I cover my nose and mouth with the ivory silk of the gown and inhale deeply. I want to remember every detail of this day. I run my hand over the beaded bodice: a love letter in Braille.
I sit down at the dressing room table and start pinning up my hair. I had it set in generous curls yesterday. The diamante clips sparkle as I move my head.
My make-up is laid out in front of me. I begin with foundation. Painting my face, I feel like I am performing a rite of passage. This careful, slow transformation, from wide-eyed girl to woman.
The butterflies start beating their wings: they are in my stomach and in my head. Thoughts alight, and take off again before I can catch them.
It will soon be time to leave for the church. Pop will be coming in the family Bentley to pick us up. He took it out earlier to have it washed and polished. He wanted it to shine like me, he said. He has done so much for Ruth and I – it will be nearly impossible to say goodbye.
At least Pop likes Raymond. That will make it easier. Raymond is the son Pop never had. They watch cricket and drink beer together. After lunch on Sunday afternoons they sit in the golden light on the verandah, hands behind their heads, in a haze of comfortable silence.
Raymond asked Pop’s permission for my hand a week before he proposed to me. How he kept that secret for a whole week I’ll never know. Seven breakfasts, seven lunches, seven dinners and he didn’t do so much as wink at me.
It was a Summer’s night when Raymond took me to the beach. The sand was still warm from the day’s sunshine. I wore a new skirt and I remember it fluttering in the evening breeze. Raymond spoke about the day we met and how much he had grown to love me, and my family. We started to kiss and the world turned on its side. I wondered if this was the moment I would give myself to him: this perfect night under the stars.
But Raymond had other plans. His hand opened like a flower to reveal the diamond he had brought: it had been his mother’s. It sparkles on my finger now. I was mute with emotion but Raymond knew the answer was yes. He is my first and only love. I could marry no one but him.
When I told Ruth she said she was happy for me but I saw the hurt in her eyes. Being older, she imagined she would be the first one to get married. She chafed under Pop’s strict house rules. She was always the independent one. On sticky nights she used to tell me her dreams of moving out of the family house, out of the town where everyone’s nose was in everyone else’s business. Moving to a completely new place, perhaps in Europe somewhere: Italy, Spain, France. Some place she could be herself.
She is my maid of honour today. She has the prettiest green dress.
Ruth introduced me to Raymond. Not in that way: not on purpose. She took me along to a picnic with some college friends of hers and there he was, fawning all over her. He watched Ruth with such a determined look in his eyes. I asked her, afterwards, if they were together. She just laughed and shook her head, her bob swaying.
I bumped into Raymond a few weeks later, at the MonteVista cinema. He remembered me – bought me popcorn and a bag of winegums – as if I was his kid sister. He introduced me to his tall friends and said something to make everyone laugh. My cheeks burned with the memory of how often I had thought of him since the picnic. He pretended not to notice.
I can’t remember what film was on that night – my own was playing in my head – nothing original: Handsome boy meets plain girl at picnic to the soundtrack of the Beatle’s ‘Day Tripper’. The universe conspires to bring them together once again at a local haunt. Handsome boy burrows his way into uncompromising father’s heart, drops on knee, and story ends in confetti and general wedded bliss.
In the end it wasn’t quite as twee as that, but it wasn’t far off. Raymond was always the perfect gentleman and Pop couldn’t help but love him. He was part of the family before he ever asked for my hand.
I was so besotted with Raymond that I offered myself to him. It was the only way I could reconcile the overwhelming feelings I had. When Pop stopped insisting on a chaperone we would have moments alone: in the garden at a party, in the dark forest during an evening walk. Once in the bedroom of a relative, breathless. I was ready each time but Raymond used to stop himself before my cardigan was unbuttoned.
I want Raymond so much sometimes I want to crawl under his skin. I wish I could get inside his body the way he is inside my mind.
Tonight will be the night. The butterflies have strayed south.
I miss my mom. Of course, this is the time a girl misses her mom. Would she have told me what to expect on my wedding night? Or would she just pat me on the shoulder in prim silence? Either would be fine with me. All I crave is her presence. Pop has tried his best but there are only so many ribbons a father can put in his daughter’s hair.
The funeral was the last family function. A wedding will bring some sunshine into this house.
I begin curling my eyelashes. Ruth taught me how to do it. Ruth taught me how to do most things: how to blot my lipstick so that it doesn’t come off on everything, how to ice my eyebrows before I pluck, how to stop a run in my stockings with a dab of nail polish. She has always been so generous with her femininity.
I apply mascara and separate my lashes. I wonder what’s taking Pop so long? I push my face right up to the mirror to examine it. My reflection mists over as I breathe.
With a nervous inhalation I decide it’s time to put on my dress. Before I take it down from the hanger I admire it one last time. I stand there in my corset and stockings thinking that it is the most exquisite dress I have ever seen. I step into it carefully and pull it up. I have to wriggle a little to get it over my hips. It’s a little tighter than the last time I tried it on. No matter. The zip slides up without hesitation.
I put my shoes on. I battle with the tiny buckle, it’s too delicate for my fingers. By the time I look into the mirror the vision is complete. It is everything I have dreamed about.
There is a gentle knock on the door. It’s Ruth. Only Ruth knocks like that.
“Come in!” I sing, my heart near bursting with happiness.
The door opens. It is Ruth, but she’s not wearing her pretty green dress. And she looks old and tired.
“Is everything okay?” I ask. “You’re not dressed for the wedding.”
Her face is a mask of despair.
“I’m not kidding, Ruthie,” I say playfully. “Pop will be here any minute to take us to church.”
Ruth cannot talk.
“Ruth? What’s wrong?”
Her shoulders stoop. She walks to the bed and sits down. Her head disappears in her hands.
“What is it?” I say, starting to worry, wondering what could make her act this way. She looks up at me with so much pain in her eyes that I have to look away. I go to the window and watch the sky.
“Where did you find it?” she sighs.
“That wedding dress. That. Damn. Wedding dress.”
Her voice is gruff and I don’t know what she means.
“I don’t understand,” I say.
“Not again, Emily, please, not again.”
She is driving me mad!
“Ruth, what are you talking about?”
“What am I talking about?” she says, “What have I been talking about for the last fifty years?”
I feel frustrated now. I feel the beginning of tears.
I sit down next to her. She takes my hand.
“I locked that dress away!” she bursts out. “I don’t know how you found it. Take it off! I will get rid of it properly, this time. I will shred it, and burn it, and bury it, and make sure it will never haunt us again!”
I snatch my hand away.
“No!” I shriek. “Why would you do that? Why would you say such an awful thing?”
“Because I love you. Because I can’t take these episodes of yours any longer.”
My mind is racing. Ruth looks into my eyes.
“Try to remember, Em.”
I start to feel the sharp metal edges of hysteria.
“Remember what happened, fifty years ago.”
“How can I? I wasn’t born yet!”
Ruth shakes her head.
“You were twenty-two years old! It was your wedding day.”
“But today is my wedding day,” I say.
I look out of the window again. Her cold fingers turn my head.
“Look at me, Emily! Look at my face. I’m an old lady!”
She does look old. Her hair is grey!
“What happened to your hair?” I ask, frightened.
She is gentle now. “Come, look in the mirror.”
“No!” I shout. I don’t want that white hair, those pale wrinkles.
Ruth grabs a hand mirror off my dressing room table.
“Look!” she shouts. She forces the image on me.
The face I see is ravaged. A cracked doll’s face. A cruel caricature.
My heart is beating fast, too fast.
“Where is Raymond?” I ask.
Ruth’s anger leaves her cheeks.
“He died, Em.”
“He’s dead? But how can it be? I saw him yesterday. We were talking about how wonderful our lives would be…”
“He was killed in a car accident, on the way to the wedding.”
I am sick with shock. I run into to bathroom and heave into the toilet.
Mental images, blurry at first, assault me: Raymond’s mother’s blank face at his funeral; The sickly sweet smell of the wreath; Being assailed by an avalanche of condolence cards, some arriving months after his death; Nightmares of his crushed body. Broken, bloody.
I heave again.
Then more harrowing pictures: Another funeral, this time we’re the ones throwing soil on the coffin.
“Pop?” I ask.
Ruth is crying now.
“He was in the other car.”
Yes, I think.
I remember now.
Everyone had said how awful the coincidence had been. Unbelievable, they said. Impossible. But not.
The dress is heavy on me now. My skin itches. I feel like I can’t breathe. I struggle with it.
Ruth comes over to help me. I see the strain on her face. Once I am free of it she holds me and soothes me.
“It’s over now,” she coos, stroking my hair. “Everything will be okay.” It’s an old, battered promise.
With a rush of heat I remember something else.
The reason Pop was speeding away in his car. The reason he lost control and drove into the bridge, followed in desperate pursuit by Raymond. Passion allows no time for safety belts or following distance.
Pop had gone over to Raymond’s house.
A fatherly premarital gesture, but the intimate words caught in his throat when he saw Raymond’s tousled hair, and Ruth’s green dress slung carelessly over the settee. Ten minutes later they exploded in a mess of tar and broken glass.
I look up at Ruth. The lines of regret etched into her skin. She looks at me expectantly, waiting, dreading the next, inevitable, part of the story. But I see she has suffered enough, and she is my sister.
I won’t remember that part today.