to be raining. The weather had been a bit chancy in the morning when Shaw, Tony and the rest of the groomsmen staggered out of their rooms for a late breakfast at the local inn where they had all stayed the night before. Louisa’s parents were dead and so it was thought best to do the wedding at Tony’s home. All the groomsmen had slept out, leaving after the rehearsal dinner that Tony’s father, the Colonel, had given. The Colonel had been in rare form, lively and entertaining, even parading about the table after dinner in his old bearskin. But he had gone to bed well before the young people, who all stayed up late drinking Kümmel and dancing in the drawing room to Tony’s mixed tapes.
There had been more champagne at the breakfast, which helped Shaw revive. Then speeches and toasts, decidedly more off-color than the ones the previous night. Tony, pleased and pink, laughed uproariously. Shaw was the only American there. They had met while Tony was doing the training program at Morgan Stanley in New York. Heroic nights. Elaine’s. Bungalow 8. The time they picked up the two girls and checked into the Standard for the weekend. The rest of the groomsmen had known Tony since Eton. Malcolm was a viscount with estates in Scotland. Charlie, an heir to a brewing fortune. Bankers, estate agents, a movie producer. The Prince of Wales’ godson. Robbie had flown in from Hong Kong. Over the years Shaw had met most of them at the shooting or cricket weekends that the Colonel would host for his only son. The mother was long dead. Theirs was one of the few private shoots left in Dorset. The first time Shaw had been invited he had brought all the wrong gear. He had an old tweed suit of his grandfather’s, but it only had long trousers and not plus fours. Also, he didn’t have a Barbour jacket or wellies. By the end of the day even though he had shot well, he had been soaked by the rain that lashed over the open fields. When he sloshed into the house in his soaking socks, the rest of the guns had laughed at him in the way Englishmen laugh at outsiders who don’t quite know the form, but he laughed back and they liked him for it.
“Not to worry,” said the Colonel, after regaining his composure and handing Shaw a large whisky. “Tony should have told you what to bring. You’ll go round with him to his tailor and he’ll get you properly kitted out for next time. Now drink that, take off those ridiculous clothes and have a hot bath.”
“Sorry, Shaw,” said Tony. “Stupid of me. I just forgot you’re American. At least,” he smiled, “you didn’t wear some ridiculous orange vest.”
Shaw liked Tony. He was a tall, handsome fellow and had been extremely welcoming to him when Shaw was sent to work in his firm’s London office for a year. Not only did he let him stay at his family’s flat on Lowndes Square for several weeks while his own living arrangements were being made, but he had invited him to many dinners and parties in London, as well as down to Tipping Bruton. Once a week they played tennis at Queen’s.
That had been several years ago. At the time there had been a girl. Sophie. They had met at a dinner to which Tony had invited him not long after arriving in London and he sat next to her. She had pillowy lips, long brown hair, full breasts and, he sensed, an instinctive carnality. She worked in the City too but was still only in her first year. Tony knew her because she had dated one of his friends when she was at the Oxford Poly. He was now out of the picture. South Africa or someplace equally remote. On their second date Shaw went to bed with her in the flat in Clapham she shared with her sister. Soon they were spending every night together, either at her flat or his. They made love everywhere, the floor, the kitchen table. They spent their weekends naked. He loved looking at her ass.
Then Shaw had been asked to return to New York for a promotion and a bigger salary. Sophie cried when he told her. Why don’t you come back with me? he asked. You can find a job in New York. You probably don’t even need to work, as a matter of fact.
But she didn’t want to leave. In the weeks before his departure he saw less of her. When he did see her, they would fight and often instead of going to bed together she would leave in tears. Or there would be excuses. Sorry, but I have plans with my sister tonight. My mother’s coming to town and we’re going to Covent Garden. He told her he loved her but she said nothing back.
He called her from his hotel the first night he was back in New York but there was no answer. Ring-ring. Ring-ring. The second night he reached her but it was too late and she asked if she could call him back the next day. She promised. When she didn’t he called instead.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
Silence on the other end. Then, “I’m pregnant.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m seeing a doctor tomorrow.”
“If you are, let’s get married,” he blurted out. “I love you.”
“I don’t know. I’ll call you tomorrow. Sorry I’m being such a bitch.”
It turned out she wasn’t pregnant. The first test had a small margin of error. The doctor’s test was conclusive, she said.
“I still mean it,” he said. “Let’s get married.”
“You’re sweet. You don’t have to.”
“I know I don’t. I want to.”
“No. Now’s not the time to talk about it. I’m feeling a bit odd after all this.”
“I’ll fly over next week and see you.”
“No, don’t. “
“Maybe we should take some time off from each other. You’re too far away.”
“No, I’m not. Why are you saying this?”
That had been a year before. In the meantime Shaw had returned to London where he was now running the desk. He had lost touch with Sophie. The letters he had written went unanswered. The emails bounced back. He even sent flowers. Eventually, he took the hint. There had been one or two other girls in New York but none of them meant anything. Once back in London he tried Sophie’s number but it had been disconnected. He asked mutual friends and they said they thought she had moved to a new firm, one of the Japanese banks. There might have been a boyfriend too but they couldn’t be sure. Even Tony, who knew everyone, couldn’t tell him. Shaw didn’t even know how to contact her parents, had never met them, or even her sister. It was a common last name, Brown. There could be thousands of girls with her name in Britain. Once he went by the house in Clapham but there was a new car parked in front and he couldn’t bring himself to ring the bell. It made him aware of how little he really knew her.
While Shaw was away, Tony had begun dating Louisa, an attractive German girl who spoke with a slight lisp and who owned a small house off the King’s Road. She was a countess and very blonde. It wasn’t long after his return that Shaw met Annabel, who reminded him a little of Sophie, although in many ways they were very different. There was, he found, something soothing and sexy about the sound of a well-bred English female voice. The roundness of the vowels. The way they pronounced words like “Mummy” and “chocolate.” After that, American women sounded grating and flat. The four of them frequently went out, often going to nightclubs where Tony knew the owner, most of whom he had been at school with.
Now Tony and Louisa were getting married. A vast white tent with a wooden dance floor had been set up on the lawn at Tipping Bruton, music provided by one of Tony’s friends who owned a nightclub. Cases of champagne were unloaded by the caterers. Bedrooms had been set aside for the men and women who didn’t live nearby to change.
The bells were tolling as Louisa was driven up by her brother Teddy in one of the family’s old Land Rovers. The rest of the bridal party followed in the other Land Rover. Tony was already at the altar. Shaw craned his neck around one last time, hoping to see Annabel’s white BMW but then the music began and he had to lead in one of the bridesmaids, a pretty Norwegian girl named Astrid. After the ceremony he led her back out, his eyes searching the crowd for Annabel. There were over two hundred people in the church. He finally saw her outside smoking, her hat in her hand.
“Sorry, darling,” she said, kissing him. “I turned left at Salisbury instead of right. Foolish of me but what could I do? Didn’t think it made any sense to burst in during the ceremony. It’s the bride’s day and no one wants to turn around and see me.”
He wasn’t surprised. Annabel was late for everything. More likely she had lost track of time.
“Well, you’re here now.”
“How was the ceremony? No objections? No common law wife showed up to protest the nuptials?”
“No such luck,” he answered with a smile. They had recently become engaged. He had taken her father out to Claridge’s for lunch to ask for her hand. “Well, Shaw,” her father had said. “Annabel’s mother and I had hoped that you would propose. We are very happy for you both.” Then Annabel and her mother had turned up at dessert as prearranged and he ordered champagne to celebrate. They had been dating a year and many of their other friends had also become engaged. Annabel was twenty-six and two of her best friends were already pregnant for the second time.
“Look,” Shaw said, giving her a kiss on the cheek, “I have to get going. Photographs. I’ll see you later, okay?”
“We’re at the same table. I checked.”
“I hope so. I hardly know a soul here.” Annabel was a few years younger than Tony, hadn’t been to university, and Tony and she didn’t have any friends in common. Most of her friends were former classmates from the small girl’s school she had attended until she left at the age of sixteen to work as an au pair in Germany. Shaw and she had frequent fights about having to visit his friends all the time. She much preferred her parent’s little village, where they lived in an old rectory and hunted from November to April. At first he liked the idea of an English girl for a wife, along with her charming family and a comfortable place in one of England’s prettiest villages. Their wedding would be held there. His parents would come over from Connecticut. His best friend from Yale would be best man. His buddies from the sailing team. It would be like so many English country weddings, much like Tony and Louisa’s, even if Annabel’s parents’ house wasn’t as large as Tipping Bruton.
At dinner Shaw sat next to Annabel and Tony’s younger sister Clarissa. When the dancing began Tony and Louisa danced to the Fine Young Cannibal’s ‘She Drives Me Crazy.’ Shaw and Annabel joined in with the rest of the wedding party. Soon the dance floor was packed with sweating guests. They had been drinking since five. Many of the young men removed their jackets and loosened their bow ties. The women kicked off their shoes. The band played harder.
“I’ve got to pee,” shouted Annabel an hour later.
“All right,” he said, glad of a chance to rest.
They exited the dance floor through the throng of bodies. There had been a special trailer brought in that functioned as the ladies loo. There was a long line.
“Sorry,” she said.
“Don’t worry. It’s fine. I’ll go get us some more champagne and I’ll meet you at the table.”
The bar was packed with thirsty, sweaty guests. There were plastic garbage bins full of empty champagne and wine bottles. The bartenders could barely keep up. Shaw nearly turned and left.
He looked around and saw Sophie standing there. There was a roaring in his ears and he felt as though a small bomb had just exploded inside him. Despite the pushing and the noise, they were the only two people in the room.
“Hi, um, hello.”
It had been almost two years since he had seen her last. He hadn’t forgotten how beautiful she was. He could remember everything about her. The skin on her neck, her hands on his stomach. The way her breath smelled in the morning. Long nights, the sheets twisted around their feet. Mornings in bed. They had never fought until the very end.
“How are you?” he asked above the din.
“Good. I didn’t know you were coming.”
“You look beautiful.”
She bit her lip. It was a habit she had when she was feeling amorous.
“I missed you.” She reached out her hand and he grasped it, feeling its remembered softness.
“Come with me.” He led her outside the tent, beyond the guy lines, away from the ladies trailer and his table, past the other couples, down by the pavilion.
Surrounded by darkness he put his arms around her and wordlessly drew her to him, kissing her. She kissed him back, dissolving into him. The memory of love engulfing them both. They both felt an urgency, making up for lost time. Her hands under his jacket, pushing it off him. His hand on her hand on her breast, her nipple hardening under his touch, she unzipping his fly. Within moments she was on the ground, her skirt above her hips, her legs around his back, his jacket underneath her, shielding her from the cool grass. “Darling,” she gasped in his ear. “Darling, darling, darling.”
Afterwards, spent, they lay on the grass. Her head on his chest as so many times before. He was staring up at the stars. Only vaguely aware of the music pulsating from the tent. He hadn’t felt this peaceful in years. Since he had last seen her, in fact. “I’m so sorry, Shaw,” she said. “I was a shit to you. I was so scared.”
“Shhh. It’s all right now,” he answered, stroking her hair as though he had never stopped. “We’ve found each other again. I’m not going to lose you again.” They were right back where they had left off when it was good. He would tell Annabel. She could keep the ring. He felt terribly about her parents. They had always been so kind to him.
“No, you don’t understand,” she said, rolling onto her elbows, placing her cheek on his chest. He had forgotten her warmth. Their chemistry together. It was intoxicating. It was something he had never had with Annabel. With anyone.
“What don’t I understand?”
“It’s not as simple as that.”
“Why not? I love you. You love me.”
She sighed. “You remember Tony’s friend, Mark? The one who went to Cape Town?”
He said nothing.
“He returned home shortly before you went away.”
He nodded. It was all too easy to see where this was going. He wanted to get up, to run. To dissolve into the grass like a spilled drink. With an effort he remained still, barely breathing.
“The baby wasn’t yours. It was his. I had a paternity test. We’re married now.”
He sat up. For a moment he felt like crying. He hadn’t cried since he was a child. He couldn’t even remember the last time.
“I’m sorry. You were leaving and Mark was coming back. I thought I’d never see you again. That you’d go back home to the States and marry some American girl. Have American babies. And Mark’s a good man. A good father.”
“Then why did you…”
She kissed him. “Because I do love you. I always have. I always will. But it’s no good.”
He closed his eyes, slowly shaking his head.
“I have to go. Mark will be wondering what happened to me.”
She crouched down beside him and kissed him again on the cheeks and then the forehead. “Goodbye.”
He watched her flit away in the darkness, shoes in her hand, the light material of her dress ghost-like.
He thought of Annabel. By now she was probably wondering what had happened to him. Why he wasn’t waiting at the table like he said he would. How long had he been gone? Fifteen minutes? Twenty? She would be furious. What excuse would he give her? Did it even matter? Would she be able to sense his deception without him having to say a word, his guilt evident in his face, the grass stains on his jacket, the lingering smell of another women’s perfume.
He sighed and rose slowly to his feet, brushing his trousers with his hands. “Fuck,” he said. “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” He wanted a drink. A real drink. Not just champagne. But something with a kick. And a cigarette, even though he didn’t smoke. That was the trick. He’d get drunk. Not just tipsy, but blotto. Stinking. Pass out under a hedge. It was a wedding, after all. No doubt he wouldn’t be the only one.
The party was still going strong when he re-entered the tent. The table where he had been sitting was empty. He went to the bar and grabbed a bottle of whisky and retreated back to the darkness. He heard voices. A couple coming back from outside, walking in arm in arm, giggling in post-coital intimacy. The glow of a cigarette waving in the dark like a drunken firefly.
It was very dark. He could just make out the white of the man’s shirt. Walking up to them he said “Sorry. Do you have a cigarette?”
“Yes, um, sure,” said the man, someone he had never met before, fumbling inside his jacket and producing a gold case. By this time Shaw’s ear was attuned. The accent was very posh.
He then turned and looked at the woman on the other man’s arm. Her hair was slightly tousled and she was carrying her shoes in her hand.
“Oh God. Shaw,” said Annabel.
Shaw looked at them both and threw his head back and laughed. He was sorry to disappoint her parents but not for the reason he had thought.