- Published: 3 March 2020
- ISBN: 9780143773658
- Imprint: RHNZ Vintage
- Format: Hardback
- Pages: 368
- RRP: $40.00
All the Way to Summer
Stories of love and longing
Like turning your hand over, things could go either way with the weather. Six a.m. and the bay is turbulent and green, but at that hour of the morning anything can happen. Standing at the window, just listening, the whole house is a heartbeat. Looking at the bay, the water, the clouds, I think I can hear the busy clink and chatter of the rigging on the boats parked on the hard at the bay, but that can’t be right, it’s too far away. Oh, you can hear anything, see anything on a morning like this, it’s the day of the wedding. Our son’s getting married.
There is a stirring in the back rooms; there is so much to do, I will never get done, it’s crazy this, but the wedding’s to be here, not at her place but mine. I am speaking now of the bride’s mother and myself. Well, it’s a long story, how the wedding comes to be here instead of there, but that’s the way it is. She’s bringing the food later in the morning, and there’ll be crayfish and scallops like nobody ever had at a wedding before, and mussels of course. They are mussel farmers from the Sounds. They. Well, I mean the bride’s parents.
I love our daughter-in-law to be, I really do. You might think I don’t mean that, mothers-in-law rarely do, but it’s true. Our son’s on a win. I want to see him married.
Perhaps they know that. There are times when I think they haven’t been so keen. Perhaps they think she could have done better. I don’t know. It hasn’t been easy, getting this wedding together. But, if you knew him, our son, you’d know she wouldn’t settle for anyone else. Anyone less. Now there’s a mother talking, but I’ve fallen for it, that same old charm of his, and I’ll go on forever, I guess. He puts his arms around me and says, ‘Love ya, Ma’ and I’ll forgive him anything. It’s true. He brings out a softness in me. That and rage. But the anger never lasts for long.
There is no time to go on reflecting about it this morning though. There’s the smell of baked meats in the air, I need to open up the house and blow it through, I’ve got the food warmer to collect from the hire depot, and the tablecloths aren’t ready, and I have to set up a place for the presents, and there’s his mother, my husband’s to be got up, and there’re relatives to be greeted, and oh, God, I am so tired. Why didn’t anyone tell me I’d be so tired on our son’s wedding day, it doesn’t seem fair because I want to enjoy it. Oh, by that I mean, I want it to be all right, of course, and I want to do it graciously. We’ve been at it a bit over this wedding. Them and us. But I want to make sure it goes all right today. They’re bringing the food and the flagons of beer; we’re providing the waiters and waitresses in starched uniforms, and the champagne. You have to cater for everyone at a wedding.
Eleven a.m. The food hasn’t come. The flagons haven’t come. She hasn’t come. That’s the bride’s mother. The wedding is at two. I am striding around the house. The furniture is minimal. We’ve cleared everything back. There’s hardly going to be standing room. That’s if there ever is a wedding. There is nothing more I can do. Nothing and everything. If only we had another day. It would have been better if we’d held off another month. The weather would have been better. Not that it’s bad, but the breeze is cold. It’ll be draughty in the church.
The church, ah, the church. It looks so beautiful. The flowers. They are just amazing. Carnations and irises, low bowls of stocks . . . There are the cars now, all the rela- tives bearing trays and pots and dishes, straggling up the steps. The food looks wonderful. God, those crays, there’re dozens of them. I’m glad they’ve done the food. I could never have done it so well. And the cake. Our daughter-in-law’s aunty has made the cake and it’s perfect too.
Everyone’s exhausted, it’s not just me, they’ve been up all night. Still, I wish they could have got here a bit sooner, and we all have to get dressed yet. It’s cutting things fine. I feel faint, even a little nauseous, as if lights are switching on and off in my brain. She can’t be as tired as I am, nobody could be that tired. How am I going to make it through the rest of the day?
‘I’d better be getting along,’ says the aunt to the bride’s mother. ‘I’ve still got to finish off your hat.’ The aunt has a knack with things, clothes and cakes, she’s the indispensable sort.
Inside me, something freezes. ‘Hat,’ I say, foolishly, in a loud voice. ‘You’re wearing a hat?’
There is a silence in the kitchen.
‘Well, it’s just a little hat,’ she says.
‘You said you weren’t going to wear a hat.’ I hear my voice, without an ounce of grace in it, and I don’t seem able to stop it. There is an ugliness in the air.
The aunty, her sister, says, ‘She needed a hat to finish off the outfit. It wouldn’t look right without it.’
‘But we agreed,’ I say. ‘You said you couldn’t afford a hat, and I said, well, if you’re not wearing one, I won’t.’
The silence extends around the kitchen. She fumbles a lettuce leaf, suddenly awkward at my bench.
‘It’s all right,’ I say, ‘it’s nothing.’ My face is covered with tears. I walk out, leaving them to finish whipping the cream. ‘Where are you going?’ my husband says, following at my heels.
‘You can’t go away.’
‘I have to. I’m not going to the wedding.’
‘No stop. Don’t be silly.’ He’s really alarmed, I’m right on the edge, and he’s right, I might go off at any moment and make things too awful for everyone to endure. At the rate I’m going, there mightn’t be any wedding.
‘Come into the shed,’ he says, speaking softly, like a zookeeper talking down a wild animal. ‘You’re tired, just tired.’
I follow him. Inside the tool shed I start to cry properly. ‘I want a hat,’ I say, ‘I wanted to wear a hat all along, but I promised her. I promised I wouldn’t get a hat.’
‘I’ll get you a hat. Come along, we’ll go into town and buy you a hat.’
‘It’s too late, the shops will be shut.’
‘We could just make it to James Smith’s,’ he says. But it is too late, I can see that. Even if we broke the speed limit, I’d only have five minutes, it being Saturday. The shops are due to close in half an hour.
‘I can’t go without a hat. What’ll I do?’
‘You’ll think of something,’ he says. ‘You always do. Hey, we can do anything, can’t we?’ He pulls my fists out of my eyes. ‘What can we do? We can . . .’ He waits for me to join in the refrain with him.
‘We can walk on water if we have to,’ I chant.
But I’m not sure how I will.
Back in the kitchen everyone is tiptoeing around. ‘It looks wonderful,’ I say heartily. ‘Just great. Don’t you think you should be getting along, I mean, if you’re going to get dressed?’
They nod. They are not deceived, but they are glad to be excused. They have been afraid to take their leave in my absence.
They are gone, and our son and his best man are dressed, preening in their three-piece suits. Oh, they are so handsome. It calms me, just seeing them. As for him: I want to stroke him. My boy. In a suit. Oh, I’m square, when it all comes down to it. But he’s proud of himself too.
He doesn’t know what’s been going on, but he sees I’m pale.
‘Of course I’m okay,’ I say, and for his sake I must be. I must also have a hat.
I ring our daughter. ‘What about all those hats you bought when you were into hats?’ I ask. I think of the op shops where she has collected feathered toques and funny little cloches. I have a feeling that none of them will suit me. She is so tall and elegant. ‘I think they’re in the baby’s toy box,’ she says.
‘Have a look,’ I command.
‘God, I’ve got to get dressed too.’
I hold grimly onto the phone. She comes back. ‘There’re three: the black one with three feathers, the sort of burgundy one, and the beige one with the wide brim.’
‘That’s it, the beige one. I’m sending Dad over for it right now.’
‘It’ll be all right. Well, look, I can try it anyway.’
‘But Mum,’ — this time she gets it out — ‘the baby’s been sick on it.’
No one is going to put me off now. I think she is conspiring with the odds to stop me making a fool of myself. I won’t let her save me though. ‘Dad’ll be right over,’ I say.
But it’s true. The baby has been very sick on the hat. I’m sure our daughter shouldn’t have put it back in the toy box like that. I resolve to speak to her at some later date.
In the meantime, there is work to be done. I fill the sink with hot soapy water and get out the scrubbing brush. In a few moments, the sick has gone. I have a soggy felt hat drip- ping in my hands, but at least it is clean.
The husband and wife team, available for cocktail, waitressing and barman duties in the privacy of your own home, has arrived. ‘Don’t worry about a thing,’ they say. ‘You just enjoy yourselves, and we’ll take care of everything from now on.’
In the clothes drier, the hat whirls around.
Our son has left for the church. Soon we’ll have to go too. My husband is resplendent. He wears his father’s watch-chain across his waistcoat. His father was a guard on the railways, back in the old days. That watch has started a thousand trains on country railway stations. Sometimes I remonstrate with my husband for wearing it; it doesn’t always seem appro- priate. Today it is exactly right. The spring in the watch has given up long ago, but the watch will start the wedding on time. Sooner or later.
My hands shake so much, he has to do up the buttons on my Georgia Brown silk dress. ‘It’s time we were going,’ he says tentatively. I know he’s thinking about the hat and wondering if he can get me away without it.
But it’s dry. Dry and softly drooping around the brim so that it swoops low over my right eye when I put it on. I stare at myself in the mirror, entranced. I feel beautiful. I glow. I love hats. This hat is perfect.
Our son’s wife-to-be is late. I don’t mind. It gives me time to relax, breathe deeply, smile and wave around the church. Across the aisle, I see her, the mother of the bride. She is not wearing a hat.
Instinctively, I touch the brim of mine. I have shamed her into coming without her hat. I should feel jubilant, but I don’t. I feel bad, wonder how to take mine off without drawing attention to myself. But it’s impossible. At the door to the church, the priest has said first thing when he sees me, ‘Oh, what a beautiful hat.’
I look away, embarrassed. I tell myself I must not think about it. The wedding is about to happen, and we can’t repeat it when I’m feeling better, so I’ve just got to stop thinking about it, the hat on my head.
And then they’re there, the two of them coming into the church together, which is what’s been arranged, and it’s not quite the same old responses, because the priest has said that some of that wouldn’t be suitable — he’s rather conservative this man, a little disapproving — but they say nice things to each other, making promises to do things as well as they can, and they’re so young, so very young, and that’s all you can expect from anybody, to do their best, isn’t it?
The couple is facing the congregation now. Our daugh- ter stands up at the lectern and reads from the book of Ecclesiastes and then some Keats, Oh brightest! Thou too late for antique vows, — and she’s pale and self-contained and not showing any signs of things turning over inside her, and so lovely; she and the boy, her brother, look at each other, and it’s as if they’re the only ones in the church for the moment — Holy the air, the water, and the fire — like a conversation just for the two of them, putting aside all their childish grievances, though a few people in the church who haven’t done English Lit. look a trifle confused, but it doesn’t matter, these two know — . . . so let me be thy choir . . . thy voice . . . thy lute . . . — and then the baby of our son and his new wife cries at the back of the church where he’s being held by the aunty, and the spell’s broken as the two parents look anxiously after their child. The wind rises in the funnel where the church stands, and a plane roars overhead, and the light shines through the stained-glass window on to the same spot where my father’s coffin stood last year, and with all the light and the sound I don’t hear any more of the service, I just smile and smile.
It’s over. We’re forming up to leave. She and I look at each other across the church again. Suddenly, it’s all bustle and go, and what none of us have thought about is the way we get out of the church, but there it is, as old as the vows, or so it seems, the rituals of teaming up, like finding your partner for a gavotte, step step step, an arm offered and accepted, she goes with my husband and I go with hers, that’s the way it’s done. Delicate, light as air, we prepare our entrance to the dance, to the music, but before we do, she and I afford each other one more look, one intimate glance. Hatted and hatless, that’s us, blessed are the meek, it’s all the same now. We’re one, her and me. We’re family.
October 1955. If Albert Black sings to himself he can almost see himself back home in Belfast, the place where he came from.
How this new condition changes language, not we or us or ours but I and me and mine, mine alone the hollow hours.
The journalist was born in 1964, which is to say she’s seventeen years younger than I am.
Yes, quite a lot of people do ask me how I lost the little finger of my left hand.
I CHOOSE TO BE EXHILARATED by the gift of failure. I say choose because it is a choice, just like any other choice you make in life.
On his first night in the house, Mark lies on a mattress in the empty living room with all the windows open and listens to the neighbours beating their son.