“Are you sure you want to do this?” Pete said, leaning on the bathroom door and picking at his nails. “Everyone would understand if you gave it a miss.”
Claire perched in front of the mirror, scrutinising her make up. “My bloody lipstick’s bled. Doesn’t that only happen to old people?”
“Just blot it with a tissue. You look fine.” Pete crossed the bathroom and put his hands on Claire’s shoulders. His hands felt warm and strong.
She reached for a tissue, but Joe’s toiletries still sat on the vanity.
“Can you get me one?”
Pete’s hand skirted around the shaving cream.
Claire dabbed at the thin red lines running from her lips, seeking redemption further afield. Lips tell lies.
“They’re my friends too. I can turn up without him.”
Pete rubbed her shoulders. “Of course you can. It’s your first party in a while, of course you feel nervous.”
Claire shrugged Pete’s hands off her shoulders. “Christ, Pete, that’s a bit harsh. It’s hardly a bloody party.”
“Sorry, I…” Pete trailed off.
Claire lifted her chin. “Just so you know, I’m going to say my piece tonight. My truth.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Pete picked at his nails, smearing blood over his fingertips.
Giving herself a final look in the mirror, Claire adjusted her cleavage and smoothed her dress. Joe always said this dress accentuated her legs. The fabric didn’t hang quite the same now.
“Right, let’s get this over with then,” Claire said, heading for the door.
Claire dithered at the bottom of the stairs to the hall. She wiped her palms on her thighs, the sweat leaving streaks on the fabric.
Simon and Jun walked up the footpath, arms linked, chatting. She wiggled her fingers in a hint of a wave. Simon froze, and then dropped to tie his shoe, failing abysmally at pretending not to see her.
Pete rubbed Claire’s shoulder. “You’ve got this, babe.”
“I know.” Claire lifted her chin. “It’s all the other idiots who don’t. I feel like I need to write them a handbook or something. Here’s how to deal with your friend after a massive, life-changing ordeal.”
Pete chuckled. “It’d be a best seller, for sure.”
“It’s probably easier if we go round the back.” Claire pointed to the path running alongside the hall.
Joe kissed her for the first time on that path. He ran his hands through her hair and pulled her close, his lips whispering promises about always and forever. Lips tell lies.
Pete held the door open, and Claire peered inside. People gathered in groups scattered around the hall, talking, laughing, drinking. Balloons hung tastelessly from the ceiling in bunches, and two trestle tables sagged under the weight of asparagus rolls and other poor substitutes for happiness.
“His parents are here,” Claire said, backing into the foyer.
Pete pushed her into the hall. “What did you expect?”
Claire tried to turn, but Pete pushed her forward. “Let me go,” she hissed. People stared. A hush fell over the room. She swallowed, tasting bile.
Joe’s parents stood next to Reverend Tamati. The reverend spoke into Joe’s dad’s ear and gripped his elbow. Joe’s dad shoved it off and walked towards her. Joe’s mum shuffled in his wake. Claire rubbed the patch of white skin on her ring finger.
“Claire,” Joe’s dad said, giving a curt nod.
“How lovely to see you here,” Joe’s mum said, clasping her hands to her chest and ignoring Pete.
“I’m surprised you came.” Joe’s dad shoved his hands in his pockets.
“I’m not the one who did anything wrong.” Claire stared at her feet. The leather of her boots was pristine, not a scuff on it.
They stood for a moment, an uncomfortable silence hanging between them, before Joe’s dad nodded and shuffled his wife towards the snacks table.
“That could’ve been worse.” Pete shrugged.
“This might be.” Claire said, jerking her head towards three of Joe’s rugby friends as they staggered towards them. Reverend Tamati followed at a distance.
“Claire, you turned up.” Simon’s eyes were bloodshot, like he’d been crying.
She spread her arms and gestured to the people in the hall. “These are my friends, too. I can be here.”
Simon wiped his eyes. “Of course, it’s just that with everything, we wondered if you were feeling up to it.”
Ben leaned on her chair, his breath stunk of whiskey. Claire turned her head away. “Joe loved you,” Ben said, a sob catching in his throat.
“Not enough, obviously.” Claire swiped Ben’s hand off her chair.
The rugby mates pulled back, confusion written on their faces.
Jun bent down. “Claire,” she said. “You mustn’t blame yourself.”
“I don’t,” Claire replied, her voice louder than she intended. “I blame him.” A year’s worth of venom spilled into her words and another hush fell on the hall. Pete put a hand on her shoulder.
“He was drinking.” The pressure in her chest built, her truth trying to escape. “He lied. He bloody lied.”
A vein throbbed in Simon’s neck. “This is a bloody memorial, Claire. You can’t spout this crap here.”
“Joe loved you,” Ben said again, his sobs echoing around the hall.
“Claire, no one could’ve known what would happen.” Jun licked her lips. Lips tell lies.
“You could’ve.” She stared at the three standing before her. “You all knew he was drinking. You let him get in the car.”
Reverend Tamati stepped forward, joining the circle. “This isn’t the place Claire. If you can’t keep it together, you’ll need to go.” He put his hands on his hips.
“Why?” Claire answered. “Is my truth too uncomfortable for you? You come here to celebrate him, his life. Yet no one got away unscathed by his actions that night.”
“God works in mysterious ways,” Reverend Tamati said.
“What a copout. There’s nothing mysterious about it. Joe got wasted. Joe got in a car. Joe crashed. Joe died. Everyone suffers.”
Across the room, Joe’s mum clung to his dad and sobbed. Claire’s stomach twisted and she felt the bile rising. People stood in small groups, pretending not to stare. People were always pretending not to stare.
“You should go.” Simon held the door open.
“Far out Claire, it’s pretty stink to speak ill of the dead, you know.” Jun put her arm around Ben.
Claire moved towards the door. Pete rubbed her shoulder. She paused before the threshold and then spun around.
“I don’t just blame Joe. I blame all of you too. You could’ve stopped him. Taken his keys. Anything.” She wiped the tears from her cheeks.
When her truth finally emerged, it was so fragile, it came out as a whisper. “You could have at least told me he’d been drinking.”
Ben shuffled and Jun looked at the floor, but Simon held her gaze.
“You seem to have forgiven him.” Simon pointed to Pete.
“Don’t you remember? My brother wasn’t even there that night.” Claire shook her head and turned back for the door.
Ben and Jun stood with their arms around each other, crying.
“I’m so sorry,” Ben whispered.
“Sorry doesn’t cut it. You are not forgiven.” Her voice rose. “None of you are forgiven.”
“It’s time to go Claire.” The reverend spread his hands wide and herded them towards the door.
She crossed the threshold with Pete by her side, leaving her truth in the hall.
“You need to let it go, Claire. Get over it.” Ryan called after them. “It’s not like Joe got to walk away from this.”
Claire spun her chair around, pausing on the ramp. “Neither did I, Ryan.”