The Wife’s Secret – Kerry Wilkinson

They say you can’t choose your family. That might be true, but you can certainly leave them off the guest list when you’re getting married. As for friends? Well, what counts as a friend? Raj is slumped against a wall in the corner, a best man in name only. A default choice, I suppose, because someone has to do it. You can’t turn up to get married without another bloke in a matching suit at your side. It’s not even about the tradition, it’s someone with whom to make small talk while you’re standing at the front next to the registrar, hoping your wife-to-be hasn’t had second thoughts. ‘Happiest day of your life,’ he muttered as we stood together a few hours ago. He was spouting clichés, but it was true. Well, sort of. How can these things be measured? Has our wedding day been better than the time four of us bunked off school and went to Alton Towers? It should be, of course it should, but a moment in time from more than a decade ago can’t be ranked against something so completely different. Will we laugh more than that time he put a football through a window by accident? It’s been good, though. Very Charley and me. More sparklers in the garden than flashy fireworks booming over Big Ben. Small. Concise.

Us. ‘She left you already, big man?’ The clap on my back sends me stumbling forward; more the boozy swirl than the force of Rafi’s hand. If you can’t get lashed on the day you get married, then when can you? Rafi is Raj’s brother. We’re not even that close, but they come as a pair. Buy one Indian friend, get another free. There’s only eleven months between them in age, so I’ve always pitied their poor mother. Five children in a little over four years? People have been given OBEs for less than that. ‘I knew I should’ve got the prenup,’ I laugh. It’s the third or fourth time today I’ve used that line. Standard wedding-day joke.

The girl behind the hotel’s reception desk got the first take. Gets a laugh – or at least a forced smile – every time. That’s despite me not owning anything of any particular value. Charley can have half my credit card debt and the mortgage if she wants. If we’re marrying for money, then we’ve each made one hell of a mistake. Rafi continues giggling through his nose. He’s drunk as well. Not quite sleeping while standing up like his brother, but well on the way. ‘How’s Raj?’ I ask. We both look to the corner where my best man is proving to be anything but.

He is using one hand to hold himself up, the other to cradle his empty pint glass. His eyes are closed but he’s giggling to himself. ‘He keeps popping outside for air,’ Rafi says. ‘Is air a cure for being drunk?’ ‘Ha! I found him in a bush five minutes ago. I think he’d fallen asleep. I had to drag him back in here. Good job the speeches are done.’ He licks his lips and peers around the room. ‘Where is the lovely bride?’ he asks. ‘Probably popped to the loo.

It takes her ages to hitch that dress up. Alice had to help her out last time. I think it’s a two- or three-person job.’ Even as I’m speaking, I spy Alice near the buffet. She made most of the food, so if anyone gets to enjoy it, it should be her. ‘That’s women, man,’ Rafi says, still laughing. ‘You’re stuck now. Your whole life: one woman.’ Another thing people say when you tell them you’re getting married – especially when you’re still in your twenties. Charley’s twenty-eight and I’m a year younger.

A nudge and a wink. One woman, eh? Because, if it wasn’t for Charley, I’d have females hurling themselves at me… I laugh anyway. It’s the thing to do. Everyone’s a comedian when it comes to christenings, weddings and funerals. That’s what having to get dressed up does to people. We’re all so uncomfortable in our suits, dresses, control underwear and who knows what else that the only way to release tension is repeat the same jokes we’ve heard over and over. Rafi stumbles away to check on his brother and I’m alone with my nearly finished pint. The room is slowly filling up, although no one can fail to notice that it’s almost entirely people I know. A few faces from work, some old university pals, a couple of the lads from football. You hear ‘reception-only’, you think, ‘free food’, possibly even the chance that the first drink might be paid for by the happy couple.

Bottles of wine on the table. Fingers crossed and all that. We’ve all been there. From nowhere, it feels like I’m being sucked into a pit, a panicked second or two where I try to remember how much I’ve drunk. Is the floor spinning? The ceiling? Me? I’ve not had that much. Then I realise I’m being pulled at by someone a lot smaller than me. It’s Charley’s niece, Daisy. The curls in her blonde hair are beginning to fall out as her big moment as a first-time bridesmaid comes to an end. She’s only five, still at that age where everything is a wonderful new experience and the world is a big place in which anything can happen. The time of unicorns and Santa, or Santa riding a unicorn.

It’s her father who speaks: ‘Any idea where Little C is?’ I have no idea why Charley’s brother-in-law calls her this. Mason Renton is busy trying to keep his other child, seven-year-old Dillon, from doing knee skids on the dance floor. Me? I don’t care. Go for it, kid. It’s probably more fun than a first dance. ‘I was just wondering that myself,’ I tell him. Mason has one hand on his son’s shoulder and offers that weary gaze parents frequently give non-parents: Bloody kids, huh? Be grateful it’s not you. I actually quite like Mason and considered asking him to be my best man even though we don’t know each other that well. I thought Charley would appreciate it. They’ve always been close.

In the end, I suppose I figured it should be a friend. ‘I’m going to get them up to bed,’ he says. Daisy lets go of my leg and scowls in disgust. As Mason heads for the door, both his children combine for a unified moan about bedtimes. I suspect Mason’s true reasoning is that he wants a few quiet hours to himself in his room once the kids are asleep. It’s been a long day for everyone. As the door pops open, the spinning lights and booming music from the adjacent room pours through, and then it’s gone again. We’re in the smallest of the hotel’s conference rooms, which is plenty enough for us. Charley and I are good at low-key. There’s another reception going on across the hall.

One of those where the bride invites everyone she’s ever met and it becomes a competitive sport. Five photographers and double-digit bridesmaids. A ‘my day’-thing. I saw it in the groom’s face earlier when we gave each other a nod and a half-smile near the toilets. There was no joking around then. He was wide-eyed, still in shock as if he’d seen an articulated lorry slam into the side of a Mini. Christ, I’ve got a lifetime of this, he was thinking. I said as much to Charley afterwards. She smiled softly, the visual pat on the head. She’s been quiet all day.

‘Your better half around?’ A woman’s voice. Weddings are a veritable This Is Your Life and Emily approaches from behind, drifting into my vision as if from nowhere. It’s probably the booze. Her hair is sticking to her forehead and she’s panting slightly. She’s been doing all the running today, camera in hand. Trying to remember everyone’s names and telling people to smile is a thankless task. I wouldn’t want to do it. Some people act as if asking for a smile is like enquiring whether there’s a spare kidney going. I guess that’s what sisters are for. Older sisters in particular.

You can’t choose your family and all that. ‘I’m right here,’ I say. Emily tilts her head, one hand on hip. ‘I asked for the better half, not the sloshed half.’ ‘She was here…’ I reply. It’s pretty clear Charley isn’t around. There are a little more than thirty people in the room and none of them are in white. There’s no competitive sport on this side of the hall, no fight to be centre of attention. If Charley was in the room, she’d be easy to spot. ‘I’ll check the toilets,’ Emily says and then she’s off again, scuttling across the dance floor and through the door, allowing the other party to infiltrate our space for a few more seconds.

Raj has stopped leaning on the wall and is now using his brother to prop himself up in the corner. Everyone else is doing their own thing, huddled in twos and threes, probably eyeing the three-tier cake, wondering when we’ll finally get to the business end of the day. Alice is still fussing over the buffet, lining up the canapés so that everything’s perfectly OCD. She glances up and then quickly back down as I approach, talking to the orangey flatbread things. I can’t even pronounce half the things she’s made. Her dark hair is pinned up with an array of clips. She was Charley’s main bridesmaid, the only adult. ‘Hungry?’ she asks. ‘I’ve got my eye on those mini éclair things.’ She bats at my fingers as I reach for one.

‘Not until after the first dance.’ ‘Speaking of first dances, have you seen Charley?’ Alice steps back, looks up and scans the room. ‘Toilet?’ ‘Isn’t that a two-person job?’ She hums under her breath. ‘Yeah… I’ll call her.’ Alice performs some sort of magic trick, producing a phone out of thin air. I’ve never known how women manage it. Lads jam a wallet in a back pocket, phone in the front and that’s that. Women’s clothes don’t really do pockets and yet they somehow find an array of places in which to hide their valuables. Her thumb darts across the screen and then the phone is at Alice’s ear. She pouts a lip, tilts her head and then shakes it.

‘No answer.’ Emily picks that moment to push back through the door and shrug towards me. ‘She’s not in the toilet.’ The three of us stand together, peering around the corners of the room as if Charley, as if my wife, is hiding somewhere, white dress and all. ‘Maybe she’s gone for a lie-down?’ Alice suggests. ‘She never said.’ ‘Give me your room key and I’ll go check. I’ll check mine, too.’ I fumble into my pockets and hand the key card over. Charley and Alice shared a room last night, but now the honeymoon suite is supposed to be for us.

Not the main honeymoon suite, of course. The ‘my day’ bride from across the hall has that. We’re in the evening suite, whatever that means. It has its own living room and a four-poster bed, which is more than fancy enough. Alice drifts away, leaving me and my sister next to the food. We stand awkwardly for a couple of seconds, neither knowing what to say to the other. This is how it should be with siblings, I think. Those huggy best friend brother-and-sister-types have always creeped me out. ‘Have you checked on Mum recently?’ she asks. We both turn to the small table nearest the cake where our mother is sitting by herself.

Emily and I had spoken about how we were going to keep an eye on her today, but it’s been so crazy. Em’s been busy taking photos while I’ve been, well, getting married. ‘I’ll go,’ I say, sensing Em’s sigh of relief. Mum’s got herself a small glass of sherry and is busy munching a packet of Polos from her bag. She’s watching the room hawkishly, suspicious of people she doesn’t know. I sit opposite and she jumps, squinting towards me as if we’re strangers. She’s squat, hunched into herself, wearing her Sunday best of a purple skirt with jacket. It’s so big on her, like when a kid gets hand-me-downs from a big brother or sister. The sleeves flap on her skinny arms and the gold bracelet is rattling on her wrist, clinking on the table. She glances up to me and, really, honestly, there’s a moment where I hate myself so much.

It’s hard to look at her. Parents are supposed to be strong and wise. As a kid, you think they know everything, a fountain of knowledge for the wonder of the world around. It’s only when you’re older that you realise it’s all one big bluff. They’re making it up as they go along, terrified they might drop you on your head or something. There was a time when my mother was strong and wise but that went in the years after Dad died. ‘Seth?’ she croaks, like it’s a question. As if she’s not entirely sure. ‘Hi, Mum.’ ‘Who are all these people?’ she asks.

‘Mainly my friends. Some people from work. Some from the old days at school.’ She nods, but I don’t think she really heard me. ‘Where’s your sister?’ I point to Emily who’s over near the DJ. ‘She’s been taking photos all day, Mum. You remember?’ Her eyes widen as if it’s all news to her and there’s such a big part of me that wants to walk away. That horrible taunting voice deep down. Is this how I’ll end up remembering her? Not the robust kick-arse woman who’d stomp into school to defend her bullied daughter. Not the laughing mother who buried us in sand at the seaside.

That person’s gone, leaving a body-snatcher in her place. ‘Charley,’ she says and there’s a beautiful moment of clarity. ‘You married Charley.’ Her glassy stare focuses on me for only a second, but it’s enough to bring back that flood of memories. Sometimes I wish she wouldn’t have these flashes. It’s only ever a cruel taunt, never more than a second or two. ‘Have you seen her?’ I ask. There’s a pause. A long pause. You get used to them with Mum.

Sometimes it happens in the middle of a sentence. She’ll start saying something, bringing up a TV programme she watched, something on the radio, or remembering the glimmer of an encounter from years ago. Then she’ll stop herself mid-sentence and stare at the wall. Sometimes she’ll pick up from where she left off; most times, that’s it. ‘She was in the hall,’ Mum says. ‘Charley?’ ‘In the hall.’ ‘When?’ ‘I was going to the toilet and she was by those nice French windows at the back. The ones with the lilies on the other side.’ I blink. She’s never usually this clear.

People and places blur into one. Forty years ago is now. She thinks I’m my father; she forgets Emily’s name. ‘When?’ ‘Not long ago.’ ‘Are you sure?’ ‘I remember her pink dress.’ I stare at her, but she’s only got eyes for her Polos. She slurps on one and smacks her lips. ‘Charley was wearing a white dress,’ I say. ‘We got married today, remember?’ There’s a pause as she continues to suck the mint. ‘Of course I remember!’ She slaps the table.

‘I said I saw her in the white dress.’ The viciousness is a recent thing. Sometimes she snaps at Em or me and it’s hard to know what to do. It’s not her fault her mind plays tricks, that sometimes she needs a coaxing, cajoling presence and other times that very thing infuriates her. Em gets it the worst, but then I always was the favourite. Dad once said that Mum would have kept having children until she had a boy. They only stopped at two because I came along. ‘Sorry, I must have misheard,’ I say, not that it matters because she’s back to staring at the wall. ‘Do you want anything?’ I ask. ‘Another drink? Some food?’ ‘Don’t be so silly,’ she scolds – and that’s that.

Like someone’s pressed a reset button in her head. There’s no point in asking about Charley again and this conversation is over. Alice presses through the doors as I head towards them. We each stride into the corridor, moving away from the battering thump-thump-thump of the music across the hallway. Her face says it all. ‘You’ve not found her?’ I ask. ‘She’s nowhere,’ Alice says. ‘I checked the toilets upstairs and down. Your room, my room.’ She hands back my key card.

‘I even checked the car park. Tried calling her again but there was no answer. You’d have thought someone might notice the woman in the wedding dress.’ ‘Mum says she saw her by the French windows.’ They’re a little way along the corridor, floor-to-ceiling doors that open out onto a small garden at the back of the hotel. It’s where we had some of the wedding photos taken. I’ve never looked up why they’re called windows and not doors. We continue along the corridor until we’re at the right spot. There’s a separate mat scuffed with dirt on top of the carpet. As Mum said, there are lilies on the other side of the glass.

Perhaps she was right about seeing Charley? ‘Here?’ Alice asks. It’s only a word, but I sense the hesitation behind it. My mother might have seen Charley here – but there is a stronger chance she either imagined it or confused herself. Alice and I stand together staring at the doors. They’re closed, children’s fingermarks all over the lower panes. ‘Perhaps Charley wanted some air?’ Alice says. We head outside into the cool summer evening. The sun has dipped past the trees in the distance, but it’ll still be light for a while yet. Tiles are arranged in a swirling circle underfoot, with a sundial in the middle and clipped grass outside that. There’s a cutthrough to a car park beyond.

‘Char?’ Alice’s voice is crisp against the silence. There’s no reply, only the faint thump-thumpthump from inside. We edge further outside and I head for the car park. It’s a small gravelly area, probably where the staff leave their vehicles. All the guests park at the front. ‘Charley?’ I call. Nothing. At the back of the car park is a gap in the hedge and a gritty road that leads to who knows where. Other than that, it’s green with hedges, overgrown fields and trees. Very Escape to the Country.

Very British. Charley’s name is pinned at the top of my contacts list but it doesn’t even ring when I try calling. I try three times back to back, waiting for the ‘sorry, your call cannot be connected’ message before hanging up. Once more for luck. Except there is no luck and there is no answer. It’s my wedding day. Our wedding day – and yet my wife is gone.

.

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