By Laura Besley
The only way to get through a wedding, Elspeth decides, is to drink. Sitting between her husband and a stranger, she swirls deep red wine round its bulbous confines. The stranger has a neatly trimmed beard, and she wonders what it would be like to kiss a man with a beard. Would you get stubble rash, or would your face begrudgingly adapt to something it at first repels, like a personality flaw that refuses to be sanded down?
“I’m Reuben,” the stranger says, holding out a hand.
“Elspeth.” Her crimson lips stretch wide. She doesn’t introduce Dave.
“What do you do, Elspeth?”
She very much doubts this stranger, with his trimmed beard and manicured hands, wants to hear the mundane truth of her life: washing, ironing, cooking, cleaning; ricocheting from playdates to tantrums to changing bedsheets; looking after two little girls she knows deserve better, deserve more, than what she can offer them. “Nothing much,” she says, then, hoping it’ll make her sound mysterious instead of boring. “You?”
Reuben tells her he is one of the architects working on the redevelopment of the city center and is happy to talk about himself and his work. Not in an arrogant way, but almost like he senses she needs a social crutch tonight, someone to lean on, to ease the awfulness and guilt (God, the guilt) of all of her husband’s relatives in one room. Reuben’s funny, too, and the more she drinks, the funnier he becomes, until she collapses in giggles against his shoulder.
Dave pulls on her arm. “What’s got into you?”
“Nothing,” she says in their first exchange in hours. Despite sharing a house and two children, they’ve chosen silence over answers to questions neither wants.
Elspeth reaches for her glass, but Dave puts his hand over the top. “I think you’ve had enough.”
“What’s that, mate?” Reuben leans across Elspeth. “Is he bothering you?”
“Ha!” Elspeth drains her glass.
“I’m her husband,” Dave says.
A tinge of redness appears on Reuben’s cheeks, just above his neatly trimmed beard.
“So why don’t you bugger off?” Dave says.
Elspeth looks at Reuben, wondering what he’ll do, or say, because with an intensity as strong as the wine, she wants this man to see her, to validate her, to show her husband she is worth so much more than her daily existence; she is worth fighting for. But this stranger just picks up his glass and leaves, making it obvious to Elspeth she is not even worth the confrontation.
“Let’s get you to bed,” Dave says in the tone he uses to talk to the children and puts his arm around her. She shrugs it off but follows him out of the dining hall.
“God, Elspeth,” Dave says. “It’s not like today isn’t hard enough without you creating a scene as well.”
“I didn’t create a scene.”
In the room, Dave is standing at the window. He turns when she shuts the door. “Where’ve you been, Elspeth?”
“What d’you mean?”
“These last few months.” He shoves his hands in his pockets. “You’ve not been…”
Neither of them wants to finish this.
Her head falls onto his shoulder. “I don’t know.” A lie—small in comparison to all the lies she’s told over the last months—about where she was and with whom.
Dave reaches around and tucks a strand of hair behind her ear, leaving his fingers on her cheek. “I’ve missed you,” he says, a gesture so familiar, it throws her back.
Because she can’t say, “I’ve missed you too,” she kisses him gently on the lips.
He pushes his tongue into her mouth and pulls her close.
Because she knows he’s devastated about the loss of his dad, the only member of Dave’s family who she loved and who loved her; because she hasn’t been there for him properly in his period of mourning; because she’s distraught at having recently lost someone too, someone she can’t talk about; because she’s had too much red wine and because, now, for a few brief seconds, he reminded her why they were together, she lets him touch her, grab her, climb onto her and into her. The hotel room, having no memories of them, is like neutral territory.
She lets herself forget how fucked up her life is—how sad and lonely she is.
“I love you, Elspeth,” he says, after.
“I know you do,” she says. They laugh, well, they almost laugh, because it’s one of their jokes: that he loves her more, but it stopped being funny a long time ago.
From the bed she watches him get dressed. “I’ve got to go back,” he says. “It’s my brother’s wedding.”
As soon as the door closes behind him, she spreads her arms and legs wide and wonders which poor soul has to wash and iron these double king size sheets.
Elspeth is only sick once in the night, a near miracle considering how much she’s had to drink, but continues to be sick for weeks after.