This story is by Stacey Barnes and was a runner-up in our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Stacey Barnes is a thirty-something marketing manager from London. She has been writing since she was old enough to hold a pencil, but hasn’t published most of it. Her favourite book is Jane Eyre, and her main writing inspiration comes from love, loss, family, and the power of female friendships.
“Oh sweetheart, you look beautiful.”
Casey stood at the top of the grand art deco staircase, the “wow-factor,” according to the wedding planner, of Willingsbury Manor’s entrance hall. At the bottom stood her father, beaming up at her with eyes shining like his expensive new cufflinks.
Casey gripped her extravagant bridal bouquet, wincing as a thorn stabbed her hand through the itchy fabric wrapped around the stems.
“Ready?” asked Sarah, her maid-of-honour. She was holding the lace train of Casey’s wedding dress like it might disintegrate in her hands. Their eyes met. I think you know the answer to that, Casey’s said.
You’re doing the right thing, Sarah’s retorted.
Casey’s mother and several relatives had joined her father by the stairs. They looked identical, clasping their hands and gazing up at her like she was some sort of miracle. Casey felt a little light-headed. The bridal shoes were pinching her toes already. Remembering her seamstress’s advice, she began to put one foot in front of the other, gently swinging the hoop underneath the gown so that none of the material got caught around her legs as she descended the stairs.
Casey watched the reflection in the giant hallway mirror as she embraced her father. What a perfect blushing bride, she thought, noticing her eyes welling up. Ready to begin the best day of her life.
It was a short walk ahead to the ceremony room. The other guests hurried away, eager for good seats. Sarah and Casey’s mother followed to take their positions, the key supporting roles. Casey’s father squeezed her arm.
“Nervous,” Casey’s voice broke. She raised her eyes to his, searching for a connection.
“Don’t be,” he said. He saw the bride, not the daughter. “Paul is a wonderful man. You know how much he loves you.”
Yes, Paul was wonderful. Casey was reminded of that often. He’d been seen as a kind of saviour since he came into their lives five years ago during Casey’s “wild child phase,” coined by her mother. This just meant that her parents disapproved of her lifestyle, whether it was where she lived, who she dated, how she socialised. When she introduced them to Paul, they were delighted. Successful, polite, gentlemanly; he truly wooed them.
Casey supposed it had been a textbook whirlwind romance, at first. Brilliant boy meets flawed girl needing improvement; a fairytale ensues. At first she’d been in awe of Paul but also slightly bemused by his pursuit of her. He had a good job, ambitions; money. Casey struggled to even make plans for the following weekend, and was constantly in her overdraft. To her surprise, Paul seemed to find this endearing. He got a kick out of helping and guiding her, like she was another of his business projects to develop and grow.
One morning, six months after they’d met, Casey woke to find a diamond sitting pointedly on the third finger of her left hand. Something she’d never admitted to another living soul was that she didn’t remember how it got there. Paul had joined her at a party the night before with some university friends, to celebrate their second year results. Evidently, the night had finished with a proposal at a posh hotel. But when she tried to grasp the memory, there was a gaping hole.
Paul had gently teased her when she woke up, even offering to do it again for real. He wanted to be sure she was fully on board. Casey was mortified. She’d never blacked out before. How drunk must she have been to not remember a huge event like getting engaged? After Paul had cooked breakfast and ran her a hot bath, she told him it had all come back to her and of course she was on board.
If it had seemed a little soon to be making such a commitment, Casey got used to it quickly. Paul made everything so easy. He said they didn’t even have to think about the wedding until after she’d graduated. He arranged the purchase of their new flat, covering all of the bills and ensuring she was able to prioritise her studying.
The graduation high was short-lived. There were no celebratory holidays or MA applications; Casey’s guilt about contributing nothing to their finances for so long meant she needed to find a paying job quickly. They immediately fell into domestic bliss, or so everyone assumed.
As the wedding drew nearer, the excitement of their early relationship was replaced with new responsibilities and commitments. Casey often wondered whether they were making the most of their twenties. Weren’t they supposed to be your care-free years? She sometimes noticed weeks had passed without any physical intimacy between them. With each day, the walls closed in on her a little more.
“The wedding takes priority now. We’ll have more time and money for other things afterwards,” Paul had said recently, after Casey suggested a night out.
“Do you ever feel … you know … weird, about the wedding?” she’d replied, without meeting his eyes. “Like we’re rushing into it, or something.”
Paul had smiled. She remembered how he’d rubbed her hands with his thumbs, like a kindly grandfather. “Stop worrying. Nothing will change between us by getting married, I promise.”
Nothing will change.
The words had crashed into Casey’s skull like three metal anchors. He is saying this like it’s a good thing. For the first time, she allowed herself to hear what her subconscious had been insisting for a while. He doesn’t even know me.
Casey swallowed hard as the feelings of that evening threatened to return.
The tinkling of piano keys returned her to the present. A hum of excited conversation drifted from behind an ornate oak doorway. She pictured Paul behind it, warmly shaking hands with guests, charming relatives, making jokes. No nerves in sight.
Casey glanced at the proud father of the bride, waiting to give his daughter away to the perfect man. She saw his face contorted with anger from that same night, when she had gone to him in tears, saying she thought she was making a mistake.
“No one forced you to get engaged, Casey,” he’d spat. “This was your decision. You want to let down everyone who loves you because you miss partying every night? Do you realise how much people have already spent on presents, outfits, accommodation? Grow up. He’s the best thing that ever happened to you, and you know it.”
Confused and hurt, Casey had immediately left, unable to speak. Not wanting to go home, she had found herself sitting in the dark corner of a pub. She’d called Sarah, who spoke soothing words about cold feet, assuring her it was completely normal to have a wobble; all she needed to remember was that Paul loved her and he was so wonderful.
As Casey had ordered another large glass of wine, she realised there wasn’t one person in her life who thought she was worth anything without Paul. Maybe they were right.
That night, she’d returned home and wept more than she could ever remember. Paul wanted to help, of course, to take centre stage and rescue her, like always. But he couldn’t see or hear her. It wasn’t his fault; nobody could.
The heavy oak doors flung open. Hundreds of watery eyes and lipsticked grins turned to greet Casey. She felt like a sacrificial lamb amongst a satanic cult. Was her father’s grip tightening around her arm? She didn’t even realise she had started to move. It was almost as if he was carrying her.
It’s just like acting in a play, Casey thought, fighting an urge to struggle free and run, tearing off the heavy gown and painful shoes. She tried not to meet Paul’s eyes, filled with what was supposed to be love and pride. He was her co-star in this play. She freely let her cheeks grow wet, knowing everyone was mistaking her tears.
As the ceremony began, Casey knew she could still escape. Paul wouldn’t make a scene in front of all these people. He was always a gentleman. She would say her truth, slip out and he would pick up the pieces. She could not focus on the dim, foggy words being spoken around her.
“I do, with all my heart,” Paul announced, gripping Casey’s hands. She flinched.
We’re here already? You know what to do.
Just say it. It’s better off this way.
Silence engulfed the room, but Casey’s heartbeat was deafening. Paul smiled, a hint of concern behind his eyes. How had she let things get this far? Like her father said, she was about to let down everybody who loved her.
You’re losing this audience.
“I do,” she breathed, giving in to the words that would bind her.
Paul kissed his bride, her face wet with tears. He was the best thing that ever happened to her.