I told myself it was only ten minutes. Ten minutes was nothing. There were any number of reasons why a person would be ten minutes late. The cab could have got a flat tyre. There could be roadworks. She might have spilled something on the dress and stopped at a dry-cleaners. Really, when you thought of all the things that could prevent a person from arriving on time, it was a miracle that anyone ever got anywhere. I wasn’t worried. I knew she would get here. It was only ten minutes.
The registrar shuffled awkwardly and maintained his wan smile while the CD looped back to the beginning of the track. I was really starting to hate Pachibel’s Canon, but at least it covered up the whispers that were echoing around the room. There weren’t many people in attendance - neither of us had much family to speak of - but there was enough of a crowd to make the murmurs of discontent seem louder and louder as each agonising minute went by.
But it had only been ten minutes. Aside from the basic logistical factors, there were all sorts of reasons why Karen might not have been able to get here, up to and including terrorist hijack, elephant escape and alien abduction. As I was ranking these in descending order of probability, everyone else leapt to the mundane conclusion that she had got cold feet and wasn’t coming at all. I was doing my best not to look at anyone, but I caught glimpses here and there of painful sympathy mixed with secret, shameful glee at witnessing a live Hollywood trope: the runaway bride jilting a sap at the altar. It was too ridiculous for words, so I concentrated on the route Karen’s car would take to get here and whether it would pass the elephant enclosure at London Zoo on the way.
Lee came back into the church through the side door, slipping his mobile phone into the pocket of his suit.
“No answer,” he said. “I left another message, but…”
It was clear that he had given up on her. He was my best mate and my best man, but he’d never thought much of Karen. While he had never come right out and said it - you don’t, do you? - he clearly thought I was a mug for taking her back. Maybe I would have felt the same in his position, but he didn’t know her like I did and, more than that, he didn’t know everything that she and I had been through. If he had, he might have thought differently. Or maybe not. I don’t know.
“Listen, mate…” Lee said, glancing around at the small, agitated crowd shifting in their seats.”I don’t want to be the one to do this, but, you know, maybe we need to start thinking about the possibility that she’s not coming.”
“She’ll be here,” I said. “It’s our wedding day.”
“She’ll be here. There’s just been a delay, is all.”
Lee looked at me with something approaching pity, before quickly stowing it away from view.
“Yep. You’re right,” he said. “Just a delay. We’ll sit tight.”
And that was why he was my best mate, because he had my back even when I wouldn’t see sense. It didn’t mean I wanted to speak to him, though, so I just looked at my shoes and did my best not to catch anyone’s eye. The whispers amongst the dearly beloved were starting to get louder and less discreet. I didn’t need to pick out the specifics to know that word was travelling around the room that I was about to become an anecdote that would be retold for years to come. Poor Chris, left at the altar by that Karen.
When the door at the back of the room burst open, my heart leapt into my mouth, before dribbling over my lips and onto the floor. It wasn’t Karen who bustled her way into the room, but her best friend, the supposed Maid of Honour. Up until that point, I was sure that some sort of minor accident was preventing Karen getting to the ceremony on time, but Michelle’s arrival seemed like a bad omen. Lee went over to talk to her while I tried to reassure the registrar that my bride would be along shortly. He nodded in a way that suggested he didn’t believe me for a moment.
I glanced over to Lee and there seemed to be some debate going on between him and Michelle. Even from across the room, I could tell that the main thrust of Lee’s argument was “tell him” and that Michelle was hesitant. There were a couple of nervous glances in my direction, before Lee coaxed Michelle over to where I was standing.
“Hi Michelle,” I said. “What’s going on?”
“No-one knows. Karen’s not at the flat, she’s not answering her phone and no-one’s heard from her.”
I nodded. I felt surprisingly calm about the whole thing.
Lee prodded Michelle. “Tell him the rest.”
Michelle bit her lip and then said:
“I was passing by her place last night and… well, I don’t know for certain, but I’m pretty sure I saw Russell’s car parked outside her house.”
And that was when I started to feel scared.
Russell, who had been with Karen for four years before she and I got together. Russell, who did something for a living that it was better not to ask too many questions about. Russell, who had dominated and abused Karen to the point that she had been terrified to breathe without his permission. Russell, who despite being an utter shitbag and the worst thing to ever happen to her, was who Karen had gone to for comfort when she and I split up for two weeks last August.
Lee looked at me with such naked pity. I couldn’t bear it.
“I’m sorry, mate. I really am.”
I shook my head. “This is all wrong. Karen wouldn’t… She just wouldn’t… Something’s happened.”
Lee and Michelle shared a glance and it was clear that they were trying to find a way to get me to see what they thought was self evident.
But I knew differently. If there had been any remaining doubt about whether Karen was coming, I knew that she wouldn’t be with Russell. At that point I was willing to believe that she’d got cold feet or something like that, but I just knew that she wouldn’t be with Russell. Not by choice. It didn’t make any sense.
“I know what you’re thinking,” I said to them, doing my best to keep my voice level, “but I really think something is wrong. Karen wouldn’t even talk to Russell. She wouldn’t have anything to do with him. Why would she see him the night before her wedding?”
Lee and Michelle didn’t think that the question needed an answer and had clearly decided that I was in traumatic denial, but I felt I had to try and get across the severity of the situation. I knew what sort of man Russell was. He was clever, amoral and capable of anything. I didn’t know what to do.
The registrar shuffled up towards us and discreetly made himself known.
“Ah, if there’s not going to be… That is, if there are further delays… Well, I have other ceremonies to conduct today.”
I could no longer say that Karen would be here. I didn’t know if she would or not. I still believed in my heart that she wanted to be here, but there was a terrible sense of dread stealing over me. As I tried to work out what to do next, Lee and Michelle discreetly told everyone that perhaps it was best if they went along to the reception and had something to eat and drink. Although they said that I would be along later, I knew I wouldn’t be. If Karen wasn’t coming, I wasn’t going. There was no way I could leave the registrar’s office and once everyone had left to go to the pub, I sank into a seat at the back of the room, crushed by the weight of the situation.
Michelle went off to make phone calls, while Lee stayed and kept me company. We didn’t talk much, but I was glad that he was there. Most of all, I appreciated him not trying to say ‘I told you so’.
I was present for nine weddings that day, none of them my own. Truth be told, they all kind of blurred into one. After each ceremony was over, the book had been signed and the guests had cleared the room, Lee tried to convince me that maybe staying in the registry office wasn’t a good idea. He would try his best to make going home, or to the pub, or even just for a walk, seem like a good idea. I understood why he was doing it, but I couldn’t leave. I knew something terrible had happened, but I felt completely unable to do anything about it. I wished I could have got up and gone to the pub, or gone to a railway bridge and thrown myself off, or even gone to the police station and demand they put on a search for my missing bride. There were a million things I could have done, probably should have done, but I didn’t. My whole life had been based around Karen and without her I didn’t know how to do anything.
The fading of daylight was the only method I had of telling time and gathered from from the increasingly awkward coughs of the registrar and his assistant that the day was winding down and that their office was about to close. I was just wondering whether it would be OK for them to lock me in overnight when I heard her voice.
“You’re still here.”
I wasn’t sure if it was just a dream in my head, but when she stepped in front of me I could see it was really her. She was wearing the white dress I bought her in Portugal and oh my god she looked beautiful.
“Yeah, welll… I didn’t have any other plans,” I said.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
“Michelle said she saw Russell’s car outside your flat last night.”
“You know about that?”
She sighed. “I didn’t want you to find out.”
It felt like she was resting a dagger on my heart, grazing me with the tip of the blade and daring me to lean in towards her. I couldn’t stop myself, so I asked the question.
“So, you’re going back to him? We’re over then?”
“No… Chris… I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Yeah, you are…” I conceded. “But you’re late.”
“I know. I’m so sorry about that. It couldn’t be helped.”
“Isn’t going to bother us again. I promise.”
“Did he hurt you?” I whispered.
“He tried. But don’t think about it any more. There’s something I need to ask you.”
Karen knelt down beside me, but I couldn’t look her in the eye. I stared at my hand as she took it in hers. Karen said something that I didn’t hear because I was distracted by how raw and scraped her knuckles were. I was about to ask her what happened when she brought her other hand up to my face and gently turned my head to look at her as she repeated the question.
“Will you marry me?”
From the expression on her face I could tell that she genuinely didn’t know what my answer would be. How could she not know?
“Of course I will,” I said and her smile made everything else irrelevant.
We hugged and kissed and as I held her close, I buried by head in her shoulder and burst into tears, not because I was sad, but because we were going to be together for the rest of our lives and it was everything I ever wanted.
And through the tears, I saw the small streak of blood on the collar of Karen’s dress and I knew what she had done and why she was so certain that Russell wouldn’t be a problem any more. Still, I didn’t let her go.
For better or for worse, right?