“Okay, okay. I’ll come, all right? Just promise me there won’t be a chocolate fountain.”
Fiona burst into one of her incongruously ribald barks of laughter. Earlier in the evening, a loudly appreciative audience of their peers had reacted with similar raucous mirth to his account of the Garthamlock Wedding.
Now they were in her flat, and she winked at him across the kitchen table. “Knowing the Hay-Stevens, it’s more likely to be a Bolly fountain.”
They grinned and raised their glasses to each other, and Alexander McCadden knew that the moment should have been perfect. Here they were, a golden pair of promising undergrads, lately repaired from the sort of West End bar the Herald invariably described as trendy. They were good looking, clever, ambitious and In A Relationship. The moment should have been – would have been – perfect, had it not been for the Garthamlock Wedding.
Even as his mother had sealed his fate by appealing to his sense of family -“Yer goin Eck an that’s that” – he had known it would be worth it for the comedic value it would later assume with Fiona and his university friends, in a wine bar and of an evening such as this.
“Please stop calling me Eck, mum. I’ve told you a thousand times, it’s Zander now.”
Expertly deaf ears. “Ye’ll need tae hire a kilt. An none o they stupid lime green wans.” Then, relenting: “Ye can leave the buttonhole tae me, darlin. Ah’ll speak tae oor Gemma. Her next door neighbour’s daughter’s got a gardin.”
He had edited out this conversation, of course, because how else was he to deal with domestic ennui such as his mother’s accent and the familial contraction of his forename? He had always been Wee Eck, in order to distinguish him from his late father, and it had never bothered him, not until some Freshers’ Week wise guy had changed it to Shrek. “She’s Fiona, see? So you must be Shrek! See? Geddit?” It was tiresome, and it had stuck, and his pride was dented, so when Fiona began some time later to call him Zander he felt at once flattered and liberated.
The Garthamlock Wedding had swept through the scheme like a pandemic: resistance was futile. The bride-to-be was Zander’s cousin, a cherished only child, and the occasion of her marriage was to be lavish.
“Ridikkilus. They’ve damn near bankruptit theirsels. A horse-drawn carriage! Through Garthamlock! Hope tae God they don’t get mugged.”
Now, four days after the event, Zander the raconteur was on form and in his element: “No muggers were harmed in the making of this marriage. Alas, however, it did rain upon the parade.”
The resultant hilarity had been a little exaggerated, no doubt on account of the hours of drinking they had all put in. Zander silenced it with an authoritarian shake of his right index finger. “But! But! Bridal spirits remained buoyant, even though no-one had thought to bring a brolly so her temporary tattoo – My Little Pony – had run something dreadful and her hair extensions were coming undone.” Guffaws. Sniggers.
He didn’t mention the admirable resilience with which Michelle had carried off the ruination of her fairytale entrance. She had stood in the doorway, drookit but undiminished, attending to a squawk of little boys and girls, some of whom were gleefully shaking loose the few remaining petals that clung to their dripping bunches of flowers.
“God love her,” empathised Zander’s mother, looking on fondly as the bride righted her collapsing up-do. “If only yer dad wiz here! It rained on oor wedding day too, y’know.” She fished a long length of loo paper from the new handbag.
Zander had turned away from his mother’s misty nostalgia and watched, with the professional detachment of the social commentator, the now receding form of the bridal party as it made its way down the aisle to the accompaniment of Celine Dion belting out with startling incongruity – or perhaps prescience – My Heart Will Go On. Progress was halting on account of the ten or so bodies jostling for space: the bedraggled but brave bride and her father, Uncle George, himself a bit damp and shiny; the bride’s best pal and maid of honour (surprisingly comely); two further bridesmaids, and an unruly throng of flower girls and page boys. The colour scheme was an indisputably eye-catching combination of purple and yellow.
“Think Orange Walk,” the wag Zander instructed his wine bar audience. “With that unmistakable sweaty sheen of polyester.” Whoops and wolf whistles.
Deliberately, he missed out the patience, kindness and good humour of this extended bridal group. He did not describe the moment when bride met post-conflict wheelchair-bound groom at the altar and he took his large starched hired white handkerchief, reached up to her reaching down, and gently dried her face. The love was unmistakable. The congregation burst into cheers, tears and applause. But such a moment was not the stuff of satire.
“An extended bridal procession,” he elucidated, “in every sense: veil, hair, eye lashes, nails. A cast of thousands.”
To be fair to Zander, he did not know that three of the younger members of the bridal group had recently lost their mother to cancer, and that they had been drafted in late in an attempt to give them something to look forward to. And how could he have known, from behind, that one other child had Down’s Syndrome?
Bride and groom – husband and wife – proceeded at the ponderous pace of The Power of Love up the aisle and into the rain of Garthamlock. Out came the smartphones. Photos were snapped and video footage was shot on the rain-slick steps of Blawarthill Parish Church. Coloured raindrops of confetti showered through the smirr. The tight knot of hopeful kids unraveled on the pavement into its component strands and scrambled for the coins flung – shining slipstream! – from the bridal limo and Big Jim McCann’s private-hire coach. Zander remembered suddenly and with absolute clarity the childhood excitement of this moment: the push and shove for small change, the later bitter-sweet comparisons outside the Paki’s once the gains had been spent on Dainties, Fruit Salads and Black Jacks. But this was a strictly private series of thoughts.
“And when finally we get to the reception, what awaits us in the foyer but….” And here Zander paused for effect, “yes, yes; an unavoidable expanse of vertiginous swirling carpeting – and?” he demanded theatrically. He gave the gloating assembly a moment to make its own outlandish suggestions before delivering his punch line: “…a chocolate fountain.”)
Once the general glee had subsided, Fiona said, quietly, at his side, “You should have taken me along. To ease the pain.”
His showman’s adrenalin rush was replaced with a hot wash of shame. Because another editorial cut to the Garthamlock Wedding had been his amorous encounter later in the evening with the maid of honour.
“Ah, Fi,” he breathed, raising his eyes to the ceiling rather than look directly at her, “you know I would have loved to, but -”
“Liar.” Her smile softened the truth for them both. “Don’t tell me on the one hand it’s no-expense-spared and then expect me to believe there was no ‘and partner’ on your invitation. You know,” she continued, still smiling, “you can’t put it off for ever. Sooner or later you’re going to have to out me to your family.”
“You’re not ready. They’re not ready. Christ knows, I’m not ready!” He camped up the horror, but he was quite serious. How could he begin to reconcile Fiona and family? How could he effect the requisite psychological morph to be simultaneously Eck from Garthamlock and Zander from Gilmorehill?
A month passed. A month in which he struggled to forget the incident with the maid of honour, whilst still extracting maximum amusement amongst his clever chums with tales of the speeches (impenetrable syntax); the buffet meal (fusion cuisine: pakora, KFC, haggis fritters); the first dance (The Woman in Red. Confusing); the karaoke (come back Jimmy Shand, all is forgiven); and the increasingly chaotic collection of all ages around the chocolate fountain (a monument of scatological splendour.)
And now, Fiona had received a wedding invitation and wanted him to accompany her, and whilst he really did dread the moment when the two poles of his planet would meet, he felt perfectly confident about moving in Fiona’s circles. After all, he was intelligent and personable, quite the young man about town these days: cultured and educated; smart, witty and confident. Without being vain, he knew he made attractive and interesting company. And so, whilst he was not ready to take Fiona to Garthamlock, he embraced this second wedding in as many months as an opportunity to showcase his reinvented self.
If only he hadn’t done what he’d done with the maid of honour. An indiscretion he interpreted as an atavistic imperative to conform to type, though that could just be the Social Anthropology talking.
He borrowed a kilt from a friend of a friend. It was, as his mother would have opined, a stupid lime green wan, and somewhat too large on the waist; but it saved him the hire fee, and sat fashionably low-slung on his hips. Edgy, he thought.
The venue was a red sandstone Scots Baronial pile in the country and Zander felt the faintest tingle of apprehension as they alighted from the guests’ coach. It appeared that this was not a hotel, as he’d assumed, but a private home such as one saw only in waiting room curly copies of Scottish Field. The grounds rose behind the building and disappeared under azaleas and rhododendrons in full and showy bloom. From the facade, archetypically clipped lawns obliged with the proverbial sweep to the shores of the loch. He stood up straight, regretting but ready to brazen out the outlandish kilt and the Doc Martins.
Fiona slipped her arm through his as they made their way to the marquee.
“Welcome to the Hay-Stevens’,” she murmured.
“Christ. Tell me again how you know this girl.”
“Ah, you know how it is. Shared history and all that…Of course, I haven’t seen her in a long time. Apart from her parents I probably won’t know anyone.” She leaned across and seized both his hands in hers. “That’s why it’s so great you came, Zander. Having you here just makes it so much easier. Plus,” she gave him an arch look, “I get to show off my gorgeous boyfriend.”
For all his painstaking sang-froid, Zander blushed with pleasure. “You’re the gorgeous one, Fi,” he replied, surprising himself with a rare sincerity.
He would push the memory of the maid of honour to the back of his mind. An aberration, that was all. He had left all of that behind him: the council scheme and the comprehensive school and the careless shagging. He loved Fiona, and with her by his side he would move onwards and upwards.
Posies of creamy buds and a single but vast arrangement of lilies adorned the interior of the marquee, where gilt chairs were set in orderly readiness for the ceremony. A string quartet strummed some classical stuff, very softly. Kilted ushers – in real, owner-occupied tartan – smilingly distributed vellum orders of service and smoothly escorted guests to seats. Real hymns were sung and everyone knew the words. Some famous soprano sang some famous aria. The groom kissed the bride. Zander followed with strict observance the perfectly modulated restraint of it all and surprised himself with a sudden longing for the unfettered emotions of Garthamlock.
The congregation emerged to brilliant sunshine and the accompaniment of a single piper. Zander and Fi found themselves by mysterious but natural gravitational force attached to the cluster around the bridal group, now smiling and mingling on the sloping lawns while aproned waiters proffered champagne and canapés. The bridal gown was an ivory silk sheath, inviting (amongst other thoughts) an unfavourable comparison with the rain-spotted punctured puffball of Garthamlock. With some pleasure, Zander noted the sun-kissed slenderness of the female guests: no fake baked muffin tops here. With some equal dismay, he noted that their escorts all looked like Bear Grills or Dan Snow: chiseled, capable, confident. Reminding himself that he was not afraid, he looked everyone in the eye, grasping hands in a firm handshake. Innumerable self-introductions were successfully negotiated.
They made their way to Table Six in the deftly reconfigured marquee. The gilt chairs had been gift-wrapped in pale linen, big bows tied at their backs. Further introductions ensued. Giles. Piers. Ben.
“Tim, “clipped a lanky, poofy looking bloke. Zander did not so much follow as intuit the reptile flick of the glance down the lime-green, too-large, not-owned kilt.
“Eck. Um, Al.” Christ. What was the matter with him, striving for the requisite monosyllable?
“Zander, actually.” Fuck, messed that up.
The lanky poofy bloke had lost interest and moved off anyway, but Zander’s relief was to be short lived: he had seated himself on Fi’s other side.
The speeches were witty and engaging, though the rugby in-jokes were a little too esoteric for Zander and he was distracted by an increasing need to keep tabs on the lanky poofy bloke trying his luck on Fi’s far side. The food was classy British simplicity. Conversation was a polite and impersonal hum. Fiona pressed her thigh against his. He felt an enormous sense of well-being. All he needed to do was to keep the maid of honour in her place.
Out on the lantern-lit terrace and partaking freely of the free fizz whilst the marquee was cleared yet again – this time for dancing – Zander waved his arm in vague consent when Fiona said she was just going off for a minute. He perched on the cope stone of a low wall and watched with proprietorial pride as she weaved away down the lawns. He saw how she moved with the same languid ease of so many of these guests, the lazy pace that said, why would I want to rush anywhere when life is so pleasant right here? In Garthamlock, people moved with graceless speed, heads down in readiness to storm the exit before fire, flood or some other socio-economic fate caught them up.
“May I?” A cultured voice spoke over his shoulder.
Without waiting for a reply, the speaker settled herself beside him, gently easing off her shoes. LK Bennett, he noticed.
They exchanged unfocused smiles. He searched for an uncharacteristically elusive opening gambit, but fortunately she took the lead.
“That’s quite a kilt.”
He glanced down ruefully at the lime green. “S’not mine. Jus’ wearing it for a friend.”
“No, no – I like it. It’s…distinctive. Singles you out from the crowd, yeah?”
More vague mutual smiling. Then, “But to be honest, I know who you are anyway. Zander, right?”
He felt a sudden weight, an exhaustion. He was drunk, and also very thirsty. In fact, it seemed to him that Fiona had been gone a long long time, and he could really go a pint of heavy. He had a momentary urge to correct her, to tell her No, my name is Alexander. Proudly polysyllabic. But she cut across his reverie.
“Fiona’s bit of rough.”
He blinked at her stupidly. “Sorry?”
She laughed. “That’s what she calls you, isn’t it? It’s your pact,” and here she made that really annoying inverted commas gesture with the index and middle fingers of each hand, “Bit of rough” and “posh totty”, isn’t that what you call each other?”
Zander made a sound as unintelligible as it was non-committal. He was struggling to assimilate the knowledge that Fi had revealed that much of their private chat to….well, anyone, really.
“Ah, don’t be angry,” she soothed, perfectly unperturbed. “She’s just, like, so happy to be with you? She really does love you, yeah?”
Zander looked at her, concentrating hard on conveying the correct level of silent interrogation. It was difficult, the fresh air having colluded with the champagne to render him a bit slower than he would have liked.
She laughed, blithely unaware of the glower gathering on his face. “She’s over in the marquee; she’s had us all in stitches about that wedding you were at last month? Your cousin’s, yeah? That chocolate fountain? Hilarious!”
Zander nodded weakly, hoping thus to indicate that their tete-a-tete had reached its natural conclusion, and carefully got to his feet.
“Lovely to talk to you, er…” he hazarded. “But – duty calls. Y’ know how it is…”
Without waiting for her response, he lurched away from her sly comments and her expensive footwear. He must find Fi. Where the fuck was she? By Christ, he was going to let her have it. Bit of fucking rough? Posh fucking totty? And worst of all: how fucking dare she make fun of the Garthamlock Wedding?