The wedding was a small affair, at least by the standards of their families. Only thirty people had been invited, although plenty more had threatened to turn up anyway. As it was, one of the uninvited aunts- who was always one to take everything personally- had organised a separate gathering in a nearby function room, so the rest of the extended family could get together.
This had been mentioned to the bride and groom, and it was the groom Marcus who immediately decided that they should stop in there after the church.
“That’s a little mean, don’t you think?” his adoring fiancée Melody had asked. It had been her idea to have a small event, and to keep it mostly friends. As much as she loved her future husband, his family still intimidated her. None of them had ever said anything to her face, but there were more than enough whispers through the grapevine that they didn’t think she was good enough for him.
She ‘made him stupid’ by all accounts, which doubly hurt, given she had a degree herself. Sure it wasn’t from a top university or top grade, but she’d still made it through. Everywhere else that counted for something, just not with her future in-laws. By their standards it made her thick as two short planks. It was easier to avoid them altogether then have to sit through the glares and the comments behind her back.
Whenever family was mentioned though Marcus got this daft grin on his face, as he shared some highly amusing joke with himself. Though the conversation with his family was never easy he didn’t shy away, and he never answered back when they berated him for wasting his life and his potential. He’d been such a smart boy, they’d all moan, and now look at him.
“Nonsense,” Marcus had said. “It’s on the way from the church to our meal anyway, so we might as well drop by. I think it’d be ruder not to go, don’t you?”
And that had been that.
Now they were here though, outside the venue, and Melody was dreading it.
“We won’t stay long my love,” Marcus said as they got out of the car, despite the fact that she’d just heard him tell the driver that.
“But why are we even here? You don’t even like them, not really.” It wasn’t an active dislike, more just the fact that none of them had anything in common any more. The rest of Marcus’ family were high-flyers; heads of government departments, top-level academics, world-leading researchers. They all made the simple life that Marcus and Melody led look extremely mundane and benign.
“We’ll just say hello, and thank them for coming and apologise that they can’t come to the meal.” Marcus still had that grin on. It made him look like a five year old who’d stolen a tub of ice cream.
There wasn’t any more time to argue though, and now Melody just had to face the music.
When they entered the function room there was a round of applause and a cheer went up. Melody did her best to smile, even while she clung to Marcus’ arm and hid behind him. There was no formal greeting line, and instead they plunged themselves deep into the churning mess of fake smiles and hollow greetings.
It didn’t take long before Melody could hear the whispers behind them.
“He used to be so smart, and now look at him.”
“Wasting his life away with that woman.”
“Men- always turned by a pretty face.”
Of course whenever Melody turned all she saw was happiness and she could never pinpoint the voices. It had gotten so bad that she’d started to think she was imagining it.
“Don’t worry my love,” Marcus whispered in ear. The warmth of his breath reassured her more than the words.
“Don’t worry.” That damned smile was still there, so she did her best to mimic it, though hers felt flat. The sooner they were gone the better.
Marcus, on the other hand, was loving this. He could hear what was being said. That was the whole point of it being said after all. As far as his family were concerned he was a let down, and they would make sure that he’d never forget that. Over the years they’d tried to tell him to his face, but he’d just smiled and said that he was sorry they felt that way. Their thinking- presumably- was that they could scare away Melody instead, by making her think she wasn’t welcome. There was no risk of that however, not as far as Marcus was concerned.
Weirdly though, the bad talk was part of his self-confirmation. Everything they said was true. He had been a genius, a truly gifted child. All of his qualifications had been taken early, and he’d passed them with flying colours. He’d been at university well before he was allowed to drink, and the few years between him and his classmates had been telling. Every teacher and lecturer had expected him to go on to great things. A Nobel prize, some had said. Several doctorates, all of them had thought.
So he listened now, as they told him how his life had been so much better and more productive back then, when he’d done nothing but worked. When he’d not talk to anyone for days at a time. When he didn’t think he had enough time to eat because he’d lost two percentage marks on the last essay and therefore should be working harder. When he couldn’t sleep because that wasn’t doing something constructive with his time. When he used to collapse because his brain couldn’t relax enough to let his body get the rest it needed.
Some of his family started talking about his rebellious phase, and how’d he’d fallen in with a bad crowd and she’d been the cause of it. Of course Melody was the cause- it was how he’d first met her. She’d taken him to all the wrong places, like coffee shops and bars and cafes, where they’d discussed scandalous topics, like yesterdays TV or how the high street had changed over the years. From there it had only gotten from bad to worse, as Melody had introduced him to such debauched things as ‘dinner at a friend’s house’ and ‘cinema trips’ and ‘evenings off’.
With her he’d found a real life, one that didn’t hang on the assumption that he was better than everyone else.
The pair of newly-weds kept circling, until at last they came to Marcus’ older brother.
As the pair eyed each other up Melody wanted the earth to swallow her up. She had tried to get Marcus to invite at least his brother to the ceremony, but apparently Liam had refused. He’d wanted to show solidarity with the rest of the family, but when Marcus had passed that on he’d been laughing, as if it was the funniest joke in the world. However much she loved the man, she really wished he’d stop taking it all so lightly.
“How’s the job going?” Marcus asked with a smile.
Liam didn’t smile in return. “Fine. Lots of very crucial elements at the moment, of course. Plenty of things to keep me busy.” Too busy perhaps- Melody could’ve sworn he hadn’t been going grey the last time they saw him. There was only two years between the brothers, but as they stood face to face with each other now it wouldn’t have been a stretch to think that they were a generation apart. Marcus still had full cheeks and a thick head of hair; Liam was already thinning, and greying at the temples, and there were bags around his eyes and wrinkles on his brow.
If she’d been on better terms with him Melody would’ve asked if he was ill, yet she feared even that would be misinterpreted by the vultures.
“How goes… whatever it is you’re doing these days?” Liam asked without a glance at his new sister-in-law.
“Teaching. I’m a primary school teacher,” Marcus reminded. “And it’s going well, really good fun. The things children can come out with!”
All of a sudden Liam grabbed Marcus’ arm and pulled him close. Even stood next to them Melody could only just make out the words. “You’re wasting your life Marcus!”
“No I’m not.”
“But look at you! You were so smart, and now what do you have to show for it. A pathetic job that anyone could do and a bimbo on your arm. Is this really all you want?”
Marcus lifted his free hand to his brother’s shoulder and leant in closer. Subconsciously so did Melody. She needed to know what Marcus was thinking. She needed to know that he didn’t just think of her as a bimbo.
“Dear brother,” Marcus whispered. “Do you enjoy life?”
“On the day you can look me in the eyes and say that you do, then I’ll go back to your world. Until then, I’d rather be a happy drone than a miserable puppet-master.” And then, still with that ridiculous smile, Marcus clapped his brother on the back and pulled away. “It was good to see you again Liam. You should come and visit us, if you can make time for life amongst your work.”
Five minutes later Marcus and Melody were back in the hire car out front.
“He looked sick,” Melody said. “Your brother, I mean.”
“Of course he is. He’s not living. Merely surviving.”
Melody looked down at her hands, at the sparkling ring that had only been on for a few hours and still felt so weird. “Is that why you put up with me? So you can ‘live’?”
As Marcus took her hands in his she could feel the matching band on his finger. “No. I love you because you taught me the difference.”