Don’t you just hate people who are always on time? Even worse are those people who aren’t only on time but fifteen minutes early. Totally unexpected buggers aren’t they? There you are in the middle of a quickie and they turn up on your doorstep, and you’re staring at them with that post orgasmic flush on your face as you accept their bunch of carnations and bottle of plonk. Not that Julian and I often have quickies before people come to dinner you understand, just in case you think we do, but you know what I mean. The only quickie you’ll catch us doing fifteen minutes before guests arrive is sieving lumps out of the cheese sauce. Lumpy cheese sauce is a speciality of mine. As for me, I am late for just about everything. I just can’t seem to get anywhere on time no matter how hard I try, and believe me, I try. I’m trying pretty hard right now. Julian, however, is one of those people who is always on time and I imagine he is well on his way to the church by now.
‘I’ll meet you at the church. Try not to be late,’ he had said with a wink, knowing full well I would be.
Meanwhile, I’m desperately trying to bungle Celia Blakely out of the laundrette where I work so I can finish my shift, change, and get to my friend, Silvia’s, wedding.
‘So, I said to Mr Newman, you know Mr Newman don’t you?’
I don’t know Mr Newman in the least and I am beginning to wonder if I actually want to.
‘He lives just up the road. His wife was …’
She leans closer and I shift slightly so I can hear her while continuing to unload the dryer.
‘Having it with Mr Douglas from number thirty-three.’
‘Oh,’ I say, folding the towels and placing them into her laundry bag.
‘She went to the Isle of Dogs with him. Well, I said to Mr Newman she can go to the dogs a woman like that. We don’t want the likes of her here in Battersea do we?’
I shake my head and glance at the clock. I’m going to be so late. I find myself wondering if Julian and I might have it later. A wedding always gets you in the mood doesn’t it? Lots of slow dances and champagne, and Julian in a nice fresh smelling shirt and I can see myself getting quite turned on. After all it seems like ages since we have.
‘Where’s this wedding you’re going to?’
‘St John’s Wood, it’s a bit of a posh one. My mum used to clean at their house when I was little and I used to play with their girl. I’ve got to get the bus when I clock off here.’
She grabs the washing bag and hands me ten pounds.
‘Here’s a little extra. Get a taxi. I know you’re struggling with that café and your studies.’
Café? God, Julian would have a hundred canary fits if he heard the restaurant being called a café.
‘Oh no, I couldn’t Celia.’
‘Don’t argue, just take it. It’s your birthday soon, ain’t it?’
‘Yeah, tomorrow actually. Thanks Celia, I’ll pay you back. Honest.’
‘I wouldn’t want it back.’
I see her to the door and rush to the back room to change, tapping Julian’s number into my mobile as I go. It rings and rings and finally goes to voicemail. Shit, he is probably at the church already. I pull off my stripy laundrette overall and study myself in the cracked back room mirror and slip on my new scarlet satin dress. It’s not strictly new of course. I bought it at Oxfam, but it’s perfect. I expect Alistair will quip something about The Waltons when he sees it. A quick shake of my shaggy blonde hair and a stroke of mascara transform me. I look critically at my reflection and sigh. Not enough time to achieve my normal Kate Moss look. Who I am I kidding? I clip a diamante slide into my hair and swipe Sugar Kiss Red lipstick over my full lips and stroke Rosy Red blusher onto my cheeks and sigh. Not bad I suppose. Of course, I’m sure I could look sensational if I had that Bobbi Brown stuff that Fiona uses. I’m so knackered. The last thing I need is a wedding, and a posh one at that. I slip on my trainers, as they are easier for running, and throw my red satin sling backs into a carrier bag. Clutching my woollen shawl, I open the door.
‘Bye Maud,’ I shout to my boss.
My mobile trills and I fumble in my bag. It’s Sid, my landlord.
‘Harriet, I hate to phone you darling. I’ve tried Julian but I’m not getting an answer. I’m sure it’s a silly mistake. Just a bloody oversight but as it happened last month I just thought I should check all is okay.’
What happened last month? I look down the street for a taxi.
‘Sorry, what’s that Sid?’
‘Julian’s bank isn’t paying the standing order for the rent. I’m sure it’s a mix up again, like last month.’
I feel my stomach lurch.
‘Last month?’ I say my voice rising.
I sense his embarrassment.
‘Not to worry babe, I’ll try him again. We’ll get it sorted. He said he would settle last month‘s rent and this month by the end of last week, but I think he must have used the wrong account again. Not to worry huh?’
‘I’ll speak to him. We’re at a wedding today. But I’ll get him to sort it tomorrow for you. I’m sure it’s just a mix up like you say.’
I hang up and push the conversation to the back of my mind. Sid’s right I’m sure. It’s just a silly mix up. Right, all I need now is to hail a taxi and that’s no mean feat. I’ll probably have to flash them. Oh well, there’s a first time for everything.
* * *
‘This is it,’ I tell the taxi driver as I slip on my new Shoezone stilettos.
‘That’s twenty quid darling.’
‘What? You’ve got to be kidding. That’s bleeding extortion more like,’ I quip fumbling in my purse. ‘What a liberty.’
I reluctantly hand over the money and dash through the church gates, struggling with the strap of one of my sandals as I go. That will teach me to buy cheap. I wobble on one foot and fiddle with the strap when I feel a hand on my arm.
‘Can I help with this?’
I turn to the voice and come face to face with a very striking man. In fact, he is so good looking he sends an ache through me. He’s wearing a dinner suit and his white shirt complements his tanned skin. His warm hazel eyes twinkle with amusement and a small smile flickers over his face. His voice is soft but clear and seems to have a hint of laughter in it. Is he mocking me, or is it just his manner? He holds out his arm and I lean gently on it and adjust my shoe strap while trying to ignore the fact that my breathing has quickened. His arm feels warm and sends a tingle down my spine.
‘Ta very much,’ I say gratefully, removing my hand as quickly as possible before I end up ripping off his shirt.
Blimey, I haven’t felt this randy in months. He nods towards the church where the organ is playing softly.
‘I think they’ve started,’ he says in his soft cultured voice.
I do believe I have lost the power of speech, bloody hell, that’s a first.
‘Shall we?’ he asks, heading towards the church.
Ooh, I’d love to but I’m not so sure a church is an appropriate place. For a split second I imagine him without that white shirt and feel myself go weak at the knees. I follow meekly, slipping in quietly at the back. I spot Fiona and Alistair but Julian is not with them, and I can see no sign of him. I love the smell of churches. I couldn’t tell you why. They are kind of sweet and musty all together. Although right now this church smells of Chanel perfume, Pierre Cardin aftershave and rose petals. There is also a faint smell of baby vomit which I am trying to ignore. I love weddings too. I don’t care where they are, I just like the atmosphere. Church weddings are best of course. The atmosphere in a registry office is nowhere near as holy is it? I’d like to get married in a church, not that Julian and I have ever talked about marriage even though we’ve been together for three years. And let’s face it, we can barely afford to eat at the moment, let alone plan a wedding. We never seem to have time to discuss our relationship. Either I’m dashing out to work, or panicking to finish a study assignment and you don’t normally bring up the subject of marriage as you’re tumbling out of bed or flying through the kitchen waving a piece of Marmite-smeared toast. Julian is working hard getting his restaurant going and if we are both home at the same time we are so knackered that we barely exchange more than twenty words. When it’s time for bed we are normally out for the count in seconds. Our sex life isn’t riveting but then whose is after three years? Mind you, my sister Caron and her boyfriend are at it nine to the dozen, or so she would have me believe, and they’ve been together for four years. It would be exciting though, I don’t mean going at it nine to the dozen, although that would be pretty exciting if I could just get up the energy. No, I mean getting married would be exciting. I look down at my dress and feel my head again to check the diamante slide is still there. All the other women are wearing huge hats and fabulous dresses and I feel just a touch underdressed. I’m not good at top hat and tails weddings. I love my friends but I feel so out of place with some of them. I bet these guests didn’t buy their outfits from Oxfam. I pull the dress gently from my newly pierced navel and adjust my bra slightly. I love Oxfam. I don’t know what I would do without it, not that I want people to continually starve, I mean that obviously goes without saying, but charity shops are a godsend to people like me. It’s just a shame they don’t sell cheap food.
The wedding march roaring from the organ snaps me out of my daydream. I turn to see the bride enter, but am acutely aware of the good-looking man beside me and the fresh clean smell that comes from him. I gasp as Silvia glides down the aisle in her beautiful Vera Wang wedding dress.
‘She looks amazing,’ I sigh.
‘She looks okay,’ says the man beside me.
I gape at him.
‘You’re kidding, that’s a Vera Wang dress. I’d die for a Vera Wang dress.’
Oh God, I sound so shallow. I give him a sideways glance and try to guess his age. I’ve never been good with ages but at a guess I’d say he was early thirties. I wonder if his wife/girlfriend and Julian are stuck somewhere together. There is absolutely no way this sex god is single.
‘I like your dress,’ he says softly, looking into my eyes.
‘You do?’ I say surprised. ‘It was a fiver in Oxfam …’ I bite my lip. What am I saying? I don’t need any help in making a bad impression do I?
‘Alistair always thinks I look like crap. He’s dead embarrassed to be seen with me,’ I whisper.
‘Is Alistair your boyfriend?’
‘Heavens no, I’d rather slash my wrists …’
He must think me so common.
‘He’s my friend’s partner,’ I say, pointing at Fiona a few rows ahead, ‘but he’s a bit rude. My boyfriend Julian hasn’t arrived yet,’ I say quickly, although I’m not sure why.
‘I’m Brice Edmunds by the way.’
Brice? I should have known he would have a sexy name.
‘Harriet Lawson,’ I reply, wishing it were something much grander.
There is a hushed silence as the vicar begins the service. It is so unlike Julian to be late. Forty-five minutes later and it is all over and we are applauding Silvia and Hugh as they leave the church. I make my way outside and wait for Fi and Alistair while searching for Julian. Brice passes me and smiles. He could stop hearts with that smile. I spot Fiona and Alistair and head towards them. My God, his flies are undone. I’m so preoccupied with Alistair’s trousers that I send myself sprawling as my heel tangles in my dress. Fiona catches me and wraps me in a tight embrace. Thank God for a familiar face, although it would have been much nicer had it been Julian’s.
‘On time as always,’ Alistair quips sarcastically. ‘There is something c-c-comforting about your consistent lateness.’
‘Hello Alistair, you look nice, like the Y-fronts.’
Fiona follows my eyes to Alistair’s zipper.
‘Christ Alistair, your flies are undone. Do something before that Jeremy guy sees you.’
‘What Jeremy guy?’ Alistair asks while fumbling with the zipper.
‘Over there. He’s a Lord or Sir or something. Anyway, zip your flies up for Christ’s sake.’
I peer at the man.
‘I don’t think he is,’ I say.
‘Are you sure? He looks familiar,’ she says.
‘That’s because he’s the parking attendant at Homebase,’ sighs Alistair.
I narrow my eyes.
‘He’s right you know,’ I say.
‘Are you sure? What’s he doing here?’
‘P-p-parking cars,’ huffs Alistair. ‘I wish you would wear your contact lenses. Honestly you’ll be curtsying to parking attendants before we know where we are.’
‘I do wear them. I’m just so tired and they make my eyes sore. I was sure my glasses were in my bag. I feel like I’m jet lagged. You know, that ‘when you’re not here’ feeling?’
‘I’m rather wishing I wasn’t. I feel like a sodding wallflower,’ I say looking around desperately for Julian.
‘A scarlet w-w-wallflower,’ sneers Alistair. ‘It’s a w-w-wedding you know, not a b-b-bloody period drama.’
What a cheek, some people just don’t appreciate individualism do they?
‘Bloody things,’ he mumbles yanking the zip up.
‘You look lovely,’ Fiona assures me. ‘I love the snap pearl buttons on that dress.’
‘You don’t think it’s a bit, you know, Little House on the Prairie?’ I say feeling self-conscious.
‘A little bit?’ sneers Alistair. ‘That’s an understatement.’
‘Ignore him, he wouldn’t know style if it bit him on the arse,’ Fiona says glaring at Alistair.
‘Have you seen Julian?’ I ask. ‘He should have been here ages ago. I’m sure he left well before I did. You know how he likes to be on time.’
‘Most people like to be on time,’ says Alistair.
‘I can’t see anybody without my contacts,’ moans Fiona, ‘let alone Julian. He’s probably got held up at the restaurant.’
I shake my head sending a pearl drop earring flying.
‘I’ve tried the restaurant, and his mobile, and he isn’t answering either. I’ve only brought a cheap card with me. He’s supposed to be bringing the present.’
‘I imagine he’s still bombing it down the A40 in your Mini,’ says Alistair casually.
I stare at him.
‘That’s just the thing. Alistair swears he saw Julian bombing it down the A40 in your Mini. I said that’s not possible. It’s completely the wrong way, and your Mini won’t do more than forty,’ says Fiona.
‘Not with an empty tank it won’t. That’s why I got a taxi here. I forgot about petrol. I don’t mean I forgot that the car takes petrol, of course. I’m not that dippy.’
‘That’s a relief,’ quips Alistair.
I shoot him a dirty look.
‘I just forgot I was on the red and I’m flat broke. Bombing it down the A40, are you sure he was in the Pooch? The thing will blow up.’
‘I don’t think it is p-p-possible to mistake your Mini. You know that distinctive whining sound that says Harriet’s Mini?’
Why on earth would Julian be ragging the Pooch down the A40 when he’s got his new van? I hope the wheels weren’t nicked from it. That’s all we need. The past nine months have been shit. Every single penny going into Julian’s dream of setting up a French restaurant which, so far, has not done very well at all. If it wasn’t for our friends eating there we wouldn’t have broken even. I’ve seriously started considering selling a kidney. Julian’s obviously, not mine. I’m not that crazy. After all, we could survive on three between the two of us. In fact, maybe I could sell off bits of Julian’s body until he has the restaurant up and running and I have all my studies paid for. Although, strictly speaking, not all our money has gone into the venture. I have been secretly squirreling away some of my earnings. I decided from the start that one of us needed to put a little by and I’m so glad I did. I need to pay for the next part of my tuition fees as I am not planning to work in a laundrette all my life. I can’t help worrying though, what earthly reason would Julian have for racing down the A40 in my Mini? Come to think of it why is he ragging it down the A40 at all when the church is the opposite way? Still, Julian always did have a terrible sense of direction. All the same, it’s a bit odd. Julian would never be late unless there was a good reason.
‘It’s not like Julian to be late,’ I say voicing my concerns.
‘There’s a f-f-first time for everything,’ says Alistair.
‘It’s dead posh this wedding isn’t it?’ says Fiona, breaking into my thoughts. ‘There are Lords and MPs and everything. It’s a real high-class do isn’t it? They’re all big knobs.’
‘Is that a fact? Perhaps you should keep an eye on that zip Alistair. You don’t want people making comparisons,’ I laugh.