Extract: The Wedding Party by Tammy Cohen
Lucy has dreamt of her wedding day for as long as she can remember. And now the day is almost here. Her nearest and dearest are gathered on an idyllic Greek island and she just knows it’s going to be perfect. It has to be.
But even the best-laid plans can go horribly wrong. What is the secret her parents are keeping from her? Who is the silent stranger her sister brought as a plus-1? And then they find the body. It’s going to be a day to remember.
Read on for the first two chapters of The Wedding Party by Tammy Cohen
The Wedding Party
From up here the body resembled a swastika. He’d watched it materialize gradually in the grainy grey pre-dawn light, lying on the beach below with its limbs splayed out at right angles.
A faint buzzing noise like a stupored fly on a window made Panos look out at the sea, where, in the soft rose-gold glow of early morning, the pointed grey bow of the coastguard launch was carving a straight line through the still, pale pink water of the bay. It cut its engine suddenly as it approached the jetty so that the silence fell with a thud, reverberating around the cliff faces that enclosed it.
Panos stretched. It had been impossible to sleep in the folding chair they’d brought him from the hotel and his back ached where a draught had penetrated the canvas sides. He heard sounds further up the hill behind him, the hotel coming to life, and wished his colleagues on board the launch would hurry up and retrieve the body before anyone came. Last night it had been impossible, the tiny bay inaccessible except by clambering over rocks from the bigger bay next to it, with its steep steps leading up to the hotel, but now time was of the essence. It was early, but the coastal path was popular with walkers, and who knew whether the strip of police tape he’d tried to tie across it further down in both directions would have survived the night intact.
Now the men were disembarking. Six of them. Half – like Panos – wearing the dark blue uniform of the Greek police. Two carried a stretcher between them. As they progressed along the jetty their voices floated up to where Panos stood guard, making sure no one disturbed the section of the clifftop from where the body had fallen. They seemed in high spirits. One of them laughed as he mistimed his step at the other end of the jetty and had to bend his knee to absorb the impact. But they fell quiet as they arrived at the back of the beach, where the body lay. Panos watched them bend their heads, each paying his own wordless respects. One of them said something and the others turned their faces up to where Panos stood at the top of the cliff. He waved and they all raised their hands in salute.
Two of the men were carrying rucksacks and now they knelt on the fine pebbles to open them. One proceeded to erect a rudimentary white tent over the body while the other assembled his camera. Panos’s aching muscles unfurled with relief. At least now no one could happen across the sight by accident. Already there were voices coming from the hotel up the hill behind him. Probably early-rising guests helping themselves to breakfast on the terrace.
His colleagues had been there late last night asking questions. And today it would all start again.
He lit a cigarette. Ahead of him, a seagull soared high above the glassy surface of the sea, turned golden now in the ripening morning sun, and its loud caw mixed in the already warm air with the smell of wild thyme and laurel and sage and the fresh scent of the cypress trees further inland and the cigarette smoke, making him momentarily giddy.
A small lizard, perhaps drawn by the insects already buzzing around the heady white pittosporum buds, shot across the path towards the gorse that lined the cliff edge, startling him.
Panos threw down his cigarette butt and ground it into the dirt under his shoe. Then he folded up his chair and picked up the Thermos that had kept him company during his lonely vigil.
Before he left, he cast one final look down to where the men on the little beach were now moving around with purpose, taking photographs, measuring angles, their shadows dancing across the white canvas tent that formed the flimsy barrier between the living and the dead.
The woman washing her breasts in the sink of the ladies’ toilets at Kefalonia airport had one of those faces older white women get from spending too many years abroad in climes unsuited to their skin, as if a brown paper bag had shrink-wrapped itself around her bones. The breasts themselves were large and hung to her waist, and she heaved them individually into the basin, which she had half filled with soapy water. She looked over at the small queue of female passengers who were determinedly staring at their phones or at the tiled floor or at the door behind which the toilet attendant had disappeared, quite as if they hadn’t noticed the half-naked woman in their midst. Unable to resist, Shelly glanced up, and immediately the woman latched on to her. ‘Needs must, eh, sweetheart?’ Her laugh was startling, a sudden, spontaneous volley of applause, but the smile that followed was small and tight as a purse zip.
The woman had a silk turquoise scarf tied like a headband around her stringy brown hair, which was streaked with blonde and grey. The scarf was fringed with tiny silver discs, and on her tanned, leathery wrists she had matching turquoise and silver bangles. Her eyes, which were sunk deeply into the brown paper of her face, were a bright, marble-hard blue and they fixed greedily on to Shelly, giving her the unpleasant sensation that it was she who was naked rather than the other way around. A cubicle came free and as she hurried in Shelly stored up the woman’s details in her head, already anticipating how the others – Lucy – would laugh when she recounted the scene. Funny how we always think the people who will do us most harm will enter our lives with a fanfare
or a cacophony of alarm bells ringing. But sometimes they’re just washing their breasts in a tiny sink and we haven’t a clue.
Something had woken her up.
But if she was awake, why weren’t her eyes open? Jess experimented with first prising one eyelid open, then the next. Which is when she realized she wasn’t in bed. She was lying on a prickly blue blanket. No. A rug. She was lying on the bedroom rug. What had she taken last night? Images came back to her in snapshots: cocktails, two-for-one, rude not to. Tequila shots lined up on a bar. Crammed into a toilet cubicle, kneeling, supplicant, in front of a long line of white powder.
Now she became aware of a buzzing under her left hip. Her phone. That’s what had woken her up.
She brought the cracked screen level with her eyes without raising her head.
The last thing she felt like doing was talking to her sister, but in her groggy state she lacked the wherewithal to decline, jabbing at the screen ineffectually, intent only on silencing that infernal buzzing.
Her sister’s face appeared on the screen, frozen there silently, her mouth slightly ajar, as if suspended in the act of formulating her words, then the signal jogged into gear. And her sister started screaming.
‘What?’ Jess rolled over on to her front and heaved herself into a sitting position, holding the phone with the image of her still-shrieking sister about six inches away. Her hand was unsteady and the picture wobbled, rendering her own tiny image a small dark blur in the uppermost right corner. ‘What?’
Now that she was upright, she became aware of a crushing pressure in her head, as if her skull had shrunk until it was several sizes too small for all it contained inside. There was a hard ball of anxiety in her stomach that had something to do with her sister’s very obvious horror and a sour smell that she suspected was coming from her.
Lucy stopped screaming and pointed to the place on her screen where Jess imagined her own image must be.
‘Your face,’ she whispered. ‘What have you done to your face? WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?’
Jess rolled her eyes, assuming she was talking about the hungover state of her, but still her hands crept up to her cheeks. And came away wet with blood.
Suddenly horribly sober, she scrambled to her feet and made her way to the chest of drawers, on which rested a tarnished junk-shop mirror with photos and postcards tucked into the frame and strings of beads draped across the top.
She stared at her reflection. And her reflection stared back. One eye almost buried beneath swollen, discoloured lids, a gash over one brow from which blood had gushed at some point, only to dry in rusty streaks across her face, fresh blood trickling from a cut to her upper lip that she must have ripped open when she spoke. She felt gripped suddenly by nausea, and by fear, an awareness of being on a path that could only lead somewhere really, really bad.
Lucy was right. What the absolute fuck had she done?
‘Don’t cry, babe. I can’t bear it when you cry.’
‘I’m sorry, Jase. It’s just so disappointing. She knows how much I’ve put into this and how important it is to me. Couldn’t she just once let me have something for myself without making it all about her?’
‘That’s just Jess, though. She’s not about to change now. Isn’t that why we love her?’
‘Easy for you to say. She’s not your sister.’
‘She will be soon. Sister-in-law, anyway. And she really can’t remember what happened?’
‘No! Face pouring with blood and no idea how it got there.’
‘I’m just tired of it. I’m tired of her non-stop drama. This is my wedding. I’ve lived and breathed it for a whole year.’
From the lounger next to the one where the soon-to-be-wed couple lay squashed up together, Shelly dipped her head so she could peer at Lucy over the top of her dark shades, her huge eyes soft with concern.
‘Please try not to let it get to you, Luce. It’s not fair. You don’t deserve this.’ When Shelly was stretched out like that Lucy could see the individual ridges of her ribs pressing against the Lycra of her one-piece swimsuit.
‘I’ve planned every single last detail, Shelly. You know I have. How long did I spend sweating over those canapés, back and forth, making sure there’d be something for everyone? Vegetarian. Gluten fucking free. I just want everything to be perfect. And now my own sister is going to show up looking like she’s literally gone ten rounds with Tyson Fury. And don’t even get me started on the dress fiasco.’
Shelly winced in sympathy. She’d been there for every painful step of the bridesmaid-dress nightmare. Sometimes Lucy didn’t know how she would have coped without Shelly. In the two years they’d been working together Shelly had become like family – particularly as the poor girl had such a rubbish excuse for a family herself. After Jason, Shelly was the first person Lucy turned to in a crisis. Like when Jess refused point-blank to wear the colour Lucy had picked out for the bridesmaids.
‘It’s blush-pink,’ Lucy had told her. ‘No, it’s urine-infection pink and I’m not wearing it.’ And as usual it’d been Lucy who’d ended up compromising, though she’d drawn the line at the fuchsia, which was Jess’s suggestion. ‘So tacky,’ Shelly had shuddered. And seeing as Shelly would have to wear it, too, with her pale, ethereal complexion, that almost translucent skin of hers, that’d been the end of that discussion, thank God. In the end they’d gone for a dusky rose colour that Lucy had persuaded Jess was ‘retro’. But – surprise, surprise – Jess had left it until the last minute to find a dress, with the result that Lucy still hadn’t seen it. She’d FaceTimed that morning specifically to vet the garment, which, after all, would be featuring in most of her wedding photographs, but then had come the drama of the unexplained blood and Jess had been so obviously freaked out it had felt wrong to bring up the dress. And now Jess was in transit (hopefully – Lucy didn’t take anything for granted when it came to her sister) and it was all too late.
‘At least your mum and dad will be here soon. They can help deal with her.’
Shelly’s voice sounded small and strangled, and Lucy’s heart constricted. Shelly put on a brave face, but it couldn’t be easy for her to be around other people’s families. Other people’s parents.
‘Tell me the truth, Shelly. Am I being too bridezilla about everything? That’s what Jess calls me. Sometimes I feel so stressed out with the whole thing. I know I overreact, and it probably seems petty. But we’ve spent so much money . . .’
‘Bridezilla? Are you joking? You’re the nicest, most generous person I know, and Jess should learn to shut her . . . Look, you just want your wedding to be perfect. That’s completely normal. Come on, talk me through the itinerary again.’ Shelly swung her long, skinny, pale legs over the side and adjusted the wide-brimmed hat she always wore in the sun. Lucy found herself softening, tension leaking from her as if someone had opened up a valve. Shelly had that effect on her, with her freckles and her lopsided smile and the way she just understood things without having to be told.
‘Right, well, tonight at seven there’s the welcome reception with the selection of warm canapés, then tomorrow it’s the fishing trip . . .’ Instantly, Lucy was calmer. This was her wedding. It would be the best day of her life.
It had to be.
Therapy Journal, Week 1
For the record, I never expected you to set me homework! This feels so weird, I’m not going to lie. I’ve spent so many years hiding my true self and now you want me to lay it all out. Be honest, you said. As if that was something I knew how to be.
Where to start? That’s a rhetorical question, of course.
Everything starts with the mother, like Freud said. Everyone knows that.
By the time she flung open the door of their Nissan Juke hire car – which they never would have rented if she’d been the one booking it – Hazel and her husband, Dom, hadn’t exchanged a word in eighteen minutes. In fact, the only voice either of them had heard was the sat-nav woman, who took them at one stage into a dusty supermarket loading bay, and Hazel had had to bite back the words ‘I did say,’ having advised Dom right at the start that a paper map would be a better bet in a place like this. They were on the tip of her tongue, but she contented herself with an eye-roll and a small shake of the head. Was it normal, she wondered, not to have anything to talk about after thirty years together? What made a silence companionable, as opposed to just habitual?
‘That wasn’t bad, was it?’
Dom beamed at her over the bonnet of the awful car – red, of all things! – and Hazel allowed herself to relax. This was a happy occasion, she reminded herself. How often did the whole family get together these days?
‘No. Not too bad. Can’t wait for a drink, though.’
‘Not for me. Fast day, don’t forget.’
Hazel took a deep breath in. ‘Please tell me you’re not going to do the bloody 5:2 on our daughter’s wedding day.’
‘Of course. I intend to save all my permitted calories for my toast . . . Joking, darling! This is the only day, I promise.’
Dom was so pleased with himself, and with her and with everything, standing there in his straw pork-pie hat and crumpled linen shirt the exact same blue as his eyes, that Hazel forgot about the silence in the car and the wretched diet and all the worries of the last few weeks and smiled back. It was all fine. Everything would be fine.
‘This is nice.’
Hazel followed her husband’s gaze as it swept across the hotel’s crisp white facade, all tasteful blue shutters and exotic cacti and a bamboo pergola on the roof under which one could stand, cocktail in hand, and watch the sun setting over the navy-blue Ionian sea. Of course, she’d seen it in the brochures. Oh Lord had she seen it. Well, they were paying for most of it, weren’t they, her and Dom? Lucy’s fairy-tale bikini wedding. The nuts and bolts of it, anyway. Along with half the cost of the huge party Lucy had organized for their friends at home once they got back. Sometimes when Hazel totted up how much the whole thing was costing, she worried she might be sick.
Dom hoisted the bags out of the boot with a flourish. He was in good shape for a man approaching sixty, she acknowledged as she followed his lean, rangy figure into the hotel entrance. All that running was paying off. Those Saturday-morning 10k fun runs. Fun? Oh, dear God. Hazel remembered what fun used to look like – hungover mornings in bed with the papers, fry-ups followed by long Sunday afternoons in the pub. When did everything change?
At the threshold of the hotel, Dom paused for her to catch up. Together they surveyed the sleekly tasteful lobby with its white walls and the porcelain tiles made to look exactly like pale oak floorboards, the abstract oil painting on the wall in Mediterranean colours – cobalt blue, turquoise and gleaming white to match the gleaming white smile of the beautiful blonde receptionist – the enormous blue glass vase at one end of the bespoke white reception desk that contained an even more enormous bouquet of exotic flowers, all purples and blues and violets, offset by extravagant green foliage. They took in the soft jazz music piped in from an unseen source, and the smell of eucalyptus wafting from a fat clotted-cream-coloured scented candle in which tiny flowers – blue, naturally – were embalmed in the wax.
For the first time, Dom looked uncertain. ‘We should tell her,’ he said, taking in the sheer opulence of the place.
‘No. We agreed. Not until after the honeymoon. Let her have her wedding. She’s wanted it so long.’
Hazel’s raised voice was jarring in the rarefied atmosphere of the hotel lobby and the receptionist looked up, aiming her bright smile in their direction like a laser.
They were taken up to their room. No, not a room, Hazel reminded herself. This hotel didn’t have rooms, only suites of varying degrees of luxuriousness. The Comfort Suite was the basic, then the Senior Suite, then the Superior and, finally, the De Luxe. Dom and Hazel were in a Superior Suite. Hazel had tried to insist they’d be just as happy in a Comfort, but Lucy wouldn’t hear of it. ‘How do you think I’d feel,’ she’d asked, ‘knowing I was in the De Luxe while the two of you were slumming it in Comfort? How would it look to the other guests?’ It worried Hazel how concerned Lucy was about how things looked to other people. You thought you’d done a good job bringing up two strong, independent women, but it was only in a crisis that you truly saw their hidden neuroses and vulnerabilities. And now she had to remind herself sternly that this was a wedding, and not a crisis.
The Superior Suite had white flooring and huge sliding glass doors that opened on to a private terrace with a circular whirlpool and a glass balustrade giving a clear view of the two pristine, curving swimming pools below, divided by a central bridge, and beyond that, the clifftop path that curved around the base of the hotel wall and, just visible, the tiny white shingle cove, accessible by a set of terrifyingly steep stone steps. ‘It will keep you fit, no?’ the receptionist had said.
Hazel started unpacking, carefully hanging up the dress she’d brought for the wedding. Lucy had been horrified when Hazel had told her she wasn’t buying a new outfit for the wedding. ‘But I love this dress and I’ve only had one chance to wear it,’ Hazel had protested. It was perfectly true. She did love the dress she’d bought for her niece’s wedding the previous year. Obviously, that didn’t mean she wouldn’t have loved to get something new and special for this occasion, too, but in the circumstances . . .
‘Oh my God, you’re actually here. Can you believe this place? Isn’t it amazing?’
Lucy burst in through the door in a sensory explosion of golden flesh and multicoloured floral sarong and coconut-scented suntan oil. A pair of aviator sunglasses held back her highlighted blonde hair, which was wet at the ends, as if she had been trying to keep her head out of the water while swimming.
Dom put his arms around her and they hugged
for a long time. She had always been such a daddy’s girl. With Hazel, there was always that little bit more restraint. Not that there was any dearth of warmth and love. Oh dear God, there had been times when Hazel had thought there was something deranged about how fiercely she felt about her daughters. But privately she worried that there was a disconnect between her and her older daughter, a point at which, while they loved each other, they didn’t always quite get each other. As a child, Lucy had been so greedy for her attention, so physically demanding, that Hazel, by nature someone who was used to tightly patrolling her own boundaries and who found unbridled displays of affection as difficult as surprise parties and – another of Lucy’s favourite things – spontaneous FaceTiming, had struggled to reciprocate. Even as an adult, Lucy would quite often fling herself down on to Hazel’s lap without warning or lay her head on her shoulder while watching TV, and Hazel would submit to it stiffly and, she often worried, gracelessly, as she had done the few times she’d given in to pressure and gone for a massage, tensing under the masseur’s hands. ‘Let yourself go for once,’ Lucy had urged her at the Pampering Day she’d organized for Mother’s Day at a posh Bath hotel a couple of months before. ‘You don’t have to do a photo shoot on it, just enjoy it.’
It was an old family joke. How Hazel couldn’t leave her work persona behind when she came home. ‘Er, hello, living human being here,’ one or other of the girls would say, drawing an imaginary circle around her own face when Hazel looked at her in a certain way. They were people, they’d remind her impatiently, not subjects.
Seeing her husband and daughter together loosened the band that had been tightening around Hazel’s chest over the last few weeks. They were so similar, the two of them. Both rangy and long-limbed, short on patience and ruled by emotion. So often she and Dom would be watching something on the television and Hazel would be shocked when she turned to Dom as the credits rolled to see fat tears rolling down his cheeks. But they were kind, the two of them. It was another thing they shared – that soft heart that beat inside them both. Hazel had actually banned Dom from answering the door in their Bristol house because he couldn’t resist a sob story. The number of monthly direct debits to this charity or that one, a fiver here, a tenner there. The number of bloody dishcloths and tea towels he’d bought from ex-cons or young lads claiming to be homeless. ‘You know they’re not really, don’t you?’ Jess had said once. ‘You know they’re all working for Romanian gangsters who take all the cash and give them peanuts?’ ‘I’d rather be a mug than a misanthrope,’ was Dom’s unruffled response.
As so often, Hazel felt a swell of gratitude for her family. So many of their friends had divorced over the years – her own sister, too – getting together with other people to form new units with varying degrees of success. But Hazel was glad their little unit had made it through intact. Not that she and Dom hadn’t had their wobbles over the years. Too many to count. Only a couple of years back they’d discussed seeing a counsellor. She’d even found one who lived conveniently near, although Dom had seen that as a drawback. ‘Imagine standing in the queue at the Tesco Express next to a woman who knows when and how you last had sex.’
‘You don’t know how glad I am you’re both here. Now you can take over on Jess-Watch.’
‘Has she arrived?’ asked Dom, ruffling his daughter’s hair.
‘Not yet. I gave her a wake-up FaceTime call really early this morning. I had to set an alarm and everything. She asked me to, so that she wouldn’t miss her plane. Though, obviously, I was also hoping to see her dress. And anyway, she was . . .’
Hazel didn’t like the look on Lucy’s face.
‘She was what?’
‘Oh, never mind. Just please promise me you’ll make her show you what she’s going to wear. I’ve sent Nina, my wedding planner, my Pinterest mood board of what look I’m going for and I don’t want there to be any nasty surprises.’
‘She won’t want to spoil your wedding, sweetheart,’ said Hazel, with as much conviction as she could muster.
‘I know she wouldn’t do it deliberately, it’s just . . . I want this one day, this one week, to be mine, without it becoming the Jessica Show. That’s not too much to ask, is it?’
Lucy’s eyes filled with the tears that were never far away and Dom put his arm around her. ‘Don’t worry, chicken. We will keep your sister under house arrest for the duration.’
It was very quiet in their suite after Lucy left. Dom came and stood behind Hazel and put his arms around her. ‘Aren’t we lucky?’ he whispered into her ear. For a moment the two of them stood looking at the huge kingsize bed with its pristine white sheets and the plump pillows with chocolate hearts resting in the dimple in the middle. Hazel thought about the days, years even, when the two of them would have been beside themselves with delight at all they could do in a room like this, hardly able to wait until the door was shut before falling on to the bed, when she would have worn her best underwear just for this reason.
As if he could read her mind, Dom’s hands slid down to her hips and he pressed into her back, making his intentions very clear. ‘We could always . . .’ he murmured. Hazel laughed and pulled away. ‘Not until you’ve had a shower. You’re minging.’
She tried to hold on to her good mood, but as Dom moved off to continue his unpacking and she took in the corner bath in the bathroom and the top-end toiletries by the sink and the whirlpool on the terrace, screened from view from neighbouring rooms, all she could think was how much it was costing and what a terrible waste it all was.
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