All’s fair in love and war.
Honestly, it was getting beyond a joke. It wasn’t even a case of always the bridesmaid, never the bride; she never even got to be the bloody bridesmaid. Just a face in the crowd, leaping gaily for the bouquet. She’d even caught it a couple of times: her height gave her an advantage that was starkly belied by the impediment it presented in real life. That was probably why she was never the bridesmaid, too: no-one wanted her towering over the bride.
More recently, though, she’d given up even trying to grab the flowers. Anything like that just brought out the question: So when’s it going to be your turn? And it was a good question. When was it going to be her turn? It wasn’t even that she particularly wanted to get married; she just wanted to meet someone nice. Settle down. Get a cat.
But every day brought news of another man captured; she was starting to feel twinges of angst even for the losses of those she had never previously considered to be among the possibilities. It’s true: all the good ones are either taken or gay, she said laughingly to her dwindling circle of single friends, knowing that they would be quick to pour scorn on the notion, to reassure, to be mutually supportive. And so they were.
But none of them, including her, ever dared say what they really thought: that maybe it was true.
2. Racing Kings
It’s obvious from the moment he enters the room that she’s the only person in the room worth talking to — and yet the only one he has no reason to talk to (although he has plenty of motive). Hers is the first new face he’s seen at one of Jay’s bashes for a while, and her novelty is refreshing; but it’s also a startling, perhaps even scary, challenge to their timeworn social order.
It doesn’t hurt that she’s so very pretty, her hair bobbing as she laughs at whatever her — male — sofa-mate is saying. He feels a momentary stab of jealousy and incongruous fear: fear that he has lost her before he has even had a chance to win her; fear that they will never laugh, later, as couples do, about that man who tried foolishly to hit on her, to sever their bond; but most of all, fear that he he can only be rendered ridiculous in the face of her desirability.
But then he sends that train of thought into a siding, takes a deep breath, walks over, trying to look casual but aware that his chest is protruding aburdly, that his gentle half-smile perhaps more closely resembles a leering grin. To win her regard, he will have to quite literally oust his rival, driving him from his stronghold on the sofa.
And to do it, he will have to be the brighter and funnier and more charming man. It’s not something he’s very good at, competitive wooing; but he thinks that for her sake he might rise to the occasion.
She’s losing patience, wants him to act; and yet she doesn’t want to show her impatience, doesn’t want him to sense that she is in any way less than carefree and delightful and perfect for him, and yet; this isn’t working, they are running and running but still standing still. He isn’t answering her sidelong glance, or the pat of her hand on his arm, or even the slight angle that she keeps finding that her hips have adopted. Even her body is betraying her desire: what more can it take?
She’s embarrassed and unashamed at the same time, because she is teetering on the verge of not caring if she’s becoming obvious. Perhaps obvious is okay, she thinks, although she feels foolish and uncomfortable trying to strike poses, and besides she wants him to take her, she wants to give herself to him, not throw herself at him — why won’t he take the gift of herself that she’s offering?
He could not believe that that bastard had got her, that he was taking her out of the equation, out of consideration, out of play. How dare he? And yet of course Jay dared, because Jay didn’t know how he felt about her, how he had always felt about her, since that first time they had met and he had gone home, head abuzz, wondering if he should perhaps have pressed his luck but being sure, for once quite sure, that there would be another opportunity —
— except that the next time, she had been not quite as pleased to see him as he had hoped; and his bonhomie had quickly grown stale and he had failed to entirely conceal the resulting gloomy bad temper; and then he felt he had been churlish and an awkwardness had sprung up between them that over time and repeated encounters grew into an unbreakable, inflexible formality.
And so he had never felt that he could ask Jay, even as a merry aside, if Jay thought he was in with a chance; and so Jay never knew how he felt about her. And so Jay had felt no compunction in moving in, with the thoughtless boldness that he at once envied and resented. And now Jay was taking her down the aisle and out of his life.
And now there was a new joke, and this one wasn’t funny either. This one was about how rarely the two of them were ever seen in the same place at the same time. There was always some reason. He had to work. One of her oldest friends was in town. He really couldn’t stand opera. She’d got a terrible migraine.
Not too many of her friends were still cracking the joke. Most had even stopped asking where Jay was. It had slowly, subtly slipped out of the chirpy realms of banter and into the silent twilight of taboo. But there was still the odd enquirer who would allude amusedly to Jay’s elusiveness, only to be elbowed and shushed by those who were more in the loop. They didn’t think she saw. But she did.
What they didn’t see was that it wasn’t just social functions that separated them. They were barely ever together, in public or in private. At home, they haunted different rooms; at weekends she went shopping, while he hung out at home; and their mutual pact to avoid holidays could not have been more sacred if it had been written in blood. To say nothing of the togethernesses of which intimacy was built.
Where he was, she was not; and where she went, he went not. She wondered: why had he fought so hard to capture her, if he had never wanted to keep her? Why had he stood by her side at the altar, but forsaken her ever since?
What did he want from her? And what did she want from him?
And all of a sudden the rules had all changed. He found it all very confusing.
There was the sudden arrival of gravity, for one thing. It was no longer permissible to engage in the weightless, carefree couplings of his youth. Everything – everyone – was laden down with anxieties, neuroses, obsessions. Could his love heal her old wounds? Would he promise not to max out her credit cards? Would he be a better father to her children than hers had been to her? Would he still love her as she got old? Was he the one?
Then there was the sheer variety of his pursuers. Suddenly, it seemed, it was open season. Woeful divorcées who drank too much and merry widows likewise; hopeless spinsters, hopeful lolitas and hapless nymphs; women with children and women without children; housewives who wanted his body and lesbians who wanted his sperm; headcases, flirts and maniacs. And men.
They set out all manner of lures to entice him: social advancement, unbecoming wealth, excessive candour, craven submission, sweaty desperation and implausible sex. (To his subsequent regret, he accepted the last of these a few times.) They got their friends to set him up, they cornered him at parties, they trapped him at work; they baked him cakes, they took him to dinner, they bought him champagne.
But throughout all this, throughout all their attempts to reel him in, catch him and keep him, he kept thinking. About her. About the one that got away.
“But how did he look?”
Natasha shrugs. “He looked, well… he looked okay, I guess. You know. A bit tired, maybe.”
She feels betrayed. Because Tash has been fraternising with the enemy (a term she uses to make her feel more combative, less defeated, than she actually is). But even more because Tash cannot be bothered to make up a comforting lie.
She wants to hear that he looks awful, that he hasn’t been sleeping, that he’s been waking up in the middle of the night and staring into the dark, waiting for the dawn as his furious, frustrated tears turn into bitter, sad ones.
Because that’s what she knows he knows she is doing.
“Go on,” urges Simon. “You’re in there.” This is delivered with tongue firmly in ironical cheek, but at the same time in deadly sincerity. Not bullying, not quite brow-beating, but there’s a weight behind the words, a pressure. Simon wants him to move on, but doesn’t have the words to frame the sentiment. This isn’t a space they’re comfortable in.
“Nah,” he demurs. At other times in his life, he would have let Simon’s words lift him up, carry him along: but not now. Now, he finds that the greater the insistence, the greater his resistance. He’s sick of the subject, sick of the game, sick of… sick of women, to be perfectly frank. He wants to prove that he doesn’t need them, no matter how badly Simon thinks he does.
But before he can protest, he is standing in front of her. Simon meets and greets, then does the gentlemanly thing and hands off to him. On closer examination, she is not as attractive as he had hoped, and her guarded expression suggests that she’s thinking much the same about him.
Momentary hesitation blooms into silence.
“Well,” he says, “so how do you know Jen?”
Her nose wrinkles a tiny bit before she begins, tiredly, to answer.
But he’s perfect for you, that’s what they all said. But when they said perfect, what they really meant was he’s just like Jay. They meant well, but she resented it; resented that they wanted her to slot back into her assigned place, the same place as before, as though nothing had changed. As though she hadn’t changed.
Yes, Marcus was perfect for her, and that was exactly why he wasn’t perfect for her. She already knew what he’d be like to talk to, where he’d want to go, the tenor of his moods, even, presumptuous as it seemed, how he’d be in bed. She wanted something else, someone else, someone as completely different as possible from Jay and his waxed hair and blue shirts and brown loafers.
Right now, she didn’t care if it lasted, if he was unsuitable, if he was a handsome heartbreaker with a rose in his teeth and a glint in his eye — she just wanted him to be different, to be someone new. To be someone who really was perfect.
Fuck! He hadn’t been expecting to see her here. Not here, not now. Not when he wasn’t ready. And not when he was supposed to be squiring her friend – a barely consensual agreement brokered by mutual acquaintances – her friend who, despite her initial froideur, seemed to have warmed to the idea and was hanging somewhat tipsily from his arm.
And yet he still found himself darting her surreptitious looks, hoping that her escort – boyfriend? – would not notice, and mostly hoping that she would not either, that she would not look round at the wrong moment and assume that he was the kind of philanderer who would arrive at dinner with one woman and spend it flirting with another. Better to enjoy the evening with this perfectly nice woman, and stop fantasising about a moment that had long since passed.
And yet he couldn’t stop peeking.
And then she looked round, caught his eye.
And he held his breath.
And she didn’t look away.
Fuck! Here she is, with Marcus’ sleepy arm draped over her waist, and she’s momentarily guilty about how it feels both familiar and alien, the touch-memory of another arm just there springing unbidden into her mind – and she squeezes her eyes that bit more tightly shut, but the insides of her eyes are dancing with images of him, and she gives a little shudder of pleasure.
Dammit, she wants to get up, she wants to jump up and down on the spot and shout out loud, she wants to go out and run along the side of the river as fast as she possibly can because she has so much energy burning her up inside, and she wants to run until she’s outside his door and she wants to shout up to see his tousled head poke out of the window –
From laughing to kissing to loving to living, it all comes so easily – and it comes ever faster and faster. His careful steps give way to confident strides, to great leaps and before he knows it they are running, running as fast as they can, out of the grey of the past and into the brilliance of the rest of their lives.