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.