The Engagement Party

“Belle? It’s Mum. Are you there? Please pick up.”

Tempest pictured her daughter cross-legged on the couch with the ugly purple throw, determinedly ignoring the phone. She imagined tears rolling down Belinda’s face and blinked back a few of her own.

“Belle? Let me apologise.”

The phone maintained its stolid silence.

“I guess you’re not there. Please call me. I love you.”

Tempest ended the call reluctantly. She re-dialled Belinda’s mobile number and hung up when it went straight to voicemail.

She took a ciggie from the pack on the bench and lit it on the hob, hands shaking. The nicotine buzzed through her as she sucked back the minty smoke. She willed it to quell the waves of nausea crashing through her body. Alcohol or shame? Take your pick. Her leg throbbed: the shin was already vivid with yellow and purple bruises. No idea how that happened.

She thumbed another contact on her phone. Voicemail.

“Hi Tim, I’m trying to reach Belle. I just want to talk to her, to say sorry…to you both.” She paused, not knowing what else to say. The empty line felt judgemental.

“Can you ask her to call me?”

She ended the call, sucked back more smoke. She wondered if a little hair of the dog wouldn’t make her feel better. Food was out of the question, the mere thought of it and her stomach contracted, the bitter juices rising up in her gullet and making her gag.

Her phone buzzed to life. For a moment – but no, it was Michael

“Good morning Princess!” he trilled

“You abandoned me!”

“You told me to go and you know it.”

“You shouldn’t have listened!” There was anger and fear in her voice.

“Tell Uncle Mikey”

She tried but the words turned into jagged sobs.

“Belle won’t take my calls,” she managed, the last word trailing off to an anguished wail.

“I’m coming over. Don’t move a muscle.”

Michael could see her on the street waiting when he arrived to pick her up and straight away he knew there was a problem. She wasn’t wearing the dress they’d picked out and her hair was the usual chaotic mess of curls. She was pacing back and forth, sucking on a cigarette like her life depended on it.

In the car, she him how she’d been in the market on her way to the hair appointment he’d made for her when she’d become aware of a tense buzz in the crowd. Following it, she saw a woman walking through, dazed, wearing nothing but a pair of men’s underpants, her hands covering her shrivelled breasts. Tempest being Tempest, she’d immediately forgotten everything else and rushed to her side, asking if she was okay.

“There was nothing Michael, no response at all.”

She started talking to her, asking her what happened, where had she been, what was her name, but the woman didn’t answer. All around, people were staring and pointing. Tempest looked around and pulled a man’s shirt off the nearest market stall, silencing the owner’s protests with a steely glare. She wrapped the shirt around the woman and put her arm around her, steering her away from the crowds.

“You should all hang your heads in shame,” she hissed at the onlookers.

Tempest had sat with the poor soul for an hour at the local police station before they were seen. The foyer smelled of industrial cleaning products. Sitting there on hard plastic chairs, she’d thought about the missed appointment, seen Operation Engagement Party falling apart around her and felt the anxiety she’d been trying so hard to manage growing like a cancer in her gut.

The WPC who saw them pissed Tempest off: tried to send them to the hospital – on the bus, no less. Bloody jobsworth trying to avoid paperwork! It was another hour before Tempest felt she could leave, and the woman had still not said a word.

Tempest was picking up the dress from the seamstress when she took the call from the same bloody WPC saying the stranger wanted her: she’d started to talk but only to ask for Tempest. She carried the clingy plastic carrier back on the bus, pleased she’d at least got that done. She’d tried on what felt like every dress in Oxford Street with Michael, looking for the miraculous piece that would hide her bingo wings, flatten her stomach and make her five-foot-nothing look statuesque, while at the same time being appropriate for the mother of the bride-to-be without looking like the Queen Mum would wear it. Of course, when they found it – a mock Vivienne Westwood corset dress (so Michael said) in a shimmery pewter coloured material – it was far too long, hence the tailoring. But it made her feel like Xena the Warrior Princess: in it she could face anything. And Belle would love it.

When she told Michael about leaving it at the police station when she went with the woman to the hospital, he made light of it.

“The dress was just icing on the cake, darling. You’re fabulous, you look fabulous.”

But when they arrived, she saw the disappointment in Belle’s eyes.

The champagne jazzed through her: in all the drama, she’d forgotten to eat. Michael pointedly replaced the first glass with orange juice and she was guiltily glad of the vodka she’d shot while she got dressed. They’d arrived before Teddy and Rachael and Tempest found she was unable to concentrate on anything but the stream of people arriving for the party, waiting and watching for her first glimpse of her childhood sweetheart with his new wife.

“You could at least pretend to pay me attention” said Michael, sticking out his bottom lip in mock petulance.

“Sorry!” she said, and turned her back to the door. For all the planning, all the preparation, all Michael’s help, try as she might Tempest couldn’t get to a place where Rachael didn’t matter. She didn’t want Teddy anymore, so why did she care?

“Just because you don’t want him, doesn’t mean you want anyone else to have him,” Michael had opined. It shamed her to be so small.

Tempest was on the phone to Belle’s friend Lucy when Michael rang the doorbell. Grasping at straws: Lucy wasn’t even at the party.

“What happened?” he said, throwing open his arms and pulling her into a tight embrace. “When I left you were in fine form.”

Belle had been gutted when Teddy rang to say he and Rachael were stuck in traffic after a massive pile up on the M27 but for Tempest the news was like discovering she had wings and could fly up, up and away from all her troubles. She was suddenly giddy and light, like the bubbles in the champagne she acquired while Michael was in the toilet.

“OJ or Bucks Fizz?” Belle said when she saw her glass.

“Mostly Bucks. Hardly any Fizz,” she’d fibbed.

She charmed Tim’s parents and caught up with Belle’s friends from school. Faith Collins told her she always wished she’d had a cool Mum like Belle’s and Susie Wilkes even asked if she could give her father Tempest’s number.  She told everyone how proud she was of her beautiful Belle and how happy she was to welcome Tim to the family and when Belle held her hand and rested her head on her shoulder she felt invincible. So when Michael started to look bored, she sent him home.

And then Teddy and Rachael arrived.

It must have been raining out, because Teddy was shaking out an umbrella when she saw him, his face arranged into that funny over-the-top frown he wore for concentration. She smiled to see Belle fly into his arms: the years blew away and the young woman became the girl again, just for that fleeting moment. Then Rachael stepped into view and Tempest stopped breathing.

It wasn’t that she was young. No clichéd younger woman for Teddy. It wasn’t that she was beautiful: handsome was the word that came to mind, with a thick tangle of curls framing a face of strong, sharp angles. It wasn’t that she was tall, although she was. It was the love in Belle’s face.

So she accepted the top-up when it was offered and turned brightly back to the group of people she had been talking too and laughed too loud at their anecdotes and felt her heart beat too fast in her chest. Belle fetched her for the photographs and as they crossed the room together, Tempest heard herself say, “That’s some dress she’s almost wearing.”

Belle stopped in her tracks.

“Don’t. OK? Just don’t.”

“I’m just saying. Brave choice.”

“At least she made an effort.”

Tempest looked down at her trusty jersey shift and thought of the miracle dress. She felt old, and plain. She swigged from her glass.

Teddy looked delighted to see her and Rachael was warm, introducing herself before anyone else got the chance. Bitterness stuck in Tempest’s craw and made her choke. She was the cuckoo in the nest, the goose amongst swans. When the photographer said he was finished Teddy suggested they all sit down. Desperate to get away, Tempest wobbled on her good heels and tripped, sloshing the last of her drink over Tim’s jacket.

“Jesus, Mum!”

Belle brushed her efforts to help away and Tempest withdrew. As she looked back, she saw Rachael looking her way, and thought she saw pity in her face.

“And then?” said Michael. “Don’t tell me that’s why Belle’s pissed off at you. Surely not?”

Coming back from the toilets, Tempest let herself get caught up in a group doing the Macarena: anything to avoid going to the table where Teddy and Rachael and Tim’s parents were sitting, chatting pleasantly like grown-ups should. She stayed on the dance floor, wobbling off now and then to top up her drink and then the details became hazy.

She remembered a slow song coming on, and finding herself in the arms of a man she didn’t know. She remembered smiling up into pale blue eyes and feeling a strong palm in the centre of her back. She remembered the warmth of his chest and the musky scent of his aftershave. She remembered the surprise of his lips and the giving in to their softness.

“You kopped off! Slut! No wonder Belle’s angry,” joked Michael.

“Don’t. It’s not funny.”

Michael wanted to say it was, a little bit, but his friend’s face told him there was more to come.

“He was married, Michael. His wife came out of the toilet and saw him kissing me and came over and started yelling at us. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Then Belle was there and she was yelling at me.”

Tempest had suddenly felt very drunk indeed. The room was spinning and it was all she could do stay upright. She tried hard to follow what was going on but her brain wasn’t up to the task. She thought of her plans and the miracle dress and the poor, mad woman in the market and her promise not to drink and the shouting that just wouldn’t stop. She held up her hand, trying to stop the world, and took a few stumbling steps towards the toilets, but Belle grabbed her arm.

“Don’t you walk away from me,” she hissed, her face ugly with contempt. Tempest tried to speak, to say she was sorry but at that moment her stomach heaved. Her eyes pricked with tears and she spun away, doing her best, but the champagne, and the juice, and the handful of canapés she’d managed gushed out in a vile orange stream, all over the wife of the man with the pale blue eyes.

Michael clapped his hand over the O of his mouth.

“I couldn’t stop, Michael. It just kept coming out. Someone tried to help me to the bathroom, but we never made it. I was on my hands and knees, vomiting, in the middle of my daughter’s engagement party.”

She couldn’t even look him in the eye. She tapped out another cigarette but the lighter wouldn’t catch. She threw it across the room in frustration.

“How did you get home?”

She shook her head.

“I don’t know. Cab, I suppose. Woke up in my clothes, reeking of sick.”

She looked up at him, eyes filling with tears.

“What sort of mother does that, Mikey?”

He folded her in his arms again.

“The sort of mother who cares, babe,” he said, and kissed her on the forehead. “But I tell you, we’ve got some work to do before the wedding.”

2 thoughts on “The Engagement Party

  1. Aw, poor poor Tempest. It’s not fair! She was so good to look after the woman at the market and then it was all downhill from there. You’ve painted a great portrait of someone who can’t catch a break AND it’s easy to see that, from her daughter’s perspective, she can come across as an embarrassment. I LOVE the fact, though, that we see that kind of calamity from the calamitous one’s POV … so she becomes not just a larger than life spectacle but a real person who’s just been unlucky and has got strong emotions. Another superb portrayal of a truly multi-layered character!


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