It was a crisp Autumn day, the freshly fallen leaves mixed with the confetti that Neil had insisted on and the sun warm through the net of my headgear once out of the soft wind. It was Neil who had stood up with Ralph, and it was Neil who had spoken to the vicar at High Usworth to arrange my mother’s second wedding in the same church that had celebrated her first.
But it was Ian I was watching. The first time in nearly a decade I had seen him, and I couldn’t work out which way his mind was turning. All I knew was that he was not happy, and it wasn’t just because of my dress and heels. There was something nasty behind his eyes every time he looked at Ralph. I had an idea why, but not now, not here.
Mam hadn’t gone the whole hog, of course, just dressed nicely, but there was such a core of tradition in her that it simply had to be a church wedding, and just as traditionally a reception in the British Legion hall where traditional corned beef slice would feature. Christenings, weddings, funerals, it had ever been thus.
“Mam, why not use Jim’s place?”
“Cause it’s a pub, pet”
“Aye, but you’ll be having a drink anyway, so what’s the difference?”
She had sighed. “Jim’s the difference, hinny. Look…could he relax in his place, or would he be forever checking round, being sure it was all done right, like?”
“Ah. I see”
“Aye, Jill. He has his own lass alang, so let him have a bit relax, a bit of a bop, aye?”
Ian, in his usual arrogance, as I saw it, had tried to drive all the way up in one go the evening before, but pleas from his wife Ellen, and a car-sick teenager, had left him with no choice but to stop at a motel sixty miles short. He was in time for the service, but only just, and his look on seeing me had been utterly dismissive. When he found out I was matron of honour I thought he would explode.
Down the hill to the Legion, then, and the usual rituals of speeches, food and music. I cried when I saw Mam take the first dance, her hips freed from the endless pain she had suffered, and I had laughed at Neil’s skilful dance around the words dirty, old and man in the best man’s speech. One down…
The one thing Mam had insisted on, besides her church, was a full guest list, and when she said ‘full’ I nearly fainted.
“Aye, I know, it’s coming out of thy inheritance”
“No, Mam, it’s not that, and you bloody well know that. These people are not your friends. Ach, shite, I don’t mean it like that, I mean you don’t know them”
There was a moment, just then, when my mother suddenly looked her age, and I wondered exactly how much pain I had caused her in my selfishness.
“Jill, pet, understand this: I nearly lost a child. I know exactly what you were planning, and there was no way I could’ve survived seeing thee lying with thy Dad. I owe folk. I owe lots of them, people I’ve never seen, people I would meet, aye, just so I can say thank you. Look, lass, a meal, like; a bit dance and a glass or two: what are they compared to my daughter, alive, standing by us at my wedding? Small payment, return beyond price. Let’s have a list, aye?”
And so the guest list did a Topsy, and grew beyond the small circle of her friends from her old choir, and the neighbours, and we had the Woodruffs, the three Johnsons, both Forsters and their partners, James and his parents, Kelly and Mark (and his grandfather!), the McDuffs, the Armstrongs and a trio of what Larinda called ‘wimmin’ from Brighton
There was also MWUTBAC, as Rachel had dubbed him, the man who had, despite his denials, effectively saved my life, and in a particular twist Mam had personally asked both Will and his mother. Von had called me with the news, tearful, ashamed.
“Why are you surprised, Von?”
“Bloody hell, Jill, after what I did?”
“What, like grow up and show what a loving mother and good friend you are?”
That had been another tearful conversation.
So the church had been almost full, and the legion was stretched a bit, as people met and rebounded, trying to work out who was who and with whom. And my mother smiled, and she danced.
I finally had my chance, and walked straight up to Ian as Ellen was off with their stroppy teenaged daughter Bethany to give her yet another lecture on sneaking glasses of wine. He watched me approach, and his face was an odd mix of resentment and inability to focus. I understood the latter: so many of my colleagues had suffered the same agonies when I first came out. They saw me, they saw wig and skirt, and yet they still saw Rob.
“Well? No comments, then? Not like you, is it?”
We were in a reasonably quiet corner. He sneered.
“What the fuck do you think you look like?”
I sighed. “I look like me. I look like a middle-aged woman with alopecia and the best wig she can afford, which, funnily enough, is exactly what I bloody well am, aye? But it’s not just me, is it?”
That had laid open a scr. He looked away, jaw working. I stepped forward. Let him smell my perfume, make the point as hard as I could.
“What is it, Ian? Is it all the puffs, like? Or the dykes, the lezzers? None of them want you, so you’re safe there, aye? Or…or is it Mam?”
That was another nerve touched, and he muttered something.
“What was that, brother dear?”
“It’s not right”
I was sure I was reading him correctly, just then, and for a moment I wanted to wrap him in my arms, take away the pain that was so evident, hold my own brother and heal him, but I knew him too well. Forever the alpha male, always the rutting stag, he had to be slapped before he would ever listen. I took a deep breath, and softened my tone as much as I could without losing him.
“You still miss Dad, don’t you?”
“It’s not right, Mam…”
“She’s lonely, pet”
That brought a grimace, and a glare straight at me. “Don’t…”
I kept on. “Fifteen years, aye? That not long enough to grieve? And are you going to tell me that he’s not a canny lad? Not good enough for her? Or is it that you think she should just sit and pine till she drops dead of it?”
Mam was back on the floor then, as several of the guests took over the music. She and Raafie were doing the Slosh, a line dance from prehistory, and she was giggling. So was James. I moved to one side of Ian and pointed to the Happy Couple.
“That upsets you? Seeing Mam happy? Are you that fucking small-minded?”
And that was the crack in the dam, for suddenly he was in tears, and what else could I do but give in to the impulses I had had right at the start, and hold my grieving little brother as he wept. There were words, broken sentences, but what it came down to was Dad, and loss, and the fact that he had tried, tried so hard it had hurt, tried to be our father in all ways, and before he had arrived Dad had already left. I had always understood that about Ian, his need as middle child to be the special one, to be the head, the Big Man of the family, but it had been impossible, for I would always be there, older. I started to laugh, and he froze slightly, control returning. I hugged him tighter.
“Think about it, bro. Think. Who’s the man of the family now? Not me, is it?”
He lifted his head, face wet.
“Ian, pet, there was never any point in trying to be me, to outdo me, aye? You might have wanted to be me, but that wasn’t who I am. Look…let’s get you cleaned up, before your lass sees, like, and then we have some people to meet”
He sighed. “Jill. Those are real, aren’t they? The tits”
“Aye. Not the biggest, certainly not like Mam’s---no, don’t go there---but I’m happy with them. And I think Larinda is, in a way”
He looked at me, really looked at me, and so much of the tension had drained away with his tears.
“I’ll have to clean myself up, aye? You can’t come in the gents’ with me, can you?”
Small steps, but quickly taken. I gave him my best smile.
“Of course not. Now, wash up, and you have people you must meet. Your sister-in-law for one”
She was behind me as he left. “You OK, lover?”
“Sort of, pet. He’s so screwed up, over Dad mostly, resentment at her daring to get married again, aye? But, shite, even with that warping his thoughts he can see how happy she is, and she’s still his Mam, and a boy wants to see his mother smile”
She kissed me. “Girls too, yeah? You did well there, but I don’t think you realised how many people were watching”
“No, but Alec and Stewie were there, and…”
She laughed, and it was a happy one. “John, Man Who Used To Be, yeah? There’s a sodding human being growing in there, and it’s a sweet one!”
“Bugger a hell, pet, I haven’t exactly been a good host, have I?”
She kissed me again, and it was as gentle as she had ever been.
“My love, these people are more than capable of having a good time without supervision. Look at ‘em!”
Indeed they were, as two fiddles, a flute, two drums, a guitar, pipes and some other thing with strings were being played with complete lack of said supervision. Larinda settled back into my arms.
“More important, my love, much more important. Like getting Von and Will sorted, yeah? Just, well, I want all your family at our wedding, and all smiling, even if they do bloody cry. Sod it: I want them all crying as well!”
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