Authors: Richard Blanchard
“Madonn',” she whispers and crosses herself.
As we queue they continue their Mafia-themed assault. O
S ARE ALL
T GIVE THEM LIP WHILE YOU WAIT
We take our drinks to a corner that can also accommodate the three stags yet to come. The seats defy the pre-requisite and our expectation of comfort. The sticky grime on the wooden floor and the abandoned coffee mugs, all betray an establishment that thinks it is so successful that it doesn't need to care anymore. James Gandolfini gives us that menacing stare of threatened action, from a black and white photograph above the sugar collection point. Everyone thinks this a cool place to spend some time.
The sound of a plastic boy band covering a U2 favourite fills me with distaste. Bepe bounces on his knees in acknowledgement of the Muzak. Before today I would probably have stopped him moving to this monstrosity but I don't feel able to deny him any little enjoyment as he starts a new chapter of his life.
My iPhone flashes Juliet back into my life. I hastily pick it up from the table accidentally nudging my green tea-filled cup. After wobbling twice on its bottom rim, it settles back to terra firma but discharges a splash of scalding water onto my knee. This minor pain is nothing to what I have felt already today.
“Yes, Cosa Nostra, opposite the self service check-in desks,” I guide her to me.
“Juliet has just got off her Heathrow flight and is on her way up.” I throw this information to the group but no one reacts. They are the crew of a pirate ship waiting to spit their disdain at the woman coming aboard; muttering under their breath that the captain has cursed the trip.
“I'll just pop to the loo,” I leave them to get used to the idea.
I wait for the unisex cubicle to be free. Just after I hear the clicking noise of the lock, the warm stench of excrement flushed by a wizenedlooking old man in a hoody greets me. I am not deterred from running in and slumping fully clothed on the covered toilet seat. What if the toy had dropped in the road? What if he had taken one step less? Why can't I look after him properly? When was the last time I cried like this? Am I crying for Bepe or me? The rush of emotion subsides quickly when I remember Juliet's impending arrival.
I exit with clammy hands to see Juliet and Sophia in an overgenerous embrace, which I know betrays a needlepoint tension. I tense my facial muscles to remove any remnants of my despair. My combined service to womanhood squeezes itself together in one square metre. I cross the coffee shop desperate to hold this fragile alliance together.
There is an aura of serenity around Juliet; she is perpetual grace in motion, warmth emanating from her that all can see. The immaculate girl is now an immaculate lady, a skilled presentation of accessory and cloth to simultaneously suggest control and fashion. Her face is like a fine line drawing, pale blue eye shadow, and lipstick-perfect lips adorn her fine jaw line. I want to watch her from afar before I exit the years of silence. We are starting a new history when the last one was unfulfilled. Our last words, apart from a brief phone call two weeks ago, were in a flat in the Isle of Dogs, in London's old docklands. Her platitudes of friendship were thrown as an inadequate lifebelt to a drowning man. I blush to remember my former access-all-areas pass to her body, which has been long withdrawn. I imagine being able to stroke her chalk-white thighs with my member, but a rising sickness prevents further mental invasion. She constantly replaces her hair behind her ear signalling that she is troubled, although this time I am able to guess what. Was this just a really bad idea? I want to explode towards her with an unbounded embrace.
“Hi babe, so great you could make it.” I move slowly towards her with arms down low. Sophia reaches high alert immediately, checking for any residual sign of feeling towards her. My awkward sideways asexual shoulder hug causes Juliet's shoulder bag to finally spill the remaining contents of my teacup. I still feel love so strong.
“Great you're here,” I sigh. Everyone's face questions her presence.
“The sexiest looking stag I've ever seen. Come here.” Robert returns with his coffee and seizes the etiquette opportunity to impose himself on a woman.
“What are you doing on a stag weekend anyway?” Robert has the balls to ask the question everyone is simultaneously thinking.
“Just wanted to give Dan a good send off like you.”
“You are privileged, you'll see a whole different side to mankind this weekend. How delicate and supportive we can be to a man who is about to go through the trauma of marriage.” We wait for the punch line and Robert duly delivers.
“How delicately we can shave his balls and how supportive we can be as we encourage his performance in a brothel. What are you going to do in the brothel anyway, give him a threesome?” Robert is so out on a limb, the air is thick with threat and effrontery; the worry for me is that I don't know how much he thinks is a true reflection of the coming four days.
I re-introduce Juliet to a suspicious Chris and a welcoming Johnny.
“I've just offered my congratulations to Sophia and apologised again for not being able to come to your wedding,” Juliet informs me. Sophia stands with Bepe on one hip, she looks nervous, her thoughts compromised by the gift of Juliet's expensive tropical spray.
“Thanks for the flowers.” Sophia flashes a grimace that undermines her statement.
“It's so good to see you both after so long. How beautiful is Giuseppe?” All said from the heart, but every word tested for secondary meaning by my fiancÃ©e.
“We just call him Bepe,” Sophia snaps at her and pulls him away back to her seat.
Send in the clowns so my circus can be complete.
“Staggie!” shouts Max from outside the coffee shop. My shoulders droop from the prospect of the further trouble I have invited. The entry of my boss Max and creative team partner Steve divides all the coffee clientele into either gasps or guffaws. They struggle through the tightly packed wooden furniture accompanied by a life-size ginger-haired blowup doll. The width of both their grins matches the sex toy's gaping mouth.
“Look who we found. It's that old girlfriend you spent years pining over when she dumped you. She is our plastic prozzy on the spot just in case anyone gets desperate.” They present me with the rubber doll and slap my back, insisting on a photograph. I am wracked with guttural pain. Like Robert they jovially stab me in the back, walking the fine line between humour and attack.
“You said women weren't allowed Dan. I would have brought a real prostitute for us all to share.” Robert starts the one upmanship. He has made no attempt at re-connection with my older brother and Johnny despite us all being at the same primary school, but zeros in on anyone likely to inflict pain on me.
“Max, Steve meet Juliet my ex-girlfriend.” They don't skip a beat over their faux pas with the sex doll.
“Here is your stag T-shirt everyone.” Steve dishes out his personally designed lime-green T-shirt to everyone, without bothering for introductions. The front reads: S
TAGS ON TOUR
2009. The back is adorned with a photograph of me thrown over a toilet bowl at our 2005 Centurion office Christmas party. The mottled green vomit from an absinthe binge is evident on both my blue shirt and forearm. Steve sniggers self-congratulatory.
“Oh and here are some horny horns for the rutting stag. I got small so that they didn't slip off your greasy hair. I'll put them on.” Max adds to the embarrassment. I abide sixty seconds of pain over my ears before I can pass them on to Bepe without seeming too ungrateful. Robert rises to these two new additions with a personal introduction.
That's us now, we unhappy few. I am in the full glare of my supposed true men and good, the people who will form the core of my wedding invitees, future big birthday parties and my eventual funeral. Stag status report: Chris dumbstruck; Johnny perturbed; Robert enthused; Juliet abnormally sheepish: Max smug; Steve fulfilled. My fiancÃ©e is at boiling point with her pan lid clacking.
The stag has had his antlers rattled. Being the focus of crass humour and potential physical assault for five days will be a trial. I am exposed to an arctic wind not knowing how hard it will blow. I struggle to think of what to do next but my stags don't.
“Let's get this party started right. Let's have a stag photo. Maybe outside in the hallway?” Johnny tries to engage them and wrestle their raucous spirit for me.
“Stag T-shirts on of course,” insists Steve.
“Proper stags only though,” says Robert. He glances at me, then Juliet, to make sure I exclude her, automatically expecting Sophia to stay in her place as well.
Juliet realises this quickly and meets it with her own purpose. “Could I stay here to catch up with Sophia; we have so much to talk about.” Sophia looks shocked.
We move outside the coffee shop where a perplexed passer-by is enlisted to capture this edgy moment on camera. I lock arms with my men as best I can, crouching down a little to stay at their shoulder height. At this moment I do not judge. During the whooping and hollering we find a level male playing field, a half-remembered playground that I hated even then.
REACH ACROSS OUR SEVENTEEN YEARS APART?”
Dan shows no immediate signs of ageing. The same overgrown black hair and wiry physique. The same hooded eyelids conceal his striking grey-green eyes. The same trademark thick black-rimmed glasses. He still tries in vain to compress his tall frame by bowing his head, to feel part of the crowd.
However, seventeen more years must have created a man from the boy I went out with. He has a career in advertising, a ruthless shallow industry that would make anyone grow up. He has made a commitment to a wife and child that he would have been incapable of then. The last time I saw him was on the balcony of our flat in the Isle of Dogs when I said goodbye. I crushed his spirit too easily.
Dan will hate the attention of this embarrassing parade of stag photographs. Men are at their most natural in ape-like packs; they are immediate conspirators. I have overheard their speech instantly descend to perversity, cruelty and insult, casting off care or attention. If they withhold boyish laughter or a sly grin at a crucial point it weakens them. I have seen careers wrecked by the pack and decisions to risk millions made by such a board of apes. I am used to being the woman in the boys' club. In order to be tolerated I must make my own rules; know when to be passive and when to attack. The question is how far will this group go to embarrass Dan?
I have been upright, observing the stag pictures for too long. I must try and close the vacuum with Sophia. As I sit down next to her I imagine everyone else's cappuccinos going cold in her frosty presence. She won't look at me.
“Diddy gone, Mummy.” The sweet Bepe seems calm that his dad isn't around. Sophia grips him firmly around the chest.
“Not yet. But he is going on a big plane soon,” Sophia explains softly.
“You look a radiant bride-to-be.” My olive branch is an unwelcome addition to the Â£120 tropical spray.
“Why are you here Juliet?” Sophia uses our small window for truth, while staring at the mayhem in the corridor. I get a beautiful flash of her Italian lineage.
“I couldn't come to your wedding so called to apologise. I said I would like to see him before he got married and he asked me on his stag weekend. I thought it very odd but didn't want to refuse a second invitation,” I reported the truth but not why I wanted to see him.
“But a stag party, it is wrong. Why are you here after all this time?”
“I wanted to recognise your wedding. I just wanted to congratulate him on growing up and settling down. ” I fend off her question for a second time.
“You could have just sent flowers.” Now I am worried; she is scared of what he might still feel for me.
“I thought it would be great to spend time with him again!” I may have misjudged this completely, just because I have no residual feelings.
“We are just fine, the boat needs no rocking,” Sophia spits at me.
“I am not here for that. I was relieved to hear he had finally asked you to marry him.”
“Well you know that didn't happen.” Sophia looks at me for the first time with panic in her eyes. If I were anyone else it looks like she would break down.
“Juliet, let's get your arse in the picture Juliet.” Robert mocks me from the hallway. I just smile and wave him away.
“I thought he might propose when Bepe arrived, but nothing. Two years ago my papa got a Saturday night date from his golf club, Mere Park. Papa told him he had booked for a wedding. Dan smiles and says âGreat babe'. There was no asking. Men don't know their minds anymore. They are babies; they are Peter Pan.” Sophia kisses Bepe's head as he sucks a Rusk.
“I thought it would be safe to come now he is committed.”
“What do you mean safe? Safe from you?” Sophia looks shocked again.
“No, no. I mean safe from the resentment he might have for me finishing with him.”
“You have a high opinion of yourself.” She puts Bepe in between us and sips her coffee.
“No. I just know he can be a little idealistic.”
“Look here you, I know what this marriage is. I want Bepe to have a father okay; a boy needs a dad. You have a son, doesn't he have a dad?”
“And where is his real dad?”