The White Wedding

Mrs Hardcastle lay back and let Willy’s strong arms enfold her… she stirred and smiled indulgently at her fantasies. It was eight thirty in the morning and she and Willy were alone, which was why he was washing her hair himself rather than leaving it to one of the girls. The salon was not due to open for another hour but she had coaxed him into making an exception. ‘Nothing is too much trouble for my favourite client,’ he had said, a claim he appeared to be regretting as he stumbled dazed and unshaven to the door. She must be sure to take full account of his inconvenience in the tip. The extra hour was a critical component of a schedule which, she reflected with pride, was as regulated as royalty’s. As soon as she was allowed to open her eyes, she would return to her lists. It was imperative that she did not nod off under the dryer for, in a little less than six hours time, Robert was going to be married and everything depended on her.

She simpered as Willy insisted that there must be some mistake: surely she was the one who was to be married; she did not look old enough to have a son of thirteen, let alone twenty-three. ‘Che bella signora.’ He frequently lapsed into Italian, even though they both knew that he came from Margate. His remarks could be in dubious taste, but Mrs Hardcastle was broadminded, equating them with the ‘Something for the weekend, sir?’ of her husband’s barber. A prudish hairdresser would be as out of place as a prurient priest. Besides, leaning back with her head in a basin, she was in a highly vulnerable position. At least there was no danger of a stray hand brushing her breast on the way to her hair. The thought discomposed her and she kicked Willy so sharply that he yelped. She apologised to him and upbraided herself. Anyone would think that she were a lovesick schoolgirl rather than a happily married woman approaching her middle years. She deflected her irritation on to Willy, who was making fun of her. He knew perfectly well that she had a grown-up son. After all, it was Robert who had persuaded her to abandon Sylvia and patronise the new establishment. Her friends considered her brave – reckless even – but, as she never tired of pointing out, she felt an affinity with the young.

‘Robert came in yesterday,’ Willy was saying, ‘making himself smart for his bride. Such a handsome boy! I could eat him.’

‘Now now,’ Mrs Hardcastle said mildly. She disliked that kind of talk, although with Willy it was somehow impossible to take offence. He turned everything into such a joke that she could not imagine him actually doing anything unpleasant with another man. It would be like taking Fred Basset in the Daily Mail for a real dog.

‘The signorina he is marrying, is she beautiful?’

‘Well….’ Mrs Hardcastle hesitated. Not even Fiona’s best friend – a role she had earmarked for herself – would call her beautiful. What she had was character.

‘Not as beautiful as his mama, no!’ Willy kissed his fingertips. ‘No one could be as beautiful as his mama.’

‘Well….’ Mrs Hardcastle blushed. ‘That’s hardly for me to say.’ Honesty, however, compelled her to agree with Willy. Although one part of her longed for a daughter-in-law who would merit a place on her mantelpiece, another was grateful to have been spared a rival. Fiona’s face was so round and lumpy that the least trace of make-up gave it the air of a bruised potato. She searched for the right words to describe her (it would do well to keep a few in reserve). Boyish sprang to mind, but she shied away from its implications. Mannish was even more unfortunate, and yet it perfectly captured her cropped hair. At breakfast she had invited her to join her at Willy’s, only to be turned down in favour of ‘a quick comb’. After that she had lacked the confidence to broach the matter of the ear-studs (not just one in each lobe but right the way up to the top). She prayed that she would take them out before the service or else that they would be concealed by her veil. She had not had occasion to check but she suspected her of embarking on married life with unshaved armpits. Surely being a vegetarian did not require her to surrender to Nature in every respect?

‘She’s one eighth Maori… although she’s as pale-skinned as you or me,’ she added, still smarting from her cousin Edwin’s ‘touch of the tar-brush’. They have different standards of beauty. She may be Miss World to them.’

‘It’s true love,’ Willy said, ‘as we say in Roma.’

Mrs Hardcastle felt waspish. She doubted that he had ever been to Rome, let alone Roma. Marbella was more his style. Though there had been a wine merchant two years ago who had flown him to Barbados for the winter. It had been most disconcerting. She had had to settle for one of the girls cutting her hair. For reasons that she had never cared to analyse, Mrs Hardcastle preferred to have her split ends trimmed by a man. She had contented herself by whispering to Mrs Pritchard, as they waited for the dryers, that she felt sure the wine merchant would want more from Willy than a cut and blow-dry. Mrs Pritchard had roared. Mrs Hardcastle smiled at the recollection.

‘Yes, you are happy. There will be lots of lovely bambinos.’

‘Well not straight away,’ she replied with a hint of reproach. ‘She’s not… well, you know. They didn’t have to get married. Not like so many couples these days who might as well book the christening when they sign the register.’

‘Just give it time,’ Willy said. ‘I can tell you’ll be the perfect grandmother.’

Mrs Hardcastle smiled her thanks. She intended to be the sort of grandmother whom no one would believe: the sort who won first prize in every Glamorous Granny competition. She was torn between longing to enter one and relief that she did not frequent the sort of places in which they were held.

‘The lucky young lady, yes: what is her name?’

‘Fiona. A name I’m particularly fond of. Although everyone but me seems to shorten it to Fi.’ She trembled at the recollection of her row with Julia who had declared that, if Fiona chose to be known as Fi, it was their duty to respect it. She had replied that names conferred at the font were sacred and, besides, diminutives were common. That carried no weight with the self-styled Jules (a singular misnomer given her aversion to any adornment) who had rounded on her viciously. She had, however, refused to back down and felt sure that Fiona secretly welcomed the sign of their special bond. ‘Robert met her through Julia – my daughter,’ she informed Willy, since, in spite of all her pleas, Julia refused to avail herself of his services, preferring to cut her own hair with results that Mrs Hardcastle sometimes shuddered to observe. ‘It shows how far things have changed. When they were children, they used to hate one another’s friends. They’d deliberately insult them on the telephone. Mr Hardcastle told me not interfere – they’d grow out of it. And I have to admit he was right. She’s a nurse: Fiona, that is. She works with old people… geriatrics.’ She scowled as Willy failed to pick up his cue. ‘I know I should admire her for it and I do – I honestly do – but I can’t help finding it odd. What satisfaction can she hope to gain? I’d understand if she’d chosen to work with children, but most of her patients are half-dead already. As I said to Mr Hardcastle, she might as well have become a mortician. And then there’s the whole bedpan side of things…. Willy!’

‘Oh scusi signora. My mind, it is full of butterflies.’

Mrs Hardcastle knew that it was the wrong expression but, as for the moment she could not recall the right one, she let it pass and instead poured out her worries regarding the wedding. She had been too embarrassed to mention them to the vicar and, besides, there was something almost clerical about Willy (it might be the way that his mind always appeared to be elsewhere). One thing that she had carefully concealed from the vicar was the couple’s initial refusal to marry in church, which had been reversed only after a prolonged maternal campaign that had surprised even her by its vigour. ‘They pretend they’re marrying simply so that Fiona can stay in the country. She’s from New Zealand. Her visa’s expired.’

‘I had a friend. He was from San Paolo in Brazil. He was deported. They took him to the airport in handcuffs.’

‘I’m talking about men and women, Willy,’ Mrs Hardcastle said. ‘Not friends. Though Lord knows how they’ll manage. They’re both so young. And Robert’s barely earning.’

‘But he has a good job, no!’

‘A good job? A hospital orderly?’ Willy silenced her shriek with a tug at a wayward curl. ‘Though of course they don’t fool me. It’s obvious just from looking at them that they’re head over heels in love. But nowadays the young are so unromantic. It’s as if they’re afraid of tempting fate. And I sometimes think they say things deliberately to hurt.’

‘No, no – ‘

‘Oh yes, Willy. They know how sensitive I am. But what’s the point when they always have to end up admitting I’m right?’

‘I bet.’

‘What was that?’

‘I mean mama always knows best, yes?’

‘As you say, Willy, I’m sure your mam… your mother must be very proud of you.’ They both smiled as she rambled on. ‘A registry office! Not while I have any say in the matter. As I said to them, you only get married once – at least I sincerely hope so – so let’s try to do it properly.’

‘So true,’ Willy said. ‘It’s like that old double-glazing advert. Do you remember? You only fit double-glazing once, so fit the best. Fit – ‘

‘It’s not like that at all, Willy,’ Mrs Hardcastle snapped. ‘They’re starting out in life together, not improving a home.’

‘Yes of course. Scusi, scusi.’

‘Fiona has no family, not even in New Zealand. The poor child was farmed out from the age of four. I don’t wish to sound heartless but, in one respect, I’m glad. There’s no risk of divided loyalties. On the other hand, there are no prizes for guessing who’s been lumbered with all the arrangements. Anyone would think I was the mother of the bride! Believe me, it’s never-ending: the church; the flowers; the reception; the dresses; the cars; the cake. I don’t know about the bride and groom but, at the end of the day, I think I’m the one who’ll need a honeymoon – to relax.’

Willy made a joke about not relaxing on a honeymoon. Mrs Hardcastle pretended to take offence but, inside, she felt warm.

Willy refused to let her pay for her hair. ‘No, this is my treat,’ he said, ‘my contribution to the giorno di festa.’ Mrs Hardcastle was so moved that she began to cry. People were really very kind. Having forgone the chance to tip him, she resolved to buy him something extra-special at Christmas. ‘Now no tears,’ Willy said, ‘you should be smiling. It’s a time to celebrate.’

‘I’ll dance at your wedding yet, Willy,’ Mrs Hardcastle said, determined that Robert’s happiness should be shared with the rest of his sex. ‘You just haven’t met the right girl yet. But you will. Take it from me: you will.’

‘We shall see.’ Willy smirked. ‘But my heart is broken. The only woman in the world I care for never gives me a second glance.’

‘Why, who’s that?’ Mrs Hardcastle asked in surprise, only to burst out laughing when she caught his drift. ‘Get along with you!’ And, in keeping with the prevailing spirit of romance, she kissed him twice on leaving the salon. As she turned to give him a parting wave, she saw that he was already freshening up his cologne.

Mrs Hardcastle arrived home to find her husband waiting for her in the hall as he had been every day for the past four years. But the attention she had sought from him in his prime was cloying in his early retirement. She kissed him with far less enthusiasm than she had done Willy and headed for the kitchen. As he padded behind, she tried to curb her annoyance (men in slippers were only one step down on her list of pet hates from men in beards). She offered him a cup of coffee. He hummed and hawed before finally declaring that he would have one to keep her company. The word struck a chord and she realised that company was what was lacking in her life: not just a presence in the sitting room, let alone in the bed (which had been subject to an amicable split three years ago), but a genuine soulmate. She saw less and less reason, however, for its having to be a man. She remembered all the library books she had read in which the ladies had companions: middle-aged spinsters or widows who had fallen on hard times. Together they gossiped and performed good works. The system was ripe for revival. As soon as the wedding was over, she must consider engaging someone herself.

‘Good weather for it,’ her husband broke in.

‘For what?’

‘The Tour de France. What do you think?’

‘Yes, of course. I’m sorry now that I didn’t press for an open carriage. But they made such a fuss. Robert said he’d feel like Prince Charles. Though what’s wrong with that I’d like to know, especially on your wedding day? There again, at this time of year, it might still rain. You can never be sure.’ Uncertainty of any sort made Mrs Hardcastle uneasy and she felt a fresh twinge of apprehension about the speeches. ‘You won’t talk for too long, will you?’ she urged him. ‘And you won’t say anything at all suggestive?’

‘Don’t worry,’ Mr Hardcastle assured her, ‘as clean as a baby’s bottom.’

‘And don’t, whatever you do, mention babies. They’ll all think she’s expecting.’

‘Well, isn’t she? I assumed that was why everything had been so rushed.’

‘Not at all,’ Mrs Hardcastle replied, wondering yet again what she had ever seen in him. ‘Not everyone’s as obsessed with that side of things as you. Some couples marry for love.’

She could afford a purr of contentment. This marriage was a total vindication of the way she had brought up her children. She had been a single parent in all but name. When Julia and Robert were young, their father had practically lived in his office. Or so he had told her and so she had chosen to believe. He had forfeited his right to interfere at home, thereby allowing her a free hand. Of course, memory being short, he had tried to blame her the moment things went wrong: when Robert threw up college and Julia began to chant. But that was all in the past. Though Robert had yet to make his mark, she felt sure that the hospital was a mere stopgap while he devoted himself to some literary project he was too modest to reveal. And, if Julia chose to interpret women’s liberation as giving her an equal right to drive a removal van, at least she had not been submerged in a vast pool of secretaries. Mrs Hardcastle had been determined that, whatever else, her children should be unique.

As if on cue, Julia rolled into the kitchen still wearing her dressing-gown. Mrs Hardcastle scowled. ‘Honestly, dear, aren’t you cutting things a little fine? In four hours time, we have to be in church.’

‘No sweat, she replied. ‘I can be dressed and out of here in five minutes flat.’

‘But not today,’ Mrs Hardcastle said, as though such casualness would undermine the marriage. ‘You must make a special effort today.’

‘Morning Pops,’ Julia said with shameless vulgarity. ‘No, don’t kiss me. I can’t stand being slobbered over by strange men.’

‘Don’t be absurd, Julia,’ Mrs Hardcastle said crossly. ‘It’s your father.’

‘Well we only have your word for that, don’t we, Ma?’ Julia and her father laughed, though Mrs Hardcastle failed to see the joke.

‘I warn you, madam,’ Mr Hardcastle said, ‘you’re not too old to be put across my knee and given a good spanking.’

‘Whatever turns you on, Pops,’ Julia said. ‘But I should remind you that I attend a women’s self-defence course. I’m an expert at karate.’ Mrs Hardcastle shuddered. She had no quarrel with the urge to protect oneself but there was no need to go to extremes. In her day, a pepper-pot had been enough. Besides, Julia spent all day lifting crates: she had muscles where other girls had dimples. She should devote her evenings to more refined pursuits such as pottery or musical appreciation. She was to be a bridesmaid: the only one. Mrs Hardcastle had envisaged a parade of flaxen-haired girls and perhaps even a pair of velvet-clad pageboys, but Fiona had vetoed it with a vehemence that was most unbecoming in a prospective bride. Julia had, inevitably, taken her part and Mrs Hardcastle had not pressed the point. One thing she had learnt from twenty years of running the W.I. was when to concede defeat. She smiled tentatively at Fiona who, having joined her future in-laws, casually placed her arm around Julia’s neck.

Mrs Hardcastle felt a growing sense of unease which centred on Fiona’s dress. It was too casual, too easy-to-recycle-for-the-hospital-Christmas-party. Still, she supposed that it could have been worse. She had read somewhere of a woman who had married in black and another who had married in a trouser suit. That was perverse. There was only one person who could wear the trousers in a marriage and he should be seen to do so from the start. What would people have said if the groom had turned up wearing a dress? She shuddered. For all that she knew, some pop star already had.

‘What’s the matter?’ he husband asked. ‘Did we say the wrong thing? You look as if you’re about to murder someone.’

‘Don’t talk nonsense. I was just thinking.’

‘Well try not to think with a knife in your hands. It could be dangerous.’

Mrs Hardcastle laughed and tried to push all unpleasantness from her mind, but she remained on edge until the delivery of the flowers: bouquets for the bride and bridesmaid; buttonholes for the men and a resplendent corsage for her. They were perfect. She could tell that Christine had made them herself rather than leaving them to one of the girls.

‘Take care you don’t crush it,’ she warned Julia as she handed her the bouquet. ‘Try to be ladylike for once in your life.’ Her attention was diverted to the door. ‘Robert! What are you doing here?’

‘I’m staying here, Mum,’ he said. ‘Or haven’t you noticed?’

‘Get out! Get out at once! You mustn’t see the bride until you’re in church.’

‘But we’re sleeping in the same house. We can’t help it.’

‘Out! Out!’ She shooed him from the room. Fiona, Julia and Mr Hardcastle laughed.

‘But Mum, you know I’m not superstitious.’

‘It’s not superstition: it’s tradition.’

Mrs Hardcastle’s most pressing task was to prepare the bride. Since neither Fiona nor Julia was noted for her dress sense, it was left to her to take charge, pushing and pinching and arranging, until both tempers and material were nearly frayed. Finally, the struggle was over. ‘There now, you look….’ She found herself floundering. She could not say pretty, except in the way that Robert had used to tease Julia with a qualifying odd or a picture, unless it were the sort of nondescript portrait hung in an ill-lit hall.Yet it was not that Fiona looked ugly, simply wrong, like an understudy forced to replace an injured star in a costume that did not quite fit. ‘Well, you’ll be the most beautiful bride in the church,’ she said.

‘Thanks for nothing, Ma,’ Julia said.

‘I didn’t mean…. Oh dear! Aren’t I the silly one? Now let’s concentrate. Something old: my pearls. Something new: your slippers. Something blue: your garter. Something borrowed… you’re not wearing anything borrowed!’ Mrs Hardcastle looked as appalled as if someone had challenged the banns.

‘Don’t worry.’ Fiona reassured her. ‘I’m wearing Julia’s knickers.’


‘The elastic’s gone on mine.’

‘It’s quite hygienic, Ma. They’re fresh from the wash.’

‘Well of course. I didn’t imagine….’

‘Is anything wrong, Mrs Hardcastle?’ Fiona asked.

‘No, dear. I suppose not.’ For the thousandth time, she reminded her to call her Mother.

‘But Ma, Fi hated her mother.’

‘Nonsense,’ Mrs Hardcastle snapped. ‘That’s just an adolescent affectation. How else could she be such a dedicated nurse?’

A quick glance at her watch galvanised her. As always, she had spent so long running after everyone else that she had neglected herself. Thank goodness she had gone for the manicure and facial yesterday and not tried to squeeze them in post-Willy. Announcing that she was not to be disturbed for anything less than the collapse of the marquee, she rushed to her bedroom where she effected the necessary transformation with no damage to anything but her nerves. She descended the stairs to whoops of enthusiasm from her husband, Julia and Fiona (Robert, who would have been even more enthusiastic, had already left for the church). She herself followed in solitary splendour, since her husband was travelling with the bride, whom, in the absence of any more suitable candidate, he had agreed to give away. She could not help wishing that there were a more defined role for the mother of the groom: if only she could give Robert away. She broke off abruptly, for the thought was not just frivolous but mildly distasteful.

She progressed down the aisle, taking considerable satisfaction from the turn-out, particularly on her side. She had given strict instructions to the ushers to maintain the traditional divide: there was to be no premature mingling of the clans. She surveyed the hats and felt confident that, despite some flattering competition, hers would carry the day. She settled in her pew and, as a sop to the surroundings, fell to her knees. Reverence eluded her. She knew that she should say a prayer for the bride and groom but the words failed to form. She was more conscious of the ache in her calves than of anything spiritual. So she sat up in her seat, sure that God would understand. After all, He had a son Himself. She gazed at Robert standing by the altar steps alongside Graham Holland, his best man. It was fair to say that he would not have been her choice. In spite of her natural partiality, she could not understand why a successful barrister in his mid thirties should opt to share his flat with someone who was little more than a manual labourer. As if he were able to read her mind, Graham turned to her and grinned.

The organist struck up the wedding march. Mrs Hardcastle felt reassured by its familiarity while fearing that her friends might consider it common. She found herself wiping away a tear, which had come far earlier in the service than she had anticipated. So she focussed on the bidding prayer which could be relied upon to damp down any emotion. The service proceeded so fast that she almost wished herself a Catholic with the full glory of a nuptial mass. Before she knew it, they had reached the exchange of vows. Graham went through a pantomime of searching for the ring, which was neither convincing nor funny, after which Robert gave Fiona a demure peck on the cheek. Mrs Hardcastle felt quite cheated. She knew that the correct tone was hard to gauge and had been outraged when her nephew James had virtually thrust his tongue down his bride’s throat. Robert, however, had gone too far the other way. That did not appear to concern the vicar who asked the congregation to applaud as though they were watching a cabaret. He went on to preach a sermon full of metaphors. They concluded by singing Love divine, all loves excelling. At least she had chosen the hymns.

She processed out on her husband’s arm, choking back memories of St Luke’s: the guard of honour, Aunt Evie and Mrs Richmond wearing the same dress. She smiled graciously at her family and friend, touched that there should have been so few refusals. Her smile grew increasingly strained as she reached the back of the nave where the bulk of Robert and Fiona’s friends had congregated. She would not have expected them to be regular worshippers, nevertheless they should have had some idea of what was appropriate clothing for a church. Jeans and a T-shirt (especially one boasting the slogan Born to be Bad) were not. One woman had a face that would challenge a metal detector. There was even a man (he must surely be a porter from Robert’s hospital) with a Satanic tattoo.

By the time she had returned home, Mrs Hardcastle had recovered her composure. She took her place in the receiving-line at the entrance to the marquee.

‘What a coup! It’s so much friendlier than a hotel,’ her cousin Lesley said, in a tone that implied it must also be so much cheaper.

‘Yes, but the hire charges are horrendous,’ Mrs Hardcastle assured her. ‘Still, Robert doesn’t get married every day.’

‘That’s certainly true,’ Lesley said with a whiskey-soaked laugh.

Mrs Hardcastle turned with relief to the younger guests, only to find that they showed no more respect for her garden than they had for the church. She would have thought that even the most bohemian parents would have explained the difference between an ashtray and a jardinière.

Her afternoon passed in a permanent fluster. The buffet was excellent; the speeches were not. But then, unlike the speakers, the caterers were under her control. The dancing was led by the bride and groom, for which she supposed she should be grateful. It would have come as no surprise if they had chosen some less orthodox coupling. She danced with her husband and her brother-in-law, her doctor and her uncle (who turned even the gentlest waltz into an assault course). She enjoyed a tearful two-step with Robert before handing him over to Fiona, who at once pronounced herself ‘ready to sit this one out’. The band then became faster and louder and Lesley declared she could hardly hear herself think. Which was all to the good in Mrs Hardcastle’s view for, if she could, she might start to wonder why some of the men were dancing with the men and the women with the women. That might pass muster in the Middle East, but this was Hertfordshire.

Nevertheless, all that really mattered was that Robert was happy. She beamed as he and Fiona walked up to her. ‘Thanks, Mum,’ he said. ‘You’ve done us proud. Now we’re going indoors to change. We have a honeymoon to catch.’ The emotion that had been welling up in her through the day threatened to burst out. Her son was off to Crete on his honeymoon. It was her wedding present to them: the only one that Robert could be induced to accept.

‘You’ll make sure you haven’t forgotten anything: passports; tickets; currency?’

‘And travel mints and pills for holiday tummy.’

‘Darling, please, it’s your honeymoon!’

‘Diarrhoea doesn’t discriminate,’ Fiona said, and Mrs Hardcastle reminded herself that she was a nurse.

‘Well, we’d better go on up. Thanks again, Mum.’

‘Yes, thank you Mrs Hardcastle, it was a lovely wedding,’ Fiona said, almost as if she were one of the guests.

‘See you, Ma,’ Julia said, insinuating herself into the group.

‘Why? Where are you going?’

‘I’m helping Fi to change. Then Graham and I are driving them to Heathrow.’

‘Oh, that’s kind,’ Mrs Hardcastle said, trusting that Graham would show more restraint behind the wheel than he had when delivering his speech. She went back to her guests, feeling much as Cinderella’s mother must have done when the clock struck twelve and her daughter’s dress disintegrated. Then she remembered that Cinderella’s mother was dead, hence the ugly sisters. She suddenly warmed to Fiona. It was no wonder that she was so graceless, having spent her childhood being shunted between foster homes. She would make it her mission to initiate her into the joys of family life.

The last guests did not leave until eleven and it was another hour before she was able to make her way upstairs. She dragged herself into the bathroom, too weary for anything but a lick and a promise (the kind of wash which, as a boy, Robert had demanded she give him literally). She moved into the bedroom where her husband was already settled. But the moment she slipped between the sheets, she felt wide awake, a state that he callously attributed to too much champagne. She sensed Robert’s absence more keenly than ever and longed for a chance to hear his impressions of the day.

‘I’m going to ring them.’


‘Robert and Fiona, of course.’

‘But it’s the middle of the night!’

‘So? I don’t suppose they’ll be asleep yet.’

‘I should hope not. They’re on their honeymoon.’

‘Must you be so coarse? What I meant was that I doubt they’ll even have finished unpacking. I want to know if they received my flowers.’

‘If you take my advice, you’ll leave well alone.’

‘My mother rang us in La Boule.’

‘Don’t I remember!’

‘I was so touched.’

‘Have it your own way. You will anyway. I’m going to sleep.’ As he turned his back, Mrs Hardcastle defiantly picked up the phone. She spoke to a receptionist with an absurdly impenetrable accent for a holiday hotel. After a protracted effort, she was connected to Robert’s room, the ‘and Fiona’s’ being still a little hard to stomach so late at night. No one answered and she began to fear that she might be waking them or else disturbing them in the middle of…. Suddenly, she heard a click. She felt queasy. She would know that laugh anywhere.

She told herself not to panic. There was a simple explanation. She had intended to ring Crete but she must automatically have dialled Robert’s flat and got through to Graham. In which case how to explain the receptionist? She was caught up in a mystery she was reluctant to solve. But she had no choice. She announced herself and sensed his alarm. The line went dead. She held on as if it were 999.

‘Mum.’ It was Robert. She did not know whether to feel anxious or relieved. ‘We weren’t expecting you.’

‘Robert darling, what’s happening? Was that Graham I spoke to?’


‘When do you think? Just a moment ago.’

‘Oh then. Yes it was. How did you guess?’ Again there was laughter, although this time it was higher-pitched and coming from more than one source.

‘Robert, who have you got in there? I demand to know what’s going on!’

‘Oh it’s just Fi.’

‘I heard at least two voices.’

‘And Jules.’


‘And Graham.’ Mrs Hardcastle felt faint. Suspicions like long-lost memories flashed through her mind. ‘Yes, isn’t it a wheeze? We decided on the way to the airport. Just a couple of quick detours to pick up their passports. They’re here till the middle of next week.’

‘But it’s your honeymoon!’

‘You don’t have to tell me, Mum.’ He giggled naughtily. ‘But what could be more fun that the bride and groom taking along the bridesmaid and best man?’

‘But it’s your honeymoon. Two’s company, three’s a crowd.’

‘And four’s a party.’ This time there was no attempt to suppress the laughter.

‘And how are you managing for rooms? Everywhere’s fully booked. They had to juggle to squeeze you in.’

‘Last-minute cancellations. Don’t worry, Mum. It’s all taken care of. Now you go to sleep. I’ll ring you tomorrow.’

‘And clothes… and… did Julia take a toothbrush?’

‘We can share. It’s no big deal, believe me.’ Whether it was the reassurance of Robert’s voice or simply the effects of exhaustion, Mrs Hardcastle found herself sinking back into the pillows. ‘Now you go to sleep. And promise me you’ll take it easy for a few days. You deserve a rest after all your hard work.’

That’s true, Mrs Hardcastle thought – or she might even have said. She no longer knew which.

‘And Mum….’

‘Yes darling?’

‘Thanks so much for the flowers. All four of us are looking at them right now.’

‘That’s lovely,’ Mrs Hardcastle said. Everything was lovely. And, with the telephone still in her hand, she fell asleep.