As she took in the lush trees, unfamiliar shrubs and showy, colourful flowers, Syrah could see what a lovely setting for a wedding the Botanical Gardens were. The sun's heat, unhindered by her strapless dress, warmed her shoulders. Not that she was in the mood to appreciate either sun or setting today; the man she had bought this dress for would not be looking at her.
She sighed and turned around. The wedding canopy had been erected beneath a huge, leafy tree; Syrah didn't know its type. Its lower branches were garlanded with lilies and roses, bright petals fluttering in the antipodean breeze. Jasmine twined around the canopy’s edge and its heady scent wafted past, making Syrah’s eyes prickle, reminding her of happier times.
Voices broke through her thoughts and she glanced over her shoulder; the other guests were arriving. Unable to contemplate engaging in polite chatter, Syrah hunted for sanctuary. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a wooden bench, far enough away that none of the guests would recognise her. Besides, she thought, they would have other things on their minds than wondering where she was. She doubted any of them would give her a second thought.
Hurriedly, she crossed to the bench. It was already occupied; a young woman in a light summer dress sat there, reading a book. The woman glanced up as Syrah approached and smiled briefly. As she sat down, Syrah saw that the woman wasn’t quite as young as she had first thought. Her shining chestnut hair and slim figure had suggested a girl in her early twenties, Syrah’s own age. But closer to, Syrah could see she was probably nearer forty. Syrah returned the woman’s smile and forgot her; the woman turned back to her book.
Leaning forward, Syrah rested her elbows on her knees. Her blonde hair blew across her face and she absently tucked it behind her ear. He always liked it when she wore her hair loose but it did sometimes annoy her. He liked it when she wore it up too, and she wondered how Angie was wearing her hair today. Which would he prefer?
Her thighs were beginning to ache from the pressure of her elbows so she sat straighter, crossing her legs. She was wearing the shoes he had convinced her to buy, not that she’d taken much persuading. ‘Hot-date shoes’ he’d called them and teased her, saying any man who dated her would hardly be looking at her shoes. Would Angie be wearing ‘hot-date’ shoes, she wondered? She doubted it; Angie never seemed to wear dressy shoes. Although, reflected Syrah, you couldn’t get away with sensible shoes under a wedding dress. Could you?
Her eyes strayed back to the gathering crowd. There was Cheryl, Angie’s mum, every inch ‘Mother-of-the-Bride’. And her sister, Sue, wearing pink as usual. And there was her father, and her brother, Jake, the ones who had caused all the problems. Syrah stared at them; but for them, things might have turned out so differently.
Music began to play; the sound of a harp. That was Cheryl’s choice, Syrah knew. Angie would probably have gone for something by the Sugababes if she had had her way. And then she could see the priest, making his way slowly across the grass. It was nearly time.
‘Beautiful day for a wedding.’
Syrah started. The woman beside her had lain down her book and was watching the assembling guests.
‘Yes, I . . . suppose so.’
Syrah hadn’t meant for her voice to catch, nor had she meant for tears to blur her eyes. Suddenly she was aware of the woman watching her and could tell she knew Syrah belonged to the wedding party.
‘You don’t approve.’
It was half question, half statement. Syrah turned, chagrined that she had shown this woman her feelings so clearly. She met the other’s eyes and frowned, seeing both sympathy and deep sadness reflected there.
‘No, I . . . it’s not right.’
‘Life can be complicated.’
She had a gentle accent, Syrah realised, one she couldn’t place. The more she studied her, the more Syrah thought how out of place she seemed. Syrah herself was a tourist - well, a holidaymaker at least; she was only here for the wedding - but this woman was somehow neither, defying classification.
‘You’re not from round here, are you?’ said Syrah.
‘Just visiting. It’s a peaceful place to rest.’
Syrah thought that sounded a bit odd and was about to say more when the familiar strains of ‘The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’ floated towards them. She looked over to where the bride and groom were walking slowly, hand in hand, towards the priest.
‘Are you not going to join them?’
Join them, thought Syrah, her heart clenching in her chest. The priest was going to join them, join them in matrimony and it just wasn’t right!
‘No,’ she faltered, ‘no, I . . . can’t.’
‘Because it’s not right! It shouldn’t be happening! They shouldn’t be getting married!’
‘Do they not love each other, then?’
‘Oh, she loves him,’ said Syrah sarcastically. ‘At least, she says she does. Loves his wallet, more like.’
‘Ah.’ There was a wealth of understanding in that softly spoken word. ‘And does he not realise that?’
The strains of a familiar hymn filled the air, and wavering voices not quite in time with the tune.
‘He says he loves her. But he doesn’t, not really. He’s been trapped. He’s weak; he let her father and brother bully him. He doesn’t like letting people down.’
‘You know him very well.’
‘I should do! I’ve known him since we were kids.’ And loved him that long too, she thought. ‘He shouldn’t be going through with this. It won’t last, they’ll end up hating each other. He should have called it off.’
‘Are you sure he wanted to? It takes as much courage to go through with a wedding as it does to call it off.’
The priest was speaking now, going through the preliminaries of the marriage ceremony. Caught up in her certainties, Syrah missed the grief beneath the woman’s words.
‘Oh he wanted to. I should know.’
‘Because he spent yesterday evening with me! They had the stag do night before last, so no one would have a hangover, and he was supposed to get an early night, last night, to be fresh for today. Instead he was with me, until three in the morning! Talking, telling me how scared he was, how he wished he’d had the courage to call it off, to stand up to her father! Does that sound like someone looking forward to a happy marriage?’
‘And what did you say?’
‘I told him to speak to Angie, of course. I told him to tell her how he felt.’
‘Would she not have been devastated? The day before her wedding, when everyone has come so far? It would cause terrible distress.’
‘And what about his distress?’ protested Syrah. ‘What about the years of arguing and frustration he’ll endure? Which would be worse?’
The priest was asking the wedding guests if anyone objected to the union about to take place.
‘Life is a series of choices,’ the woman said. ‘Your friend there has made a commitment and rightly or wrongly, he should stick by it. If he did not have the courage to end the relationship earlier, at least give him credit for honouring the commitment now. Is it Angie’s fault he doesn’t really love her? Who is to say love will not come in time?’
‘But he’ll be so unhappy!’ cried Syrah. ‘I can’t bear to think of him so unhappy!’
Tears came to her eyes and rolled gently down her cheeks. ‘What can I do?’ she whispered. Turning to the woman beside her, whose hazel eyes regarded her with sympathy, she repeated, ‘What can I do?’
The woman’s voice was soft and low. ‘Be there if he needs you, leave him alone if he does not. Find your own courage, the courage to allow him to live the life he has chosen. He may surprise you yet. Sometimes our best friend is the one who says nothing.’
Syrah was silent, her eyes turned to the pair beneath the canopy; two people speaking their vows before the priest.
‘But what if he comes to me? What if he can’t stand it and comes to me?’
‘Then be very, very careful. No one can know what Fate has in store. It may be that you and this man are destined to be together. If so, it will happen. But do not make the mistake of trying to second-guess Fate or trying to force it. Remember, what our hearts desire is not always what is best.’
‘If he comes to you for advice, the best advice you could give would be that he speaks to his wife. Encourage him to find his own way, to fight his own war. But if he comes to you for comfort, then beware. The heart is a powerful organ and love its most powerful tool. Do not give yourself cause for regret. Do not give his wife or her family cause to hate you. Never, whatever you do, become the “other woman”.’
‘For if it is your destiny to be together, then soiling it with bad decisions would be tragic. Never give him a reason to reprove you.’
Syrah was still, the words settling into her heart. More harp music floated on the wind; romantic, sentimental. She watched as the priest joined their hands, saw them turn to each other and kiss. Slowly, she stood up.
‘Show them the depth of your courage,’ murmured the woman. ‘Go and tell them you wish them good luck.’
Syrah took a few steps forward, then halted. ‘But what if I don’t?’
The woman didn’t reply. Syrah turned her head but the bench was deserted. Frowning, she looked around but the only people in sight were the wedding guests.
A triumphal march was playing, the happy couple walking away from the priest. People were cheering, throwing flower-petals, shaking hands.
Sighing, knowing what she had to do and hoping she had the courage, Syrah walked towards them.