Having grown up in a household where much importance was placed on wise sayings and received wisdom, Camilla Claybourne was naturally disposed to be cynical of them. So she did not place any particular significance or dwelled fretfully on the phrase beware of what you wish for.
When she realised that her mother actually liked her new significant other, she was delighted and thought, at last. Not that it was absolutely necessary for her significant other and her mother to get on, but it undeniably made life easier. Camilla and her mother were close, with the special kind of closeness that comes with a widowed mother and an only daughter. It was a closeness that brought prickliness and friction with it, but made each party hate it when they were at odds with each other – which they sometimes were, as both Camilla and her mother, Elena, could be decidedly pig-headed.
Elena was always at pains to be polite and give the impression of tolerance and sweet reason. Archie was undeniably a lovely boy, but though she didn’t like to be rude about such matters, he’d been near the back of the queue when brains were given out, and for a very bright young woman like Camilla (Elena never actually introduced her as my daughter, the PhD, but had a way of making sure folk knew all about it) it might eventually get rather tedious. Lewis was highly intelligent, but his conversational skills – well, Elena had nothing against someone being quiet and reserved, but it would still be nice if they could talk about something apart from the weather without stuttering and blushing and fidgeting. She insisted that she set no great store by looks, after all, beauty was only skin deep and all that, but Ted – poor Ted – well he had a face so entirely lacking in character, so blobby, and of course it was only a silly superstition, but you couldn’t deny he had a weak chin. Connor on the other hand, was entirely too vain. Elena, who had a vocabulary sometimes flavoured by her taste for Regency novels, declared that he was a popinjay. She had no issues at all, none, with a man using skin care products and taking an interest in his clothes, but the man was so shallow.
Camilla determinedly took herself in hand and said that it wouldn’t be of ANY importance to her whether her mother took to Jeremy, whom everyone called Jem, or not. She couldn’t know if their relationship had legs, as her colleague Miranda put it, but she would be the one to decide. She would have preferred not to introduce him to her mother at all, but with a sigh, realised that was just not an option.
And then the miracle happened. Elena didn’t even remark on the fact that Jem (who had come to teach at the same school as her) was a few years younger than Camilla, and though she went through the motions of denying it, she still tended to believe in the old fashioned idea that the man should be older than the woman. Oh, a couple of months was neither here nor there, but more than that could be tricky. When Camilla had introduced her to Ivan, who was only a year younger, she had said, lightly, “Oh, my dear, don’t you think you’re a bit young to be having a toyboy?”
As it turned out, she’d had a bit of a lucky escape with Ivan, but that wasn’t the point.
Elena was devoted to Jem from the first minute she clapped eyes on him. “Jem by name and Gem by nature,” she proclaimed (and Camilla thought it was clever the first time she heard it). “I told you, didn’t I, darling? No point to settling for second best – the right one will come along, and now he has!”
Well, the age of miracles is not yet dead, thought Camilla, who wished she could have inherited her mother’s cheekbones instead of her taste for clichés.
When she and Jem announced their engagement, Elena was delighted, and waxed lyrical over the engagement ring – a simple one; a solitaire diamond surrounded by a little ring of turquoise. “I know he’d choose right,” she said, “Nothing cheap, but nothing flashy either!”
“Well, it was our joint choice, Mother!” Camilla pointed out, and she might have been a bit huffy about it, but she was so happy that she wasn’t going to make an issue of something that didn’t matter. And come to think of it, Jem had noticed it first. He had an eye for such things.
Elena never went so far as to compare him to Goldilocks – even she had her limits – but there was no doubt she thought he was just right. He managed both to be a committed feminist and a perfect gentleman, a great conversationalist and a good listener, take an interest in his appearance without being vain, and be polite and courteous with absolute sincerity and no self-compromise.
Though neither of them was especially religious in the conventional sense, they agreed that they wanted a church wedding, and specifically, at St Jude’s church, with the wonderful stained glass windows sending their rainbow lights across the aisle.
Everyone agreed that it was terribly sad that Jem’s parents couldn’t be at the ceremony. His mother was his father’s second wife, and he was old enough to be his grandfather, and in poor health. They lived in Canada now, and understandably, his mother didn’t want to leave him. But as Jem said, and Elena enthusiastically backed him up, they sent their very best wishes, and would be the last people in the world to want the day to be spoilt. “They’ll be with us in spirit,” Jem said, and Camilla couldn’t help thinking that was a slightly strange expression, as if they were dead, but Elena nodded with a solemn smile and said, “Indeed, Jem. That’s the way to look at it.”
Strangely, it was Irene, Camilla’s grandmother, who expressed some misgivings. Normally she had kept her nose firmly out of the matter of her granddaughter’s love life, but this time she said, “Milly,” (she was the only person who still called her that, and Camilla rather liked it) “I know this makes me sound like a hopelessly cynical old woman, but there’s something too good to be true about him.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake Grandma!” Camilla exclaimed, affectionately, but with a hint of exasperation, “At least Mother picks up on people’s vices – at any rate as she sees them – picking up on their virtues is a tad ironic.”
“I know, I know,” the old lady admitted. “And believe me, Milly, I wish you nothing but happiness and will be unfailingly civil to him – well, at any rate, as unfailingly civil as I am to anyone!”
“Heaven help him,” Camilla smiled, and all seemed to be well between them again. It was true, Irene was cynical, and it was a trait that Camilla had inherited and wasn’t sorry she had, but there were times to suspend it.
They had decided on a September wedding, and though that month can be grim as well as glorious, despite what the poets say, it didn’t let them down, and the bloom of late summer blended with the nascent mellowness of autumn, with air both warm and fresh. Her best friend Lucy had come round to help her get ready, and soon her Uncle Ben would arrive to walk her down the aisle.
“You look radiant,” Lucy said, looking very pretty herself in her maid of honour’s blue dress. Of course that was the kind of thing you said to brides, but looking at herself in the mirror, Camilla had to admit that she had certainly scrubbed up well. The simple ivory sheath set off her slight figure well, and her little cultured pearl tiara looked perfect on her shiny dark hair that Lucy had set in loose waves tumbling over her shoulders. She allowed herself the wistful thought that she wished her father could have been there, but then resolutely set her shoulders. She had only been three when he died, and she knew he would have wanted her to be happy. In his absence kind Uncle Ben was the best person she could have wished to walk her up the aisle. Still, I’ll be thinking of you, Daddy, she silently promised.
The strange, or perhaps not so strange thing was, that she noticed that Jem was in the kitchen before she noticed what he was doing, and her first thought was that she was surprised her mother had let him get away with that, as she was no stranger to the superstition about not seeing your bride on the morning of the wedding.
For a couple of seconds, she told herself that wedding nerves were making her imagine things, and she might even tell Jem about it, and they would have a good laugh.
That illusion of an illusion faded as soon as it had come. It was not nerves, and it was not her imagination. Jem and her mother were kissing each other, passionately, gazing into each others’ eyes, as if nothing else in the world mattered. The absurd little detail occurred to her that neither of them was dressed for a wedding; she stood there in her wedding dress and they were both in ordinary, casual clothes.
If she had been asked how she would have felt in such a situation (of course, an entirely absurd hypothesis) then she might have said she would have fainted, or felt sick, or even lashed out. She did none of these. She was surprised to realise she was still breathing.
They were reluctant to quit their embrace, and turned round to face Camilla with expressions of compassion, but not the slightest regret.
“Oh, sweetheart, I’m sorry, but we hoped you’d realise,” Elena said, “I always thought you were quite perceptive and it must dawn on you! I knew even before I found out about the dates. That was just confirming it. It’s our fault, isn’t it?” She turned to Jem, who was still clasping her hand, “It is. We should never have let it get this far. We hope you can forgive us!”
The phrase hell will freeze over first froze itself on Camilla’s lips.
“Your Daddy promised me he would come back,” Elena said, “And I believed him, and I kept the faith, and I waited. And now he has!”