Wednesday, 1 April 2009

The Wedding Party - Short Story

This was another of those stories prompted by me being irritated by a book I read, this being 'The Dream Archiepelago' (1999) by Christoper Priest a collection of short stories based in a science fiction archiepelago which appeared first in his novel 'The Affirmation' (1981). Anyway, in one of the short stories a man, a stranger to the particular island upsets local customs when attending a funeral because he refuses to have sex with a woman who has been trying to seduce him. What I saw as a very unfair outcome and it reminded me of my own experiences at weddings. Often guests are invited who come from very different backgrounds to others there particularly one or other of the families, especially, as was the case usually for me, they were known to the bride and/or groom from work or study rather than being part of the local community. One of the worst cases was in the mid-1990s when I was invited to a wedding in Surrey between a local man and a Scottish woman. The Scots utterly dominated the event. They all wore traditional Scottish dress and would not talk to anyone who was not so dressed (me and other friends of the groom were there in typical suits) and this even extended to the groom's family. There was very ritualistic Scottish dancing with the groom having to dance with his mother-in-law for one dance and other such traditions. However, literally half the guests were excluded from the main event of the reception and it seemed utterly perverse. Myself and three friends instead went and gatecrashed another wedding reception being held elsewhere in the same building and ironically got a warmer welcome there than we had at the reception we had actually been invited to.

Anyway, wanting to right the wrong of Priest's story and get just an iota of revenge on the inhospitable Scots I wrote this story. As someone pointed out it is rather anachronistic now because of the length of the football season. The fact of someone going to stand in as a representative for someone else was both based on real occurrences, especially by staff of nursing homes, that I have been told about and was a reflection of what happened in the Priest story.

People of different Christian denominations have been put out by how I named the church, but that was based on actual locations even if these differ from the tendencies of many denominations. That response in itself seemed to show up the irritated particularity of so many churchgoers in the UK. Like most companies they believe their way is the only right/feasible/sensible way to do things and are very intolerant of anyone who comes with different assumptions. Re-reading this story before posting it here I have been reminded of how many occasions terribly self-righteous, religious people have behaved to me in the same way as they do in this story, so there is a lot of my own experiences in here.

If a guest turns up to your wedding or one you are involved with, please respect their views on things even if you disagree with them. A wedding or a funeral is not a place to start preaching or lecturing. Guests come in good faith and do not want to be patronised or harangued. They are paying respect to the married couple or the deceased, not to you. Do not assume they know how you do things, keep them informed but not in a judgemental or patronising way.

The Wedding Party

Dave stepped from the back seat of the taxi, and fished out the bunch of flowers and the present wrapped in white and gold. He nodded to the driver, Rudi, one of the longest on Dave’s payroll, and in moments the car was driving away.

“Is this it?” Dave asked himself, surveying the community centre, seemingly of the 1970s vintage with light-coloured bricks and that kind of shabby white fascia about window level.

There were a number of cars in the small car park beside the building, but nothing that looked much like it was here for a wedding. However, Dave could make out voices inside. He wondered if he was early, and the couple were still on their way from the church, but then again there had to be someone here getting the reception ready.

Dave walked over to an door that had been propped open. The corridor inside was empty, dark and echoed; hardly suggestive of celebration. Dave hesitated just inside the door. It was a bright day and it took his eyes time to adjust to the darker interior. It was only a couple of weeks since the football season had finished, but the weather was looking good. He would have been sorely tested if Mum had asked him to attend this, if the Hammers had been playing at home. Even now, with no danger of that, he much would have preferred to be in one of those pubs down by the river with Stefan, Keith and the lads. However, it was Mum that had asked and he could never say no to her.

Truth to be told, Dave was happy to do anything for his mother. As he grew older and his business had branched from taxis into carpet cleaning and he and Christine could take things a little more easily, he realised he had a lot to be grateful for to his Mum: keeping him from bunking off too much; providing a spare bed whenever he was short on cash. Though he had not really thought about it at the time, he was a little uneasy about her going into that home, but he guessed she was with people of her own age, and she never seemed glum. He supposed this was the least he could do for her. Apparently, the bride, a Melissa, had been a care assistant at the home since Mum had gone in there, and Mum even knew the groom, Jacob, from times he helped at the house, parties and such like.

Dave straightened up and walked down the corridor, feeling like an ambassador for his mother. He pushed at one of the glass doors which he guessed led into the main hall. To his surprise the room he entered was full. Tables went round three sides and almost every seat was occupied. Food was laid out around, but no-one was eating, they just had their heads bowed muttering something. Dave guessed he had timed it badly, and had walked in on them saying grace. He shuffled in planning to hang around the edge until they were ready, and then, the door banged behind him. Suddenly all the heads snapped up and focused on Dave who immediately felt embarrassed. Fortunately the heads dipped again quite quickly.

In seconds Dave felt an arm on his elbow. “Leave, this is a private gathering.” A small man with blond hair and wearing a light blue suit whispered loudly at him.

Dave always disliked being manhandled, and extricated his arm from the man’s insistent pushing. “I know.” Dave snapped back and began pulling out the invitation and thrust it towards the man.

The small man seemed reluctant to take it, but did and read it intently as if searching for some error. “You’re not Mrs. Taylor.”

“No, of course not. I’m her son, Dave.” He proffered his hand, but the man ignored it.

Behind them came a loud ‘amen’ and suddenly everyone was active, tucking into the food. Dave felt a little relaxed, this was more like what he expected from a wedding reception.

“But Mrs. Taylor was invited.”

“But, yes, she is recovering from pneumonia. I’m here representing her.” Dave answered in the way he did to morons.

“Well.” The man replied irritably.

“Shall I sit here?” Dave began moving towards an empty chair. Every action he seemed to make was scrutinised by a dozen pairs of eyes, but as yet no-one else was willing to intervene.

“Erm, no.” The man seemed uncertain now. “There.” He pointed impatiently to another seat at the corner.

“Thanks, will you take care of these?” Dave pressed the flowers and present into the man’s hands.

The man seemed to regard them as if they were litter picked up on the street.

“You knew that all gifts go to the church. We have no need for flowers. This is a waste of money.”
“Look mate, I was called in at the last moment. I have been to a score of weddings, and so I went with what I knew. You deal with that.” Dave replied, holding back his annoyance.

Dave left the man looking thunderous and went to the chair he had pointed out. Dave sat down between two women, one in her late forties, Hester, another around fifteen years younger, Rebecca. Despite the man’s frosty welcome, Dave found no difficulty in talking with the women. Being in the taxi trade for twenty years made you adept at dealing with all sorts. Whilst occasionally the women’s comments seemed old-fashioned or too decided, Dave did a good job of steering the conversation among non-contentious topics. Once he found out the older woman had a father that was in the same home as Mum, he was on safe ground.

To Dave, the food seemed like something he would have had at a party the year the community centre was built. White bread sandwiches with plastic cheese and flavourless ham were washed down with orange squash and followed by fruit cake. He was looking forward to something a bit more substantial.

“I have not seen you at Worcester Street. Which church do you attend?” Hester asked at length.
“Oh, I’m not a member of your church.”

“Ah, you’re a Baptist.”

“No, no, nothing like that, I’m not a church man.”

“How come you are here?” Hester’s tone was beginning to resemble that of the small man.

“I’m representing my mother, she’s too ill to come. She knows Melissa well, from the home, and Jacob a bit too.” Dave explained nodding to the happy couple, though from their rather grim expressions, he found it hard to imagine this was their wedding day.

“But you came, and you’re not in the church.”

“No, but it seemed right. Mum wanted me to come for her.”

“And that seemed ‘right’ to youm did it? Did you ask us?”

“Mum wrote the couple a letter, she got Melissa’s address from work.”

“But she didn’t even try to contact the church?”

“Erm, I don’t know. I was only told when and where to come. I wasn’t involved in any negotiations.” Dave said, trying to lighten the incident.

“It’s not right at all.” Rebecca chipped in. “You seem to have no idea.”

“Live and let live, that’s my motto.” Dave added. He felt he was being very tolerant, but the two women looked away.

Dave lifted his hand for some squash. The woman with the jug came and served him without giving him any grief. He took the glass beneath the table and doctored it with a slug of brandy from his hipflask. There was no point getting Rudi to drop him off and collect him if there was no chance of a real drink; on squash he might as well have driven himself.

Dave drank the spiked squash quickly. He glanced at his watch. He had been there forty minutes, it felt hours longer. He guessed he could make a quiet exit when the speeches were over. He could call Rudi on his mobile from the toilets and get him to pick him up a lot earlier. There was going to be none of the drinking and dancing with the bridesmaids that he had anticipated.

“Is it speeches next?” Dave asked Hester, but there was no response. “Speeches?” Dave lent forward to try to question Rebecca.

“Prayers.” Rebecca snapped, and like Hester found herself deep in conversation with the person next to her.

“Sod this.” Dave thought. He was a tolerant man. He had been to all sorts of weddings, even Adnan’s when he had not understood a word of what most people had been saying, but this one was taxing him too far.

“Toilet.” Dave said as he stood up, but no-one seemed to be concerned.

Out in the corridor, Dave headed to the back of the building. He did not want to be caught out here again. The stubborn streak in him, was not going to be driven out before the speeches, he would then at least have something to report back to Mum. He was never good at making things up. For the moment though, he was dying for a cigarette. He pushed open the door at the far end of the corridor and found himself among the dustbins in the yard behind the building, a common kind of location for smokers these days. Dave lit up quickly and drew deeply, the nicotine really soothing the irritation he had felt inside.

The door to his side opened. It seemed to come straight off from the kitchen. A man appeared with some foil trays and plastic wrapping. He pulled the lid off the bin and chucked them inside. He left the lid to the side while he went back for some more, and from where he stood Dave could see the flowers he had brought, unwrapped and crumpled with a light spattering of withered lettuce on top. Dave flicked his cigarette away and stepped into the kitchen. Two women and the man were busy about their chores, dressed in bright white and dark blues, the uniform of caterers.

It did not take Dave long to find what he was seeking. Abandoned next to boxes that held milk cartons was the wedding present. That angered Dave, to discard it like that was such a waste, they could at least have taken it to a charity shop or a hospital or something. Dave began walking towards it.

“You’re not supposed to be in here.” One of the women called with a shrill voice.

Dave raised his hands in surrender. “Yeah, yeah, I took the wrong turning.” He walked to the door glancing back at the present hoping forlornly it would get to the couple for whom it was intended.

Dave walked back into the corridor. The hall seemed quiet and he guessed the next batch of praying had started. He pondered what to do. There seemed no point in going back in there, he was not even in line for a glass of champagne. His mobile rang, playing the Dambusters theme to the empty corridor. It was Keith: he, Stefan, John, were all down by the river at ‘The Grapes’ in Wapping and wondering where he had got to. Dave told them he would be there in thirty minutes and for them to line one up for him. He killed that call and was on to Rudi in seconds and he knew the rescue cab would soon be with him.

Dave tucked his phone back into his pocket and pulled out the hipflask. After the stress of the last hour he needed a swig.

“Mr. Taylor.”

Dave turned to see the small blond-haired man standing with a lit candle. “No worries, I’m going.” Dave responded.

“We wish you’d never come.”

“I got that impression. I’ve never been made to feel so unwelcome. It wasn’t even my fault, my Mum wanted me to be here. She loves that Melissa, she only wanted to wish her the best.”

“I know Melissa can be weak. She associates with the wrong kind of people.”

Dave walked up to the man. He felt the urge to lash at him. “How dare you! How dare you!”

“Mr. Taylor, please restrain yourself.”

“No, no, Mr. smug-bastard, I want you, I want them in there to hear this, that bloody Rebecca, Hester, the rest. My mother is one of the best people you are likely ever to meet. You are not even on the level to lick the shit from her shoes.”

“No, Mr. Taylor, she like yourself wallows in sin. You turn away from the salvation that God offers and you ridicule those who see the true path.”

Dave was breathing heavily, his face red with anger. “We are ordinary, decent people. I came here, did my best to fit in. I was the messenger of kind thoughts and words and thoughtful gifts and what do you do? Treat me like scum, throw my presents in the bin. Is that Christian charity?”

“Your behaviour was wrong, you have been insulting us from the moment you arrived.”

“Well at least I was willing to try to fit in, to be polite, you’ve done nothing but be rude.”

“Actions speak louder than words and yours, your whole lifestyle, is an insult that you have paraded before us.”

The man’s calm voice needled Dave and he began coughing. He jerked his hipflask to his mouth and drank deeply. Suddenly the man thrust the candle at him, as if trying to exorcise him. Dave jumped back spluttering brandy all over the man, the candle flame caught it and patches of his appalling suit were soon flaring up.

“Oh! Oh!” The man flapped around in a pathetic way.

Dave wrenched the fire extinguisher from the wall, and fumbling with the controls her began spraying the flames. However, he was thrust against the wall as people exploded from the hall. In moments the small man had disappeared beneath them. Dave had been in enough pub car park fights not to know when to leave. He snatched his battered hipflask from the ground and headed towards the exit. He smiled as he saw Rudi’s car pull up at the kerb. Dave knew that twenty minutes from now he would be back in sanity, but at least he would have a story that would make Mum laugh when he saw her next.

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