Alice and Bob danced the first dance, as was traditional. Of course I was there, chronicling this latest phase in my best friend's life. The two of them were good together, everyone said so and I had to agree. The love-light just shone from their eyes and their smiles were sickeningly sweet. How did I know this? You ask. I was videotaping their wedding. I didn't have to, they did have an official cameraman, but I had a self-appointed task to complete my record of Bob's life as a single man. The first song segued into the second song and the rest of the wedding party sashayed onto the dance floor and mums and dads partnered their opposite number along with maiden aunts and roguish uncles. I decided that I'd had enough and sat down, deflated.
"It's all right you know."
I turned round bewildered at the unexpected intrusion. The words had come from Alice's grandmother.
"What is?" I said tersely.
"It's all right to admit that you love him."
"Who?" I was completely at a loss to understand what she was driving at.
"Bob. It's all right if you're in love with him."
I laughed. She looked offended.
"I'm sorry. I'm being rude, it's just that you caught me off-guard. Yes, you're right, I do love him." The old lady looked smug and murmured something like 'I knew I was right'; then I lowered the boom. "But like a brother. I'm not in love with him." I reflected on the inadequacies of the English language in this respect. The Greeks had it right with their different sorts of love: Agape, Philos, and Eros. Philos that was the one: love between friends. I clarified myself to Alice's Grandmother. "I'm not gay you know."
She looked unconvinced. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend you."
"It's okay, I'm not offended, there's nothing wrong with being gay. It's just that I'm not." I smiled to show just how relaxed about it I was and wandered off to get a drink.
Another close call, I reflected as I downed the single malt that Bob had made sure was behind the bar especially for me. The peaty, peppery flavour of the Talisker burnt its way down my throat and I held my glass out for another double. Good old Bob, always looking out for me, I thought darkly. I looked up to see the happy couple weaving their way towards me. I pasted a welcoming smile on my face in a band-aid kind of way and waited for them to arrive.
Alice and Bob descended on me like two slightly drunken angels of love, dispensing bonhomie and goodwill to all and sundry. Alice draped her arm around my shoulder and tried to kiss me. I stiffened under her embrace and she desisted, rebuffed once more.
"Wish us luck." Bob oblivious to the by-play, as always, demanded his obligatory blessing from me.
"Good luck" I tried to smile and added, "both of you. I hope you'll be very happy together."
Alice flinched at my artificial tone and dragged him off. I stared after them and wondered again what the hell I was going to do when they came back from their honeymoon. It was then that I knew I was going to take the job offer from the 'States. That was the ticket, I thought to myself, several thousand miles ought to be far enough away to cope with it and maybe, just maybe, I would be able to forget.
The sounds of cheering drifted from the entrance of the hotel and then cries of "Charles, where's Charles?" floated into the ballroom. That was my cue. I fired up the camera and made my way outside to video them leaving for a fortnight's cruise in the Caribbean. So intent was I on filming them that I missed the fact that the bouquet had been thrown until I looked up and saw the flowers descending on me. Sometimes things just happen. I nonchalantly put out my hand and the bouquet just fell into place as if it were magnetically attracted. I looked up and saw Alice glaring at me. I shrugged an apology and handed the flowers to the girl next to me who looked dejected at having received them second-hand. Before anyone could say anything Bob grabbed Alice and dragged the garter from her thigh, a process that I didn't capture on video. Then he chucked it high in the air and I watched as several drunken teenagers fought over the bounty. With a final wave the car drove off into the night with cans and boots banging and thumping merrily behind it.
The 'phone rang as I entered my apartment. I searched amongst the chaos of the imminent move and eventually found it.
"Hey Charlie boy, wassup?" The raucous tones of Bob made me wince.
"Hey Bob. I only just left you, wa'd'ya want?"
"Sorry, I forgot to ask you. Alice says the cameraman has made a complete cock-up of the wedding video. I told her that you'd been filming all the time and she asked if she could borrow your tape. What do you say mate?"
"I suppose so." I stalled for time. "Look, the thing is, with all the packing I don't even know if I still have the tape."
"That's okay, it was just a thought. Tell Alice when she gets there. She said she'd be calling round after work."
Christ! She was coming to the apartment! I had to get away before she got here.
"Okay Bob, I'll see what I can do. No promises, mind you."
"Thanks mate. You're a pal."
"What are friends for?"
I chucked the 'phone on the settee and hurried back to the front door. If I was quick enough, perhaps I could be out when she called. I opened the door to see Alice with her hand stretching towards the doorbell. She screamed in surprise.
"Shit! Charlie, you scared the crap out of me." She stared at me confused. "How did you do that?"
"Open the door before I'd pressed the doorbell."
"Oh. Coincidence, I was just on my way out."
She forestalled me from trying to squeeze by her and pushed me back into the apartment.
"This won't take long." She closed the door behind her and leant against it, blocking my escape. I stood irresolute. "I'm determined to have this out with you. Why do you dislike me so much?"
"I don't dislike..."
"Yes you do. You won't spend a minute alone with me. My Granny reckoned that you were in love with Bob. I even asked him if you were gay and he laughed at the very idea. So, just what is your problem with me?"
"I don't have a problem with you." I prevaricated. It was an outright lie, but not the way that she thought.
"Yes you do. You've never liked me. I don't understand why, I've always tried to let you and Bob have time together. I've never come between you. Ever. I've never said, 'it's Charlie or me, decision time.'"
Her words knifed through me, scarring my soul. I tried again to deflect her ire. "I know, it isn't..."
"So why? I try and try and you keep knocking me back. If you weren't Bob's best friend I'd have given up a long time ago!"
"It's not like you think." It was futile. My words were lost in the tornado of her frustration. She continued as if I'd said nothing.
"I don't understand you at all. If you disliked me that much, you could've stopped Bob from marrying me, he listens to you, but you didn't. Everyone I talk to says you're a great bloke, but I never see that side of you at all." She subsided, bewildered, into silence.
"Leave it alone, please?" The plea in my voice disarmed her somewhat.
"Well don't say I didn't try. Again. Anyway I came to ask if I could borrow the video that you made?"
"I suppose so. If I have it here; it's probably been packed away."
While I was talking Alice had made her way to the stack of videotapes by the TV. I stared in anguish as she picked up one in particular.
"I don't think so. Is this it? The one with 'Bob's Wedding' written on the label?" She looked at me, resigned. "Couldn't you even bring yourself to write my name?"
I shrugged. "I've probably taped over it by now."
"Unlikely, as you've removed the record tabs. So let's see what we've got, shall we."
I stood paralysed as she pushed the tape into the player. The sights and sounds of the wedding service filled the room. The picture was surprisingly steady and the quality was pretty good, though I say it myself. The wonders of modern technology now make it almost impossible to make a traditional wobbly home video. Alice was thrilled.
"This is wonderful Charlie. Do say I can borrow it." Her delight at finding usable footage of her wedding had driven all thoughts of my behaviour towards her out of her mind. She turned to me. I stared aghast at the screen, which was now filled with her smiling face, in loving close up. Alice seemed surprised at my expression and turned to see what I was staring at, and then she became quiet as each shot I'd taken eventually ended with a close up of her. After minutes of this, Alice turned back to me in bewilderment.
"Of course you can borrow it. I'm sure your video company can make something suitable for public consumption out of it." I struggled to maintain my composure and added, "best not to let Bob see it though."
The homage to Alice continued to play on the screen and Alice stared at me in dawning realisation as I stood with tears rolling down my cheeks.
"Charlie. I had no idea. I thought you hated me." Her expression had softened as she saw me anew in the light of this revelation. It was this, more than anything else, which almost broke me. Finally I forced a few words passed the lump in my throat. Short, staccato bursts of speech were all that I could manage.
"Hate you? How could I? It's a self-preservation thing, really. Abject failure, though, as you can see. Still, I'll be in America soon. No point in crying over spilt milk." I stumbled blindly through the front door. "You'll see yourself out, won't you?"
I wandered aimlessly for a few hours and eventually I made my way back to the apartment. To my relief it was empty. All that was left was the faint smell of her perfume and a post-it note on the TV.
'Thanks for the tape. Alice.'
I lifted the note from the screen and kissed it gently before letting it fall into the waste bin. Christ, it was all such a mess. I looked about me, there wasn't anything I needed here; the removers would stick it all in storage. I'd just have to pay them the extra to do the packing that I had planned to do.
I couldn't face another night here.
Time to cut myself adrift.
I'd had my leaving party today; there was nothing else I needed to do. I switched off my mobile and dropped it into a convenient box. I'd have to buy a new one in the 'States anyway.
I spent my last couple of nights in the UK at a hotel near Heathrow airport. I rang everyone who mattered and told them what I'd done; making up some story about how I couldn't face all the packing and told them not to worry, I'd be in touch as soon as I was settled in America.
"Hey, Chuck, how ya doin'?"
I looked up to see Herb standing in the entrance to my cubical. Herb was a nice guy, concerned for me. He'd made it his mission to cheer up the 'English guy' and, to be fair, he'd succeeded in no small measure. Herb was a lot of fun. I smiled up at him.
"Hey, Herb. I'm okay. How 'bout you?"
Herb seemed unsure of himself. This was a surprise. Fridays were his day for setting me up with another of his long string of ex-girlfriends. He wasn't normally so reticent. I decided to help him out.
"Come on Herb, spit it out. Which one of your harem am I being fobbed off with this weekend?" I grinned widely to show that I was making a joke. I had to be careful; early on I'd got myself into trouble a few times when my ironic comments had been taken at face value. I tried not to be patronising about it. I liked America and Americans. It was refreshing to have people take you at your word and not assume that there was a hidden meaning in everything you said.
"Oh it isn't that. Well it is, but not like you think." I waited, patiently, for Herb to organise his thoughts. It was a waste of time trying to hurry him along. Eventually he got all his ducks lined up.
"A new girl has started at Marcie's agency." Marcie was his current girlfriend; she worked in a medium-sized ad-agency.
"She's English too, like you." I bit my tongue and stifled a flash of irritation. This seemingly universal, national determination to follow very train of thought through to its logical conclusion was occasionally maddening. Sometimes it wasn't necessary to draw a map, sometimes just the signpost at the start of the path was all that was required, guys! Herb carried on.
"Marcie says she's kind of sad too - the girl I mean. We thought that we'd make up a foursome and go out. See if we can cheer you both up." His expression became serious. "You don't talk about it, but my 'harem' tell me things." He smiled self-deprecatingly, "well they tell Marcie anyhow and she tells me. We know that there was someone back home that hurt you. A lot. You have to let it go Chuck. We're your friends, we all think you're a great guy and we hate to see you unhappy."
I stared at Herb in amazement, "Yeah, well, ummm." I tried again. "Thanks Herb, I'll try, OK?"
Herb's accustomed cheerful expression replaced the strangely serious one that had settled in its place when he was making his speech to me.
"Great. We'll pick you up at seven."
"Thanks. See you tonight."
Herb wandered off and I turned back to the code I was writing. I gave up and wallowed in thoughts of Alice. I realised with a shock that I'd not spoken to Bob in months. I wasn't even sure if I knew his address. We'd both moved several times, for one reason and another, and I was certain that I'd managed to miss a change of address notification, along with a whole load of other post too. My sister still was hardly talking to me after I'd managed to miss her engagement party. His mobile should still be working, though, and I pulled out mine and dialled his number from memory.
"The number you have dialled is no longer in use."
The recorded message played over and over. Shit. This was the third time I'd dialled the number. The first time I'd got this message, I'd assumed that I'd misdialled and the second time, I'd found his entry in my 'phone's number list. This next try, I'd checked the number in my organiser and then double-checked each digit as I dialled it. Damn. He'd changed his 'phone. Now I'd have to pester his parents for the new one. I checked the clock, too late to ring them now. Bob was okay with me ringing at odd hours, but Bob's parents would assume that any call this late would be bad news, so I resolved to ring them tomorrow, first thing, when it would be a more reasonable hour for them.
"See ya later, alligator!" Herb parodied Arthur Hailey, or whoever it was, as he left to go home. I waved vaguely in acknowledgement and refused to be drawn into the next line. I fiddled some more with the coding and saved it away. A quick 'make' showed that I hadn't completely broken it with my new stuff. A couple of warnings and several-hundred error messages flashed by, but a forgotten declaration and a couple of missing semicolons had caused them all. This was soon rectified and a clean compile and link was the result. I resolutely put off testing the changes. Next week was early enough, especially as I was about a week ahead of schedule anyway.
As I left the building, my thoughts turned to the 'sad English girl' that Herb was foisting me onto. I hoped that I wasn't going to make things worse for her. The dislocation caused by moving to America had been strange; the place was at once familiar and deeply odd. Several things still struck me as slightly humorous. I mean, they liked to call themselves the 'Land of the Free' but I'd never seen so many signs forbidding things, and the drinking rules! I shook myself crossly, telling myself to stop carping. Oh well, it would be nice to see someone from home with whom I could compare notes, maybe.
My apartment was big, much bigger than the one I could afford in England. I slopped around getting ready. All too soon, the entry phone sounded. "I'll be right down." There was some garbled sound at the other end, which I assumed was some sort of agreement and I dashed out of the door. Herb was waiting for me by his car. I leant through the window and gave Marcie a kiss on the cheek.
"Hey Marcie. You're looking great. When are you going to dump Herb and go out with someone who will really appreciate you?"
Herb smiled indulgently at this. "Stop yo messin' with ma woman an' git in. Yo English sonofabitch!"
We laughed a little, all of us were happy to be going out and happy with the weekend ahead of us.
"So where are we going?"
"Marcie knows this place that does killer ribs."
"As much as you can eat and the sauce is just out of this world!"
"Great. When do I meet my 'blind date'?"
"At the restaurant. It's only a block away from where she lives. I'm calling her now to let her know that we'll be there in a few minutes." She stopped as someone picked up at the other end.
"Hi it's me, Marcie."
"Yeah, 'bout ten minutes."
"See you there, then."
"Yeah, he is. Bye!"
I wondered about the other side of the conversation. I was intrigued in spite of myself. I settled back in my seat, I'd find out soon enough anyway.
Marcie saw her first. "There she is!"
I looked over to where she was pointing. Meanwhile she waved the greeter away and we started towards the table where the mysterious English girl was sitting. Her shoulders were bare and her hair was up in a chignon. From the back she looked absolutely gorgeous. I kept my eyes downcast I as I rounded the table determined to wait until I was fully in front of her before...
"Oh my God! Charlie?"
The achingly familiar tones lanced through my heart and I ran from the room, unable to face her. There was a cab rank nearby - the restaurant was popular enough to warrant one and, surprisingly this early in the evening, there was a single cab parked there. His window was open.
"Are you working?"
"Yeah, where you wanna go?"
I gave the address of a bar downtown and sat back in the seat and tried to compose myself. Shit. What was she doing here? And alone? Where was Bob? Now I really had to 'phone his parents. For now it was time to get drunk, really drunk, or I wasn't going to be able to sleep tonight.
The bar was quiet and the barkeep was surprised to see me. She set me up with a malt whisky without me asking. No ice. I smiled at this; I'd spent many an evening extolling to her the virtues of single malts drunk without ice.
"Charlie, this is a surprise. We don't usually see you until much later." Then she saw my expression. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I've just had a bit of a shock, that's all. Nothing that a few shots of the old 'water of life' won't cure."
"Sure. Just don't overdo it will ya? I really, really hate cleaning out the bathroom when folks are sick in it. Okay?"
"Okay, Belle. I hear you. Just enough to let me sleep."
I sat and sipped my whisky and tried to forget the vision of her face before me. It was a waste of time. Eventually I gave up and let myself remember how she'd looked. There was shock, of course, but there was also something else, she'd seemed almost happy to see me. And there was an indefinable air of sadness about her too. I swallowed the rest of my whisky and coughed as it caught the back of my throat.
I stayed for couple of hours, but the whisky wasn't helping so I said goodbye to Belle and left. It wasn't far to my apartment, nor was it too late and there were plenty of people about so I decided to walk. As I neared my apartment I began to feel the effects of the whisky, so I concentrated resolutely on staying upright and getting into my apartment.
I waved at the doorman in acknowledgement of something that he'd said in greeting. I was starting to feel very ill. All that whisky on an empty stomach was stupid. I knew I was going to be sick and I really hated that. I consoled myself that it wouldn't be much and at least I would feel better in the morning. Then I remembered a routine by Billy Connolly, a Glaswegian stand-up, about 'diced carrots' and I started to laugh. I was still laughing and reeling drunkenly as I finally got my key in my apartment door and staggered into my apartment.
"Hello, Charlie." She was here. Here in my apartment. Shit. My gorge rose and I pushed passed her to the toilet.