James Holden works as a political geek and lives in London, England with his wife and daughter in a retirement village, despite only being in his thirties. He has previously had work performed by London Liars’ League, published in Silver Apples Magazine, and occasionally blogs and writes for the Clerkenwell Writers Asylum. (http://www.clerkenwellwritersasylum.wordpress.com/)
The Wedding List
by James Holden
Dartington Florabundance Daffodil Vase H22.5CM
It was Ben’s brother Olly who started it really. He had come to Ben’s on the Friday evening for yet another round of alcohol therapy, but after four cans of lager asked “what happened to the wedding present that I got you?”
Ben gave his brother a long hard look. “Are you being serious?”
“Well, I was just wondering.”
“Is it because you want it back?”
“Tight fucker,” said Ben, slamming his can down onto his thigh, a little bit of beer spilling out.
“No. No! It’s not like that. I’m just… curious, that’s all. Did you split the presents between you?”
“You know she walked out with nothing. I haven’t heard anything from her since she sent her sister round for her clothes, and that was three months ago. Two and a half years of marriage and all I got was a note saying not to take it personally, but ‘I wasn’t what she wanted.’”
Olly said, “Do you know what, bro? I never liked her. I mean you’re lucky, really, because now you can start your life over? Find someone better. Because you were too good for her. Or play the field—just think, mate—the world’s your oyster.”
Ben looked despondently at his can. “What did you give us?”
“I’m not sure, to be honest.”
“I’ll find out for you.”
“I was only joking.”
“It’s no bother,” said Ben, getting out of his armchair and walking upstairs to the spare room. After a brief search of the wardrobe he found what he was looking for: a cardboard box with the word “wedding” written on it in thick felt tip. Tearing at the Sellotape, he pried open the flaps, and started sifting through the detritus: spare invitations and thank you cards; a seating plan for the Breakfast; a leftover bag of sugared almonds that had served as favors. He found what he was looking for and pulled out a copy of the inventory from the department store that had accompanied the delivery of their wedding presents.
Ben walked back into the living, sat next to his brother and looked down the list of presents that friends and family had selected. He found his brother’s name, next to a brief description of a crystal vase.
“There you go—that’s what you bought us.” He pointed at the vase on the hearth. There had been no flowers in it, or in the house, for the past three months. Looking round the room, he noticed that the room was filled with presents and purchases that they selected together and then been given.
“Are you sure? I’m sure I bought something more—fun—than a vase.”
They sat looking at it until Olly made his excuses and announced that it was time to leave, having run out of non-Nicola related things to talk about. Ben held it out to him.
“What am I going to do with a vase?”
“It’s what you got me, us, for a wedding present.”
“You said you wanted it back.”
“That’s not what I said, Ben. Anyway, I don’t think I’m a vase kind of person.”
“Well you’re taking it, because we—I—don’t want it anymore.”
His brother shrugged. “I’m sure I can find something to do with it. ‘A vase,’” he said in a grand sounding voice, before launching himself into the night.
8x Orla Kiely Linear Stem Dinner Plate, Dia. 27cm
Ben woke the following morning, fully dressed, in the armchair. Taking a while to stand up and stretch, he looked down at the half-empty bottle of whisky next to him, his head starting to pound. He started to open the blinds in the living room, but quickly shut them again as the light hurt his eyes. Instead he shuffled to the kitchen, and made himself some coffee before struggling upstairs.
After showering, a second cup of coffee and a slice of dry toast, Ben felt like he could function for the rest of the day, or at least until mid-afternoon. Picking up a bin-bag, he tidied the living room, clearing away the squished beer cans on the windowsill and the pair of empty wine bottles next to the television. He cleared away an empty pizza that was nestling underneath a silk cushion on the sofa, and put socks that had been discarded next to the shoe rack in the hallway into the washing machine. He grunted as he picked up the present list from the night before and stuffed it into the bag.
He didn’t just stop at clearing out the rubbish: Ben dusted and vacuumed the living room and dining room before deciding that he had exerted enough energy for the morning. Sitting down in the armchair he looked round the tidy room.
His eyes kept being drawn back to the space where the vase had been on the hearth. But he didn’t think the room looked empty without it—instead he felt like he’d managed to get rid of a small painful reminder of his doomed marriage with Nicola. There were reminders all over the house. She’d have sent her sister round if she wanted it, he thought. But where to get rid of the stuff? A charity shop? Maybe the polite thing to do would be to hand the presents back.
Picking the wedding list from the top of the bin bag, he methodically went round the house, emptying the sideboard of plates, bowls, cups and glasses. He took duvet covers, sheets and towels from the airing cupboard. He took frames from the wall and gadgets from the kitchen cupboard. And when he had stacked them all on the dining room table (itself a present from Uncle Frank and Aunty Linda) he attached a post-it note to the presents so he knew who to return them to.
Wondering where to start, he decided to return the dinner plates to David and Sarah, two of their close friends who had got married the year before. Ben figured they wouldn’t ask too many questions about why he was doing it. It would be good to see a pair of friendly faces, and it also occurred to him that they might be able to tell him how Nicola was. He wrapped the plates in pages from the free local newspaper before placing them carefully in a sturdy carrier bag.
It was David who answered the door when Ben arrived. “Mate, how are you doing?” he said, looking up and down the street before pulling his face into a look of concern.
“Erm… you know,” he said with a shrug. David looked like he didn’t, so Ben added “not too bad.”
“Good.” He smiled. “Do you want to come in?”
“That’d be good, yeah.”
David led Ben through to the conservatory, the doors open to the autumn sunshine. “Sarah’s out at the moment, gone shopping with her sister, I think.”
“Anyway, it’s good to see you. I can’t remember when you last came round.”
“Probably, not since, you know…”
“Yeah.” They lapsed into silence. “Been up to much?”
“Been having a bit of a clear out. But can I just ask you, David—when she broke up with, oh—thingy—did she do a runner like this?”
“I don’t know who you’re talking about.”
“God, what was his name?” said Ben, slapping his forehead. “Joe—that was it…”
“Joe?” said David, a startled look in his eyes.
They were interrupted by the sound of the front door closing, and Sarah shouting for David.
“In the conservatory,” he shouted back.
Sarah appeared clutching several bags, telling a story about how difficult it had been to find a parking spot, stopping mid-sentence when she saw them sat there.
“Ben. This is a surprise.”
“Isn’t it?” said David, smiling at her.
“So. How are you doing?”
“Oh. You know… Bit better today,” Ben said smiling.
“Good. Good. Shall I… David. Why don’t you go and make us a coffee.”
David stood up. “Milk, no sugar right,” he said, and Ben nodded. After he had disappeared into the kitchen, Sarah sat down next to him.
“This isn’t very fair, Ben.”
“Coming round like this. It’s been very difficult for us.”
“I’m not taking sides in this at all. But, you must know I’m still friends with Nicola.”
“Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“Umm. Not really.”
“Well, it just puts me and David in an awkward position. Maybe you should ring or text before popping around next time.”
Ben looked down at his feet before looking up as David walked in with a tray.
“Anyway, I’ve brought you something,” Ben said, looking up after David had passed round the mugs. He reached for the carrier bag, and handed it to David.
“What is it,” he said, looking at the newspaper-bound plates.
“It’s the plates you got us for our wedding present.”
“Oh,” said David, taking out a plate and unwrapping it.
“What’s this about, Ben?” asked Sarah.
“I’m finally clearing stuff out and thought people might like to have their presents back.”
“Are you trying to impress Nicola? Or send her a signal, or something?”
“Steady on, Sarah,” said David.
Ben sighed. “No. But even if it was like I was trying to send her a signal—it would be because I haven’t got any way of contacting her. All she left me with was a note saying that ‘she couldn’t do this anymore’. What does that even mean?”
“Is she okay?”
“She’s fine,” said David, Sarah looking at him with an open mouth.
“Is she with someone else?”
David hesitated. “Ben—you can’t come here and start grilling us about what Nicola is up to. She’s fine, upset like you are but fine, and that’s all you need to know.”
“She was—is my wife!”
“She’s still my friend,” said Sarah.
“Bitch,” muttered Ben under her breath.
“Are you going to let him speak like this in our home?” she said turning to her husband.
“Ben, maybe you should leave. I’ll give you a call during the week—maybe we can go for a drink sometime.”
“Yeah, right,” said Ben, leaving quickly, as the sound of an argument erupted behind him.
Sanderson for Portmeirion Porcelain Garden Three Tier Cake stand
The following day Ben woke after a good night’s sleep. He still had a whole day of the weekend left when he could try and return something else off the list. Running his finger up and down the list of presents he decided that maybe he should try someone from Nicola’s family. There were a clutch of cousins and siblings—her parents weren’t on the list as they had bought them a bed. I wonder if I should return that? he wondered, before discounting the idea on the basis he’d struggle to get it out of the door on his own.
He settled on the idea of returning something to one of her elderly aunties as the safest option. Her Aunty Jean had given them a Dyson Vac, which if pushed he quite wanted to hang onto until he had found a replacement. But Aunty Madge had given them a cake stand that he had never really liked.
Motown blasted out of his stereo during the hour long drive to her house, his hands tapping on the steering wheel in time to the music. As Ben pulled up outside he wondered what she had been told.
When she opened the door she looked at him a little unsure. “Can I help you?”
“Yes—I’m Ben. We’ve met before—at Dougie’s christening and Brian and Dot’s golden wedding. I was in the area and had something for you so thought I’d drop it off for you.”
She looked him up and down before standing to one side. “Well, you’d better come in then.”
They sat down in the living room and Ben fielded her questions about the weather and his views about the Leader of the Opposition, with one eye on the bric-a-brac that dominated the mantelpiece and coffee tables in the room. Her conversation was so casual that Ben began to wonder whether she was aware that Nicola had left him.
But after brief monologue about how lucky the royal family were to have found the Duchess of Cambridge, she turned to him. “Nicola was always a bit flighty with that army guy she used to go out with. With you—well. It’s sad what’s happened.”
He cleared his throat.
“But I don’t understand why you’re here. I suppose I’ve always found you pleasant and courteous, but I hardly know you.”
“I’ve come to return something,” he said, and drew the cake stand out of the box. “It’s what you gave us for a wedding present—I figured you might like it back.”
“You know, Nicola’s Mum said after the wedding that it wasn’t the kind of thing young couples wanted these days,” she said, looking at the image on the box. “But I’ve always liked Portmeirion. Did you use it?”
Ben thought hard. “We did a couple of times. When we had people round for birthdays. There was one time that Nicola tried to make these butterfly buns and… But you don’t want to hear stories about Nicola, really, do you?”
“If it makes you feel any better—and please don’t say this to Nicola, but you have much better manners than Joseph did.”
“Do you mean her ex, Joseph?”
She smiled at him but he sensed that he shouldn’t carry on.
“Well, I should be going. Things to do, you know.”
“Well, thank you for bringing it round. I’m sure I can find some use for it,” she said as they got up and walked towards the door. As he left he realized that he would probably never see her again, and wondered about Nicola’s other relatives—his family for the past five years—that he would never see again and to whom he would never say goodbye.
Kate Spade New York Darling Point Photo Frame
On Monday morning Ben felt a bit better. But although he had a little less stuff in his house every time he passed a photo of her round the house he started to get upset again.
His colleagues seemed a little stunned when he brought in the silver photo frame they had bought him for a wedding present. “Where did this come from?” one colleague asked, lifting up the post-it note saying “for whoever wants it” stuck over the “Mr and Mrs” embossed into the silver frame. Ben shrugged. He’d filed the wedding photo it had contained away, meaning it was one less picture of her he had to look at on a daily basis.
Having had to pass it all day every time he went to the printer, toilet or for a brew, Ben felt much better the following day when he got into work and found that it had disappeared. Bet it was the cleaner, he thought, although he wasn’t really bothered—he was just glad that it was gone.
On the Friday he surprised his colleagues by not only agreeing to go down the pub (“I think I’ve had enough being an anti-social bastard,” he said when it was time to go to The Brief Altered), and even flirted with the new girl from legal to whom he hadn’t previously said a word.
2x LSA Polka Metallic Wine Glasses, Set of 4, Multi
Saturday morning he was woken up by the sound of footsteps downstairs. He wondered if his Mum come to check if he was okay—the first couple of weeks after Nicola had first left she let herself in at random times to hoover, clean and check up on him—on one occasion he had come home from work to find a bolognaise in a slow cooker he didn’t even own.
Pulling his dressing gown on, he crept downstairs and found Nicola looking through the boxes he had left on the dining room table of the wedding list gifts he still had to return.
“Nicola! What the fuck are you doing here?”
“Ah. Ben, good morning. Sorry to have just let myself in—I guessed you’d be out as your car’s not here.”
“I went out with work last night and got a taxi home… Anyway what are you doing here?”
“I came to see if there anything I really wanted before you gave all our possessions away. Sarah says you were round at theirs last week.”
“They’re my friends. Well, I assumed they were—they’re certainly in your corner.”
“They’re both worried about you Ben. What the fuck were you doing trying to return the present they gave us for our wedding anyway in the first place?”
“What am I going to do with a dinner service?”
“I could have had it. They gave it to the pair of us.”
“Yes. US. Where is ‘us’ since you left ‘us’ three months ago? I haven’t heard anything from you. Total radio silence. I need to move on, Nicola, and returning the presents seemed to be the best way of doing it.”
“And how did Aunty Madge feel about your ‘therapy’?”
“Aunty Madge, right,” he said sitting down. “I decided that if I started with her I could build up to your parents, or maybe your sister. Find out if you’re okay.”
“So Sarah tells me. And how’s your new bloke? Is he why you left?”
She sat down onto one of the dining room chairs, placing her hands on the dining table. “Have you ever heard me talk about my ex, Joe?”
“Y-e-s. He’s in the army, isn’t he?” he said, sitting down opposite her.
“It was… it was always him for me, Ben. But we had a bad break up and he went on tour and then I met you. But he came looking for me this last time he came off tour and… And then, I realized… well. I should have told you. But I couldn’t face crushing you like that. Because I did love you.”
“Just not enough.”
“If you want to put it like that. I screwed up. But you’re a good man, Ben. You need to forget about me and move on.”
“I was, until you showed up. Is there anything here you want,” he said.
“Umm,” she said, casting her eye over the stuff that was arranged on the dining room table. “The wine glasses, if that’s okay—they came from my granddad.”
“Can I keep one?”
“I suppose so. I can live with seven.”
“It’s six actually. David broke one when we had that wine and cheese party.”
She smiled. “Yeah. I remember. Six is fine.” She took one from the box and handed it to him. “I’ll drop you an email sometime.” She walked to the door. “And good luck, Ben.”
He watched from the door as she walked down the driveway with the two boxes of wineglasses. He noticed that her sister was in a car parked outside the house and pulling a big grin he gave her a wave. He watched as Nicola got into the car, her sister turning on the engine and driving to the end of the road before turning left. He smiled to himself, watching as the wine glass he threw shattered on the pathway into shards too many to count. I can sweep them up later, he thought, and headed inside.
Copyright 2014 by James Holden