Singleton Dot Riley’s grandmother, Nanny Flo, is on her deathbed, surrounded by family and distraught at the thought of Dot being all alone in the world. Desperate to make Flo’s final moments happy ones, Dot invents a boyfriend – plumping in panic for her childhood friend, Felix, a firm favourite of Flo, but whom Dot hasn’t actually seen for 15 years.
But when Flo makes an unexpected recovery a few weeks before a family wedding, Dot is faced with a dilemma. Should she tell her frail grandmother that she lied and risk causing heartache and a relapse? Or should she find Felix and take him to the wedding?
Dot opts for finding Felix. But it’s not long before she discovers that finding him is the easy bit: liking him is the real challenge.
‘And here’s Becca in her Hawaiian outfit at the school fete. Do you remember that, Becca?’ My mother passed the photograph to my sister, who was sitting to her left.
Becca laughed. ‘How old am I here? Four?’
‘It was 1989, I think. So you’re five,’ said my mother, leaning towards her to peer again at the photograph. ‘It took me hours to make that crêpe-paper hula skirt and all those flowers for the lei and the headdress.’
‘It did,’ agreed Dad. ‘And then just three minutes for heavy rain to turn everything to mush and leave Becca in nothing but her vest and pants.’ He laughed loudly, and I joined in, reaching for the photo.
It had, against all my shameful expectations, been a lovely evening with my parents and Becca. We had met in the lounge of the Bear in Devizes marketplace for drinks at six thirty, before moving through to the cosy wood-panelled restaurant at seven. Mum told us that she had booked early so that we could all get our beauty sleep, although as I was actually staying at the Bear that night, I knew I could be in bed within fifteen minutes of waving them off.
Mark was spending the night with his best man, and my sister had, quite valiantly I thought in light of my mother’s pre-wedding nerves, insisted that Mum and Dad stay with her. I was invited to stay too, but, as I wasn’t quite as valiant as Becca, I had declined, instead booking myself in for an extra night at The Bear.
I smiled down at the glossy 6×4 picture of my little sister and then up at Dad, feeling grateful for his suggestion that Mum bring along the photographs she hadn’t found room for on the wedding reception storyboard. The snaps had been viewed between courses, prompting memories and anecdotes which had kept the evening firmly focused on Becca, which was just what I had hoped for.
‘You were beautiful from the off,’ I said to Becca, returning the picture to her. ‘And you’ll be at your most beautiful tomorrow.’
She sighed. ‘I just hope I can make it down the aisle without tripping.’
‘It’s me you’ve got to worry about,’ said Dad. He reached out and took her hand. ‘But together we’ll make it,’ he added a little emotionally.
There was a short pause, during which my mother murmured, ‘Oh Don,’ and dabbed at her eyes with her napkin.
Becca looked at me across the table, offering me an affectionate eye roll.
I cleared my throat. ‘Come on then,’ I said to Mum. ‘Show us the next picture. Dessert will be here soon.’
‘Ooh, yes,’ she said, returning her attention to the pile of photographs sitting next to her on the table. ‘Here you are on top of Cat Bells, in the rain, in the summer of ’91,’ she said, handing one to Becca. ‘And swimming in Derwent Water, in the rain, in ’92. And waiting for the launch at Hawes End, in the rain, in ’93.’ She paused, putting a hand to her mouth and giggling. ‘And oh my goodness, I’d forgotten I’d found this one. Just look at that, Becca!’ She laughed again, but my sister, although smiling, didn’t seem to find the picture quite so funny.
‘What is it?’ I asked, smirking and holding out my hand. ‘It’s not Becca’s Hawaiian costume post-downpour, is it?’
‘No, no, it’s you, darling,’ said Mum. ‘You and Felix in the school play.’ She turned it over. ‘It says Christmas 1994.’
‘Oh.’ I stopped smirking and took the picture from her as she held it out to me.
‘Yes, just look at him. There he is. Such a sturdy boy.’ My mother leaned forward and tapped the picture. ‘Didn’t he make a marvellous Christmas pudding? And there you are, the candle, a good four inches taller than him, right next to him. See? You’ll have to show him that tomorrow.’
‘I will,’ I said quietly, extending the long list of falsehoods told to date, whilst retrieving my handbag from the back of my chair and slipping the picture inside without looking at it.
When I looked up, my mother was still smiling broadly at me, increasing my sense of guilt.
‘I’ve forgotten what I’m having for dessert,’ I said. ‘Did I go for the torte or the cheesecake in the end?
‘That was the only picture of him I came across. But I wasn’t really looking and you’ve probably got lots of him now, haven’t you?’ My mother looked at me expectantly. ‘On your phone,’ she added, nodding her head towards my bag, which was still on my lap.
‘I have a few,’ I said, wondering what number lie that was. I decided that I must have hit the high nineties by now.
‘I think you’re having the torte, Dot,’ said Becca. ‘I’m having the cheesecake.’
‘I’d love to see a picture of what he looks like now,’ said Mum, pointing at my bag.
‘You’ll see him in the flesh tomorrow, Helen,’ said Dad.
‘I know, Don, but I may not recognise him if he’s very changed, and how embarrassing would that be? Apparently he looks quite different now, doesn’t he, Dot? Shorter hair and less sturdy.’
I experienced a sinking feeling. She actually had a valid point. ‘My phone is dead,’ I said desperately, and waited with grim resignation for her to insist that I check.
But she didn’t. Instead, she looked over my shoulder towards the entrance to the restaurant, her eyes narrowing and her lips thinning. It was the kind of look she used to give me as a teenager whenever I mentioned Sean Dowse’s DIY tattoo in front of her sister-in-law, my Auntie Dawn, with whom she was fiercely competitive. I glanced at Becca and together we turned and followed my mother’s gaze.
I saw Alistair just as he saw us.
He smiled in surprise and then waved hesitantly. My father was the only one of us with the wherewithal to respond. ‘Alistair,’ he said, standing up and holding out a hand as my ex-walked uncertainly towards us.
‘Hi, Don,’ he said, shaking Dad’s hand. ‘Helen, Rebecca, Dot,’ he added, smiling at each of us in turn.
‘Hello, Al,’ smiled Becca.
My mother folded her arms. ‘Good evening, Alistair,’ she said coldly.
I frowned at her before turning back towards him. ‘Hi,’ I said, trying to keep my voice light. ‘Are you here for a drink?’ I looked at Becca. ‘Is Mark coming here?’
Alistair answered for her. ‘No, I’m meeting Mark in the Three Crowns at…’ he checked his watch, ‘just about now, actually. But I need to check in first.’ He gestured with his thumb over his shoulder while smiling down at me. I nodded and tried desperately not to miss him.
‘You’re staying here?’ asked my mother unsmilingly. ‘That’s interesting, because so is Dorothy.’
‘Oh?’ Alistair’s eyebrows raised slightly as he nodded his acceptance of the fact.
‘Yes. And so is her boyfriend, Felix,’ continued Mum, repeating an assumption which, for obvious reasons, I hadn’t bothered to contradict. ‘He’s a lovely accountant with his own business and he is completely smitten with her.’
I closed my eyes briefly and heard my father murmur, ‘Helen,’ and my sister, ‘Mum,’ simultaneously.
When I opened my eyes, Alistair was still smiling. ‘That’s great, Dot,’ he said, and to my devastation, he sounded like he meant it. ‘I take it he hasn’t arrived yet? Or is he having a drink with Mark?’
‘He doesn’t get here till tomorrow,’ I said quietly.
‘OK, I’ll look forward to meeting him then,’ said Alistair. ‘And now I’ll leave you to your meal, but I’ll see you all at the church tomorrow. Especially you,’ he added, pointing at Becca. ‘Don’t keep the man waiting.’