By Christina Ridgley
Everything changes when the sun sets.
All day, you've been bound up by schedules, promises, appointments. Only now do you loosen them, slipping them like the band from your hair.
"God, Dinah, it's been crazy today."
Unbuttoning your blouse, a sigh of relief escapes your lips. And as she steps out of the skirt, we step out of the day, out of the trivialities that come only with the hot shock of daylight.
You click off the light, and slip in beside me. The satin cover sounds like a zipwire; your bed's next door, but every night you slide in next to me. Your warm flesh. The permanent inferno of your cheeks. Your slight breathing, like a child's. And like a child, you press up tight and close, though there's plenty of room.
"I'll miss our sleepovers," I say.
"Well I asked Ed if there would be room for three, but he didn't seem too keen on the idea," she giggles.
"You asked him?" I say in disbelief.
"Sure!" I feel her laughter, hot and tight on my face. It makes me laugh, which makes her laugh harder. We're so close that her soft nose brushes, like air, against mine.
The night holds us in her embrace. The moon rises between the blinds. Orion cartwheels across the horizon; his hunting dogs chase their tails. Whispers, passing between us like shooting stars.
I'm the only one who truly understands you. Only you understand me. You know that, don't you?
Only when the cold grey dawn rises, pressing in like mist against window, do I let go.
It's September outside, but winter has arrived in our kitchen.
Every single piece of surface space has been snowed under by an avalanche of magazines and brochures. They cover up the coffee machine, bury the bathroom floor, and this morning I lost my phone and my flatmate Sammy had to ring it for me; I finally found it buzzing underneath five smiling women in white.
Sammy wades through the mess and dumps yet another batch of brochures onto the kitchen table in front of Pepper and I. They fall in a mass of pale flurries.
"Present," she announces, in that one-tone wry voice she likes so much, shoving a stack of magazines off the chair so she can sling herself down.
Pepper snatches up the magazine off the top of the new batch with excitement. She flicks through it. "Hey, this woman had an underwater wedding. We could do that."
"Except Ed can't swim," Sammy points out, before I can. She holds up a magazine. "What about this one? Apparently you can hire they place they do the BATFA's. They even roll out the red carpet Cameron Diaz walked on."
Small and tight, Pepper shakes her head. She wrinkles her nose up like a scrunchie. "Tacky. Too tacky."
Sammy grins, nudges her with her elbow, pulls on an Edinborough accent; "Our Pepper's a classy lass, ay?"
Pepper starts talking in different accents when she gets tired. She claims she doesn't know she's doing it.
"I think Scottish accents sound sexy," claims Pepper, crossing her arms defensively.
We tease her about it, but there's nothing more adorable than when she's brushing her teeth and yelling to you in the other room, and starts talking like an Irishman.
The three of us met at university. Sammy and I were placed in the same block in halls. I met Pepper through the film society. Sat at the back of the darkened lecture theatre, she shared half a kit-kat with me and we both universally agreed Calamity Jane was the best movie ever. We were watching Citizen Kane.
"Whoah! This would be exciting. This couple got married on a roller coaster," Pepper giggles. We peer over at the magazine.
"He kind of looks like he's going to throw up," I say.
A moment later: "He does. Good point," Pepper flicks with a wetted finger to the next page.
We throw ideas around like lackies at a corporate board meeting. Pepper wants something unique. Sammy thinks she should have something glitzy.
What do I want?
I wonder about that sometimes, too.
The argument in the other room falls over me like snow. I sit in the windowsill, a mug of hot tea wedged between my thighs. I watch the sun slanting down the road and the glare on the car wind shields.
Pepper slams the door behind her, hot and flustered. "She-!" she begins, but she stops herself. Her voice deflates itself like a flat tyre. She throws herself angrily into the windowsill next to me, stares out.
"Sorry. I'm not going to get involved," I say. I know I'm going to hear the other side of it later anyway. At length.
She shakes her head, like she's trying to shake the frustration away. Tries to smile. "S'was only the dishwasher again, anyway."
We look out together for a while. I don't know how long. The yellow light tans into a deep orange, and then fades.
Pepper asks, "If you could have anything in the world, what would you choose?"
Honesty. To be able to say what I'm thinking. Out loud.
Instead I laugh. "That came out of nowhere," I say. "What would you choose?"
She rocks her head onto her fist. Hrmms. "Eternal love," she decides, quite firmly. "Eternal friendship. For this wedding to go off without someone killing someone. To live in peace and plant potatoes and dream."
"That's way more than one thing."
"Who says you're only allowed one thing? This is my game. I can't choose between them; I want them all. And," she began to count them off on her fingers; "I also want a new job. A new figure would be nice too. Maybe a new rug."
I just smile at her. I ask, "What kind of rug?"
"There was this really great shag rug at the market I saw last week. Hey, you could get it for me as a wedding present." She leaves this suggestion dangling in the air between us.
"Maybe," I hedge. But I know I'll end up getting it for her. I just hope it isn't too expensive.
She presses her forehead against the cold glass and breathes. The window steams up like icing. Absently, with her index finger, the glass squeaks, she draws a heart.
"Sammy was supposed to come venue hunting with me on Saturday, but apparently I'm only going to choose somewhere stupid," she says. Her voice sours. Glancing at her, I see her face in set in that concrete frown again. It's one I've been seeing too much of recently. "Apparently I'm too childish to get married. Coming from a woman who doesn't know how to empty a dishwasher."
I've had enough of this. "It's funny. You know, I thought weddings were supposed to be fun." I can't completely keep the snide from my voice.
"And I thought you were here to help me," she snaps back.
I clank my empty mug of tea down and make to stand, but before I'm half way up she's caught my hand. She looks up at me with big regretful eyes.
"Sorry," she says. "I didn't mean that. You are a big help, Dinah. I don't know if I could do this without you." It's the way she says my name, Di—nah, the two separate syllables snapped like a log full of burning embers that makes me sit down.
I say, slowly, with measure, "Pepper, you know I love you, but you're driving me nuts lately. You've got to stop getting so het up."
"I know. I know. I'm sorry."
She still has my hand, and her thumb moves very softly, tracing the skin on the inside of my wrist.
We meet outside one of the possible reception venues. This one is my choice. Magaret Hall. It's in our budget, it's elegant, it's classy-
"It's too small," Pepper announces.
The lady showing us round respectfully tells us it fits our guest requirement with spare.
We're standing in the ball room, stone ivy twisted round gilded columns, chandelier, the works, and she says, "Yeah, but it feels too small. You know what you mean?"
The lady stutters on some polite reply, but I tell her, "No, Pepper. I've no idea what you're bloody on about."
The next venue is too big, apparently.
At the next, I ask, with forlorn hope, "And this one is just right?"
She says, "It's perfect."
My head bobs up. A sigh of relief bubbles on my lips, but then I notice she's not looking around the venue, the Left Hill social club, but gazing lovestruck out the window. Erected on the opposite recreation ground is the travelling circus that comes once a year.
"Oh no, Pepper. No... you can't be serious."
Unfortunately, she is.
I slip away to the bathroom and make an urgent call to Ed.
"If you don't want flying monkeys at your wedding, you better get down here right now."
Ed meets us outside the big top, but he shouldn't have bothered. What he ever really thinks I never know any more, because he seems to agree with her just on principle these days.
"Whatever you want," he murmurs, Pepper in his arms, kissing her. She shines. They're drawn into their own world. Instinctively, I look away, around them; the two of them are their own sun, too bright, too painful for anyone else to see.
-And the day cracks open like a Fabergé egg. Its night-time and our pretences are laid pale as moonlight; they cast sails across the sheets. You're wrapped in the hammock of midnight, and there's a spell woven into your lint-white hair, laid flax on the pillow. Something like magic filters in through the open window. Your skin, opaque, is an egg-white mystery.
The moon has no pull on me; you are my centre of gravity.
A sweltering hot midday and we're chasing the town down the perfect couple of yards of cream silk and lace.
In other words, The Dress, capital letters and all.
We've been in seven boutiques and The Dress keeps getting considerably larger. We've gone past the short and strapless to the old fashioned and elegant, and are heading into gypsy chic at an alarming rate.
"Ready?" says Pepper.
"Just come on," I say, slumped down the settee; I've already sweated out several pints today.
Pepper waddles out of the changing room, wearing a frothy white cupcake. I'd laugh, but it's just too hot for that.
The dresser claps her hands together. "Beautiful!" she says.
"What do you think?" Pepper says to me. She attempts a twirl, but almost knocks a vase flying with her dress, and sensibly decides to stay still.
It's all I can do to let out a, "Hmm."
"You're right," she says. "It's not quite right, is it?"
So the next one she tries is even bigger, with a trail long enough to choke King Kong.
And still, something is not quite right about it.
The receptionist hands me a card as we leave the shop. "I recommend you try here. It's what you'd call... a speciality boutique. They might have what you want."
The 'specialist boutique' is a tiny backstreet place an hour's drive away that specialises in parachutes that look a bit like dresses.
Here, Pepper finds The Dress.
It's made, the dresser informs us proudly, of a thousand cubic feet of silk.
There's enough lace to fill the Albert Hall.
The trail will need a small village to hold it.
These aren't metaphors, by the way. I'm being absolutely literal.
It's crazy. I mean, what kind of market are there for these things?
"I'll take it!" Pepper yells, from across the football-field sized dressing room.
I consider that Ed will have to wade to her to exchange vows.
"What do you think?" she calls to me.
I think that the dress is so huge, it's difficult to see her underneath.
"Dinah, what are doing down here?" Sammy is elbow deep in the fridge when she sees me sat on the threshold of the front door.
"Looking at the stars," I say.
Sammy's slippers flop unnecessarily loudly as she peers out with me.
"Huh. Bright, eh?" she says. "Say, what's that constellation?"
In the stillness, the sounds from upstairs tear through the fabric of the night, as savagely as though someone has taken it in their hands and torn it in two.
"Orion," I tell her.
Sammy isn't paying attention, her head inclined upstairs. "What's-?" A long, drawn out moan. "Oh." She grins wryly. "I forgot Ed was staying over. I see why you came out. Must suck to be next door. Sometimes I wonder if they really just made the walls in this house out of paper."
"Hmm," I reply.
Glancing back out, she says, "Someone told me Orion is a winter constellation, though."
"Yes, but if you stay out late enough, you can see next season's stars. Like a window into the future."
"Are you sure about that?" she says, tone laced with scepticism.
I close my eyes. "You can look it up in any book if you don't believe me."
"I didn't say I didn't-"
Giggling from upstairs. A sharp, sudden, gasp. My nails dig so tightly into my palms it hurts.
"Geez, do they have to be so loud all the time?" Sammy says.
I've held it at bay, but it wells up in me now; hot, corroding, visceral. And though I try to stop it, there's only one exit; I spit the word from my mouth like poison; "Filthy."
In the half-light of the dirty yellow street lamp out front, Sammy looks at me like I'm a child. Knowing, ever-so condescending, slightly smug.
"They're going to be married next month, Dinah. It's not like he's some stray she's brought home."
I can't stop myself. The words well into my mouth, ooze out; "It's still disgusting. It's messy, it's smelly, it's-"
"Natural," Sammy interjects, hip against the washing machine. "Dinah, honestly. There's nothing disgusting about it. It's just what people do."
Well, it's not what I do, I try to retort, but I swallow it back down.
She doesn't say it, but I can read the words clear as a book on her face: You're the one who's unnatural.
My hands are shaking. I press them flat to my thighs. I choke my thoughts down, though it hurts, all the way down to my stomach.
"You're right," I say. "I know. You know I don't really mean these things; I just get carried away sometimes."
Even though it is disgusting. All those oozings and secretions and juices and dirty writhings like something dying and I can smell the stink it gets into all the nooks and crannies and I can't get away from it and all round the world people are acting like dogs and upstairs Pepper is sullying herself acting like a filthy animal and
"Right," Sammy says, probably unconvinced.
I hear the soft thud as she closes the refrigerator door. "You know, you should probably see someone about those feelings. How are you going to ever get a boyfriend otherwise?"
"Who says I want one?"
"Nobody wants to end up alone," Sammy says, as though it's a statement of scientific fact. "God, I worry about it constantly. And I get so jealous of Pepper. She and Ed are just so uttely perfect for one another, aren't they?"
"Utterly," I agree.
Her voice drops low. She leans back against the washing machine, confides, "Sometimes I know just how you feel. Sometimes I get mad too, looking at them. How does she find someone who's so perfect for her so easily when I-"
She speaks in a quick breathy whisper, and all of a sudden, I can't stand it any longer. I'm stuffing my feet into my old trainers and Sammy breaks off mid-sentence. "Where are you going?" she asks, baffled.
"Park. For a walk. Street lamps are so god-damn bright here I can hardly see the stars."
Sammy is looking at me like a stranger. She says nothing as I crunch down the gravel driveway. My feet take me; time bounces like a rubber band.
But on the recreation ground, I swear I can still hear them. Pepper's cry rends the night in two like a birth pang.
I raise my hands up, to catch the stars as they fall.
On that night, two years ago, gravity rearranged itself, tucked itself neatly round you and I.
You took my hand and led me through the dance floor. It was a revelation; your hand, mine. Upholded in prayer, made iridescent on the altar of bright spotlights.
I realised: You're the person. The one I've been looking for.
Why? Where? How? What is love and where does it come from? You'd held my hand so many times before. What was so special about that night, that place, that when you touched me something leapt across, and we finally connected?
And later: We made furrows in it; it billowed around us, wraiths of curling white mist. It clung to us, stuck to our hair. Damp skin and clothes. Everything had changed; sunday morning at three AM and you wore the morning mist like a wedding dress.
It's the rehearsal and assembled in the big top are: the fifteen-piece orchestra; the seven fire breathers; juggling chimpanzees; ten bridesmaids; sword swallowers; Pepper's father; two African Elephants; the African Elephant handler; best man, contortionist; minister; aerialists; the bride and groom; ringbearer; a local mime we found yesterday in the Yellow Pages and the maid of honour (if it's not been made obvious yet: me.)
Pepper is- and I've been informed by the all the trashy daytime wedding TV that this is pretty regular for brides-to-be- in near-hysterics.
It's pretty depressing, to be honest. Despite inviting the menagerie, she's been doing this whole thing by the book.
While Pepper is wrestling the tuxedo on of the juggling chimpanzees, Sammy sidles out of formation towards me.
"What's up?" she says. "You look beat."
"Did you go out for a walk again last night? I didn't hear you come back."
I shrug. Pepper wrestles with the tux. I feel Sammy's eyes one me as she snatches a quick glance to the side.
"You know, you're weird sometimes Dinah."
One of the elephants wraps its trunk around Pepper and tries to lift her up. The handler shouts at it until it puts Pepper down.
I say, "I've just been feeling a bit under the weather lately."
Sammy nods with a knowing look, like she understands completely. "It is a little depressing, isn't it? This is my third now. You know what they say; always the bridesmaid, never the bride." She sighs. I nod. She doesn't understand me at all.
"Ladies and gentleman, please," the minister's booms through the megaphone. He stands in the centre of the ring dressed in a ringmaster's top hat and tails. "If we could just try this one more time." Over a cacophony of grumbles; "It won't take long. Places, please."
There's a lot of jostling as everyone gets back into position, and a tuba player almost knocks me off my feet into the double bass.
The rehearsal begins and I slip into a trance.
The orchestra wobbles its way into Cannon D and I, my fellow bridesmaids and Pepper's dad enter the ring on the back of the elephants, and there's a bit of a kerfuffle as Sara is thrown off and almost trampled. There's a bit of yelling for a bit and then Ed, sweating under the spotlights, tightrope walks across to the main beam and is tossed around by the aerialists, who end up dropping him- thankfully into the net below- and there's some more shouting for a bit. Pepper then makes her grand entrance, her trail held up by the tux wearing chimps, who also juggle. Pepper gets hit in the face by a juggling pin and strangles the chimp, and we take a coffee break while the RSPCA interview her. When we finally get back to the rehearsal we find out one of the elephants has escaped- with Pepper's father still on it- and by the time we round him up where he's munched half his way through the botanical gardens everyone's forgotten the ring-bearer, who's been stuck up on the tightrope platform waiting to zip wire in for four hours and-
During some point in all this, I turn to one of the sequin-studded aerialists and admit, dead-pan, "I don't get it."
He smiles. "Marriage," he tells me, "is a performance."
That night, we lay next to one another, too exhausted to even pull up the covers.
"It's all going to go wrong tomorrow, I just know it," she says. "Somehow though, I'm just too knackered to care."
"So long as you do the 'I do' part, you'll do fine."
She chuckles. "You know, what with everything, I keep forgetting that's the important bit."
We lie there in the dark together, and she asks, "You don't think I've gone overboard with this whole thing, do you?"
There's only one response I can give to that: I laugh. It's infectious, and soon Pepper is chortling, and then we're both laughing, for a whole minute, until she's choking down giggles on my shoulder.
"Oh, it feels so good to laugh," she says, moving her head till she's resting on my collarbone. "How long has it been since I last laughed?"
"Decades," I tell her.
We lay there like that for a long time. The moon is a pound coin, resting perfectly on the windowsill. Her voice rises like a small flame to me; "Tomorrow, I'll be a married woman. It's hard to believe." She hesitates. "This might be our last sleepover, mightn't it?"
She lifts herself up on her elbows, till her face hangs above mine like a pale moon. "To tell the truth, I'm scared."
"It'll be alright. Ed will be with you," I say.
But she closes her eyes, and as though she's in pain she shakes her head.
"That's not what I mean. Listen... this is my last chance. I want to try something."
Even before I nod, somehow, I know what it is she means.
The sheets creak; she comes closer to me, so close I can smell the taste the mint on her breath. For a second, she hesitates, closes her eyes as if in deep thought- her eyelashes, in the moonlight, spun from silver cobwebs. She kisses me. Only the ghostliest of kisses, her lips barely brushing mine, and then time skips a beat. She's pulled away, shaking her head.
"No," she says.
She falls back, heavily, with the zip of satin to the side of me. She lies so silently as if she were dead. The moon teeters, heads or tails on the windowsill. She sighs.
"I'm sorry," she says, nasal, like she's about to cry, though I can't look at her.
"What for?" the sound that leaves my throat is husky.
"Oh, Dinah. You know."
I do. I do. I do. I do.
The moon slips under the sill like the occupant out of a painting. I think Dinah must have fallen asleep, until she slides her hand into mine.
You're the only one in this world who understands me. And I you. But this is too painful to bear.
Maybe tomorrow I won't go to the wedding. Maybe I'll take a long drive. I'll drive until the tank runs dry and stop there, wherever it is, and look around, at what's been lost from the world.
I squeeze Pepper's hand in mine. We've only till morning. Soon, all of this will end, and you'll let go. I'll remember it though, even when the rest is erased in the scorching baptism of sunrise.