Ellen stood there, jaw hanging open, and that was how it described itself to me in my head, Bethy’s use of cow for her mother seeming so apt. Ian stood up, and embraced Mam.
“We better get ourselves on the road, Mam. Long drive ahead, and best done before more things are said. But they will be, aye? Just not here”
As he shook his new stepfather’s hand, Ellen started to say something, and all Ian said was “No”. It was in the same tone as Den’s earlier little speech, and it had a similar effect. Ian made the round of farewells, leaving all the men except Neil with a handshake. Neil himself got a bear hug, and all the women a hug and a kissed cheek. Including me. As he held me he whispered in my ear.
“Bethany’s just told me. George?”
“Sweetly done, sister. And one day, when they all think I’ve forgotten, I will come back for the rest, aye?”
He took one last look around the room. “Thank you, all of you. You’ve done my family proud this weekend. I am grateful, truly. Jill and Mam know where I am, so if there is anything you need, just ring”
And he was gone, a shaken but silent wife in tow. Once the door was shut, Kirsty glared at her husband. “Where’s my sodding pepper spray when I need it?”
Annie was chuckling. “Not seen you that scary for ages, aye? Den, remember what I said to you?”
“Oh yes, very well. Something like ‘THAT attracts you?’ wasn’t it?”
Kirsty looked hard at him. “And what did you say in reply, dearest darling of mine?”
Annie snorted. “It was ‘OOOOOOOH yes!’, butt!”
That broke the mood, and suddenly the room was alight with stories of meetings and proposals, and stupid misunderstandings that had had to be sorted out in amusing ways, and as is the way with such things the clock span faster than anyone realised. It was at one moment, when Larinda was sharing some salacious titbit or other, that I saw Von looking at me wistfully. I gave my lover a squeeze of the knee, and moved over to sit beside my ex.
“You OK, Von?”
“Suppose so. Just, well, bit wondering how it all went wrong, innit?”
I sighed. “That was the thing, like. It was wrong from the start. I just didn’t have the guts to sort things properly, earlier”
She looked at me in silence for a few seconds, and then shook her head. “No, Jill, you have guts, real courage. What you’ve already gone through, aye? No coward there. What you’ve got now, THAT’s right, that’s tidy. Just wish I could have known you as yourself rather than lose you as Rob”
She looked away, over to where a number of coppers and a Marine were clearly arguing restraint tactics with a Customs Officer, though it could have been bedroom technique for all I knew, and then she spoke looking away from me.
“I shouldn’t say that. I didn’t lose Rob. Rob was a fiction, never real. I was talking to that Karen of yours, and she told me what her boy said, about you putting on a skin, and that was it: a mask, innit? But I could have had the friend, Jill, the real person”
“You’ve got me now, pet”
That was when Larinda’s remark about Ian came back to me, and I grinned just as Von turned her eyes back to mine.
I explained, and she conjured a smile. “Yes, there is that. He’s very like you…well, very like Rob, to look at, and he’s not stupid, is he? Does the squaddy bit, but he’s got a mind in there”
“What you going to do?”
“Nothing while he’s wedded, wouldn’t be right. But he has my number, and I’m not that far away. Closer than we were, innit”
She looked down at her knees for another long moment.
“New beginnings, Jill. Weddings should be about beginnings, and I think we need to begin thinking about the flight back. Come on: we need to separate the men from the beer”
“They’re on tea, Von”
“Aye, but there’s beer here, and men are weak and pitiful creatures in its presence, and besides I was promised a Sunday lunch, and it is Sunday and lunchtime”
So it was out to the place at the top of the hill, by the Angel, where it seemed that Von had indeed been busy and we had what seemed like an entire wing to ourselves. James had resurfaced a little from his hidden and private world, and when Ginny went into some rant about vegetarianism, all her words mixed and combined in a manner that made no sense while simultaneously making all the sense in the world, he began to smile again. The mood carried on delightfully as it had been at Jim’s pub, and without Ellen’s shadow it was even brighter. The crowning touch came with the presentation of a small cake after the meal, hand-iced to congratulate the newly-weds, and Mam shed more than a few tears. I took her to the ladies’, of course, Larinda and Von by my side, and after she had washed her face, Mam sighed.
“You are going to think I’m daft, pet”
“It’s a wedding, Mam. Traditional to cry”
“It’s not that, hinny. It’s, well…I was just wishing your Dad could have been here as well, aye? And, like, if he was, whey, none of this would happen at all!”
My other two women went to her and held her. Von stroked her hair.
“Norma, that’s not daft, not at all. I know what you mean. Just, well, don’t think of Ralph as stepping into his place, replacing him, aye? Just, well…”
She gave me another quick glance, and I realised what she was doing. Stupid things had been said by her, vile and hurtful things, and she knew that now, understood how and why they hurt. More importantly, she now understood why they were wrong. If only such understanding could come to my sister-in-law.
“Norma, Ralph isn’t a replacement, he’s a new story. Like having two books on a bookshelf. One doesn’t replace the other, aye? They’re just different stories. He’s a good man. You know what I think?”
Mam sniffled just a bit. “What, pet?”
“I think, deep down, Ralph wishes Jill’s Dad was here today as well. I think he loved him just as much as he does you, just not that way, aye? But he can't have one back, so he’ll do his best to make the other one happy. Can’t say fairer than that, innit”
My lover looked at my ex. “Von, what the hell has happened with you? No offence, but when we met you were talking some real bollocks, and now, well, you are sort of coming out with proper sense!”
“Bloody obvious, girl. I did talk some crap, I did worse things, and Dad, well…I am truly sorry for that, Jill”
I put a hand to her shoulder. “I know you are, love, and that’s important to me. Important to Mam too”
Mam nodded, and Von kissed her cheek.
“Watching the others, Larinda. That’s what it is, and talking to you two, and watching my baby…I never saw before, how unhappy he was. I never knew, because that was sort of how he always was, aye? Nothing to compare it to. I see him here, and I watch that other couple, that Alec, aye? And then, well, that ignorant cow Ian married!”
Larinda smiled. “See her as competition, girl?”
“Not bloody likely! Once she’s out of that house, there is only one winner. No, it’s not that. Not about fancying Ian, aye?”
She drew a long breath. “I just saw myself, like in a mirror, and it wasn’t nice. I saw her, and I heard myself, what I said to Jill, and my baby, and I knew how easy that could have been me, those thoughts, those words, aye?”
Mam hooked an arm into Von’s. “Whey, I always said to Jill that you were an easy one to talk to, like. Just nice to hear the sense coming back. How, this old woman’s finished her bit cry, so let’s get back while I still have some cake left from those gannets”
Later, leaning against my lover as the plane droned south, I realised how much poison Von had drained from my soul. There was a future ahead, something I had denied for so long, and it seemed it would involve my family after all. Who, exactly, had Rob Carter been? Whatever the answer, he had been good enough to catch the attention of a woman showing more depth and character than I had ever anticipated, and I was now in the position Mam had hoped for. I had both stories to read at the same time.
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