Authors: Judy Astley
It was Heather's silver wedding anniversary. But this important milestone did not mark her marriage to Tom, her often-absent airline pilot husband and father of their two teenage children. It was for her first marriage â a wildly romantic, secret affair, when she and Iain â twelve years older than her and the heir to a Scottish baronetcy â had eloped immediately after her final school speech day. She was just sixteen at the time. The marriage had not lasted twenty-five weeks, let alone years, and it was, as her mother firmly announced, As If It Never Happened. But secrets have a habit of coming out, and when a film crew arrived in the attractive Thamesside village where Heather and Tom lived, Heather was horrified to find her ex-husband amongst them.
As Heather and Iain met again, many secrets jostled to be revealed, including Tom's own highly secret life. Heather, her daughter Kate â the same age as Heather was when she embarked upon her disastrous elopement â and her mother Delia all had to reveal things which they never thought would need to be revealed, and their peaceful Oxfordshire village community buzzed with speculation and scandal.
For Pauline Love Cornwell
It was Heather's twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, a landmark in life reminding her sharply that she could no longer pretend the âover-forties', like Sartre's hell, were Other People. Silver weddings, she had always thought, were for those who had succumbed to growing old with grace, who truly welcomed presents of cruet-sets and cake-knives, and whose maturing insurance policies would comfortably finance a celebratory Mediterranean cruise complete with formation ballroom dancing. Her own generation had a long way to go yet.
It wasn't the wedding at which she'd married Tom â so far they'd now notched up eighteen years. (Successfully? Well they were still together, when he was home.) This anniversary was the date of Heather's first wedding that hardly anyone knew about, was never talked about and was, as her furious mother had firmly decreed all those years ago, As If It Never Happened.
Heather remembered the twenty-five-year-old date while she was in her bedroom, looking for a pair of tights to wear to Kate's final speech day. It wasn't tights-wearing weather, being far too stuffily hot, and the school hall would be discreetly steaming with overdressed parents, but Heather's fingers scrabbled dutifully through her underwear drawer, searching for the right shade in seven denier. The weather had been the same all those years ago, full of birdsong, clear, hot, even in Scotland where she'd never been before and had somehow expected, fresh from recent geography O-level revision, frosty glens every morning and purple, snow-capped, deer-studded mountains even in July.
âBugger!' she cursed to herself. The tights she was hauling up her legs were laddered at around mid-thigh, the kind of ladder that looked as if it was as inclined to travel downwards as up. Carefully, just as she had back in the days when a pair of tights had cost half a Saturday's pay in Woolworth's, she sealed the run with pale pink nail varnish. âWon't show,' she murmured, pulling her navy silk skirt down and wishing she'd thought to use fake tan. Who'd notice? Well Kate for a start â there was nothing like a sixteen-year-old for seeing all and hearing all and making your shortcomings public. Nothing like a sixteen-year-old, too, for demanding to be the most attention-seeking, shock-inducing creature on the planet, and then expecting her mother to fade seamlessly into the safe, dull background.
âHeather! You ready?' called a voice from the hallway. Feet thumped heavily up the stairs and a woman's head, preceded by a soothing âIt's only me! House wide open to burglars!' appeared round the door.
âGood grief Margot, not a hat!' Heather blurted out with a giggle. The hat, squashed on to a mass of streaky blonde hair, was lilac straw with a big, bold, yellow chiffon flower on the side. It so exactly matched the mauve, cream and yellow flowered suit Margot wore, like a set of chintzy loose covers over her ample body, that it resembled one of those completely co-ordinated toddler ensembles that immaculate continental children wear.
Margot peered into the wardrobe mirror and patted at the hat, preening and smiling broadly at her smart self. âWhat's wrong with it? Sets it off a treat, I think. Thought it was most appropriate, very PTA Committee.'
Heather grabbed her bag and shoved in half a box of tissues, just in case. It wasn't every day she had to watch her elder daughter being presented with a school music prize, and, together with her leaver's medal, that might be just enough to set off a few tears. She pulled her cream silk jacket from its hanger, gave it a cursory check for marks, though she didn't know what she'd wear if she found any, and reassured Margot. âThe hat's lovely, really, just a bit unexpected; I've never actually seen you in daytime finery before. You look like a mayoress about to open a fÃªte. Goodness, we're going to be late, let's go.'
âFinished my last dog at twelve, so I had lots of time to get ready,' Margot was saying as they got into Heather's Renault. âOld boot wanted her poodle's back end shaved into one of those old-fashioned lion styles. In summer! Poor thing, it was a standard too, huge, white, panting animal â imagine carrying around all that fur at the front like that in this heat.'
Heather smiled, and glanced at Margot's own substantial front, wondering if she, too, found it a burden in the heat. âCarries her tits around as if they're on a tray,' Tom had once said at one of the village Christmas drinks parties, when Margot's creamy cleavage, framed by a curved neckline of soft maroon velvet, had been displayed like a parchment scroll on a presentation cushion. Tom was always wary of breasts, it occurred to Heather as she nudged the car carefully out of the drive on to the main road. He'd never given hers much attention, as if they were too small and insignificant to require it. He was happy with her ectomorphic shape. âBoy-shaped' he'd called her approvingly when they were younger, pleased at her angles and seemingly relieved that she didn't have great soft doughy pieces of flesh on her chest that got in the way, and assuming that they didn't need, well, kneading.
The traffic on the way to the school was unexpectedly heavy. The small market town they had to pass through was gasping with immobile fumes and almost pleading for a by-pass. Where were all these people going in the middle of such a hot day, Heather wondered impatiently, why couldn't they all stay at home and sit under the trees in deckchairs? She stopped at the lights and looked around, sighing crossly and starting to feel tense. The woman in the next car was wearing gloves, little white cotton ones that flared out at the wrist. She sat at the traffic lights in her sparkling silver Rover, neat and still as a good child. Heather, checking her watch against the car's clock, could feel her heart starting to beat harder. They were going to be late. There would be nowhere left to sit and she (not Margot, who had a PTA Committee place reserved on the stage) would have to tiptoe conspicuously across the hall to the only empty seat, which would be just in front of the kind of father who was probably a high court judge. He'd be sure to give her that look, the one that announces, âI'm extremely busy and important, and if I can get here on time on a Wednesday afternoon why can't you, a mere housewife, mother and part-time gardener?' Kate would tut loudly and make âGod, that's bloody typical' faces to all her sympathetic, smirking friends, and shy Suzy would peer at the floor, hide in her hair and hope no-one noticed that this grossly embarrassing mother was
Heather revved the car and swore as another driver stopped in the yellow box just in front of her, so that when the lights changed she had nowhere to go. Any second the lights would be back to red again, and she would soon be cursing the way people unintelligently fill up the school hall from the doorway inwards, leaving only those odd seats right out on the far side. Couldn't they foresee the craven late arrivals needing some place to slide into in decent apologetic obscurity? Did they do it on purpose, smugly, as in: don't leave space for them, they don't deserve it? The woman in the next car sat still and didn't thrum her fingers on the steering wheel. Heather would bet serious money on the probability that the Rover's ashtray contained nothing but one carefully folded Opal fruit wrapper. The neat white gloves reminded her of childhood clothes from approximately 1960. There had been something highly prized called duster coats, she clearly recalled, big cotton overall things in flowery fabrics like Margot's dress, rather resembling the kind of outfit the Queen Mother wore. She remembered wanting one so desperately, along with a matching cotton shirtwaister frock in candy stripes, like her friends Sandra and Janice had. âCertainly not, they're from C & A,' her mother had sniffed, as if that made it absolutely out of the question, and forming in her suggestible eight-year-old daughter a long-lasting and extremely inconvenient suspicion of chain-store clothes.
âIt's my wedding anniversary,' Heather, stirred by long ago memory, suddenly announced to Margot, as the traffic cleared and she put her foot down hard.
âThought you and Tom had a winter wedding â all velvet and cute boots,' Margot commented.
âNo, I don't mean him.' Heather opened the sunroof and felt a rush of cooling air, wondering which was the more exhilarating, that or her simple, unaccustomed statement. She'd never said it before, not about Iain. Every other July or so she thought about it, especially at the significant ones: five (wood), ten (tin) and fifteen (crystal). Right now, she could be organizing a major-scale silver wedding party, arranging appropriately pale flowers and supervising the cooking of salmon from one of Iain's own rivers â
rivers, too, they'd have been, of course. Half the county (the smarter half) would be there, and all Iain's clever writer/theatre/film friends would have become her friends as well. It was strange to have kept a secret for that long â really it should have been let out years ago. It reminded her of a sex offender grown too old and decrepit to be dangerous, but still kept imprisoned for no better reasons than habit and a sort of superstition.
âThe first time I got married was twenty-five years ago today,' she went on.
Margot looked horrified, turning to give her a close stare as if she'd been wilfully misleading everyone about her age. âGood grief, you must have been one hell of a child bride. Pregnant were you?'
âNo, I wasn't actually. Well not then.' Heather felt a small cool shadow on the day but then laughed, and turned the car up into the school drive which was ominously lined with gleaming, well-kept cars. âI was straight out of O-levels, just sixteen, barely legal,' she told Margot, peering past the cars and wishing that the affluent middle-classes could bring themselves to drive something smaller than Range Rovers and leave more space for tiny Renaults such as hers. âFeels like a bit of a milestone, to be honest, even though the marriage didn't make it to twenty-five weeks, let alone years.'
âMore like a bloody millstone I should think, if it
lasted. It's as long as a life sentence. Me and Russell won't make it that far,' Margot predicted dourly. âLook, parking space, right by the door. Someone must have bolted before the start, and who can blame them?'