The reception is gaudy. Everything else had been done with such taste, in silver, white, and gold. Just like any other wedding. But the reception is done up in pastels—pink and orange and lilac—that seem to go on forever. Small glittery hearts and red lollipops are scattered on the tables like afterthoughts.
I’m sweating. The dress I’d bought for the occasion is tight under my armpits. The wires in my bra cut into my skin. I’m the same weight as before I had Henry but a different shape, something resembling a Cluedo piece. Nothing fits.
“Don’t worry,” Nick says. “I’ve made sure we sit together.”
I wonder if he’s done this for my benefit or his. I had imagined that a lot of people from Nick’s office would be here, but it’s really just him and Dave in IT.
We find our seats. The tables are covered with huge tablecloths, made of overwashed, off-white cotton and held in place by chunky metal clips. The chairs are odd, more like office furniture than what you would expect at a wedding reception. The itchy fabric irritates my bare arms.
I look around, and my eye catches on the flower girls chasing each other, excited that their formal role has ended. One opens her mouth to release a lollipop, revealing a bright red tongue.
We left Henry with Nick’s parents that morning, the first time I’d left him with someone else, other than Nick, for more than a couple of hours. I’d hovered in the hallway, watching Henry toddle into the living room, distracted by the bright shiny plastic of a new fire engine that Nick’s mum had bought him. He’d accepted my kiss on his forehead, the slight smell of wheat and milk on him from breakfast. He’d waved at me though his eyes remained fixed on the fire engine in front of him. I felt anxious as I left the room but he didn’t even watch me leave. Nick’s mum kept trying to put me at my ease, but I was ignoring her, wanting to go back in and check on Henry again, prolonging our departure. They told me I looked nice, probably because they weren’t used to seeing me in something other than oversized gym clothes, once-black-now-gray leggings, cheap T-shirts misshapen after too many cycles in the dryer. And I was wearing makeup, rather than just clear lip balm. I knew I had put on too much, the foundation ever so slightly on the orange side. Big flakes of expired eyeshadow caught in my eyelashes, like glitter on the bristles of a broom. I hadn’t worn any of it since Henry’s birth, 15 months previously.
I smile at the man to my right, who just gives a weird nod of his head before turning away to speak to a woman much younger than me. I feel old, like my ancient eyeshadow palette. I remember a newspaper report that chirpily proclaimed I was in the oldest half of the population, having been reduced to this status a couple of birthdays ago. There must be a reason why no one says life begins at 40 anymore.
“I wonder how Henry is getting on,” I say. “He didn’t seem that bothered to see us go. I wondered if he got upset when we’d gone. If he thought we were abandoning him or something.”
“He’ll be fine,” Nick says. “Mum had a few things lined up. She’s going to find it a lot tougher than she thinks.”
“You hope she does, don’t you? “
“You’re not wrong. She always goes on like it’s easy, like we’re making it seem more difficult than . . . ” He stops and turns to look at the waitstaff bringing the food through.
More difficult than it should be? I think back to the endless years of trying, to the ovulation kits, the cryptic shorthand symbols throughout my pocket diary because I was too shy to spell out the biological processes. The appointments, the meetings, the consultants, the bank transfers, the blood tests, the sperm count, the injections, the temperature readings, the harvesting, the insemination, and, finally, the cells dividing and dividing and blossoming into a strange fish-like creature with huge eyes like a haddock, before growing and growing still more into the bright purple baby who entered the world screaming like he wasn’t really so sure about the whole idea. I remember the adrenaline flooding through me as this tiny face was slapped against my breast, scowling up at me in reproach. I had expected a swell of emotion and a sense of completion, the missing piece finally put into place. All those tests and procedures, all leading up to this moment when I would finally meet this person. But all I felt was panic. I was an imposter who would soon be found out. The audacity that I could think myself capable of being someone’s mum. That feeling faded over the months, but it still exists.
I force my mind back into the reception hall, back into the slightly too bright present. There are speeches after the main course that go on for too long. Endless toasts to the happy couple, Abby and Craig. The other guests seem restless, whispering and shuffling. Everyone wants to get on with dessert. I keep debating whether to get my phone out, send a text to Nick’s mum, check on Henry. I never used to be this indecisive. I hate this version of myself who can never decide anything without reassurance.
“The love you take is equal to the love you make,” the groom’s father quotes.
I feel out of it, lost. And it’s hard not to be cynical. The sweetness and goodwill of a wedding day in stark contrast to the banality of married life, deciding between multiple shades of beige carpet, long conversations about personal experiences of poor customer service. A couple of university friends are already in their second marriages. The man to my right raises his eyebrows at the young woman in a flirty way. She responds with a brief smile but continues looking down at her phone.
The puddings are brought out, including a soggy tiramisu, cut into irregular wedges, slightly-too-runny whipped cream foaming from its innards, like bubbles from an overflowing bath. It makes me feel sick, so I opt for the fresher-sounding lemon tart. I sit, waiting for my portion, thinking of what to say to Nick. I want to make a joke or something that only he would get, to show that I still have a sense of humor, that I’m not always miserable, but nothing comes to mind. A fluorescent yellow slice is placed in front of me and I’m glad to have something to do. Conversations with Nick always used to be about our future dreams and hopes. Now that we are in that future, it doesn’t feel like we have much to talk about. Or I don’t. Apart from Henry.
“It’s a bit . . . “‘ I start, running my tongue along my gums and teeth, an attempt to remove as much of the residue as possible.
“Toilet cleaner-like?” Nick suggests.
I laugh too loudly; people turn in my direction.
He shakes his head. “I can’t take you anywhere. Do you think you should have had the tiramisu?”
“I don’t know. Maybe,” I say. I’m about to say it wouldn’t be as good as his sticky toffee pudding, but my phone pings. Nick starts talking to someone else who did choose the tiramisu so I look down, expecting a message from Nick’s mum, but it’s a message from Dad, asking for more help with Mum’s bank account. I wonder again why they’d needed separate accounts. It had certainly made things more complicated since she’d died. I reply, telling him I’ll look into it tomorrow. He texts back straightaway, “ok.” I feel guilty for being brief with him and mildly resentful at the interruption. I feel a pain in my chest as I realize that I wish it was Mum I had left Henry with, not Nick’s parents.
I tug on Nick’s arm. He’s now talking to someone about house prices. I ask if we could get some air. He smiles but seems hesitant to move. He stands up a beat after me, and we maneuver our way outside.
I take in lungfuls of air as if I’ve been suffocating, kept hostage in a basement.
“I’m still hungry,” he says.
“We’ll get chips on the way home,” I say.
“Definitely. That thought will get me through the next hour or so.”
I smile at the notion of chips, slathered in salt and vinegar. Sharp tasting and soft, almost soggy. The promise of the warm feeling in my stomach, verging on bloatedness, is irresistible.
“Can’t we go now?” I ask.
“No. At least let them do their first dance. We might look rude if we leave now. I wonder what song they’ll choose. Me and Dave have been taking bets on what they’ll go for. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is the theme from Titanic or something.”
“I couldn’t see Craig going for that,” I laugh.
“Well, you can never know everything about someone,” he says.
“Like me?” I offer.
He frowns. “What?”
“Just, you know. With everything that happened, all the build-up and effort, that I didn’t just click into being a mum. Didn’t just . . . “
He acts confused, like he has no idea what I’m talking about. Then he gives up and sighs. “You hadn’t long lost your mum, and it was a big change for both of us, not just you. All that trying, I don’t think either of us really knew what it would be like when he was finally born.”
I look out over the fields. I rub my arms. I don’t really know what to say. That I miss the feeling of being in control even though I never was? That I love Henry but the weight of responsibility sometimes sits on my chest at night and makes it hard to breathe?
“It was difficult without your mum,” he says.
I blink, a couple of stray tears threatening to smudge my makeup. Losing Mum had felt terrible. But it was easy to say it was only that which made things so difficult. It was the feeling of abandonment. Day after day, I didn’t know whether I was doing anything right. I didn’t know who I was anymore.
He walks over and puts his arms around me, and I am self-conscious about the sprawling flesh the dress is struggling to keep in check. “I’m sorry if it’s been a drag for you today. It’s just he kept going on about it at work, worried that everyone who came would be on her side.”
“Even so,” I say. “Seems a bit weird to invite your boss.”
“Not really. We are friends. And I thought it would help for us to be together for the day. I thought it might help you to get away from the house, a break in the routine. But it hasn’t, has it?”
I want to say it has. I know it should have. But I just feel anxious about Henry even though I know he’s safe.
“Coffee?” Nick asks.
“As strong as they’ve got. I only got three hours of sleep last night.”
“After that, we should find Craig and Abby. To say thank you for inviting us.”
He looks out over the fields to the back of the hotel. I follow his line of sight. It’s a beautiful spot, a place we can’t afford, not anymore. It would be reckless to spend that much money now.
It’s a shame we didn’t bring Henry. I could see Nick holding his little hand, helping him remain upright. Both of them taking little steps in the long grass. Making the most of those bloody walking shoes.
Henry had shrieked and cried in the shoe store. He initially stood, his bottom lip jutting out, refusing to sit down on the worn purple cubes despite the soft words of the teenage shop assistant, her braces glinting under the bright lights as she smiled. When we managed to get him to offer up his feet, he got upset. I know I looked like I’d lost control, staring at the ground, trying not to cry. The other kids in there were well-behaved, barely making a sound. They all watched Henry, angry and red-faced in his dumper-truck socks. Henry had been barely a year old, cruising more than walking, but I had rushed to get him shoes. You spend your whole life in shoes. There had been no rush. My mother-in-law had made a pointed remark that she was surprised that Henry wasn’t in shoes yet. It had felt like criticism, like I didn’t know what I was doing. Which hurt more because it was true.
Nick looks over at me. “Come on then.”
We make our way back in. People stand in small groups, waiting for something to happen.
“I can’t stop thinking about chips,” Nick says. “Why were the portions so small?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe there’s going to be other stuff later or something.”
“I hope so,” someone says to us. “I need to line my stomach with something more substantial if I’m going to have any more of that Cava.”
We queue up to say hello to the happy couple. “I’m so pleased you came,” Abby says when it’s our turn. She’s probably saying the same thing to everyone.
Nick shakes Craig’s hand.
“You look beautiful,” Nick says to Abby.
“Thank you,” she says.
“How’s Henry?” Craig asks. I’m impressed he remembers our son’s name, but Nick must talk about Henry at work. I don’t think any of Nick’s friends would get much from the social media updates he posted. There were no photos, not even a name, but it was hard to recognize Henry from them. Just a generic character called “the baby” seemed to have arrived into his life out of nowhere and was causing much good-natured and poignant havoc. Things like, “Baby celebrated his first piece of chocolate cake by smearing it into the smart speaker.” Which I thought was sweet and everything, but the posts never said how hard everything had been. Only how pleased we were at this arrival, that it had finally happened. How grateful. Endlessly grateful. It was becoming painful to be so grateful.
“He’s good,” I say. “He’s walking now.”
“Oh wow!” Abby says. “So fast.”
“Oh yeah,” I say. “Turn your back for five minutes and they’re off.”
Abby attempts a short laugh, which is good of her, radiating a happiness that just isn’t contagious.
“Anyway,” Nick says. I feel him holding my elbow, a reprieve. I look down the row. There are many others waiting to greet the pair.
We walk around the hall for a bit, looking at the balloons, which make us laugh. Photos of Craig and Abby pulling odd faces stretched across latex. There’s even an inflated bride and groom, made of shiny foil and cartoon faces, wobbling slightly when the doors open and close. One of the flower girls starts to dance with them, her small thin arms wrapped around the bride’s neck, the balloon threatening to burst.
We stay for the first dance. The song is a classic from the sixties, which must have had some personal meaning for the bride and groom but not the rest of us. Nick grabs my hand. The lights and the disco ball make him look like he’s covered in stars. He smiles with his luminescent white teeth, and he is younger suddenly, his hair not thinning at the front anymore, his dark suit making him look slimmer. He draws me toward him. I put my hand on his back and feel his warmth through his suit. As we dance, I close my eyes, and the stars remain in my vision, yellow and white flashes against the marbled darkness of my eyelids. And in that moment, I think how we would live if we were back at the start. When there was the undiluted joy of being at the beginning. As if the last few years had disappeared and we were somehow starting over.
The lights go back on. Nick is back as he was. He checks the time on his phone.
Nick insists on driving home, though I remind him that neither of us has drunk anything.
“You seem tired.”
“I’m always tired,” I say, but I get in the passenger seat anyway.
The drive is silent, without the radio. I stare out of the window. The sun is setting; the sky looks pink. I remember trekking in the Atlas Mountains with friends, years ago, watching the sun set and then the black sky illuminated by shooting stars, soaring like fireworks. I just watched, not worrying about where we would camp or whether we had enough money. Had that really been me? The land here is flat all around us, and I can see for miles over the long fields. It feels like the horizon stretches out around us. I want to reach out and touch it.
“Stop the car,” I ask quietly.
“What?” he says. “Can’t you hold it in? It’s not too long to wait, is it?”
“Stop the car,” I repeat, almost shouting.
I open the door and look toward the fields. I take off my shoes, not proper heels but a compromise, and fling them into the footwell. Then I start to run out into the field. I carry on and on, the rough soil hurting my feet. I hear Nick’s door open and close. I glance back and see him watching but not following me. I know he’s worried.
The summer air is stagnant, creating a heaviness I hadn’t expected. I thought it would feel freer out in the field, outside of the trapped air of the car. I’d hoped that whatever had been crushing me all those nights would rise up and pop like a balloon.
The field is full of color, but the scent is like a sickness, the rapeseed burrowing its way up my nose and down the back of my throat. The wave of yellow flowers doesn’t look so attractive now that I’m out in it. I look down to see some weeds, brown and tangled around each other. It must have rained earlier in the day as a short shower appears to have revived them. Their tenacity, their need to hold on, has paid off.
I look back at the car and feel ridiculous. I have no idea what to do, the burst of adrenaline having come to nothing. I realize that what I was looking for out there doesn’t exist. I can’t escape the anxiety. The horizon can never be reached.
I hear Nick calling my name. For some reason, it feels like a long time since I’ve heard it. And in that moment, I see that the past version of me is still alive, the one who existed before IVF, pregnancy, and Mum’s death, the one not smothered by the worries, the lack of sleep, the drudgery. She was there all along.