Mark was driving. Avril dug her nails into the edges of her seat, as their four-by-four barged out at a junction. She heard a car horn in the receding distance.
‘Idiot,’ said Mark. ‘They’re all inbred round here. Some still talk in Middle English.’
Avril didn’t answer. His jaw was set hard, and it was best not to wind him up when he was driving. She tried to relax into the deeply padded leather upholstery, and connect again with the sense of privilege that he gave her. She looked out of the window. Arable fields and pig farms alternated with ancient forests of towering, twisted pines.
‘We’ll go straight to the church,’ said Mark. ‘Harry’s waiting there, the rehearsal’s in twenty minutes. Shame your bridesmaids can’t make it.’
‘They’re at work, Mark. I’m sure they’ll be fine. All they’ve got to do tomorrow is follow me.’
The flint church was neatly kept. Under yew trees, a row of tall narrow gravestones lined the path from the lychgate. A fair haired man detached himself from the shadows.
‘Harry Hunclere.’ In a t-shirt and faded jeans, Harry didn’t really look like a best man.
‘All these Huncleres. Your ancestors?’ Avril indicated the graves.
‘It’s a common enough name round here,’ he shrugged. ‘Village is full of them.’
She stopped in front of a lichen encrusted slab, her eye caught by the name.
‘Sir Henry Hunclere. 1754 to 1779. Killed in a Duel. He was only twenty five.’
‘Same age as me, then.’
Avril shivered. She couldn’t read Harry’s expression. He swept a lick of blond hair off his forehead and there was a strange light in his eyes, as he smiled at her. He was a tall man, and even though she was in heels, he seemed to be looking down at her.
Mark took Avril’s arm as the vicar showed them around the church. Amongst the flowers and the tombs of Huncleres, they saw where they would enter, where they would make their vows, and where they would sign the register.
‘Is it OK to take some photos?’ Mark’s new digital SLR was in the car.
‘I’ll leave you to it,’ said the vicar.
Avril stood outside with Harry in the shelter of the stone portico, as they waited for Mark to fetch the camera. It had begun to rain. The sultry light she’d seen in Harry’s eyes earlier was there again.
‘Nervous?’ he asked, drawing closer.
She shook her head silently.
‘It’ll all be over by this time on Sunday.’
‘It’s not too late, you know,’ he said. His lips came closer to hers, and hesitated. ‘It’s not too late to change your mind.’
She turned her head, and Harry’s lips brushed her cheek. She saw surprise in his eyes, a growing fascination.
‘Your skin’s like velvet,’ he whispered, ‘dark velvet, no, softer, like brown cocoa powder, and you taste sweeter than chocolate. It’s not too late.’
‘I’m an idiot, left the damn umbrella in the car.’ Mark was there.
‘You made me jump!’ she said. How much had he seen?
‘Hey, I’m off home,’ said Harry. ‘Catch you later.’
‘Yeah see you tonight, round seven.’ Mark busied himself taking photographs inside the church, telling Avril where to pose.
She sat at the end of a pew beside a floral standard. Mark’s mother had enlisted the help of the Flower Club to arrange red roses and golden rod, and long strips of something green. The fragrance surrounded her. She watched Mark adjusting his camera lenses. It was silly having a church wedding. It had delayed everything by a couple of years. They could have been married and settled much sooner, if it hadn’t been for that row. Well, it wasn’t really a row. But she remembered lying in that big bath with him, in that hotel in Majorca. She always got the end with the taps. You’re better padded, he’d said, even though she prided herself on her slenderness. The water got cold as they argued over where to have the wedding.
‘I don’t want a registry office wedding in Dalston,’ he said. ‘What would we have for the reception? Sandwiches at the working men’s club?’
‘It’s where I’m from,’ she said. ‘My mother’s a widow, she can’t afford a big fancy reception.’
‘I think we should have a proper Church wedding,’ he said.
‘But we don’t go to church. And you don’t even believe in God.’
‘And you? I thought your mother was devout?’
‘I don’t go for all that superstition. It’s a thing of the past.’ Mark had frowned, cold remnants of froth clinging to his chest hairs, wiping the flat of a wet palm across his mouth, and his neatly shaven chin. ‘But it’s what people expect, though. It’s the accepted thing. I won’t feel properly married unless we have a proper wedding.’
‘Oh, I shan’t go off and leave you, don’t you worry about that. But it’s important to me, that’s all. It’s status.’
‘At least in a registry office, it wouldn’t be a lie.’ She had thought then of her mother, dressed up for the Baptist Church on a Sunday morning, a stout Jamaican lady in a wide brimmed gauzy hat and pastel flowered frock and white gloves. Herself, six years old, in tow along Rectory Road, Dalston; shiny-faced, in a printed cotton dress with gathered skirts, pink ankle socks, neatly polished t-strap shoes, her hair in tiny plaits.
Harry had resisted her mother’s invitation to worship in the Baptist church.
‘We’re all Christians, the same,’ she’d protested.
But he had made some excuse.
‘What church d’you go to, then?’ she’d demanded. He didn’t.
‘She’s old-fashioned,’ Avril had apologised afterwards to him. It had taken eighteen months for her to agree to a wedding at the village church where his mother lived, and to a reception at Hunclere Hall. Now it was the last day of the preparations, for a high Anglican wedding he didn’t believe in.
‘Smile, relax.’ She could see Mark’s grin underneath the long lens of the camera. ‘There’s nothing else we can do between now and tomorrow. The shops are shut. If we haven’t bought it or ordered it, if we haven’t sent someone an invitation, it’s too late. All you have to do is look beautiful.’
She smiled for him, wishing he hadn’t invited his boss.
At the end of a long gravel drive, Hunclere Hall was a sprawling red brick structure, somewhat Dutch in style, with curvy gables, pointed turrets, tall chimney stacks, and ornate stone archways topped by snarling statues of animals. Inside there was an atmosphere of gilded, mouldering decay, which the trappings of a modern country house hotel could not entirely dispel. Avril’s heels sank into thick carpet as the manageress showed them around.
‘Those are your flowers,’ said the manageress, indicating a row of floral standards the size of small trees. A glossy folder under her arm contained an invoice for an indecent sum of money.
In the dining room, a banqueting table was set with a silver service for a hundred people. Floral arrangements dripped from the crystal chandeliers.
‘The ballroom has been set up for dancing, and the band will be over there on the stage. I gather there are more guests coming for the informal reception after the wedding breakfast?’
‘Another hundred or so,’ said Mark. ‘The hangers-on, you know, people who’d be offended if they weren’t invited.’ He gave the manageress his gold card.
A painting, in the style of Gainsborough, showed a young lord with a gun and a dog, looking down his nose, with an ungentlemanly light in his blue eyes. One of the Huncleres, no doubt.
‘What’s a black girl doing here?’ she saw in his eyes. ‘Even a pretty one.’
Avril knew that she had long, long legs, made even longer in killer heels. There were shops in the City of London where, instead of eating lunch, she would browse on Louboutin and Jimmy Choo.
‘I’m a City economist,’ she thought back, ‘but I suppose you wouldn’t know what that was.’
The blue eyes held their stare.
‘I’ll drop you at Mum’s then, before I go over to Harry’s,’ said Mark, as they got back into the car. The tyres crunched in the gravel drive as they went back down the avenue. ‘It’s a bit mean of her not to let me stay. It can’t really be unlucky. But then, I’m out with the lads tonight, black tie dinner, so it’s probably best I stay at Harry’s place.’
A stag night. An image came into Avril’s mind of stags, snorting, and locking dew wet antlers in a forest clearing.
‘Make sure to be on time at the church, then,’ she said.
‘Yeah, no problem. Got all my stuff in the car, anyway.’ His morning suit was hanging from a grab handle in the back.
He greeted his mother casually. He doesn’t want to hug her in front of me, thought Avril. He declined a cup of tea and drove away.
‘I’ll show you to your room, then,’ said Esther Spixworth.
‘I hope you’ll be comfortable here,’ she said, drawing the curtains back from the dormer window. Early evening light showed a fussy room, a single bed, chintz covers, lace, cushions, a huge thick fluffy duvet.
‘I’m sure I will,’ said Avril.’ What a view,’
The bedroom was at the top of the three-storied Dower House, and she looked down across treetops. ‘I can see Hunclere Hall,’ she said. On the horizon, the tips of chimneys and turreted roofs lifted above the foliage.
‘What’s that?’ A black basalt pyramid stood in the middle distance, alone in a clearing between the trees.
‘It’s the Spixworth mausoleum,’ said Esther. ‘Our family owned Hunclere Hall after the Huncleres. The first baronet, George Spixworth, was a man who would not lie easy in the churchyard. He ordered it to be constructed before he died. It’s fallen into disrepair since the hotel people took over the estate in the eighties. Too expensive, the upkeep.’ Esther frowned at Avril’s designer suitcases, and the huge cardboard box which carried the name of a celebrity dressmaker. ‘Well, I’ll leave you to get your things arranged. All ready for tomorrow? Have you got your something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue?
‘My dress is new, I’ve a handkerchief borrowed from my mother, and these blue aquamarine earrings. The bridesmaids are going to be in turquoise.’
‘And something old?’
‘I don’t know. I suppose Hunclere Hall’s old, isn’t it?’
‘Does it count? Well, I suppose so.’
Avril’s mother and uncle were driving up from Dalston in the morning. Esther had invited them to stay over, but they’d declined. ‘I can’t really leave the dogs,’ her mother had said, although Avril knew the next door neighbours would have taken them for the night.
She spent the evening quietly with Esther, having an early night, so that she’d look her best for the wedding. She’d had the hen night out with the girls in London, a couple of weekends ago. The usual thing, silly outfits, too much lipstick, a Hummer. Throughout the evening, she’d had a nagging question, am I enjoying this? As she fell asleep, she found herself asking again: am I happy, will I be happy tomorrow? What if it’s my special day and I don’t enjoy it? Around one in the morning she woke, and thought she heard a car in the road, but then there was silence.
It was morning. Mark Spixworth had been shivering for a long time, his arms clenched around his body against the cold. Now he could feel the sun starting to warm him. It burned red through his eyelids. He started to relax his arms. Sleep surged up again in his brain, and he heard himself snore. He could feel a stone or something jutting into his back, wriggled a little so that it squished down into the soft mud, and as the sun gathered strength, he sprawled his arms and legs wide. The sun beamed down on the stained frills of his dress shirt, on the remnants of a bow tie straggling from his collar. The pigs started to move in, snuffling at him. A carillon of bells started to ring. He snored.
The limousine drew up outside the church. A door opened, and suddenly Avril could hear the church bells pealing.
‘I hope you’re doing the right thing,’ said Uncle Ed, as he helped her out of the limousine, and her turquoise-clad bridesmaids started to arrange the folds of her dress. Avril’s mother, in a wider, gauzier hat than usual, and an intricate chiffon outfit, said nothing, her lips pressed together into a line.
Avril took Uncle Ed’s arm, and they all walked slowly between the yew trees and the gravestones, towards the peal of bells, then between the packed pews, to where the vicar, in a golden robe, waited with his hands folded over each other. Across the aisle, on her right hand side, Harry Hunclere met her gaze with wide blue eyes.
Mark wasn’t there.
Then it was the church bells that woke Mark. Peal after peal from the ancient carillon. The sound pierced his brain like a spear. He opened his eyes again. He lifted his head, tucking his chin into his chest. Why was he wearing a frilly shirt? The bells were still ringing, the sound bouncing off the inside of his skull. Wedding bells. Someone must be getting married.
He sat bolt upright, and looked at his Rolex. Nearly eleven. He stood up. He was in a muddy field in the middle of Norfolk, among pig sheds, with a bad smell clinging to him. He thought of the packed church, and started to sweat, then a wave of nausea and dizziness overcame him. A big sow barged into him from behind, and he started to bend at the knees, then collapsed to the floor like a building undergoing demolition, his arms not even saving his face from the mud. The other pigs started to move towards him. The church clock struck eleven, but he never heard it.
It seemed harsh to send all the guests away without the lunch, which had already been paid for, so they made their way over to Hunclere Hall.
‘He was supposed to stay with you. What happened?’ Avril glared at Harry. They were travelling together in the back of the limousine.
‘He said he was going to get something from his car,’ said Harry. ‘He’d parked at the wrong end of the lane. It was only a few hundred yards away. I kind of fell asleep, and then I woke up a bit late, so I just cleaned myself up, and came straight to the church.’ Harry had that arrogant look about him again. His shoulders were very square in his pale grey morning coat.
‘I suppose you were drunk,’ said Avril.
‘Well, it was a stag night,’ said Harry. ‘What do you expect? There’s no point getting angry at me, is there?’ He fixed her with his blue eyes, and she had to look away.
But just as Avril had not felt elated about her special day, now she felt no anguish over Mark. She thought that perhaps he would turn up later, and would be apologetic, and they would have the registry office wedding in Dalston, after all. Even when the police came to Hunclere Hall afterwards, and said someone had found Mark’s bloodstained Rolex in a pig field, only Esther seemed upset. Esther’s friends took her home, glaring at Avril, as though it were somehow her fault.
Mostly, the guests ate, and left as quickly as they could, some collecting their wedding presents from the table in the hall. Avril’s family said they couldn’t leave the dogs too late, and set off back to London. She was left with a ballroom, and a band, and a lot of young people arriving from the village.
‘What do you want me to do?’ asked Harry Hunclere, looking at her down his nose.
‘Stay,’ she said. ‘Please, stay.’
She sat with Harry on the terrace outside, as the evening wore on, and Mark didn’t come back, and a crowd of people she didn’t know danced to music she hadn’t chosen. The scent of honeysuckle grew stronger in the dusk. Then the band packed up their gear, and Hunclere Hall fell silent.
‘He must have run out on me. It’s because I’m black, isn’t it? Even in this day and age, there’s still – oh I don’t know.’
She still didn’t cry, but her head wilted on to Harry’s shoulder, and his arm swept around her.
‘You’re beautiful, beautiful, beautiful,’ he said, hungrily. ‘Like black velvet roses, like black silk satin, like black communion wine.’ The sultry light flashed again in his expression.
Avril turned to look back through the French windows at the grandeur of the deserted ballroom, the lights dimmed in the huge chandelier, the flowers drooping and the crystal drops shivering in a draught.
‘Something old,’ she said. ‘It didn’t bring me any luck, did it?’
Harry’s arm tightened, turning her back to face him.
‘‘Something old’ might not work for everyone. Not with our history. When the Spixworths took over the Hall, the Huncleres were bankrupted, and sent to live with their pigs,’ he said. ‘There was hatred on both sides, and a duel. My ancestor was killed. You saw his grave in the churchyard. But George Spixworth, the first baronet, escaped to the continent, made a fortune in Nantes, in the French slave trade, and bought his way back in to society.’
The ballroom was empty and silent. Avril felt the heavy pumping of her heart, as Harry drew a fingertip down her cheek.
‘Shall we dance?’ he suggested. She heard the ghost of a minuet, and they revolved slowly and longingly, under the crystal chandelier, under the wilting flowers, and the dead Henry Hunclere looking down his malevolent nose with a sneer.