The first of the Paris-themed fiction short-stories that I am writing this July for Camp Nanowrimo.
All characters are the figment of my imagination and any resemblance to those living or dead is just your weird guilty conscience.
The Wedding Guest
Anna looked past her husband of six weeks toward the mirrored bar. She wasn’t looking at the backlit bottles, the glowing marble bar or even the elegant bartenders in their white jackets. Anna Beaumont-Christie, actor, model, interior stylist…was looking at her own reflection. As lovely as the bride, her sister, had been as she shuffled down the aisle, everyone in the room knew that she had been the more beautiful bride. Duncan had told her so, as any husband would, but Father had confirmed it.
It was hard for Sylvia; she didn’t have Anna’s height, and, well there was that nose. Before she was known, famous if you will, Anna promised her sister she would pay for a rhinoplasty when she had her first major role. She still couldn’t believe the kerfuffle any time someone mentioned that gift certificate, still after all these years.
There were only forty people at the wedding, not the nearly 200 that had celebrated Anna and Duncan’s just six weeks before.
“What’s on that beautiful mind?’ Duncan asked. He cupped her chin. He really was a very good-looking man.
“I hope you don’t mean Beautiful Mind like in the Russell Crowe film,” Anna arched one beautifully shaped eyebrow.
He laughed that sexy laugh. Her sister’s new husband might be a doctor, but he didn’t have Duncan’s cheekbones.
“I’m just watching old Josephine and Bill laughing it up with Anna and it irritates me. I’m a big enough person to admit that,” she said.
Duncan followed his wife’s gaze.
“Why do you let some old Aunt and Uncle bother you? They are nobodies from nowhere.” He picked up his wine glass and waved it at the waiter.
“They carry on as though Sylvia is the be all and end all of the universe,’ she said.
“I think you might be exaggerating a little bit…” he said.
“I’m glad I got to organise the pre-wedding dinner,” she said, to herself more than to Duncan. Her husband gently rubbed her shoulder, careful of the silk.
“Who cares if they snubbed our wedding? You were there and that’s all that matters.”
“Well that’s very sweet but quite a stupid thing to say, don’t you think?”
Duncan’s forehead crinkled as though trying to work out why it was a stupid thing to say. A waiter filled his glass and tilted the bottle towards Anna’s.
“No,” she barked at him, putting her hand over the rim of the crystal goblet. He bowed his head and took a step back from the table. Anna turned to look at him.
“Champagne,” she said, annoyance clear in her voice.
He walked away and she watched him go, not at all convinced he was going to come back.
“What is it with French waiters?” she asked. Duncan didn’t respond with anything more than a furrowed brow.
A gentle breeze stirred. A collective sigh seemed to lift and settle over the friends and family members gathered on the rooftop terrace. The Eiffel Tower sparkled in the distance. Anna watched her mousey sister cling to the arm of the man she had only ever referred to as Jimmy no matter how much Anna had pushed her for a surname. It had made investigating him all the more difficult. He had no obvious media presence, social or otherwise, and despite persistent probing he didn’t feature in the social pages. Sylvia was no help, always busy as she was with this charity or that cause, which was how she’d met the good doctor. Jimmy! Who had ever heard of a doctor called Jimmy?
“Perhaps it’s James…” Anna mumbled, fiddling with her empty glass. She watched the doctor through her luxurious eyelashes, her head tilted down.
“Who?” Duncan said.
“Of course it’s James,” Duncan said. Anna looked her husband, shocked that he would take that tone with her. He sat motionless; eyes trained on the wine in his glass. He said nothing but at least had the decency to look as though he immediately regretted it.
“I don’t care for your tone of voice,” she sniffed and impaled her husband with a stare.
That stare meant he would be sleeping on the sofa, if he was lucky. If he was unlucky, he might be wandering the hot Parisian streets in search of other lodgings for the night. She glared at him, but he avoided eye contact, turning instead to the waiter with the champagne. He stood to allow the server easier access to Anna’s champagne flute. Duncan clapped the waiter on the back.
“Thanks, old sport,” he said, like he was Jay Gatsby. “Jolly good,” he went on.
Anna rolled her eyes and sipped her champagne. A hush came over the little knots of people gathered on the candle-lit terrace as the main lights dimmed. The fireworks started in the distance, lighting up the Paris skyline. Duncan held both hands out to Anna and winked.
“Stop bloody grinning as though you planned that fireworks show. It’s not even for the wedding, it’s for Bastille Day. It’s just…good timing,” she said, but took his hands and followed him to the balcony.
Her mother’s husband stood aside to make room for her, but they kept walking. Good old Roger would get over it, he always had. It was his fault, after all that her parents had split. In all honesty, Anna was twenty before she realised that the split may have been more to do with her own father’s indiscretions but certainly it was Rogers fault that poor Sylvia had that nose.
She shrugged and tried out an apologetic smile, as she and Duncan huddled next to a cousin she hadn’t seen for years. Was she a cousin? Anna smiled at her but suddenly wasn’t entirely sure she was related after all.
Duncan introduced himself. Oh, yes, thank goodness for Duncan and his impeccable Eton manners. Cousin Gigi and a fiancé. The fiancé had worked on Wall Street. Well that’s Duncan for the evening, Anna thought, as she watched him hunch over to better hear the fiancé’s tales of the trading floor. He often said he would have liked to work in The City. He had the looks for modelling and family money, Anna always reminded him, why on earth would he choose to work in an office for sixteen hours a day? One day, he’d said, when no agents will see him.
The other guests watched the last of the fireworks, but Anna found she was watching them, the guests, starting with those closest to her. She carefully placed a sweet smile on her face. It would not do to scowl; it would not do to have someone wondering what was going on in her ‘beautiful mind.’ It would also, not do, to have one’s picture show up in Paris Match with resting bitch face.
The music was loud. Gigi was saying something, filling Anna in on a detail of their life in the Big Apple. Did anyone still call it that? Gigi did, obviously. The fiancé was still talking, animated and interesting, and Duncan silent, wide eyed. Gigi said something droll. Anna remembered suddenly that this cousin, Gigi, is the cousin that is the New York journalist. Anna smiled and nodded. Gigi rolled her eyes but smiled. Anna would invite her to a party. She should have invited her to the pre-wedding dinner. She liked the way Gigi stood by, smiling benignly while the fiancé talked; of course, she’d have heard all the stories.
Anna smiled a little more, sipped, and cast her gaze across the gathered family and friends. She frowned. She honestly couldn’t recall a time her presence had mattered less, and it bothered her, for some reason she couldn’t quite fathom, that she didn’t know any of her sister’s friends. Eyes settling on a blonde girl, the one Sylvia had gone travelling with, and the another, hair dyed, hot pink for some unfathomable (to Anna) reason. Yes, she was the one who’d made the speech at Sylvia’s 21st. It had been funny. Anna recalled a lot of laughter. She looked…confident. Perhaps she was a comedian? Anna wondered mildly if the pink-haired woman was famous. She took a sip of champagne and wondered also how one managed in Paris with hot pink hair.
She smiled quickly, with practiced sweetness, at her stepfather. The father-of-the-bride seemed quite happy standing alone, while his wife worked the room like a politician. Mother had always loved a party and played the role of Mother of the Bride, twice in six weeks, to a tee. Mother’s tinkling laugh rang out across the terrace. But that wasn’t Mother laughing; Mother is there, speaking, huddled against the music, with the photographer. Anna realised that her mother’s laugh had come from Sylvia. Sylvia had inherited the tinkling Beaumont laugh.
She watched her sister for a few moments and almost as though Sylvia could feel eyes on her, she looked over and lifted her glass. Anna did the same and Sylvia grinned. Her new husband, Doctor Jimmy, James, snaked his arm around his wife’s waist and there was Mother’s laugh again coming from Sylvia’s throat. Anna was grateful for her perfect smile. It would also not do, to have one’s sister feel anything but loved on her wedding day. It would not do to be jealous of one’s little, mousey sister, with the gorgeous Parisian wedding, the tinkling laugh, the doctor husband and the…wait, has she had her ‘girls’ done?
Anna squeezed Duncan’s arm and they both laughed a little too loudly at something the fiancé said. She wondered at her own laugh, was it a tinkling laugh. No one had ever told her she tinkled. She crinkled her nose at the odd thought.
Cousin Gigi beckoned the waiter. Anna took the fresh glass of bubbles offered and clinked Gigi’s. She loved her nearly unknown cousin at this point because the woman hadn’t tried to talk to her beyond the most basic couple of words and head nods. People rarely did that because they usually felt nervous in the company of a celebrity. Of course, Gigi had gone to a good school, too. Very important, good manners.
The rest of the guests seemed like the most boring looking group of people Anna had ever seen. Lots of black-rimmed glasses and last year’s too-blue jackets. Anna’s own wedding had featured in Tatler. A cousin of the future king of England had attended Anna’s wedding. Cousin Gigi had not, but that might be because she was Roger’s niece, a step-cousin, if you will, so no relation, really.
Anna wondered for the briefest moment if cousin Gigi didn’t know who she was.
Another sip of champagne and another tiny breeze ruffled the night air. She shivered a little and Duncan was so engrossed he didn’t notice, where normally he would ask if she was cold. People had begun to dance, and more fireworks started, this time over the white domes of the Sacré-Coeur. It really was the most perfect night. She watched her sister dancing and laughing as Doctor Jimmy stepped on the small train of her lace dress.
Anna looked away. She found the perfect smile slipping. Her eyes finally settled on her aunt Jo. Uncle Bill was standing just behind her chair, as always. Anna frowned and looked away from them. Realising Gigi wasn’t really her cousin reminded her that her aunt Jo wasn’t really her aunt Jo at all. She’d always loved Aunty Jo and Uncle Bill. They’d been kind. They’d been…there. Jo was, is Roger’s sister, and, of course, Gigi’s aunt, too. The other sister had died at some time or another. Gigi’s mother. Anna sighed. Blended families are bloody confusing.
But Jo had been Aunty Jo even, it seemed before Roger was a permanent fixture in Anna’s life. Aunty Jo had been there, had been her aunt before Sylvia was there. Jo had been her aunt first. Anna flashed the perfect smile, or what was left of it, and left her husband telling his ‘Empire State Building’ story. She’d heard it before, of course. Gigi and the fiancé were howling with laughter. It was a funny story, she had to give him that. She found a waiter and held out her champagne flute. He took the flute and handed her a coupe.
“At last, someone who understands me,” she laughed, but he didn’t. Perhaps not, she thought.
She held the cut crystal and admired the soft light caressing it’s curves. She took a sip, swallowed, then took a deep breath. Catching her reflection in the mirrored bar again, she saw she was frowning again. She smiled but the smile only made it as far as her cheeks, a dimple appeared on cue, but the eyes were sad. She felt queasy. How much had she drunk? She took a few steps and laid her hand on her stepfather’s arm.
“Hi Roger,” she said.
“Hi, lovely girl,” he said. He seemed really pleased she’d come over to talk to him. He always did, good old Roger, always so grateful for a minute of her time. She looked at the fine wrinkles around his eyes. They were kind eyes. Her mother had warned her that she would be sorry one day, for all the pain she had caused in her teens and she’d been right and that day, just happened to be this day, this moment, looking into her stepfather’s tired, kind eyes.
“Hi,” she said again. Her chest felt tight.
“You look lovely,” he said.
Trust Roger to tell her she looked lovely. Everyone else at the wedding would comment on the bride, on what a lovely wedding it was. She felt her cheeks go red, and not from the pleasure of the compliment. Her own father, the man who really was nothing more to her than a wealthy donor, financial and otherwise, had told her she had outshone the bride. Her Father, who wasn’t really invited to the wedding but had been in Paris on business and somehow invited himself to what he called the After Party. He was now talking to the physicist in the pinstripes. Anna cleared her throat.
“Thanks, Roger.” She looked down at her shoes. “Syl looks so happy, so beautiful…”
Roger looked at his daughter who was talking and laughing that tinkling laugh now with a Nobel laureate and two women who Anna had heard were Human Rights lawyers. “She’s glowing,” he said. “It was a glorious day.”
“It was. Have you noticed Sylvia’s laugh is just like Mother’s?”
Roger smiled and looked at her, but didn’t respond other than a smile.
“Dinner last night was lovely. Thank you. It was so special to climb the Tower and have dinner overlooking Paris,” Roger said.
He had a way of talking to people that made them feel like the only person in the room. This also was something she had just, this minute, noticed. Her mother had told her she would one day.
“Nothing is too good for my little sister,” Anna said.
“Everyone had a lovely time,’ he said.
Anna wondered if the inflection was there or if she was imagining it. The inflection implied that everyone had had a lovely time, except for the people who didn’t go for dinner on the Eiffel Tower.
Suddenly he was talking about the meal, the view, how great the air-conditioning was on the hot July night, the engineering feat that was bathrooms a couple of hundred feet above the ground. There had been no inflection except in her own mind.
“Roger,” she said, interrupting the list of why the pre-wedding dinner was lovely. He stopped talking and made that humming sound he always made when he was listening. Anna swallowed the enormous lump that seemed to be forming in her throat. It didn’t budge.
“Roger, why didn’t Jo and Bill come to my wedding, our wedding?” she said, looking over at Duncan as though her stepfather didn’t remember who she’d married a few weeks earlier.
He cleared his throat with a slightly louder humming sound. “Oh, darling girl, is that what you think? Is that why you didn’t invite them last night? Do you not know?”
Anna felt her world shift. What could it be about her that is so terrible that her beloved aunt wouldn’t come to her wedding? She shook her head the tiniest bit and dropped her gaze.
“Jo?” he called, and his sister looked up. She smiled and stood, and Anna noticed some hesitation in her gait and Bill looking just that bit more attentive.
Anna turned her shoulders and looked her stepfather in the eye.
“Is Aunty Jo sick?” Anna said.
“Yes, darling girl. She is, but she’s a fighter.” Then Jo was in front of them.
“I’m so sorry I didn’t invite you to come to the Tower last night, it was short notice, there was only a table for twenty…” Anna’s voice trailed off and she looked down at her empty champagne coupe.
“That’s okay, Anna,” Aunty Jo said. Bill smiled and pulled a chair over for his wife. Her voice was the same but there was something new there too.
Anna was more confused than ever. Her aunt was sick, that much was obvious, but it still didn’t explain why she had skipped Anna’s London wedding, but still managed to find her way to Paris for Sylvia’s.
“You can see I’m sick? I didn’t want to bother you with it. I did see you on that show on the telly though, the one with the houses. You were marvellous,” Aunty Jo said, beaming.
Anna looked over at Duncan. He had his back to her now, still hunched, still rapt. Oblivious to her plight. “Thanks, err…” Anna said. She never knew what to say when someone she admired complimented her.
Roger took Anna’s arm. “Jo, Anna was wondering why you didn’t go to her wedding.”
Jo looked shocked. “I don’t think this is the time or the place, Roger.”
“You haven’t the luxury of time, dear sister. Anna,” he said, turning to his stepdaughter, “Jo and Bill didn’t come to your wedding because they weren’t invited.”
It was Anna’s turn to look shocked. “Of course, you were.”
“We didn’t get an invitation…” Bill said.
At that moment, the Eiffel Tower erupted with the main light show for the night. The sky filled with explosions and colour that seemed to go on for an hour. Anna stood rooted to the floor and her stepfather’s hand was warm on her arm. Staring at her aunt she felt she was the one dying, her life flashing before her eyes. The conversations, the imagined slights, the slamming doors. Surely her miserable teen years weren’t all of her own making.
The wind carried the smoke from the fireworks across Paris covering the roof terrace. Wedding guests were shouting and laughing as the place was engulfed. She could hear her mother and Sylvia tinkling away somewhere in the smoky haze. Anna clung to Roger and felt her aunt’s frail hand take hers. She squeezed it gently. The breeze stiffened and took away the smoke as quickly as it had come, and Anna found she was crying.