“Let me be the sacrifice!” I held out my hands imploringly to Ruth and she gave me the church altar candle she had found. Her husband, Tom, was trying on a garland made of autumnal foliage, while Lucy and Seth inspected the photos pinned to one of the hut’s walls.
“Hey, have you guys seen Midsommar?” Seth asked between wheezy cackles. He was the oldest of the five of us but the most prone to fits of childish giggles, as was becoming apparent.
“Yes!” the others chimed.
“Heard about it,” I muttered, as I prepared to lie on the floor, looking for any debris which might snag my (thrifted) new dress, hastily purchased last week for Nell’s wedding after the one from eBay failed to materialise. I hadn’t been to the cinema in about a year. I was becoming more of a penny pincher, realising how much I’d spent over the years on going out while seemingly everyone else I knew was coupling up, getting on the first rung of property ladder, spending Sundays in B&Q looking for the right shade of paint for the nursery then going for brunches of smoked salmon and smashed avocado on sourdough bread while I munched a store brand cereal bar and scrolled through their tick-box Instagram posts.
Lucy turned from the photos to where she thought I’d been standing, then dropped her gaze to the floor “Oh, photo time!” she said.
“Okay, everyone into position!” Tom, just off the set of Contamination, the smash BBC series, fell into directing mode. There was laughter and squeals and creaky floorboards as Ruth, Seth and Lucy got into place around me. Seth used a programme from the wedding that had taken place the previous day, Ruth held her red wine out in toast (“we’ll say it was blood” she stage whispered) and Lucy spread her palms, urging the viewer to behold the valiant sacrifice.
I thought we should probably be getting back to Nell and Ryan and their respective families and wished Tom would hurry up and take the picture. He snapped about a dozen shots before he was happy, having to reprimand his wife initially for having her designer handbag in shot (a perk from work, she’d smiled becomingly). Our champagne-induced hilarity began to wear off, as we tried putting our ‘props’ back where we could remember finding them. We all tiptoed out, three 30-somethings and two 40-somethings, hoping not to be in trouble with the staff of Miss Moffat Farm who’d so kindly lent their barn to the beautiful service.
Twenty minutes before we’d found the hut baring what looked like traces of a flower child’s hand-fastening ceremony, I’d been gooseberrying (“No, no, it’s fine, come with us!”) after Seth and Lucy announced their intent to venture out for some fresh air and to explore the grounds of Nell and Ryan’s chosen venue. We took in glorious views of the South Downs while trying not to muddy our shoes. Seth was thrilled that he got to test out his new gadget he’d been telling me about on the drive down, some obscenely large digital camera, capturing deer huddling in the next field over. I made small talk with Lucy. She and Nell and I were once a tightknit threesome until careers and boyfriends took them to other places, whereas I looked on through a bubble I’d blown. A dome protecting me from ever growing up, and which made everything on the outside rose-tinted.
That was where we ran into Ruth and Tom, both looking flush, as though their traipse around the field may’ve taken them to other sweet places. We chatted convivially – lovely day for it, gorgeous dress, didn’t Ryan look so happy, can you believe they Rick-rolled us (a guitar player had strum ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ while guests clutched song sheets, grannies looking bemused, teenagers looking horrified, babies wailed and everyone else laughed their way through it with pure joy).
I left Ruth and Lucy talking about sewing machines while I went to wipe off an imaginary swatch of mud from my heels. Balancing myself on a fence post, I stared at one of the deer, who blinked lazily back at me. A memory came of my Jeff, nicknamed ‘fawn’. I’d never thought to ask why. He was neither furry nor long-legged. I’d never get the chance to ask, now.
I felt one of the stitches in my heart threaten to break. No. Not now. Now is not the time. This is Nell and Ryan’s day. I blinked fast, swallowed hard and turned to face the couples again.
Our little Midsommar escapade bonded us. Every time we bumped into one another through the rest of the reception, eyes would be crinkled in misdeed-enhanced merriment. Many more photos were taken, even bizarre ones encouraged (dressing up box, curtained booth and props – real, this time – provided), but to our knowledge nobody else had mock sacrificed a guest.
Seth and Ryan paired off to talk about Rugby, and Lucy was talking fabric patterns with the mother of the bride. I wandered off to the furthest table so I could feel less of a social pariah while I enjoyed a cigarette before the surface was commandeered for baby-changing purposes by a young mother I recognised from the hen do six months previously. Awkward pleasantries exchanged while we both pretended to ignore the stench.
I wandered down a path that led to the front of the barn where photographers had snapped guests arriving earlier. I’d been even slower than the grandparents, restricted by my wiggle dress and the heels that only came out for these occasions. And I hadn’t forecast a gently sloping gravelled runway.
I sat on a bench, looking at my phone. No messages. I thumbed between apps uncertain whether to document the occasion just yet. I decided to roll another cigarette to keep my hands occupied while I watched parts of the sky darken from orange to navy and listened to the DJ crank it up for ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’. Nell, forever a party girl at heart, had hinted at 90s rave classics once the elders had shuffled off to their B&Bs. I didn’t know if I’d be able to last that long. My face was aching from smiling at people I didn’t know all day. My feet were complaining. I popped off a heel and started massaging through my stockings, hoping the creepy uncle that had touched an inch too low on my lower back while cramming in beside me at the bar (“so are you seeing anyone, Cathy?” MY NAME’S NOT CATHY and why are you SUCH A CLICHÉ) wouldn’t pop out of the bushes.
“How much have you had to drink?!”
I glanced up, the words “not much, why?” ready on my startled hare-lips. But I was not the one to whom the question was posed. That would be Nell’s teenage nephew, stumbling over his mirror shined shoes to get to a plant pot on the other side of the path in time. Thankfully he hadn’t stumbled in my direction, or I might have received a lapful of lager and wedding cake.
His mother flapped and tutted while her son groaned, grasping in his pockets for anything to wipe his mouth with. She – I think her name was Sharon…they’re usually called Sharon, aren’t they? – became aware of a ghostly presence in the shadows, and sighed in exasperation. “Don’t ever have children!” she hissed to me while fishing pocket tissues out of her handbag. I laughed weakly, and waved in a way I hoped indicated everything was fine and I wouldn’t say a word.
I decided it was time for carriages after that, making my apologies to Nell for not having got to dance with her (“another time!” “you must visit!”) and to Seth and Lucy. I was supposed to be travelling back with them to the B&B Seth had booked for us, but they could easily cover their taxi fares without my help, and I was by then willing to pay more than I banked on to be alone again as soon as possible.
I thanked the driver with a tip and because he’d turned up Alice DJ’s ‘Better Off Alone’ when I’d said, “ahh, this takes me back”. I had to stagger past tables of pub-goers to get to the room. I brushed my teeth while staring at the hairdo I’d constructed. What had started off as flouncy waves was now birds nest with bows. I thought I’d been shattered when I left the revellers, but the misjudged rum and cokes I’d rounded off the night with, thinking they’d give me some pep, knocked at my chest. The smokers outside the window sounded loud enough to be in bed with me. I must’ve drifted off eventually though, only being briefly awoken by laughter from Lucy and Seth several hours later as they struggled to find the right key for the room next to mine.
I awoke long before the couple did, so took myself down to explore the pub’s beer garden (and to smoke another cigarette, of course). A sparrow hopped on a picnic table, then, disappointed with only beermats for breakfast, flew off again. I tracked its course over the roof of the building and decided to go in to see what sort of breakfasts they offered. I got chatting with the chef – he’d gone to college in the same part of Kent as I’d gone to University – and made doubly sure he knew Seth and Lucy were vegan, but I wasn’t. I figured enough sacrifices had been made for one weekend.