Authors: Richard Blanchard
“I had a fling immediately after Dan. I brought Ethan up on my own, but we have been living with Scott for five years now. He is a good father.”
“Are you sure Ethan isn't Dan's son?” At last she strikes at the core of her suspicions.
“Of course I am.” I issue a firm rebuttal
“He only got a third class degree because of you.” I left him and college in February 1992 in the middle of our final year. He exhausted me; his indecision left me spent. Nevertheless I shudder to think of his pain.
“Don't you dare upset him again!”
“Get Juliet in the picture!” I hear the strain of Max's shout. I momentarily think it is me they want, but no it is a reminder for Dan to bring the rubber doll into shot. Sophia privately enjoys my ridicule and I look to the floor in embarrassment. Bepe coughs hard flushing his face with blood; catarrh threatens to bring the Rusk back in liquid form.
“Could I hold Bepe for a minute?” Sophia ignores me.
“How is Dan, Sophia?”
“He is infuriating but lovely. Max undervalues and takes advantage of him because they are old school friends. His music keeps him happy but reclusive.” In spite of Sophia's hostility to me she opens the floodgates.
“He cannot say what I mean to him. He lives by himself still and has been hopeless at finding a house for us, so is moving into my parents' house. He lets Bepe run riot; he almost got knocked down outside because of him. He is so distant from us sometimes; he is here but not here if you know what I mean. Why does he want me? Perhaps you can find out? I think he wants to marry me but have never heard why from him so who really knows?” She desperately wanted to say that doubt out loud.
“He is a one-off. You can protect him.” I don't acknowledge her request, but feel the weight of its expectation.
“Anyway, just think there would be no Bepe without him.”
“Madonn',” Sophia crosses herself.
“I hope they behave for him.” I point towards the group who are now sitting astride each other as if in a rowing boat. Singing “Oopsupside-your-head” will be crucifying Dan.
“I've met Chris before; he's quiet but okay. Don't know Max and Steve. Johnny seems nice though. As you know Robert is an arseholeâ¦” I sum up the group.
“Johnny is the best of them, his best man. He had arranged a stag weekend in Scotland for them all in log cabin. But Robert decided he would like a ski weekend so paid for it all. The others agreed when they knew it was free,” Sofia adds.
“They are a really terrible mix so I will try to keep an eye on them.”
With their pictures taken, the group mooch around waiting for another bonding opportunity. Robert shouts over to me: “We are off to load up on porn mags. Fancy a “Men Only” staggette?” He moves off laughing to himself, neither getting nor expecting a reply.
“Look out for him for me. I don't trust you but I trust them less.” Sophia has now seen me as less of a threat and a potential advantage of me being here.
“I promise,” I square up to her to convey my sincerity.
Dan rushes back, looking for signs of what has gone on between Sophia and I.
“You look after him.” She squeezes my hand as Dan sits down
Sophia passes Bepe to me after all. “Lady naughty,” he offers for no particular reason.
“What have you two been talking about?” he asks.
“You know us girls Dan, talking wedding dresses!” Why did I say that?
“No prostitutes!” Sophia states firmly with pursed lips, setting out the worst result of Dan's trip that she can imagine.
“Of course babe. You know they will do something embarrassingâ¦” Dan implores and I agree with him.
Is Dan the same? Now next to me his grey hairs at last acknowledge some years have passed. I worry he is sleepwalking into this marriage. But did I choose correctly seventeen years ago?
“We better get through security guysâ¦” Johnny decides to take up the mantle of being my best man. The group shuffle back into the coffee shop. Cups are drained, coats are grabbed and bags are strapped.
“Lets give Juliet a ride on the conveyor belt then.” Robert is looking at the rubber doll again but enjoying the association with the real person. Max and Steve cackle approval and follow in quick time, latching onto the Alpha male.
I help my wife-to-be and son gather themselves. For once we move silently, to the edge of Departures. The residual smell of the coffee shop lingers on my clothes, adding to the body odour rising from my armpits, caused by both my travel trepidation and parental agitation. The blue ribbons of the airline queue march my stags in a zigzag path towards our destination. More signage affronts me. H
. Are they giving marks out of ten for the grace with which I can lift my luggage now? Stupid literal clashes of words clatter around my head.
“Can't let him out of your sight hey,” Chris says to Sophia, completely misjudging the mood as I we stand outside the security coral. “We will go. Goodbye Sophia.” Chris accepts no response from Sophia, using his broad hands and rounded shoulders to usher Juliet and Johnny towards the security inspection. They are keeping a face-saving distance from the others.
“You shouldn't be going now. Have you considered that?” We hang back and Sophia expresses her unease after our scare.
“I don't want to leave you both.” I have not really reconsidered making the trip after the Bepe scare. But what would happen to the others? This whole trip would be merciless for Johnny and Juliet. I can't let them down. I start to seek redemption in Sophia's eyes, something that will never be wholly given.
I sweep Bepe up in my right arm; I see the dark stain deep in the crotch of his trousers way too late. He holds his genital area trying to push the wet back in. The warm glow of urine transfers into my microcorduroy shirt. There is comfort in this familiarity, that we can share anything. Bepe sets about my neck with a bite, then a punch.
Ahead of us Max feebly attempts to carry rubber Juliet past security, but a stern look prompts her deflation; Steve is given the task. Robert and Max move on, letting him struggle to push the sickly rubberised air back out before baggage inspection. They don't think to acknowledge my family.
“That hippy at the back has coke and a shoe bomb guys!” Robert points me out to get a reaction from security. They give even sterner looks as Max doubles up in laughter. The security guards try to give Robert a talking-to but I assume he is bigging up his role at BA in order to escape sanction.
Johnny and Juliet navigate the ribbon slowly, exchanging glances with Chris to keep away from the rubber-doll crew.
“An odd bunch,” says Sophia when they are all out of earshot.
“Which ones?” I take a chance to enquire.
“Max and Steve are creeps. Robert is an arrogant shit. Your brother Chris is so un-expressive. Johnny is a good friend I suppose.” Sophia sums up the band with a gaping omission.
“They are just a bit boisterous,” I meekly suggest.
Sophia sees Bepe's personal relief. “Your shirt will stink on the flight.”
“That's the least of my worries. You can change him again on the way out.”
“I have so much to do today.” She sees a mental list with change our wet son sitting urgently at the top.
“I am sorry, so sorry. You can only do what you can do babe.”
“You should have done this trip earlier.”
“It's all going to fall into place now, you will see. In ten days we will be standing at the altar.” My feeble pep talk is needed and partially lightens her lead-weighted demeanour.
“Do you really want to stand at the altar Dan?
“Weddings aren't really my bag babe. I know you wanted to do it your way.”
“It doesn't mean you had to let me do everything. Why do you want to marry me Dan?”
“Oh babeâ¦you know.” I redden as I give her the meekest assurance with my exasperated look. Maybe I am waiting for an answer as much as her. What words can I use that wont be severely tested?
“I suppose I am too stressed. My emotions are raging,” she admits.
“It's understandable. You will look beautiful. We will be fine babe.”
“I will move that table of stags as far away from us as possible,” Sophia informs me, although I never knew they were close by.
“That will stop Robert throwing scorn and bread rolls at us.”
Bepe is still perched quietly on my right arm, transfixing me with his grin. I recognise the flicker of menace far too late to recoil from the gun brought crashing into my head. Cheap roughly moulded purple plastic gouges my temple.
“Giuseppe!” shouts his mother.
I put him on the floor. I touch my throbbing pulsing wound; a red slash of blood streaks across my fingers. Sophia provides a tissue to stem the flow from the inch-long cut.
“Why do that to Daddy, he is going on the big plane now,” Sophia tries to gain his remorse but at last seems to have released me.
“Diddy go home,” Bepe proposes again.
“He will miss you, is all,” says Sophia.
“He is showing a real wilfulness. I don't know why. He used to be very placid but he's turning.” All the party are out of sight, making me even more uncomfortable.
“We do love you, you know, call us to tell us that you do too!”
“Of course and I'll send texts and photos on the new iPhone as well.”
I pick Bepe up again to promote a group huddle; Sophia reluctantly moves into the circle. I luxuriate in our combined body warmth, which wafts a wave of heat into my face. To think minutes ago this picture might never have been possible. I take my phone out, with our heads touching together we all face the camera. A “Schick” sound from my phone confirms the moment's capture.
“I have to go. Love you guys. Bye.”
For once look forward, Dan.
Leaving leaves me drained. I walk head bowed into Departures; away from love and personal contradiction. I am most relieved to relinquish the position of baby security guard to Sophia. I see myself kneeling in unending despair by the taxi, all hope lost from my outstretched arms. In the end Sophia was okay I think, not too fazed by Juliet's presence, the accident or Robert's boorishness.
Where is my boardingâ¦ oh there? I cannot believe Juliet is actually here; she still looks great. Can I remember how to ski after all these years? What a selfish loose cannon Robert is. Chris is going to hate all of them. Hope Max didn't get any more work at that meeting with ByeFly yesterday; we would have to do it next week before I disappear to Italy for three weeks. Juliet and Johnny will hate everyone as well. There is hope if they are all here for me I suppose.
Airport security flexes their muscles again at the security area; they have every right to inspect every possession. What is the right look to inspire trust? I think over-friendly comments would bring as much suspicion as being deathly quiet; beaming inanely must be worse of all. My forgotten belt forces squeals of rejection from the full length X-ray machine. I unbuckle it and successfully try again, prompting them to give me a just-in-case skimming with a metal detector wand. I re-gather my possessions and move on. Why do they make me feel so grateful to get to my plane?
I walk at pace, ignoring the wealth of retail fixes on offer. My group is sitting blankly on thin designer chairs cemented to the floor at Departure Gate 33. As I approach their eyes seem to search for me to attempt the impossible, to weld together this heap of my life's scrap metal.
“Here's our man,” Johnny tries to rally them. Downcast eyes betray characters who never think of anyone but themselves. It is scary seeing them all together.
“Really sorry guys.” My unnecessary apology is unconditional, unspecific and multi-dimensional in the hope that each person will take a different crumb.
“Did I stop anyone boarding?” I see that the exit door behind the gate is open; it squirts the compressed sucking sound of jet engines. Three young families and seven pensioners line up at the desk, taking advantage of their privileged boarding status.
“No, but there are some clucking hens who want to see you before we board,” says Max. He had probably felt duty bound to foist himself on them as a stag. I turn to see seven women slumped pensively in pink T-shirts and plastic tiaras. Their hen spirit has evidently gone flat.
“What's the story there?” I ask him.
“They have no hen to fly the coop with them.” Blatantly ignoring the flying inability of this bird.
“She had an argument with her intended this morning and is in hospital or something.” Their decision to carry on regardless looks a terrible one. I am glad for the advance warning as a disgruntled hen waddles over.
“This is him, is it?” She enquires of Max.
“Not much on him; bloody tall though.” She seems immediately oblivious to me and disappointed in my physique. She nonchalantly kisses me good luck relaying the heavy odour of a heavy smoker. Her spittle invasively hangs on my cheek as the outside air cools it. The other hens seem a little cheered to know someone nearby has the prospect of getting married.
“Where are you girls headed to?” I skirt around their loss.
“Staying in Courmayeur in Italy, but fuck knows why. Our Karen has just busted her intended's head open with a video player. She caught him with his trousers down having a wank watching dirty tapes of him shagging his ex. He is in casualty now with two injuries.
“What are those then?” Max pushes his luck.
“He needs stitches because he has VCR imprinted on his head and apparently his dick got caught in his zip as he tried to run off. She has stopped taking our calls, but we think she has finished with him. Anyway we are going for a piss up.” She takes me right to the heart of the matter. The first block of rows is called and the other hens shuffle towards the exit.