The lemon was sharp and crisp, the gin and iced soda water welcome and bracing; ice chattered conversationally in cocktail glasses as the guests gossiped, posed for photographs and exchanged heady, well-meaning pleasantries. Smartly-dressed waiters slid between the gaps in the crowd, offering asparagus rolls, devilled eggs, salmon mousse. There was laughter and love in the air; cousins who had not seen each other for several years gripped arms and hands with firm affection, roaring together as they recalled haircuts, holidays, Christmases drunk on vermouth. Older relatives, glowing in the wrap of familial love, giggled and twinkled in a way they had not done for a long time. “Yes, a beautiful ceremony, so moving. Of course, we were disappointed that Ruby didn’t want a church service, but you know the young these days! And the hotel is splendid, very retro. A perfect setting, really.”
By the wide, art-deco staircase, the bride gathered with her parents and gripped the groom’s hand, smiling tightly through the last of the photographs. Beneath the long shimmering, silk dress, cut low on the back and gathered just under the breasts in an embroidered geometric bustle, her stomach muscles ached. Her friends had been stunned – “how beautiful you look, Ruby, and such a figure!” – but she felt nervous about the meal later, wondering how she could eat and keep a flat stomach. The food had been chosen with such precision; the prawn cocktail with guacamole, followed by steak garni, and finished with lemon meringue pie. It was important to make the right impression, even down to the food. Her mother had been quite insistent about the lemon meringue. Mrs Godfrey’s squashed-up ball of a face had become set and taut – like a cold blancmange – as the menu was decided upon, so many months ago, poised to burst into tears if the groom’s mother didn’t acquiesce to her choice of desert.
But Alistair’s mother was, thankfully, a considerate woman, even if she wasn’t really a desert woman. If anything, she preferred something more substantial, like a plate of cheese and fruit at the end of a meal. But she demurred to her son’s new mother-in-law, and smoothly underlined “Zesty Lemon Meringue Pie” on the list of choices so considerately offered by the hotel. Now that the functional part of the day over and the registrar had been rewarded with a clutch of pound notes, stuffed into his suit pocket – “here, my fellow, please take this as a token of our appreciation. No, no, my wife and I insist. Yes, I realise it isn’t necessary, but you read so beautifully” – Mrs Willis could turn her attention to the next stage of the proceedings. She leaned against the oak surround fireplace, waiting to catch the photographer’s eye. His task was nearly over. Almost everyone had been snapped, caught on film; happy drunken faces suspended in celluloid for the bride and groom to smile over later.
Almost all had been photographed – “the groom and his cousins, please. Right here, yes, followed by the bride with her grandparents” – all, except one. One woman had avoided the family groupings and warm, bubbling knot of friends. Thin and dressed in a pale lilac dress, she slipped to the end of the dining room, to where the tables were set out. It had been hard to keep the smile fixed on her face. Over here, her cheeks relaxed into bruises and her lips fell into their natural soft line.
Rich orange and yellow flowers in varying shades formed the table centre-pieces, their vibrant colours so brazen and forced that she felt like squinting. Instead she pulled out a chair and sat down, though the table setting indicated this was not her place and she didn’t belong here. Wandering around before the service, some of the older guests had been intrigued by the table plan, resting on a stand at the entrance to the room. She had heard their squeaks – “Ooh, Agnes, this shows us where we’re sitting. Isn’t that script just divine? Makes you feel like you’re in Hollywood, about to sit down with Betty Gable or Gloria Swanson. Imagine! They’ve thought of everything, haven’t they?” And they had, the woman had to agree privately. The day was just – perfect. Hideously, pompously perfect.
Somebody nearby said her name – “have you seen Lucy? How is she handling it today?” – and she ducked down, pretending to adjust the strapping on her platformed shoes. She didn’t think she could bear any sympathetic glances. They might curdle the half-bottle of red wine consumed in her room as she dressed, and who knew what kind of froth would spill from her mouth? As it was, the exquisite pain of the gift, sent by Alistair’s mother last night, was almost too much. A small box of chocolates with a card – “I am so glad you came, though I know today might be difficult. Chin up, darling” – and Lucy had tumbled head-first into her pillow, weeping. She knew there would be an end to such warmth now; Mrs Willis had a new daughter-in-law, after all, and no longer needed a surrogate.
She wondered if she should speak to her, to Angela Willis, the woman who had once embraced her with such tight affection. Maybe later, when Ruby was elsewhere. Of course, Lucy could be discreet; three years ago, when Alistair ended their relationship between the dessert and coffee – “would Madam care for a liqueur?” – the restaurant hummed on as usual. No one, least of all Alistair, noticed the tears leaking silently and slowly into the corners of her eyes. He had avoided looking into her face, after all. But maybe it would be better to wait until the morning, when it was all over; right now she wanted to stay on the periphery, out of the line of sight. It was more important to maintain at least a gleam of a veneer. She drummed her fingertips on the table, the glass and cutlery tinkling.
A string quartet struck up in the reception area and the gathering started to applaud. Two waiters edged into the dining room, wheeling in a white, tiered cake. The air in the room seemed to change; there was a surge of happiness that bounced upwards, towards the ceiling. The guests zipped with excitement and – Lucy was sure – with a little smugness at being part of such an immaculate occasion. “Oh, it’s exquisite! Look at the flowers – are they real, do you think, or made of icing?”
Suddenly, she had to get away. The scent of the flowers, the self-congratulatory joy shuttling around her in frenzied waves, Alistair looking so handsome – the bastard – it slid down upon Lucy like a crushing suffocating coat. Her skin seemed to break out with sweat and she felt dampness under her arms. If she didn’t leave now she thought she might pass out, or worse. Scream or something.
The guests were crowding round the cake, applauding the bride and groom as they posed for the last photographs, hands entwined around a silver knife. Lucy got up and drifted along the wall to the door. No one noticed. She was invisible at that moment; casting a look over her shoulder as she left the room, she saw Alistair, smiling at his new wife. She felt a squeeze about her heart.
The reception was empty, save for the musicians, so Lucy slipped away down a corridor. She could hear the thud and crash of the kitchens nearby, the engine of the hotel chugging away noisily. She thought there might be a staff staircase somewhere here, which she could use to escape to her room. The half bottle of wine left on the dresser was probably still drinkable. She trailed her fingertips along the wall, the raised inter-linked squares patterning the paper feeling Braille-like to the touch. The hotel really has gone in for the 1930s look, she thought. No wonder Ruby had chosen it; Lucy had overheard someone say that it had been in the same family for years, and they’d preserved much of the original decor. It was perfect for Ruby; even when they were at school together, she had been mad for vintage Hollywood and old black-and-white films. She kept her hair cropped and pinned close to her scalp, and wore sharply cut, zig-zaggy tops. They didn’t share clothes, Ruby and Lucy, despite being of a similar size. Lucy didn’t like the studied, deliberate reticence of the look. There was something arrogant about it. But there had been some swapping going on today between the rest of their gang – shoes, necklaces, make-up. No one had banged on Lucy’s door, though, with a request for lipstick or earings.
In the distance she could hear the buzz and chatter of guests as they drifted out of the dining room. Ruby had told her there would be an hour or so after photos before the meal. She didn’t have long, then, if she wanted to fortify her spirits before heading back, to sit alongside the girls with that fixed smile on her face. Lucy quickened her step.
It was cold on her landing and Lucy fumbled for the lock, her fingers trembling. She had thought to bring a lilac shawl; best to take it with her when she returned to the dining room. The key slipped into the lock and she stepped inside her small, single room.
There was a woman sitting in the armchair by the window. Lucy paused in the doorway, wondering if she had the wrong room. But there were her things on the bed – the balled-up tissues, the crumpled night-gown, the untouched box of chocolates. The wine on the dresser.
The woman in the window turned to face Lucy, looking directly at her, and smiled. She had short, black hair held back from her forehead with a single purple clip. Her trousers were long and wide-legged, and she wore a white, shiny, figure hugging blouse. A cigarette was balanced between her fingertips.
Now starting to feel annoyed, Lucy closed the door firmly and stepped towards the bed. “I think this is my room.”
The woman’s smile widened and she nodded. “Quite possibly! But I needed to escape for a bit from…” – she flapped her hand in the direction of the wedding – “You don’t mind, do you darling?”
“Well,” Lucy began uncertainly. Annoyance was replaced with confusion. This woman had to be one of the guests, though she didn’t recognise her. “I’d rather you didn’t smoke.”
“Of course,” and the woman reached out for an ashtray. Lucy looked at it, puzzled. She hadn’t noticed it in her room before. “Unless you would like one?” The woman held out an enamel cigarette case.
A feeling of recklessness doused Lucy like a cold splash of water. She hadn’t smoked since school. During their final exams, she, Ruby, Cara, and Philly had pooled their money, buying a packet of cigarettes every week to smoke at the top of the playing fields, far away from the buildings. They felt terribly grown up about it, standing there, passing a scarlet-tipped white stick between them. For those intense few months of revision, when the rest of the world faded away into fuzziness, the cigarette became their glowing baton of friendship and belonging. Once, sometimes twice a day, one of them would look up from the books and nod towards the sun-lit grass. There were no classes as they neared the exams, so no teachers to slip away from. They would stride up to the top of the field and bunch together, taking it in turns to take a coughing gulp on the fag. And, despite the revision and the ever-present headache, Lucy remembered those few months as a fiercely happy time. They seemed to have formed a solid rock-like bond, those girls, strengthened by weekend trips to the disco where they danced and drank away the pressure to do well; rhythmic , thumping music became the drum-beat of expectation – to pass the exams, to be the first from their family to get to University, to make their parents proud. And, of course, they all sensed but never said that things would not be the same once they parted. Lucy breathed deeply, sucking in the smell of the woman’s cigarette. The scent drew her back to that time, to the field and her friends. She looked at the enamel box on offer and took one.
The woman lit it for her, flicking a silver lighter with casual ease. She sat back in her chair, watching.
Lucy inhaled deeply. The tobacco felt old and musty in her mouth and filled her chest with heat. She blew out, watching blue smoke drift towards the ceiling. She felt deliciously light-headed. “Well, I don’t know about you, but I can’t smoke without a drink. Wine?”
The woman raised an index finger, nodding. Lucy uncorked the bottle on the dresser, sniffed, and filled two glasses. Then, pushing aside the night-gown, she sat on the edge of the bed. “Cheers.”
They raised their glasses to each other and drank. Lucy ground her teeth against the red warmth. She no longer needed a shawl. “I wouldn’t mind knowing the name of the person who broke into my room.”
The black hair bounced as the woman threw back her head and laughed. “Oh, I didn’t break in, darling! I had a key!”
“A key to my room?”
The woman winked conspiratorially. “My sister works on the reception. Sometimes she lets me take a room if I want to stay over. She thought this was empty, by the way.”
“Well it isn’t!” Despite her sharpness, Lucy was intrigued. “So you’re not a guest at the wedding then?”
“No, no. Visiting, darling. Just visiting. And I’m Evelyn.”
Ridiculously, Lucy wondered if she should shake her hand. “Lucy.”
“So there’s a wedding then?” Evelyn puckered her pink, coral mouth around her cigarette.
“Yes. Alistair and Ruby. My ex and my best friend.” Lucy was surprised at the bald way this sentence seemed bounce from her lips. It was the first time she had spoken about Alistair and Ruby so bluntly. Even with the others, with the girls, she held something back. She had shrugged off their down-cast mutterings about Ruby’s new boyfriend when they first got together, even though it was only a few months after Alistair had dumped her. She had pretended not to see the ring on Ruby’s finger – the ring she had hoped would be bought for her – until it was absurd to close her eyes to it any longer.
Evelyn blew a lovely smoke ring, her eyes wide. The ring evaporated, drifting towards the ceiling. “That must be interesting for you.”
“It is, somewhat.” And Lucy rocked softly on the bed, her narrow bottom crackling over the springs. How interesting it was that Ruby, who knew everything about her, should end up with her cast-off. That Ruby, who once bundled bloodied sheets into the washing machine after a teenage sleep-over – flapping away Lucy’s embarrassment and promising not to tell her mother – would now be sleeping with the man who had once, drunkenly, rolled over in her single, student bed and pinned Lucy against the wall. She’d been unable to wriggle free and had eventually drifted off to sleep; when she awoke her shoulder and arm were numb with pins and needles. Sipping her wine, Lucy imagined how Ruby would feel if Alistair did that to her. She might find it interesting but, Lucy suspected, Ruby might feel like she had done at that moment; unimportant, incidental. Alistair had a knack that way.
Evelyn’s eyes were narrow and watchful. “I don’t think you’ve talked much about this, darling.”
Lucy snorted, tears gathering at the edges. Who could she talk to? Angela Willis had been sympathetic, but cautious. And the girls – their awkwardness and torn sympathy, the way they rattled between careful embrace and studded words of frustration. It was too difficult to talk to them with their contorted allegiances. She sighed shakily.
Evelyn kicked out her heels, roping her legs together. The silk of her trousers made an easy swishing noise. “I don’t blame you for getting away from the crowd for a while.”
“Is that what you’re doing?”
“What, getting away from the crowd?” Evelyn crushed out the end of her cigarette and gave a little half smile. “Yes, something like that.”
“To be honest, I miss his mother more than him,” Lucy said quietly. “Alistair’s mother. She was so…there was no falseness to her, you know? Nothing fake. What you saw was what you got, but she was kind.”
“An underrated quality.”
“Yes, I think so. It’s important to be kind, isn’t it?” Lucy’s tongue felt thick in her mouth and she wondered if she were drunk. It wouldn’t be surprising. “Angela considers everyone. Do you know, she detests lemon meringue pie, but Ruby says she’s agreed to have it as the desert?”
Evelyn raised her eyebrows. “Fancy! So your friend. Ruby. Alistair’s new wife. Is she pretty?”
Lucy thought of Ruby. The best-dressed of all of them. The one who always seemed to turn heads when they went out. She was beautiful, of course she was. But what else? At school, the others had to help her with homework. She wasn’t clever, not like Cara. She wasn’t funny, not like Philly. And she was dominated by her soft squash of a mother. But she was sweet-hearted and elegant, and they loved her. Even after everything, Lucy could not harden herself to her old friend.
“Yes,” Lucy said and drained her glass. Her bladder started to ache. “Very. But I don’t know if I envy her or not. Alistair could be very selfish.” She remembered the times he’d been late to meet her, or hadn’t turned up at all. He’d been caught up with something, he explained later – work, the lads, a football game. The feeling of being overlooked became familiar during their two years together; it sat alongside her as she waited alone at the bar or at the restaurant. It held her hand as she watched the pub door swing open and someone other than Alistair strode through. It rose up and embraced her as he ended their relationship in that restaurant in such a public but cowardly way.
“Well, darling, it sounds as though you’ve had a lucky escape.” Evelyn tapped an index finger against her cheekbone. Her brown eyes glittered.
“So what do you do?”Lucy asked. “What do you escape from?”
“You said your sister lets you stay here sometimes. Are you taking a break from something?”
Evelyn cleared his throat. “Yes, you could say that. I’m a journalist.” She gave a short laugh. “Listen to me! I’m far too pompous. No, what I do is write a column for a London paper about parties, society events.”
Lucy hesitated. She had no idea what that involved. “That must be – interesting.”
Evelyn laughed again at the repetition of her word. “Not really, darling. One party blends into another. There’s not much difference between a charity luncheon, or a book launch. Or a wedding, for that matter. They all follow the same pattern. You watch. This time next year the guests won’t remember much about today.
Lucy felt sadly hopeful. “I wouldn’t mind that. I wouldn’t want them to remember me, anyway.”
Evelyn suddenly leaned forward, sharp elbows resting on knees. “But why not, darling! Why not make it really interesting? Have a huge hissy fit in the middle of the meal! Call Alistair an utter shit and your friend a fool! Throw the lemon meringue at him! That would make today stand out, all right. Because, really, the parties I write about are so fake, full of frippery. A life on the party circuit is droll, darling. All these masks that people wear, all the poses they adopt to make a perfect photo or a perfect day. They don’t realise it all fades away to nothing in the end.”
“How long have you done it for?”
“Written about parties? It feels like forever.” Evelyn cupped her elbows in her hands. “One does get drawn in. I mean, there’s a sparkle about parties, after all. We all like to feel important once in a while, don’t we? You know, to feel part of an occasion.
Lucy had a headache. The wine and cigarette mingled dangerously, and she wondered if she might be sick. And, for some reason, the sharpness of Evelyn’s bones, jutting like coat-hangers through her clothes, made her uncomfortable. She avoided looking at her. What Lucy wanted to do now was to lie down and go to sleep. She thought longingly of pulling the quilt over her head and relaxing into a grave of cocooning darkness.
Evelyn seemed to notice the change in the room. Without speaking, she stood up and smoothed down her trousers. Lucy was surprised at how tall she was. Her figure was boy-like and angular.
“Thank you for your company, darling,” Evelyn said. She smiled, baring small white teeth. “You can’t know how lovely it is to have a conversation with someone again.”
What an odd thing to say. Lucy stood up, wondering again if she should shake Evelyn’s hand. “Where are you going now?”
“I’m not sure!” and Evelyn gave a little laugh. “I might drift along the corridor to where the action is.”
“Always the journalist,” Lucy said wanly, attempting a joke.
“Something like that.” Evelyn looked at her and hesitated. Her lips rounded on the edge of speech. “If I can tell you anything, darling, it’s to get out into the centre of things. Don’t be afraid to be noticed. Not so Alistair can wonder what he’s missing – I don’t mean that. Just…don’t hang on the sidelines. Don’t spend too long hiding away.”
“Well – thank you.” Lucy plaited her fingers together awkwardly. She treaded warily around those with opinions voiced so openly. But time was ticking on and the wedding meal would be served soon. “Look, let me use the bathroom and I’ll come with you. We can walk down to reception together.”
She didn’t wait for Evelyn’s agreement, and slipped into the bathroom. She sat down, relieving herself quickly, and then checked her hair in the mirror. Not too dishevelled. Maybe she could change her lipstick. Something bright and red, even if it did clash with her dress.
“What do you think?” she asked, smacking her lips as she opened the bathroom door. But the question fell into an empty room. Evelyn had gone.
Lucy stood still. She didn’t know whether to feel relieved or offended. The bedroom door was slightly ajar, as though Evelyn hadn’t wanted her to hear the door close and know she had left. She’d taken her cigarette case as well – and the ashtray too, from the look of it. Lucy touched the table upon which it had sat. How strange, to take an ashtray with her. What an unusual woman.
Lucy stepped out into the corridor, shutting the bedroom door with a soft click. Up ahead, the wedding guests buzzed with conversation and excitement. She thought she heard a loud voice announcing something, probably the start of the meal. She quickened her step – it was one thing to stand out, but another to be rude and absent.
Nearing the dining hall, she arrived at the reception. An elderly woman sat behind the desk, a chrome lampshade throwing a subdued light across the wooden surface. She looked up and smiled as Lucy approached.
“Excuse me, I wonder if you could help.” Lucy smiled hopefully.
“I’ll try!” The grey hair bobbed with enthusiasm.
“I’m looking for someone. Not a guest. Well, not someone in the wedding party.”
“Right… someone who works here, then?”
“No. Well, she doesn’t. She said her sister worked on reception, though.”
“Oh. Well, there’s only me and the Polish lady who works during the week. I just help out at weekends now, you know.” A wrinkled brow creased and the woman tilted her head to the side. I’m old and doing my best, the gesture said.
“Look, I’m not trying to get anyone into trouble but this lady -” Lucy hesitated, thinking of written warnings and red forms going into files. “This lady I’m looking for – Evelyn – she said that her sister gave her a key to a room. That room was mine. I don’t mind that so much – in fact we had a nice chat – it’s just that I’d like to speak to her again.”
But the receptionist wasn’t listening. Lucy could tell from the troubled way her eyes had glazed over and the wobble of her bottom lip. The woman’s stout chest had started to rise up and down, quickly, alarmingly. Fat fingers gripped the wooden desk, smearing the surface with sweat.
“Evelyn, did you say?”
“That’s right,” Lucy said cautiously. “Tall lady, short hair. She’d be about thirty or so.”
“She was twenty-eight.” The woman’s mouth barely moved.
“She was twenty-eight. I’m her sister.”
Lucy stared. This grey receptionist must be at least seventy, if not older. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
The woman’s lip was now trembling uncontrollably and, much to Lucy’s discomfort, a fat pearly tear slid down one cheek. “Is everything all right?” Lucy asked, her voice barely audible. Her stomach began to contort in a throbbing knot.
“She hasn’t been here for years,” and the woman wiped her eyes shakily. “The guests used to see her, from time to time. She has favourite rooms that she likes to visit. Rooms I let her stay in when she was – you know, really here.”
“But I haven’t seen her for nearly ten years. I would like to, though. Very much.” The receptionist began to weep freely. “Evelyn was such a doll. Immaculately dressed, so stylish. Did she have that enamel cigarette box?”
From what felt like the end of a long corridor, Lucy nodded.
“Our father bought her that, just before she went into hospital. He said if they repaired her lung, she could keep it as a souvenir of the cigarettes she’d given up. He planned on bringing her back here, to recuperate.” The woman blew her nose noisily. “But there wasn’t much they could do for lung cancer in those days. She did love to smoke.”
“I’m sorry, this is a joke, isn’t it?” and relief washed over Lucy. Had Alistair set this up, as one last trick – a sort of token of their doomed relationship? Two ghost-like women talking to each other, sharing their sadness? But as Lucy peered at the receptionist, relief faded. The tears and trembling shoulders were real.
“I’m sorry if she disturbed you.” The grey woman paused. “She does make quite an impression on certain guests. We had one lady who insisted on changing rooms and had three brandies before she could tell the hotel manager what had happened. But others have said how much they’ve enjoyed talking to her. Evelyn always did have a knack of saying the right thing.”
“It must have been her training as a journalist,” Lucy murmured, unable to shake the feeling of being tricked.
“Oh no,” and the woman shook her head. “Evelyn wasn’t a journalist. Is that what she told you? She wanted to be one, had her heart set on it. But then she married a man with a lot of money. He didn’t want her to work. She spent all her time going to parties and charity events. I think she hated it.”
“She did mention the parties,” Lucy said faintly.
“Well.” The receptionist hooted into her handkerchief again. “She might have gone into it, if she’d stayed well after he left her. But the shock did for her, I think. Brought on the problem with her lung. I don’t think she could quite believe he’d done it. He went off with a young slip of a girl that worked in his office. He had the brass to bring her to Evelyn’s funeral.” She shuddered. “Bastard.”
Lucy looked over her shoulder towards the wedding party. Ruby and Alistair were lining up with their parents, shaking hands with the guests as they entered the dining room for dinner. Fixed smiles and flouncy tosses of heads propelled them further into the day, into the joyful occasion. She thought of Evelyn, so beautifully dressed and so arresting in speech and manner. She wondered if what she was told was true. The man – that man who left her – he must have been a fool. Lucy shook her head, trying to clear her thoughts, confused for a second as to whom she was thinking about.
But then something shifted in her stomach. It didn’t really matter what was true, in the end. What mattered was the fresh, wonderful realisation that Lucy knew – finally, gladly – what she should do.
“Well, thank you,” she said, turning back to the desk. “I’m not sure what for, exactly. I mean, it’s been a most unusual day. I think I have to join the guests now. But – ” and she reached out to take the receptionist’s hand and smiled, brightly – “I think I know what I need to do. If you do see Evelyn again, will you tell her…”
“What?” The receptionist tilted her head to the side again, nudged back into a service mode.
Lucy stepped away, towards the dining room. Over her shoulder she smiled. “Tell her, I never really liked lemon meringue pie either.”
Rebecca Burns is an award-winning writer of short stories, over thirty of which have been published online or in print. Her story collections – Catching the Barramundi (2012) and The Settling Earth (2014 – were both longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Award. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011, winner of the Fowey Festival of Words and Music Short Story Competition in 2013 (and runner-up in 2014), winner of the Black Pear Press Short Story Competition in 2014 and, in 2016, was been listed for competitions including the Evesham Festival of Words and Music, the Chipping Norton Festival, the Sunderland Short Story Award, and the Green Lady Press Short Story Award. She has also been profiled as part of the University of Leicester’s “Grassroutes Project”, a project that showcases the 50 best transcultural writers in the county. Her debut novel, The Bishop’s Girl, was published by Odyssey Books in September 2016.
© 2012, Rebecca Burns