Jeannie McCarthy was twenty minutes and four miles away from Longhampton Town Hall when she had the first thought about her impending marriage that she couldn’t push to one side.
That thought was: I can’t breathe.
To be fair, the claustrophobic sensation in her chest was partly down to the dress she was wearing. Jeannie’s wedding gown was a corseted fairy tale of a frock, with tulle underskirts that whispered with every movement and delicate ivory roses swooping across the satin sweet- heart bodice. Not something Jeannie would normally have chosen – her style was more harem pants and/or Docs, depending on the weather – but she’d so been startled by the vision of elegance facing her in the mirror that the decision somehow felt out of her hands. She looked right in it, like a real bride. The boutique assistant had covered her mouth with her white-gloved hands, while the owner rushed over to the fitting room, con- gratulatory flute of Prosecco at the ready. ‘That’s the one,’ she’d breathed, nodding reverentially. ‘Trust me, darling, that’s your dress.’
It seemed like Fate that Jeannie had found Her Dress, first off the rails. But then it had felt like Fate when Dan was the first person who messaged her the night she gave up on finding Mr Right the old-fashioned way and jumped reluctantly into online dating. From there, just a year from first date to wedding date. Not a single minute wasted. Or, as the shop owner put it, with another reassuring nod, ‘When you know, you know.’ It had all happened so fast. So very, very fast.
Of course, the other reason for the tightness in Jeannie’s chest was the growing realisation that she was about to make a massive mistake.
Jeannie tried to take another, deeper, breath, and nearly choked. The rigid lacing stopped her from filling her lungs more than half full, and she was pretty sure lack of oxygen was starting to affect her brain. She hadn’t taken a full breath since she’d been laced into the corset back at the bridal suite, and now her head was swimming. The chilly glass of champagne thrust into her hand before she left hadn’t helped. ‘Just to relax you!’ the hotel owner had said with a smile. More booze. Her dad had finished it off for her.
Mrs Hicks. Jeannie Hicks.
It sounded like a stranger. It sounded like a hiccup.
By three o’clock, she’d be Mrs Jeannie Hicks for the rest of her life. Jeannie McCarthy, singer-songwriter, teacher, daughter, would be . . . someone else.
Panic rocketed up into her throat, leaving a bitter space-dust trail behind it. Jeannie swallowed but the scorching sensation didn’t go away. She shot a sideways glance at her dad, Brian, sitting next to her in the back of the car, but he was gazing out of the window, mouthing his speech to himself, pausing and smiling intermittently, angling his head in acknowledgement of the imaginary laughter.
It’s nerves, Jeannie told herself. It’s just nerves. It’s natural, it shows you’re taking the concept of marriage seriously, all the blogs said that. The commitment. The lifetime commitment to one person, for better or worse, richer or poorer, etc, etc.
She leaned back against the leather seat of the county’s one and only Rolls Royce Silver Shadow and tried to draw oxygen as far down her lungs as the corset would allow. It was only a sip of breath. Like the nibble of scrambled egg at the hotel. The blink of sleep last night. Not enough of anything to deal with the iceberg of humiliation looming towards her.
Jeannie made herself focus on what was happening right now at the town hall. Dan would be waiting for her, welcoming the people who’d already arrived with his confident smile. She pictured him: freshly-cut blonde hair gleaming in the sunshine, neat and lean in his new suit – bespoke, dark blue, matching waistcoat. He’d be saying something funny to every guest while keeping his mum calm and the photographer moving, because, unlike Jeannie, Dan could do about fifteen things at once and thought so many moves ahead that she some- times wondered if he was psychic.
He would have no clue she was thinking this, though. A chilly sensation swept through her. What was he thinking? Was he having doubts too?
Jeannie stared out of the window at the passing hedge-rows as the car took her closer and closer to the town hall. I wish I could turn the clock back to this morning, and start again.
No, yesterday morning.
That wasn’t long enough.
This time last week?
I wish I could go back a whole year, Jeannie wished frantically. And then I wouldn’t be about to hurt so many people.
But the thought of never meeting Dan at all . . . Her stomach flipped. What was she supposed to do?
‘OK there? Bit bumpy, these old cars, eh, love? Are you worried about your hairdo?’ Her dad’s hand reached for hers, and the comforting grip of Brian’s big fingers made tears well up into Jeannie’s throat. ‘Soon have you there. Not long now.’
She turned gingerly towards him, unable to move her head too sharply in case the grips holding her tiara in place drove any further into her scalp. That was another thing she hadn’t expected to be wearing on her wedding day: a tiara. Jeannie had always assumed she’d wear a flower crown, and get married on the family farm in Dumfries, under an oak tree, with a ceilidh band. And yet here she was, on her way to the register office in the town she and her husband-to-be had only moved to the previous week. Dan had a new job at the local vets. Easier, they’d decided, to organise a wedding and a house move in the same place. Their fresh start together, a bold leap into the unknown, holding hands.
None of this is like I’d imagined it’d be, Jeannie thought, with a floaty detachment. Not one thing. Apart from her dad, and this car. He’d always said he’d take her to her wedding in a Rolls. That only seemed to make it worse.
‘Is everything OK, love?’ Brian turned to look at her.
His lanky frame was swimming in a suit that looked as if it belonged to someone else. Jeannie couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen her dad in a suit. She’d only seen him wear a tie once, and that was when his champion tup, Decker, met the Countess of Wessex at the Royal Welsh Show.
‘I’m fine!’ The words came out stickily, the petal-pink gloss on her lips making a clacking noise.
‘You sounded as if you—’ He stopped, and frowned, confused.
Say something, yelled the voice in Jeannie’s head, but she couldn’t speak. Her head felt stuffed with cotton wool, unable to process this overwhelming urge to stop, stop, stop everything.
A small girl on the side of the road spotted the wed- ding car, and waved at the shiny black Rolls with the white ribbon fluttering from the silver mascot.
Brian waved back with the special enthusiasm he reserved for children. ‘Ah, look at the wee girl there! Come on, Jeannie, she’s waving at you! She thinks you look like a princess!’
Dutifully, Jeannie lifted her hand, waved and tried to pull her mouth into a smile. It only deepened the worrying feeling that she was playing a bride. That this wasn’t really her wedding. That this wasn’t actually happening at all.
‘Doesn’t seem ten minutes since you were that age!’ Brian said, with a sigh. ‘Making up funny little songs for us on your ukulele. Singing all day long. Not much has changed, eh?’
Jeannie fixed the smile on her face, pressing her lips together, keeping her wild thoughts in as she saw a sign: ‘Longhampton 3 miles’.
They were nearly there. Nearly there. What was she going to do?
‘Jeannie?’ Dad was looking concerned. ‘Are you all right?’
‘I . . .’ She pushed the words out. ‘I’m . . . just so . . .’
To her despair, Brian didn’t take the bait. ‘It’s normal to be a bit nervous, love. Uncle Charlie had to do my but- tons up because my hands were . . .’ He waggled them in front of her. ‘Your mother was late – I thought she wasn’t coming! But she’d laddered her tights, hopping into the car too quickly.’ He sighed, the memory softening his eyes. ‘Bet it’s hard to believe, looking as us old goats now, that we were once just like you and Dan! But we were, you know.’
Jeannie’s heart stopped. It was the worst thing Dad could have said, because it forced her to confront the thought she’d been trying to avoid for weeks: that, actually, she and Dan weren’t like her parents.
She had a sudden flash of her mother, Sue – small and strong, always busy – and automatically pictured Dad in his overalls next to her, whistling some country tune till Sue begged him to stop. It was impossible to imagine Brian and Sue separately. They laughed and joked and drove each other mad at times, but their real communication was wordless: a language of pauses and glances shaped by the years that followed Sue’s freak accident, when all the McCarthys had had to learn a new way to be a family. That’s what in sickness and in health means, thought Jeannie. For better and for worse –it wasn’t a cliché, it was real. Life had hammered Mum and Dad’s love like a red-hot horseshoe, but it was stronger for each blow. It couldn’t have survived otherwise. They couldn’t.
A hollow sensation ballooned inside her. How could she promise that to Dan? She didn’t know him well enough. She didn’t know herself well enough.
With that realisation, Jeannie felt unexpectedly weightless, as if her head might detach from her body and float away. But how did you stop something like this now, minutes away from the ceremony? She couldn’t. Too many people were involved. And Dan! How could she do this to Dan?
The thought of hurting Dan made her sick. He didn’t deserve this.
Jeannie took another shallow breath, and another, and another. None of the air was reaching her brain. The pearls she’d borrowed from her mum were going up and down on her chest; her bosom was actually heaving, she noted, randomly, like a hysterical duchess in Downton Abbey.
The Rolls Royce turned off the main road, and Jeannie spotted another sign: ‘Longhampton 2 miles’. Only minutes away now. Literally minutes.
‘Dad.’ Jeannie didn’t know where the voice was coming from; it was forcing its way out of her crushed ribs. ‘Can we . . . can we stop somewhere? Just for a moment?’
Brian shot out his left arm, and made a big show of looking at his wrist. He’d put his father’s gold watch on, in honour of the occasion. ‘I don’t see why not, we’re ahead of that schedule of yours, aren’t we?’
He leaned forward and rapped on the window, sliding it to one side. ‘Excuse me, my friend. Would you mind pulling over for a moment when you get a chance? We’re running a little early and my daughter doesn’t want to beat the groom to the door!’
There was a lay-by coming up on their side of the road, shaded by trees with an overflowing litter bin and a sign pointing towards a footpath. Jeannie had never been so grateful to see a lay-by in her life. The chauffeur indicated, parked under a tree, and turned off the engine. A dusty silence filled the car.
I’ve got to do it now, thought Jeannie, but she didn’t know how to start.
That had always been her trouble: speaking up for her- self. It had been a joke when she was little (Speak up, Jeannie!), an issue at primary school (Jeannie? Are you awake?), but not a problem since her teens, thanks to her best mate, Edith, doing the talking for both of them. At moments of stress, Jeannie’s mind went completely blank. Edith’s never did.
To her relief, Brian cleared his throat awkwardly. ‘Now then, I’m glad we’ve stopped,’ he said. ‘There’s something I’ve got to ask you. Don’t take it the wrong way – I read it in one of those wedding-etiquette books your mum had out from the library.’
He took both Jeannie’s hands, this time with a sweet gravity, and it was such an old-fashioned gesture she couldn’t look at him. Her heart was hammering.
‘If you’ve got the smallest doubt about marrying Daniel,’ Brian began, ‘even the smallest doubt, then say so now. It’s not too late.’
Wind rushed in her ears: a powerful surge of bright white panic.
And relief. The sheer relief of hearing Dad say that. How did he know? Had he read it in her face? He knew her so well.
They stared at each other, and Brian’s gentle expression abruptly warped with shock at the unexpected gratitude in Jeannie’s eyes.
‘Jeannie?’ he faltered.
And then her brain caught up with her heart. It was one thing for Dad to say that, but how could she call it off now? Forget everyone they knew arriving at the town hall right this minute – what about the money they’d spent on the reception? In the room upstairs from the ceremony, caterers were already plating up smoked salmon; champagne was chilling in the ice bucket. The mobile disco man was driving down from Birmingham, her labour of love playlist programmed in, with their first dance ready to go. God, the cake! The three-hundred- quid cake! The thought of how much this had cost her parents, and Dan’s mum, plus their own savings, made Jeannie’s armpits prickle with sweat. They’d tried to budget but it had still run into thousands of pounds.
Dad’s voice was a couple of tones higher than normal. He clearly hadn’t expected her to stay silent, but he was having to go with it now.
Slowly, she dropped her chin and lifted it again. The slowest nod she’d ever made, one simple gesture that would ruin someone’s life. It made her feel queasy and giddy and relieved all at once.
She heard her dad, who never swore, say something under his breath that almost made her laugh. He sounded petrified.
‘You’re nodding . . . because you’re sure about marrying Dan, or because . . . you want to call it off?’
‘I can’t marry Dan.’