d w a r d   K e m p



word - image - story 


The opening chapter of a novel, provisionally called 'The Life of X'


Juliet’s Wedding

            A city fit for housing people to make money.    Homes and yards amongst the high risers, even the wealthiest crammed beneath the sky.  In one a wedding fraught with nostalgia: shored up sentiment of the landlost, the dances in the blood not in the bone.  Summer late afternoon and the bridegroom’s very drunk.  The bride is getting drunker so to bear what lies ahead.

            A bearded man sits apart.  Nobody knows him but no one knows that somebody does not know him.  After so many toasts the bride tumbles into his lap.
            ‘That’s alright,’ he says in a tone so absolute that she must stay because for her nothing at all is alright.
            ‘You’re Johnny’s friend,’ says she, who does not know Johnny the best man who’s travelled widely and lived wildly who would have brought this bearded stranger Johnny would do that.
            ‘Johnny is my friend,’ says he inflecting up as if this were not his mother tongue or the affirmation were a question.
            ‘Johnny’s wild, yeah’ she says where Johnny lurches glasseyed with the groom.
            ‘So is your husband,’ he says observing the nerves in her neck, in her neck behind the ear.    
            ‘My husband,’ a voice says unused to the word to having/being had by a husband as when the priest said man and wife and she wondered what man and why not woman but she only laughs half for him and half elsewhere and seeing the condensation running down the flute onto his thumb says, ‘Yeah.  Can I refresh you?’ meaning the glass meaning I think I am over my head meaning I wish had not drunk so much.
            ‘Thank you.’

            The dance goes by.  The husband grabs his wife her thin strong body in his arms bearlike around her, feeling himself a warm animal to protect her, her making him feel this: his nose in the cleft of her neck his groin in her belly his clothes wet with dancing. He kisses her and strokes the little pearl buttons of her dress and she sways with him a time clinking two glasses.    And then the dance rolls on, his arms are round another and she wonders if he ever knew that it was her.

            ‘I’m sorry,’ she says when she finds him again, against the parapet beside the shadow of the bridge, ‘they’ve run out.’
             ‘No worry.’ 
             For he has a bottle and a glass and the bottle is better than the bottles her parents bought, the bottles that have run out as everything runs out and for a moment she thinks it would be romantic standing here beside the river with a bearded man and two glasses of champagne as late afternoon turns to evening and the sun glisters on the awning on the clear plastic and the white plastic the two different glisters and the bridge lights up under a lucid sky   but there are three glasses and two have cheap white wine and only one champagne for it is not that her life lacks romance but the running out does matter to her.  So she tips one glass into the river and fills it from his bottle, feeling like the biggest dare on this her mother’s biggest day (but only after she has done it and not while) and she smiles half for him and half for herself and he says:
            ‘Did your mother never tell you not to waste stuff?’ so she knows she is understood and says, ‘Now I am married I can do what I like,’ thinking if my life were different I would have met you before today.

            Which is when her father comes near.   He too’s drunk but being sober and seeing the bottle is snared between his thirst for good champagne and for money which he believes should be the same thing but seem somehow always to be opposites.
            ‘Ah, you found the good stuff,’ he says with a smile which is nearly not a smile because he wants to say w’ere saving that for later, for the cake but when he says such things it usually makes a scene, so he offers his glass in gesture tighter than he’d wish. ‘We haven’t met.’
            ‘This is Johnny’s friend.’
            ‘Ah Johnny,’ wondering once more what the wide world holds for his little girl, what lies he who has always tried to keep from her keep her from the truth, ‘where did you meet Johnny?’   the truth that love like things runs out
            ‘Here,’ says Johnny’s friend, trying to keep truthful for in truth he has not met Johnny before today.
            ‘A rare sighting,’ replies the father surprising his daughter and later himself: he too did not meet Johnny before this yet speaks like an old comrade, as if he were a friend not his but maybe of his son.   ‘If you’ll excuse me,’ gesturing towards his wife, ‘my wife. Pleasure to meet you.’
            ‘Yes,’ and goes thinking no one knows how to talk today and that is what my father always said.

            The man watches him go with warmth and sorrow and turns to see her staring up at him as once she stared up at her father when he was all the wild world to her.
            ‘My father,’ smiling all for him now and dancing in her heart for the dare she will not do; at which his face fades and the bright lit eyes go pale and she yearns to make them burn again but hardly knows him to know how so asks, ‘Where are you staying?’
             ‘I don’t know,’ he replies.  Then not to appear threatening, ‘I only just got in,’ then turning slightly to her with the wind blowing his hair up into horns and the bridge two horns behind, ‘I could sleep in your bed,’ waiting for her to startle before,  ‘You won’t be needing it.’
            She wanted to smile because she likes him but dislikes the joke maybe he is foreign which would excuse it perhaps she has misunderstood and after all it’s true: a truth she wants to distance so thinks of this bearded man laid out in her pink room his boots beyond the coverlet and smiles saying, ‘I don’t think you’d fit,’ beginning to think maybe this is it this is what I could never do which all the girls could do it’s not so hard you simply need the right person to practice on the boys she went with wouldn’t practice they wanted to go all the way right away and when she wouldn’t they went. So now she wants him to say something like ‘I can curl up very small’ or maybe ‘You speak like one who knows’ but instead he says:
            ‘Do you know a good hotel?’ and she she doesn’t know any hotels will he think the less of me will he think me dull so says:
            ‘The Paramount is a good hotel.’
            ‘You’ve stayed there?’ perhaps as if he were impressed.
            ‘No, but I’ve had tea.’
            ‘Is the tea good?’
            And breathing once more she says:  ‘Yes, very.’
            And he says: ‘Then it is a pity you cannot join me there for tea tomorrow.’  
            ‘We catch a plane at ten.’
            ‘Another time.’
            ‘I would like that.’ The adventure slipping away.
            ‘It must be time to cut the cake,’ she says, moving apart, expecting him to follow and when he doesn’t she’s too far gone to come back so shrugs and says, ‘Enjoy the party’ and he raises his glass.

            Meanwhile her mother of course is in despair.
            ‘Juliet,’ calling in the ancient music of rebuke, the old mother’s song that tells of fast streets and high trees and china shops and pills hidden under knickers:  ‘Juliet.’ shall I learn the trick of this tune to sing to my daughter learn it without learning shall I will I    
            The cake is like the gearing of a clock or a bicycle getting to the smallest gear for the top where erect they stand the dead eyed ones hand in hand cut from one plastic so they can never go astray, so one can never be flat on his face in the crisp as icing linen while the other tries to soothe her mother.
            And it is the bridegroom and it is that damned Johnny and it is that family his clan their tribe, and it is her of course, headstrong and born to bring grief under this roof, she who never cried as a child bound to be the child of many tears and must have her way mustn’t she, and it is ‘Frank, why don’t you do something?’ Her father like some dull bull, all the history of vendetta come to a fidgeting of fingers a rubbing like the dumbshow for money; the rest all looking like their shoes don’t fit.  She wonders why she cannot cry like this in cataracts of mascara, why she has never learnt this trick or maybe that too is to come with children and with marriage and with and thinks of the photos of her parents’ wedding, mother happy as a doll and now her thin fingers clasping the blackened napkin and the flesh all gathered into the hairline.  She feels something on her own neck like a man’s hand, her ribs racked against the corset maybe I could faint maybe I could do that but it is the bearded man in her mind’s gaze, his quizzical and bright lit eyes and there is unheard laughter in her heaving gasp which draws a mother’s bones about her shoulders.
            ‘My baby my baby my poor baby.’
            Maybe it is that ‘poor’, maybe it is the heavy scent, maybe it is the stranger - gone she sees in a glance and only a glass on the parapet to tell the tale - but her back straightens from that place which is damp with the sweat of the day and not knowing what to do with her mother’s face she brushes back the loose hair as she has seen in films and for a moment she is about to kiss her but she cannot think where so she heads indoors perhaps saying ‘Let me talk to him,’ but she does not know if she did.

            They are all in the white guest room (the room where they could sleep now as a man and his wife if they were visiting) in a deposition scene: the body a crumple on the coverlet, the father in the corner stiller than a clothes’ stand, the mother seeking out the shapes of anguish; Johnny plucks and prods at him like the raven at the feast and there is vomit and probably there is urine too.     They do not look at her as she enters because she is a part of them now and cannot cause embarrassment.    The sound is sobbing she realises when she gets close enough to smell him.
            ‘Ric,’ her hand on the sad mountain of his back, ‘Ric love, please.’
            ‘Hey Ric.’ This Johnny who dances still as if dancing were the answer.
            She looks up at them, Veronica chewing on her lip as though it were her only meal of the day and Gil faded to a shirtfront and cufflinks in the shadows, and when she looks back he is looking up at her with eyes of such confusion and such fear that she wants to take something very hard and very sharp and do them a lot of harm for all the hurt that they have done him, and she knows in that moment that she cannot and never will for all their long life together love him but she goes into the bathroom and moistens a towel and returning wipes the vomit from his mouth and the lipstick from his cheeks and the tears from his eyes for she knows that she must kiss him and places her lips to his, and at once there is his tongue like a blind and suckling creature a kid or a lamb or a pup, and she opens her mouth to it to the drink and to the bile, kneeling there between his thighs feeling his heat near her belly, opening her mouth wider to him taking him in half-wanting him (maybe more than half) to take her here now on the coverlet with his parents standing by, as if that might be the way to get through, and she is sure he would for he is little more than animal now, his soft hand hard on the back of her head until his mother says ‘Shall we go downstairs,’ (perhaps prefaced by a slight cough or maybe that is the father and it comes after) and in that instant he is again their child and pulling back looks at her with his eyes gone away and she straightens out his rumpled front and for some reason pats him on the belly and then she slips her arm through his and down they go into the sunset.
            A fine drizzle falls now like perspiration and a patter of applause lifts from the unburdened guests almost as if now they were really married now they had negotiated this; all of them standing there with their second third or fourth shots at happiness.   As they cut the cake two right hands wrapped around the hilt his left is on her backside as if this is the naughtiest thing he can imagine.  The blade slides down through layers of white and tallow into the red and brownish heart to the chink of good champagne    - another glance but now the glass is gone - and after the first and ceremonial cut the cake is carried off for rationing. 
            What she wants is to talk to Johnny about his bearded friend to find out something to satisfy something before something happens, but Johnny is entrancing Mary with tales of Africa, and she wonders if Johnny knows that Mary is more interested in Africa than Johnny Mary who would make a good wife if only she liked men.  Her head is oh so clear now like on a hillside or the seashore, her hand tight in Ric’s (or his in hers) and she feels like floating with only his hot palm to hold her because for the first time in her life it is clear that nothing is clear, that the world is wild and wide and she is alone in it and things and people and love run out in it and it only matters if you let it matter like it all so matters to her mother.   Then as Mary moves away from Johnny she places her arm on Ric’s arm in order that she may go to ask Johnny to talk to Johnny who knows so much about the wildness of the world, but first she sees her father tapping at the crystal of his platinum plated watch and knows that she will have to go without knowing.
She stands at the mirror in her going away garb every garment clean from the  the inside to the out. Pale blue in the pink room.  I am twenty one she thinks and I am beautiful and I am a virgin and how did this come to be and then tomorrow I will still be twenty one but no longer a virgin. She can see from the window that Johnny and the children are making up the car with cans and ribbons and spray and she looks down at the bouquet on the dressing table and remembers leaping with a yelping leap at her aunt’s wedding and how the bouquet slipped from her fingers into Hannah’s hand rollypolly Hannah who in a year found a husband rollypolly as herself, and how she grazed her knee and tore the satinette and wept the long car-ride home while her parents bickered and the trees went by in the sunlight.  She tears a page from her diary and with the little silver pencil writes ‘Mary’ and wraps the gold-edged paper round the stems of the bouquet.
            When she opens her door he is standing on the landing and he looks at her.  He looks so proud and happy that she feels proud and happy too for him and warm like the whole world is possible and for the first time, no not the first time the first time with him that day she smiles and says,  ‘You go on down, no you go on down.  I need to pee. Go on.’ Then she watches him go down the stairs right down the stairs and into the front not once turning back to look at her, and once he is gone she turns and goes the back way down and out into the back alley and from there click clack click clack up onto the slipway to the bridge and standing a little back and a little cold perhaps in the evening air she waits until she sees a vacant cab.  It is not until they reach the kerb outside the Paramount hotel she remembers she has left her new purse lying in her room on the pink bed, so she gives to Nasil el Wadir number 2479 her diamond engagement ring.