28th November 2017, St Aloysius Church, Wells, Somerset.
His sister half-sings, half-shouts the lyrics of a nineties rock song across the hushed congregation of the church. There is laughter, there are tears. I can almost feel everyone’s thoughts buzzing above us. If only he were here to see this. But if he were here, we wouldn’t be. His sister continues her speech, wiping tears from her eyes. Her hair hangs down to her waist like a mermaid’s, she wears pink lipstick and pink shoes in contrast with her black dress. She’s too young to be up there. It’s all I can think as I look around the church. Too young to be here, we’re too young.
We stand near the back, packed close together, holding each other up. The doors are left open as people fill the church and spill out into the car park, paying their respects amongst Ford Focuses and Nissan Micras. A question lingers at the back of my mind: Would it have made a difference? If he’d known how many people would be here, would he still have done it? But it’s a useless question. I push it down, place it with all the other unanswerables that have been swirling around my head lately.
I wrestle a pack of tissues from my bra – the only place to put them, as my funeral garments are short on pockets and my bag is so tiny it barely fits my phone – and pass them to Willow, then Nai. Willow’s been clutching my hand since we left her parents’ house this morning, as though she’s afraid of losing me too. Having doled out tissues one-handed and wiped my own face, I return my other hand to its place around Nai’s waist. It crosses my mind that not many people have come prepared. Their tears flow down their faces without any intervention by handkerchiefs or tissues. I would expect those to be top of the funeral ‘to-take’ list, but perhaps trying to staunch the flow would be like trying to mop up the Thames with a tampon.
My mind is straying, but I try to concentrate on his sister’s speech. It’s hard not to think how I would feel standing where she is, saying goodbye to the person I’d grown up with, argued with and loved in equal measure, the person who was as much me as me. I squeeze Willow’s hand harder and she returns the pressure. His sister sits down, making way for his father, who stands and takes a swig from a hip flask, then another. The rules of the church are forgotten today; this is no longer a house of God, this is whatever his family needs it to be. His mother clasps her hands before her, whispering prayers through tears. It is she who needs God, who has the comfort of believing her son has simply been relocated, rather than gone forever. I wonder what it must be like to believe the clichés: he’s in a better place, he’s with God now. Must be nice. Better than eternal darkness.
It’s tough to get my head around the idea that he’s in this room, chilling out in front of us, all dressed up in a wooden box. My gaze keeps returning to it, though I’m trying not to look. It’s adorned with reefs of white flowers, and a stuffed giraffe balanced on top. I wonder if that’s going into the incinerator with him. I try to think whether we ever talked about death, or God, or any of this shit. All that comes to mind is a late-night conversation, after several bottles of wine, perhaps a few spliffs too, in which we invented our own afterlife. I believe there were giant bumblebees and deer that carried pocket watches. I hope he made it there.
The ceremony ends, and we make our way to the wake. It’s twenty people deep at the bar. Everyone’s putting shots of whisky in their beer. There are classmates here I haven’t seen since leaving school, but for once no awkward small-talk is required. I hug my friends close to me. We try to force buffet food down our throats, knowing we need to line our stomachs for the night ahead. The dried-out sandwiches turn to ash in our mouths, and we wash them down with more beer.
By the time the wake finishes, we’re all staggering on Bambi legs, dehydrated from tears and booze. His local pub is holding the afterparty. Can I call it that? Or is it an after-wake? Whatever it is, we spend the night dancing to his favourite songs. His closest friends are taken home first, too drunk to stay ‘til the end. We shout, we cry, we laugh. We have to laugh. I can see the guilt on people’s faces as they do, ashamed of finding any enjoyment in today’s bleak proceedings, but it helps. Pint after pint is emptied, glasses scattered all about, a desperate drunkenness taking over. Willow and I headbang wildly to Nirvana, almost falling over, then slow-dance across the floor to Green Day’s ‘Good Riddance’. Her tears trickle down my forehead and I can feel her pain as if it’s my own. My best friend, my partner in crime, the only reason I’m still standing – just.
Outside, the frosty air is heavy with nicotine. People sit on wooden benches, chain-smoking the pain away. Someone is always crying, their friends gathering to comfort them, before the baton passes to the next person. We drink and dance and weep into the early hours, then take each other by the arms and exit into the empty streets. A group of us sway back to Willow’s house to end the night, passing out in a tangle of limbs on her sofa and floor. No-one wants to be alone.
This story was originally published by Bandit Fiction as part of the Bandit Fiction Presents… series of digital issues. These issues remain freely available, and by purchasing one, you’ll be supporting us to continue doing what we love doing: bringing the best works from new and emerging writers to the masses.
14th April 2018, Parish Church of St Ida, Wells, Somerset.
The bride’s sister sings an acoustic cover of a noughties pop-punk song across the hushed congregation of the church. Bride and groom walk down the aisle together, no-one given to anyone. I stand with the wedding party, trying not to think about the last time I was in a church, or what lay where I now stand. But every time I look in front of me, the best men are there, and I can only see who’s missing. He was the bride’s cousin and the groom’s best friend. If not for him, they’d never have met, we wouldn’t be here. The ceremony begins. Today’s vicar is family – able to tell embarrassing stories about the groom. There is laughter, there are tears. I can feel that same thought in the air. If only he were here. And, for a second, I find myself getting mad at him for not being here, as though he’s just stuck in traffic or had other plans.
My bridesmaid dress is lacking in pockets and my bra too tight to fit any tissues into, so I rub my tears away with the back of my hand. I can’t help but notice people are more prepared today than last time I was in church. Women pat gently at their eyes, fearful that they’ll smudge their mascara. More concern with appearance today. And there aren’t as many of us. No-one stands at the back, no crowds spilling out the doors. Willow is beside me, as always, and she takes my hand, as though she’s heard my thoughts. Her hand is warm and sweaty and comforting. The bride starts to shed tears and the groom whips the handkerchief out of his pocket, dabbing at her cheeks – the first of many duties fulfilled.
Her dress is all white lace, but the skirt stops at the knee, showing off red high heels that match the fire of her auburn bob and the slash of scarlet on her lips. She holds white and red tulips. Balanced on every available surface are bursts of white flowers – lilies, hydrangeas, peonies, all the classics. The air is heady with their perfume, and it should be sweet, but I’m trying to stop remembering the flowers on his coffin. How many others have made the same connection? Everyone is smiling, pleased to have something to celebrate. I notice Jesus looking down at me from his cross. Been seeing a lot of you lately, he says to me. Not out of choice, I answer silently. One man takes a sly sip from his hipflask.
We are all greeted with something bubbly on arrival at the reception, then the speeches are made and the tears fall again. There’s mention of him. The groom’s voice falters, rushing through this bit, eyes stuck on the piece of paper in his hand. We spend the night dancing to their favourite songs, our favourite songs and his favourite songs. Wine bottles are emptied, beer cans flung to the ground. A joyful drunkenness overtakes us. The groom gives a second speech, and he can barely stand, but this one is more heartfelt. He yells up to the rafters. We shout, we laugh, and we cry.
Into the depths of the night, I stumble to the bathroom and find the bride crumpled in the corner. Applying her make-up this morning, I was impressed that she thought to get waterproof mascara, but clearly it hasn’t worked. Her shoes are abandoned on the floor beside her, a wine bottle nestles between her legs. Thank God it’s not red. I wrap my arms around her, shush and rock her as though she’s a baby. I ask her what’s wrong but she only weeps.
“Why isn’t he here?” she moans at last, and I feel the heat of her breath on my shoulder.
“I don’t know, babe. I don’t fucking know.”
“I thought we all needed something to celebrate.” She pours another glug of wine down her throat. “But all I can think is, how dare he not be here for this.”
I don’t know what to say, so I keep rubbing her back, stroking her arms, trying to stop my tears from spilling onto her wedding dress.
“Maybe we should have waited,” she says through stifled sobs. “I feel guilty, fucking guilty for having fun at my own wedding.”
“No, Lilah, you’re right. It’s nice to be all dressed up when no-one’s died. We shouldn’t be going to funerals before weddings. We can’t put our lives on hold because he…” I don’t want to finish my sentence and she doesn’t notice my voice disappearing into the ether.
“Yeah, you’re right. Fuck him. Fuck him for not being here. Fuck him for doing this to us.” She turns her face to the ceiling and balls her hand into a fist. “D’you hear that? FUCK YOU.”
The wedding photographer walks in, clocks the situation and turns on her heel. She can find a bush to pee in outside.
I allow Delilah to sob on my shoulder for a while longer, eventually suggesting she return to her happy day.
“I don’t think I can go back,” she says, looking at me with bloodshot eyes. “Can we bail?”
“You want to bail on your own wedding?” I ask. “Don’t you think the groom might be a touch offended?”
“Oh, he can come too. I just can’t go back out there and put on a brave face any longer. I’ve been planning this fucking day for a year and now I want it over.”
As I contemplate her proposition, Willow walks in. There’s something naughty in helping a bride ditch her own wedding, even with her husband in tow. I focus on this as I explain the situation to Willow – not on the pain of our unhappy bride. We reach a decision and I send her back out to scavenge more wine and round up the troops. She returns, with a bottle of prosecco and three glasses, to find me rubbing make-up from Delilah’s face with a wad of loo roll.
“I bet this is exactly how you imagined your wedding night.” Willow pours the prosecco.
Delilah manages a laugh. We lean against the sinks and toast to the future and to him, but mostly to us.
Taking our stealth mission as seriously as three drunk girls in heels can, we sneak out of the wedding. The rest of our little crew is outside, ready to go wherever the bride demands.
We make our way out into the night, walking the streets of our hometown, brandishing leftover wine bottles and linking arms for support. The pubs are closed and only one bar is left open, in which young girls gyrate against men twice their age. Someone suggests the park and we cheer with delight. So many nights spent this way, a motley crew swaying through the early hours of morning, licking at the last dregs of alcohol, clinging to the night for as long as possible. Only now we’re older; we’ve swapped our heavy eye-liner and dyed black hair for bronze eyeshadow and subtle highlights, while the boys wear suits and ties instead of hoodies and band t-shirts. We’re too well-dressed for the park and that makes it all the more fun. In the park, I wonder where our counterparts are – the youths that should have taken our place when we moved away. But I suppose they’ve found better ways to pass the time than hanging out in playgrounds.
I sit on a swing and gently rock back and forth. Delilah comes to sit on the one beside me and we push off in time with each other. Her dress ripples in the wind. The chains creak as we go up then down, forward then back. For a while, we listen to that in silence. Delilah’s the first to speak.
“D’you feel more grown up now?”
“What, sitting in a park with our drunk friends? Yup, I feel I’ve come a long way.” I smile at her as we reach the high point of our trajectory.
“Well, that, obviously. I was more meaning, well, y’know.”
We creak back and forth for a few beats.
“I think I grew up as soon as I stepped into that church,” I say.
“Yeah, I thought that’s how I was meant to feel today.”
“Does being married not make you feel grown up?”
“I thought it would,” she says, “but I just feel like a child playing grown-ups.”
We look at each other, trying not to break eye contact, but our swings are slightly out of time.
“I mean, you did just abandon your wedding party for a playground.”
“Yeah. That’s not so grown-up.”
I laugh. “Maybe not.”
“Can I show you something?” She asks me, scuffing her bare feet on the ground, slowing herself to a halt.
I do the same.
She lifts the skirt of her dress up to her crotch, exposing her thigh, a white garter, and a collection of deep red cuts. The kinds people used to hide under chequered sweatbands as teenagers. My breath seems to disappear into the night, my eyes burn with tears.
“It was the only place the dress would definitely cover,” she explains, as though that was the question on my mind.
Speechless, I take her hand in mine. She lifts my fingers and traces them along the lines that cover her thigh.
“The more I grow up, the more I regress.” She tries to smile.
I remember tearful nights with her at fourteen, confessions after lights out, begging her not to do it again. We sit in silence for a while holding hands, then we both push off the ground and swing higher, kicking ourselves up every time we come back down. We fly so high it feels as though we might go over the top bar. The creak of the swings drifts across the playground, mingling with the shouts of our friends as they push each other on the roundabout. I try to think of something comforting to say, but there’s only one thought in my head: We’re going around in circles here.
About The Author
Jemma Stewart lives in Somerset, where she also grew up. She recently received a distinction from Bath Spa University’s MA in Creative Writing. Now, she’s putting the finishing touches on her first novel, Barely Functioning, which is about female friendship and was shortlisted for the Grindstone Literary International Novel Prize 2019. She has also had creative non-fiction published in Severine Literary and when not writing can usually be found drinking wine and ranting about feminism.
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