The Wedding Suit
I had sold what I could and gave the rest away. I’d bought new furniture and redecorated the flat but none of it could make the memory of her go away. I hated myself for trying to forget, for wanting her to leave me alone when all I really wanted was to have her back.
I was stuck: in my grief, in my self-pity, in my flat.
But everything changed when Debs and Mark’s wedding invitation came through the post. The embossed envelope had a red love-heart sticker that sealed it shut. When I pulled the flap open the love-heart sticker ripped in two. Despair rose to fill the back of my throat and tears filled my eyes. I wanted to keep ripping until the invitation was torn to shreds.
Why were the tears always so close to the surface? When would it get any easier?
My suit wasn’t in the wardrobe.
Hanging on the rail were three dress shirts of mine and a woolly jumper. I’d given all her clothes to Cancer Research.
The last time I’d worn the suit had been to her funeral. Time had been pliable then, it got stretched and squeezed around her death. The day of her funeral was lived in compressed time, so that it was barely a memory at all. I stood at the wardrobe door and looked at the near empty rail.
I remembered another rail, with suits encased in sleeves of plastic hanging from it. The dry cleaners. I had taken the suit to the dry cleaners. But which one?
She had kept all our receipts, unpaid bills and stub-like pieces of paper in a drawer in the kitchen. I opened that drawer and found a little blue ticket right on top. I don’t remember having put it in there. Printed on the front was a large number ‘#164’, the name ‘Heritage Dry Cleaners’ and a phone number. On the back, scrawled in my handwriting, was my name and number.
Had they called me when the suit was cleaned and ready? Maybe. I had let the phone ring. The ringing filled the silence. And besides, who did I want to talk to?
I dialled the number on the ticket.
The ringing tone sounded in my ear. Stopped.
I pressed my teeth together and waited out the silence.
It rang again. Stopped.
There’s no-one there, I told myself. Waste of time. I forced myself to stop fidgeting and stand still.
I sucked in a short breath. I wanted to scream and hurl the phone across the room. Watch it smash against the wall.
There came a rattle and a clunk and then a “Hello?”. The voice was rough, as if they hadn’t spoken to anyone since waking up.
I knew what that sounded like.
My rage vanished. My dry tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. My lungs filled with air. I couldn’t make the words come out.
“I’ve got a ticket,” I said in a whisper. I felt one inch tall as I rocked from foot to foot.
“Colour and number.”
“What’s the colour of the ticket?”
“What’s the number on the ticket?”
“One six four.”
“Wait.” Another clunk as the receiver was put down and I heard the faint sound of crinkling plastic and the metallic screech of hangers on rails. “We have it.”
“You do?” Was that relief or panic? “Good. Thank you.”
“We close at seven if you want to come pick it up. Whatever, it’ll be here.” He hung up.
I checked my watch; it had barely gone four. All I had to do was leave the flat and go and get my suit.
I despise people when they say things like ‘it is what she would’ve wanted’. Those people look in on your grief and feel that they have the right to say something. They don’t. I’d prefer it if they kept their mouths shut.
I used those exact same words against myself as motivation to get out the front door. I told myself it was time to move on, that she was gone and I was still here, that I had to get the suit so I could go to the wedding because it was what she would’ve wanted.
It didn’t work.
In the end, what drove me out of the flat was the self-hatred and fear. I was scared to be in a place where she had once been with me. I was scared she would be ashamed of what I had become. I opened the front door only because I felt overwhelmed, and that if I didn’t leave then I might never leave.
The last time I had walked out that door had been three hundred and ninety-two days ago. The day of her funeral. The day may have been compressed into a non-memory, but my body remembered how hard it had been. It refused to pull the door shut behind me.
I heard footfalls on the stairwell above.
The latch clicked shut. I ran down the four flights of stairs, taking two or three steps at a time. It was fear that had kept me in my flat for all this time and now it was fear that drove me out. Fear of giving up, fear of meeting another human being on the stairs, fear of what I might do to myself if I stepped back inside.
I burst out into the world and I tried to focus on everything at once: the light, the cars, the smells, the people, the noise. The world was as mundane and beautiful as it had always been. The fear remained, but all my other emotions were evaporated by the assault on my senses.
I started walking and I felt hope strain at the chains I’d tied it down with.
Hope is the most pernicious and devious emotional bastard there is. Hope makes you go on when you have no rhyme or reason to. Hope makes you wake up and put your clothes on and wash your face and brush your teeth and shave even when you know you aren’t leaving the house.
She believed in hope. She wielded it in both hands and used it to fight, and she fought hard. The treatments she was subjected to did nothing but prolong the agony. But hope wouldn’t let her lie down and die. That would’ve been a mercy, wouldn’t it? Why had she made it so hard on herself? Why had she made it so hard on me?
No, fuck hope.
I remembered walking down this street with the suit in its plastic bag, missing her, wanting her, longing for her to come back.
When I looked up I saw the sign only fifty feet in front of me: Heritage Dry Cleaners. The sign was grimy and lit from the inside with a bulb hot enough to render the word ‘Dry’ almost illegible due to a circle of brown melted plastic.
I pushed the door open and heard the jingle-ingle-ingle of a bell. And like a good little Maslov doggie I responded: I remembered when she and I had come here after our wedding. The stains on the suit being wine and wedding cake. I held the door open for her, we were laughing. I kissed her smiling mouth as we waited, feeling the firmness of her teeth behind her lips.
The door closed. The ringing of the bell lingered, sustained by memory.
I recognised the place. The clothes racks were the same, the smell of the chemicals was the same, the doorway through to the back room was the same. But some things had changed: the furniture was re-arranged, in a different configuration. The till, an old monstrosity which was practically an antique, had been at the other end of the counter and now there was a sign taped to the back of it that read ‘Rentals Available’.
A man wearing big round glasses came out of the back room. His hair was long and his beard unkempt. He wore an immaculate white lab coat which was buttoned all the way up to the top. From behind the counter he looked at me over the rim of his glasses and through his messy fringe. “Yes?”
“I want to collect my suit.”
“Of course you do. As usual. Ticket?” I pulled out the blue ticket stub with #164 on it so he could see. He leaned over to have a look. And waited. “You have to give me the ticket.”
I held it out to him.
He snatched it away and turned towards the clothes racks behind the counter. “Unbelievable. Always the same dumb bloody pantomime.”
He took a suit wrapped in clear plastic from the rack, and with one fluid movement draped it across the counter. I felt the breeze waft my face.
“Well? It’s yours isn’t it?”
“I think so.”
“No charge for storage.” He crumpled up the ticket and threw it down onto the floor which was littered with more blue tickets. “Now. I’ve got work to do.” He turned and disappeared into the back room.
I folded the suit over my arm and walked out into the street. The bell above the door rang out and it took until I stood at the street door of my building to fade to silence. I ran up the four flights of stairs, unlocked my door and with a plastic rustle and a side-step I was back inside the flat.
I was soaked in sweat.
I threw the garment bag onto the bed, stripped, turned the shower on. I stepped in and barked at the cold. The heat faded in. Needle sprays of hot water hit my head and shoulders and I stood still until my breathing returned to normal.
When I stepped back into the bedroom I spotted the plastic garment bag on the bed. For a moment, I had no idea how it had gotten there. I approached the bed with extreme care, as if I expected the suit to rear up and attack me. I grabbed it off the bed and it slithered off with a rasp of plastic. I unzipped the bag and it was shed like a second skin to reveal my navy-blue wedding suit.
I hung it on the wardrobe rail, on her side, put on some underwear and a white dress shirt. I pulled the suit trousers from the hanger, stepped into them and did them up. I let go and they fell to the floor, bunched around my ankles.
I had lost some weight it seemed.
I threaded a belt through the waistband and had to cinch it on the last hole. The trousers hung loose but at least they stayed up. I shrugged the jacket on and fastened the first button under the lapels. I could have easily slipped both my fists into the space between the jacket and my chest. I felt like I was wearing someone else’s clothes.
Something poked me. I pushed my hand in to straighten the pocket out and felt a piece of paper inside. I took it out, unfolded it, and recognised the letterhead right away: it was the results letter from the Royal Infirmary. At first, I thought it was a copy of the same letter that had informed us of the positive biopsy results. But as my eyes scanned the text I saw ‘negative result of the biopsy’, ‘benign’, ‘complete remission’.
My stomach did a slow roll in my gut. What kind of a sick joke was this?
I ran out of the bedroom to the hall cupboard. The suit trousers flapped around my legs. The document case slipped from my grip when I grabbed it. It fell and hit the floor on its upper corner, flew open, and a married couple’s collection of mortgage details, loan balances, birth certificates, wedding certificates, utility bills and receipts spilled out onto the floor. I dropped to my knees, placed the new results letter off to one side, and rummaged and shuffled the papers until I found the original letter.
Why was I trembling?
My eyes were drawn to the word that had spelled the end for us: positive. I brought the letters together, side by side. The letterhead was the same, the date was the same, the signature of the doctor was the same, but one was a proclamation of a life about to end, the other described a second chance. They both looked genuine.
I knew which one was real, didn’t I? I had lived through the events, while she had not. Who could be so cruel as to put such a thing in my jacket pocket?
What if the result had been negative? What if I’d been living a lie all this time? That all the pain and horror could be taken back, disappear, by waking up from this nightmare where I was alone, where I was without her?
I stood, walked back through to the bedroom and placed the letters on the bedside table. I took off the suit and hung it in the wardrobe.
I thought I had been getting better. I thought that retrieving the suit meant I was ready to get on with my life. I thought I had done my penance, paid my dues. I crawled naked onto the bed and cried hard: each sob a stab in the guts, each sob shook the bed with a disjointed rhythm. I hated being alone. I hated how unfair it all was. I hated how easy it was to slip back into grief.
When I fell asleep, I knew that getting the suit had been a terrible mistake.
I know it’s a dream because there she is, right at the foot of the bed, smiling. How could I have forgotten that smile, the contour of her lips, the tone of her skin? She looked young and full of life, not at all like the aged skin-sack of bones that I had nursed until death.
“Getting up today?” she said. “We’ve an appointment, remember?”
Panic wired all my joints together so I couldn’t move.
“No,” she said and stooped to kiss my forehead. “No, it’s All Clear Day. Official stamp of health from the hospital.”
I remembered. But the memory was superimposed over another, that this day was the day of her funeral. Lying in my bed, seeing my wife, I also remembered carrying the coffin to the incinerator at the crematorium, where all that was left inside was a husk. I remembered how the coffin had weighed nearly nothing at all.
“Yes,” I said. “All Clear Day.”
She tilted her head to the side and studied my face. “Are you alright? You seem…”
Her eyebrows rose.
I sighed. “I’m scared. I’m hoping the miracle is real.”
Her forehead softened and she smiled. Oh, how could I have missed her when she had been right here in front of me all this time? She wasn’t dead and gone and ashes in the wind. She was right here.
Her concerned smile turned, by the slightest of movements, into one more sensual. “Okay,” she said. “There’s time.” And she began to undress.
I awoke still feeling the echo of her touch. My eyes opened and I saw the two letters sitting on the bedside table.
I was not distraught, nor angry, and no longer confused. My sleeping mind had turned a sick prank into something positive. Those letters were just two pieces of paper. They weren’t important. What was important, was the idea, the possibility, that things could have been different. And because of that I had dreamed of a time that might have existed, and experienced a closeness and togetherness that had been gone from my life.
Of course the letter I had found in the suit pocket was a fake. Hadn’t I nursed her through the months of withering? Hadn’t I blinked away ashy tears and cried streaks of grey when what remained of her had blown back into my face?
I got out of bed and opened the wardrobe and looked at the suit hanging there.
Today, Debs and Mark were getting married and I was going to be there.
In the shower, I closed my eyes and relived as much of the dream as I could remember. I concentrated on her eyes, and how I had felt their touch wherever she focused. I felt again her warmth and softness when I came.
I still loved her. Not in the past-tense, I loved her now, right now. In my self-disgust and hate I had somehow forgotten that our love was still there. That was what brought the tears, and was why it was so hard to let go.
I loved her and she was still with me. This was now a comfort where before it had brought nothing but pain.
I stood naked in front of the mirror and saw just how skinny I had become. My face was pallid and I had dark rings under my eyes. I was diminished but nowhere near as bad as she had been at the end, not even close, not even half-way.
I loved her. That was all. That was enough.
“No drama here,” I told my reflection.
My reflection offered me a half-decent smile before he gave me the fully indecent finger.
I would wear the wedding suit no matter how ridiculous I looked. No matter the memories or the symbolism, let Debs and Mark, or whoever else was there, think what they liked.
I slipped my hands into the jacket pockets and felt two things in the left one. I pulled out a sheet of thin, flexible paper and a plastic tube.
The tube was a home pregnancy test and I knew that the blue cross in it’s window meant a positive result. Someone had printed the date, in black ink, on the plastic tube. The date on the tube was three days ago and was written in her handwriting. We had failed many times to get pregnant before the positive biopsy result put a stop to us trying.
The thin paper was a copy of a birth certificate dated seven months from today. Father: me. Mother: her. Our dates of birth, our occupations, our address. This address.
Who was doing this to me? How could the birth certificate be from the future? Was the dream reality? Were we still together? Were we going to have a baby after we’d been given the all clear? In the future, had we already had the baby and were bringing her up in this house?
That bastard hope struggled free: was it possible that there was a place and time where she hadn’t died, where she and I continued to live a life together, one that we had always dreamed of?
I stood with the pregnancy kit in one hand and the birth certificate in the other. I started to weep. I let the tears come. There was no pain, no weariness, no rage about how unfair it all was. I let her go, said goodbye, accepted. Whoever had put these artifacts in my wedding suit had sent me a message: that it was okay, everything, everywhere was actually okay.
Maybe I had finally cracked, finally had the breakdown that had threatened for so long and that I had fought so hard against, just as she had fought so hard against the cancer.
I stepped out of my flat without hesitation and I even nodded to someone on the stairs. He nodded back. I felt pleased with this tiny piece of human contact.
I flagged a taxi at the kerb, the suit jacket flapped on my arm and pushed against my ribs, concave. I liked how large and ridiculous it made me look.
“Where to, son?” the taxi driver asked, mistaking me, I think, for someone far younger. Maybe a teenager playing truant and dressing-up in his dad’s suit.
I told him the church.
He made eye contact in the mirror and smiled. “Nice day for a wedding, ain’t it?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I suppose it is.”
”Give my best to Debs!” the driver said as he drove away.
I stood outside the church and watched people dressed in their wedding finery walk through the gate and into the church. I saw a woman in a yellow dress laugh at something her male companion said. She looked so comfortable in her own skin, completely in the moment.
A genuine and happy smile grew on my face as I watched her.
She glanced up and caught me smiling at her. She smiled back and gave me a little wave hello. I waved back. She turned and walked up the path with her companion.
A gust of wind plastered the trousers against my thighs. The jacket filled with air, like a sail, and pulled me across the road.
When I entered the church, I spotted Mark right away. He was up at the front wearing a kilt. He was talking to a couple of other men. One wore a kilt, the best man?, and the other one in black must be the minister.
I waved. Mark saw the movement and waved back and then did a massive double-take when he saw who it was. I pointed at the back of the church. He threw me a double thumbs up and a huge grin. The best man appraised me. I could see his lips move. I’m no lip-reading expert but I think he said something like: “Who’s the scarecrow in the blue suit?”
I grinned back. It’s okay to grin, I told myself.
I sat on the groom’s side, on the last pew at the back, the one nearest the door. Mark had seen me; he knew that I had come and that was good enough.
“Hi,” said a voice beside me. “Do you mind if I sit?”
I looked up and it was the woman in the yellow dress.
I nodded and indicated all the empty pews around us with a sweep of my arm. “Feel free.”
“I wasn’t sure if I should,” she said. “Seeing as you’ve sat the furthest from everyone you possibly could.” Her face was serious, but her eyes were laughing.
“And yet, here you are.”
“I thought you might like the company,” she said.
“No, not really,” I said.
“Oh, okay then,” she said and turned to leave. I didn’t want her to.
“I mean, you can never be too careful with this crowd.” With my eyes, I indicated the filled pews at the front of the church.
She looked at me for a moment before she sat down leaving a person-sized space between us. “Yeah,” she said. “I’ve heard tell of horrid things. Especially on the groom’s side.”
“Horrid things?” I realised I was hugging the folds of the suit to my chest. “We are on the groom’s side.”
“Yes, we are aren’t we?”
I tried to relax and rested my hands on my thighs.
Her eyes followed the movement. “Talking of horrid things, just what the hell are you wearing?”
I laughed, and sprayed drops of saliva onto my legs and onto the back of the next pew.
“Jesus,” she said. “You almost got that on my frock.”
“That really would have been horrid,” I said.
“I’ve had worse.”
I glanced at her face. She was smiling.
“This,” I said as I lifted and opened my arms to allow her a better look. “Is my wedding suit.”
I nodded. “But, this is the suit I got married in.”
“Your wife must be fashion blind.”
“She picked it especially for me.”
“Then she’s also a sadist.”
“She’s dead,” I said.
It was her turn to spray saliva as she laughed. Some of it got on my jacket and trousers.
“Oh,” she said. “Oh Christ, I’m so sorry.” And she laughed again, watching me, waiting to see how I was going to react. “Are you joking?”
Her brow furrowed and her lips pressed together as she examined my face. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “It’s okay. Really.” To my surprise, I meant it. “So, what’s your name?”
“Really glad to meet you Alison. I’m Stuart.”
I wiped my hand on my trouser leg, over our combined spittle, and held it out. She wiped her hand on her dress. We shook.
The wedding march started. We let go of the other’s hand and broke eye contact and stood. We watched Debs walk up the aisle. We watched her get married to Mark. My face got sore from smiling.
As Mark kissed the bride, I stood.
“Where are you going?” Alison said.
“You not coming to the reception?”
“No, you’ve put me off.”
“Come on, really?”
“Last time I saw most of these people was at my wife’s funeral. I’ll just be a distraction. It’s their day.”
She looked at me for a long moment. “Okay. Wait a sec.”
She rummaged inside her handbag and then leaned onto the seat next to her so I couldn’t see what she was doing.
When she stood I held my hand out so she could shake it goodbye.
Instead, she stepped inside and gave me a hug. I felt every place where her warmth and softness pressed against my jagged ribs and back.
“Bye then,” she said and let go.
I didn’t want her to let go. “Bye.”
I shuffled along the isle and out the church door into the bright afternoon sunshine. I walked away from the church and kept walking.
The wind tugged at the jacket and I dug my hands into the jacket pockets and found another surprise: a postcard. It was the invitation to the wedding. I thought it might be another artifact from some other where, but when I turned it over, scrawled on the back was one word: ‘Alison’ and below that her phone number.
I thought about Alison for the rest of the day. I kept going over our conversation, remembering our laughter, feeling that hug. I even went to sleep thinking about her. It was a relief to have something new to think about, let me tell you.
The wedding suit hung on the wardrobe door. The trousers were draped on the hanger’s crossbar.
I stared at it for a moment, and then had an idea.
I transferred Alison’s phone number from the back of the invitation to the contacts on my phone. I opened the jacket and slid the invitation with her name and number on it into the inside pocket. I returned the positive pregnancy test and the birth certificate, dated seven months in the future, to the left-hand jacket pocket. I re-folded and put the slightly crumpled negative biopsy letter into the right-hand jacket pocket. I took the wedding band from my finger and put it in an envelope, sealed it, then slid it next to the invitation in the inside pocket. I zipped up the plastic garment bag.
I walked back to the dry cleaners carrying the suit over my arm. Something blooped in the back room. There was no bell. There was a modern electronic till on the counter with no notice on it, the room had been painted a pastel blue. The man appeared from the doorway behind the counter as he had before but this time his hair was short and his cheeks were clean shaven.
“Yes? What do you want now?”
“I want this dry cleaned,” I said.
He rolled his eyes. “Obviously,” and then he handed me a book of tickets. They were blue. “Name, address and phone number on the back. You know the drill.” I scribbled and then he ripped out and handed me a blue ticket, the stub stayed in the book. I looked at the ticket: it said #164.
“Thanks,” I said. I heard the bloop from the back room when I left.
I crumpled the ticket into a little blue ball and threw it into the nearest bin.
I took out my phone and found Alison’s contact.
I pressed the call button and started walking home.