Well, that wasn’t quite how they’d planned it to be. True, their plans hadn’t been exactly finalised. They had both agreed that they didn’t want it to be anywhere posh. Alexandra, whom everyone called Lexie (she had once shortened it to Alexa, but the jokes about recommending a playlist or a garage had worn rather thin) and Oliver were united in their dislike of hovering waiters and paying the price of a small car for a plate with two slivers of carrot and one sliver of chicken. But they didn’t want it just to be at McDonalds or the local fish and chip shop either, even though the latter had a lovely dining area at the back and Lexie was good friends with the owner. Okay, it wasn’t one of those anniversaries that made headlines and called for elaborate gestures (irrespective of whether either partner really wanted them or not). But the 6 month anniversary of officially becoming an item was far from insignificant, especially as Lexie was a bit commitment-phobic, and some people said Oliver was “on the rebound”. Lexie thought that was an absolutely horrible phrase, especially as his wife (unlike her friend Sally she resolutely avoided the phrase his first wife) Molly hadn’t deserted him and they hadn’t fallen out of love, but she had been tragically killed two years ago in a fire.
Lexie liked Chinese food, and Oliver’s weakness was for steak. True, it wouldn’t be hard to find somewhere that served both, but they both knew that it was likely neither would be entirely satisfactory. Only the other day Lexie’s sister Pamela had spoken disparagingly of the new “eatery” as it insisted on calling itself on the outskirts of town, that had a menu the size of the list of terms and conditions on a mobile phone contract, and none of what it served was horrible or inedible or anything like that, but none of it was exactly appetising either. Lexie wondered in passing how she could possibly speak for every item on the menu, as she only knew about her own sea bass and her husband Mike’s mushroom risotto, but knew better than to enter into discussions like that with Pam, who was an absolute dear but did rather go on about things, and suspected she was probably right anyway.
They hadn’t moved in together yet, though they said they would when they found the right place and it was the right time, but they often spent days on end at each others’ properties, and at the moment, they were at Oliver’s house – a pleasant semi with bay windows and a view across to the park. She knew it had been where he and Molly had lived, and that didn’t bother her at all, though of course Lexie thought about it at times.
Lexie was the first to admit that the accident was entirely her own fault. She worked at the local council offices, and Health and Safety rules stated quite firmly that proper equipment was to be used at all times. A chair was not Special Equipment to stand on to change a light bulb. Still, ninety nine times out of a hundred (though of course it was not an exact science) you got away with it. Unfortunately for Lexie this proved to be the hundredth.
There were a few moments of high drama, though her colleagues couldn’t have looked after her better. Lexie tried to keep calm but couldn’t help feeling fear deep in her stomach when they put the neck brace on her (“just as a precaution and to keep you comfortable” they assured her). But it turned out there was no serious or permanent damage done, though she would have to rest up and be careful for a few days, and wear a brace to stop any unnecessary movements to the muscles she had sprained and wrenched.
She was supplied with some painkillers, but found, rather to her disappointment, that though they did reduce the pain to a bearable ache, they didn’t make her feel at all spaced out. She wouldn’t have minded feeling just the tiniest bit spaced out. It was the day of their 6 months anniversary and they had decided in the end to leave it to fate and make a last minute booking. But now she didn’t feel up to going out at all.
“Lexie, I know it’s not what we planned – not that we planned anything!” Oliver said, giving her a gentle hug, carefully avoiding any potentially achy bits, even though the brace protected her. “But it’s hardly the end of the world. I don’t mean to be unsympathetic, not at all, but …..” He didn’t go on, but Lexie had a good idea what he was thinking, and knew he was right. She’d had a nasty but minor accident that was entirely her own fault, and would be completely okay in a couple of weeks. Given what had happened to Molly, she realised that Oliver must have his own, still very painful, perspective on things, and that was a pain that wouldn’t be helped with a neck brace and painkillers.
“I know,” she said.
“And anyway – there’s no reason at all why we can’t still have a meal together – if you have any appetite,” he added, solicitously. In fact, despite the aches that still persisted, and despite her distress, Lexie realised that she did, indeed, have an appetite,
Though both of them had good intentions about it, neither of them was a particularly good cook and this wasn’t going to be like one of those stories where a delicious meal was prepared and produced as the great romantic gesture.
“Pizza?” he asked.
“Pizza!” she agreed.
So they ordered it from the Bella Venezia on the high street. One thing they did agree on was their favourite pizza. Three cheese with extra tomatoes and oregano. It arrived within the quarter hour, sizzling and tempting.
Lexie had been a bit worried that the brace might cause her problems swallowing, but after initial tentativeness, she discovered it was okay. They also opened a bottle of wine. Lexie told herself firmly it was only advised that you didn’t drink alcohol with the painkillers, and it wasn’t as if she were going to chug back a bottle of brandy. “You have the hardest head of any woman I’ve known, anyway,” Oliver said fondly, “Or man, come to that!”
“You say the sweetest things!”
Oliver was the kind of man who had no hang-ups at all about takeaway pizza, but still believed in putting it on proper plates. After he had washed them up he joined Lexie on the couch. “Well, it didn’t turn out that badly, did it?” he asked.
She was feeling considerably better, and it wasn’t just the pizza and the wine. They both knew, without needing to say it, that in fact they had probably enjoyed the night in just as much as they would have enjoyed the night out, though obviously not the reason why.
“Lexie, I want to show you something,” he said. Instinct told her this was not the moment to say something ironic or joking. Rendered temporarily unable to nod, she said, “I’m ready, love.”
He reappeared with a photo, the old fashioned kind, not one on a phone. It was of him and Molly, on their wedding day. She had seen pictures of Molly before, of course. There was one of her on the sideboard, and she would never have asked or expected Oliver to remove it. She wished she had known her – she was the sort of woman whom you could never call beautiful, or even conventionally pretty, but there was both a sweetness and strength in her face, an intelligence, warmth, and wit in her eyes, that were immensely attractive and endearing. In the photo on the sideboard she was dressed casually, in a green sweatshirt and jeans. But this was different. She was wearing a wedding dress that didn’t match the conventional “traditions” for such dresses, and was very simple – a pale blue sheath with a dark blue floral silk scarf draped over her shoulders – but you somehow knew had been chosen both with care and with utter spontaneity for a special and wonderful day. Likewise, Oliver hadn’t gone down the lounge suit and tails route, but his dark blue suite, almost the same colour as Molly’s scarf, though without the flowers of course, was smart and elegant. “You see that?” Oliver indicated a little trail of what seemed to be flowers in the left hand corner of the picture.
He smiled. “That’s Rosie, our niece. She was a bridesmaid. Of course we had pictures with the bridesmaids – just the two of them, Rosie and Molly’s goddaughter Yvonne – in them, and photos just of them, but she’s a cheeky little madam,” his face and voice glowed with affection, “And was determined to get in on everything.”
Lexie knew that this was the point when she was supposed to say that she would love to see a photo of Rosie and Yvonne, but somehow the words stuck in her throat. She knew she was being entirely unreasonable, and that there was really nothing wrong with him saying it, because after all it was the truth, but something about the words OUR niece instead of MY niece made her feel something that reminded her of the split second when she realised that she was going to fall, and that she could do nothing about it.
“She was so upset about her Auntie Molly – well, of course she was,” he said, a catch in her voice. “But they say kids are resilient, and maybe it’s true. And now I reckon she’s ready to be a bridesmaid again, though she’ll demand a totally different kind of outfit, she’s totally outgrown the frills and tiaras stage. Yes, Lexie. Would you like OUR nicee, Rosie, to be our bridesmaid?”
And all at once, it was as if the aching had subsided completely, and it was nothing to do with the painkillers, and her head was quite delightfully light, and it was nothing to do with the wine.