“I suppose you two will be next down the aisle,” Jessie smirks.
“Jessie! We’ve only been going out for two months!” Leah shuts her down quickly, but she glances at me, gauging my reaction.
“Sorry! Did I embarrass Luke?” Sounds like she hopes so. “But you have to admit, you’re moving pretty fast.”
“No-one else has mentioned it,” says Leah. She still sounds annoyed.
“Well the rest of the family are so stuffy, they wouldn’t. I’m the only one who speaks my mind!” I want to speak my mind but manage to hold back.
Leah’s cousin Jessie is one of those loud-mouthed, “all in good fun” types. I can’t complain that she’s here. Of course she had to be invited to Leah’s brother’s wedding. But there’s something about her I really don’t like.
“The piano player wasn’t great, was he?” Jessie goes on.
“A bit amateurish,” I suggest. Shit, that sounded pompous. Every so often my insecurity gets the better of me and something like that comes out. Later at the reception I’ll be tripping over doctors, lawyers and university professors, and I’ll probably start embellishing my account manager job until I sound like a chartered accountant. Leah’s family always make me nervous, even though they try so hard not to. That just makes it worse. It shows the contrast between their effortless upper-middle class manners and…me. In my head, anyway.
“I’ve heard you play the piano, Luke” says Jessie.
“A bit…” I try to hedge. On our first date, after hearing that Leah’s whole family was musical, I had given in to a crazy urge to impress her. I told her I was a serious piano player who played at a weekly improv night with skilled jazz musicians. I might even have mentioned a few famous names who sometimes dropped in. In reality I had taken lessons as a kid but hadn’t played in years. For all I knew, I couldn’t play at all any more.
“Maybe you could help me out then,” she says. Why did I feel that the sweeter Jessie sounded, the less I could trust her?
“I’ll try,” I say, trying to sound accommodating, though I really don’t feel like helping Jessie with anything.
“Well, my boyfriend Tom – I think you met him once? – has a band and they’re pretty good. They play in some of the bigger pubs, they’ve even got a gig lined up at the Roadrunner. But Jim, the piano player, is a bit…Unreliable.”
Leah mimes smoking a joint. I laugh mechanically but my brain is rushing ahead. I can see where this is heading…
“I was boasting a little bit about you. I hope you don’t mind. I told Jessie about your piano playing,” Leah says, caressing my arm. I usually feel childishly proud when she touches me in public, but this time I don’t notice. My muscles are starting to tense up. I had never expected my “piano-playing” to be mentioned again.
“I was telling Jessie how good you are, but I never get to hear you play because you don’t have a piano right now.” Yeah, now or since I was twelve! I’m really starting to worry now. What did they say about white lies?
“So I was thinking, maybe you’d like to take Jim’s place?” says Jessie.
“Take his place how? In a practice or..?”
“Oh no, not just a practice,” says Jessie sweetly. Too sweetly. “Tom’s band is supposed to be playing at the wedding reception tonight. This wedding reception.”
Oh shit. This had got really bad, really fast. Suddenly I feel as if I’m going to vomit. I take a few deep breaths to steady myself. I miss a few seconds of the conversation.
When I tune in again, Jessie is still talking, faster and higher. “Jim has just flaked out completely today. He’s gone AWOL. He isn’t answering his phone…”
“Has anyone checked his house?” I suggest, seeing a tiny flicker of light. Which Jessie immediately snuffs out.
“Of course. No one home. Tom called me just before we all went into the church. He’s going crazy. He was begging me to find someone else.”
“Couldn’t you find anyone?” I ask. Surely somebody else could help?
“I’ve asked everyone I could think of, but no-one can help!” She’s almost wailing now. “It’s too short notice. I hate not being able to help Tom. Then I remembered Leah said you play piano, and you’re here anyway…”
I’m getting desperate now. They must be wondering why I’m resisting so much. I’m losing good guy points as we speak. But every decent excuse is a dead end, every avenue of escape is closed. I’ve boasted that I have the technical skill, and, thanks to my inspired “improv evenings” lie, I can’t even pretend to be one of those shy geniuses who won’t play in public. I’m breathing faster and faster. Soon Leah is going to notice. Why can’t I think of some excuse? If I’d said I was a trumpeter or something, I could say I don’t have time to go home and get my trumpet in time. But of course there’ll be a piano there waiting for me.
“I don’t know…” I say. Jessie looks at me. There’s something hard and merciless in the look. It’s too serious for the situation. Yes, it’s a big problem for her boyfriend to lose his piano player on the day of a gig. But she’s looking at me as if she holds me personally response. As if she hates me.
I can’t understand why she’s pushing so hard. I’ve only met her a few times and she’s insisting I play in her boyfriends’ band, with no warning? It should be obvious that I’m not keen. Why hasn’t Leah noticed she’s being rude. I suppose my reluctance doesn’t make much sense to her, since she innocently believes I’m such a great player. And why wouldn’t she believe it? What kind of idiot lies about their piano skills when they’re 27 years old?
I’m starting to feel as if there’s something more behind Jessie’s insistence. She’s making me feel like trapped animal. I’m actually starting to think she’s out to get me. I know it sounds paranoid. But somehow – maybe just an animal instinct for danger – I’m getting an inkling that she knows I’m a fraud. It wouldn’t be too hard to find out, probably. If she had ever run into any of my family or friends, she could easily know the truth.
But why is she trying to force me to come clean? Does she have something against me? I’m not the type to collect so many enemies I can’t even keep track. I’m positive I’d never seen Jessie until I met Leah.
“You’re not giving me much notice…” I’m still trying to find a way out. The more I struggle, the more Jessie is enjoying it.
“I know it’s a lot to ask. We wouldn’t ask except it’s Stefan’s wedding…” Jessie is turning on the charm now.
“Come on, Luke, you go to an improv session every week. You play jazz with people you’ve never met!” Leah says. “This should be easy for you!” She’s looking at me with a mixture of impatience and suspicion. This is a whole new side to me – obstructive asshole. Why am I making them beg for a simple favour which should be easy for me? More than easy – a treat, even, for an improv jazz cat like myself.
Jessie is relentless. “If you can do jazz improv, you can definitely do this, Luke. It wouldn’t be nearly as hard as what you’re used to. Just a few wedding standards. “Sweet Caroline, Don’t Stop Believing…you know the type of thing.”
“I would do it myself, but they don’t need another guitarist,” Leah says. I can tell she is disappointed in me. “But if you really don’t want to…”
I hate the way she’s looking at me, as if I’ve really hurt her. She’s never looked at me like this before. I suppose I can’t complain. My stubbornness doesn’t make any sense from her point of view. She thinks I’m leaving her in the lurch, and ruining her brother’s wedding reception for no good reason. The only alternative is to come clean. But I just can’t do it. She would probably dump me on the spot. I couldn’t blame her if she did. Yes, it’s a small lie, but if I can’t be honest when we’ve only been going out for two months… She’s bound to wonder what else I’ve been lying about. She might even suspect me of seeing other girls. I decide to string things along for a while, and maybe something will turn up. Maybe I can track down Jim myself before this evening…
“OK, I’ll play,” I say.
I stand on small makeshift stage behind the keyboard, watching the other band members get ready. I spent the last few hours desperately trying to track Jim down, but none of the guests seemed to know him. Eventually I cracked and asked the guitarist for his number, making up some excuse that I wanted to invite him to the next improv night. I called and called, and left texts, but he didn’t reply. I’m still hoping he’ll swoop in and save the day at the last minute, but it’s looking unlikely. The band were all welcoming and very grateful to me for helping out. Why not? Leah probably sold me as the new Fats Domino. She’s sitting at the top table, looking beautiful as usual. Is this the last time I’ll see her? She gives me an encouraging wave, obviously thinking I’m the best boyfriend ever for agreeing to play. Guests in their best clothes are chatting at tables, relaxed after a good meal and plenty of wine. The consensus is that it has been a beautiful wedding. Until now. How on earth have I let it get this far? I’m still hoping, like Mr Micawber, that something will turn up. Maybe the power will go out, or a fight will start and the police will come rushing in. “Right, party’s over folks!” I’ve seen that kind of thing happening on the news. It doesn’t seem likely with this genteel crowd, I have to admit. I could fake a heart attack or something… no, that wouldn’t be fair. I can’t ruin a whole wedding just because I’m a gutless liar…
“You look green,” someone whispers in my ear. Jessie.
“I’m all right…” I say mechanically.
“Really? Then you’re either brave or stupid.”
“I know you can’t really play,” she hisses.
I stare at her. I suspected this but it’s still a shock to hear her accusing me, with so much anger in her voice. “Then why did you want me to…”
“Do you remember the creaky gate?” she interrupts, talking urgently.
“The what?” Is Jessie unhinged? What is she talking about?
“The “Creaky Gate”. It’s a pub in Leeds, famous for students. Didn’t you go to university there?”
I remember the pub now. Some pub I visited years ago isn’t at the top of my mind. I’m more worried about my imminent public humiliation.
“Yes, I studied there. How did you know?” What has this got to do with anything?
“I went there too. At the same time as you. Not that you ever noticed me…” Shit. Could this be the problem? I upset her years ago and she’s never got over it?
“So did thousands of other people. I couldn’t notice everyone.”
“But thousands of others didn’t live on the same corridor as you in halls. You walked past me most days and never even said hello!” She doesn’t sound like the usual brash Jessie. She sounds as if she is about to cry. I don’t know what I’m supposed to say to this. Yes, I probably didn’t notice her, but in my defence, I had no way of knowing that she cared less.
“Were you…interested in me?” I ask, trying to sound gentle and as if I don’t hate her guts. It’s just occurring to me that if I play this right, I could still get out of this. Maybe she could still call Jim, if the AWOL story was an invention. It might cause a little delay, but that could be explained.
“Wasn’t it obvious?” She looks incredulous.
“Actually, no, it wasn’t. I was never the type to assume that every girl was interested in me anyway.” Maybe this will make her feel sorry for me. She looks suspicious,
“How do I know you weren’t a player? Maybe you had so many girls, you never had time to notice me!” She must be delusional. I definitely wasn’t a player at university.
“Did you notice me with many girls?”
“No, not then…but you’re with Leah now. I missed my chance.” She puts her hand on my arm. I force myself not to back away. What about Tom? I had met him once and he seemed like a decent enough guy. Would she dump him for me if I gave her any encouragement?
“I’m sorry, Jessie. I really didn’t know you liked me. If I had, things might have been different…” Another lie. Had I turned into a pathological liar now?
“So it’s too late now?” she asks. I don’t like the hope in her voice. I avoid the question.
“Has Jim really gone missing?” She smirks. I’m starting to hate the sight of that smirk.
“No. He’s at home.”
“I tried his phone…”
“He hardly ever checks his phone. But I know his address. It’s just five minutes from here.” She’s gloating now.
“So you could still call him in now?”
“In theory. But why should I do that?” She pouts challengingly.
“Because Leah is going to break up with me when she finds out I lied?”
“So? Not my problem.” She sounds about twelve years old. But she also sounds dangerous.
“But I didn’t do anything wrong! I never even knew you liked me. Can’t you see that?” I look into her eyes, trying to get sympathy. It sticks in my throat to plead with her, but it’s worth a try.
“Leah always gets the guys I want,” she mutters.
I try again. “If you used to like me, why do you want me to embarrass myself in front of everyone like this?”
She snarls at me suddenly. “It’s your own fault. I wouldn’t have been able to do this to you if you hadn’t made up that stupid lie about playing the piano.”
Fair enough. But I still don’t think the punishment fits the crime. “Please, don’t do this,” I say. “Just call Jim and we’ll get this evening over with. Please. We can talk about this later…”
“You’re humouring me,” she snaps. Her face is red and her mascara is starting to run. “You’re laughing at me. You don’t mean to talk to me about anything, ever.” Well, at least she’s right about one thing.
“You don’t deserve Leah, anyway. You’re a liar and a coward. Now face the consequences.” She turns, climbs off the stage and melts into the crowd.
“Ready?” says the guitarist. He seems impatient. The band are ready to go.
He doesn’t wait for an answer and launches into the intro to “All of Me”. The First Dance song. I take a deep breath and put my hand on the keys.