The Guest

Dawn first saw the note under the door as she put on her silk dressing gown. She bent down to pick it up and deciphered the scribbled excitement demanded she come as soon as possible to the attic guest room. She took a deep breath to help compose her thoughts, tucked a tendril of long blonde hair behind her ear, gathered her vanity case and called for the maid to carry her dress and veil. She took a final sweep around her room and felt a calm contentment knowing the next time she would be standing in this exact spot she would have begun the next chapter in her life.

As soon as she climbed the stairwell to knock on the door, it flew open with a burst of diminutive limbs and sprawling golden curls. Her friend Lottie screamed gleefully, ‘You’re getting married! Ahhh! It’s so wonderful! I can’t believe this is actually happening! Ahhh! Come in, come in!’

Ever exuberant Lottie was in nothing but her negligee, hopping barefoot, caught in the middle of painting her toes a deep blood red. She ushered Dawn and the maid into the room. A floating, oppressive wall of acetone and something else pervaded the air, making it difficult to breathe. The maid hung the gossamer lace wedding dress and cathedral length veil against a white armoire. ‘Oh Dawn!’ Lottie took a step back, ‘Your dress is beautiful. It’s the most gorgeous dress I’ve ever seen. You’re going to look so perfect in it. It’s a true goddess gown,’ she took a step closer to better inspect it. ‘I love all the beadwork and embroidery. It must have taken hours to make. I can’t believe you didn’t show it to me before. Even last night! I thought you were going to have it left in here with me. It would have saved you the trouble of bringing it in this morning.’

Dawn raised the corners of her mouth as nodded in acquiescence, ‘Yes, I’m not sure why I didn’t really.’ She glanced quickly about her Maid of Honour’s room of one night so far. It was a grand disarray of clothes and shoes, the bed sheets cascading halfway across the floor. In the far corner, the powdery morning sun tried to peep in through the large lattice window. Dawn went over to it and looked down at the gravel path far below leading to the garden where the ceremony was due to take place at noon. Beyond the wrought iron gate in the garden wall she could see three ushers in grey morning suits arranging rows of chairs on the grass. She looked up at the blue skies and inhaled the fresh lawn air. She allowed herself that short moment of serenity before her senses came back to the room as Lottie was giving instructions to the maid. Dawn felt somehow smothered. She looked up at the sky again and noticed some feint mare-tailed clouds in the distance.

‘My dress needs steaming,’ Lottie informed.

‘But both our dresses were done yesterday, weren’t they Liz?’ Dawn intercepted. The maid agreed and went to open the armoire. Out tumbled a crushed bundle of frothy blush tulle onto the floor.

‘I tried it on when I got here last night and I thought it could do with another steam. It hadn’t been done very well,’ Lottie dismissed as she raised her delicate chin in the air and padded over to sit at the dressing table.

Dawn turned to the maid and smiled with her eyes, ‘If you wouldn’t mind taking it to be steamed again Liz? Thank you.’

The maid nodded, her eyes smiled back and she quickly gathered up the fabulous confection of a dress from the floor, shutting the bedroom door behind her.

Dawn looked for a place to set up her vanity case and managed to clear some clothes from the corner of the chaise-longue at the foot of the bed. She sat down and began arranging her make up and hair accessories on the floor by her slippered feet, trying to take up as little space as possible. She reflected it would have been easier to finish getting ready in the comfort of her own bedroom, but Lottie had insisted they dressed together in her room as a traditional last girlhood affair. She couldn’t deny her oldest friend such a simple request. Nevertheless, as she looked about the room, she had a funny feeling that she couldn’t quite shake.

Lottie was gabbling as she fiddled with a bunch of blue forget-me-nots and sparkling gemstones in front of the dressing table mirror, ‘I just need to finish sorting my headdress. I looked at it earlier and realised it’s too flimsy against my necklace. I think it will get lost unless I add a bit more to it. But let me know if you need some help with anything.”

‘It’s alright. I think everything is under control. My dress and veil are ready, so I just have to do my hair and make up. I don’t think I’ll take too long.’

Lottie continued to chatter, gushing at how thrilled she was about the day, how this was something they had viewed as so far in the future since they were little girls and now it was finally here. She reminisced about how they had always been inseparable, closer than sisters, part of the same person almost. They had so many precious memories that had glued them together over the years, they would always be bound to each other. And now wasn’t it just so splendid that one of them was actually getting married.

The bride to be half-listened, silently noting Lottie was singing a different tune to when Dawn had first told her she was getting married six months ago. Her friend had burst into tears, saying she didn’t want it to happen. Some days later Lottie apologised. She said Dawn had always been her anchor and she was simply sad their friendship would change now it wouldn’t be just the two of them.

Since then Dawn had felt an uneasy tightening in her stomach. She had long accepted Lottie’s saccharine sweetness was self-serving, and she excelled at spinning catastrophes around herself from a flurry of trifles – it was all woven into her dazzling, virulent charm. But in recent years, a vying sourness had started to skulk about with Lottie, it was unsettling. Perhaps it was the escalating number of hapless love affairs or the simple sting of age that all women come to face; whatever the root, it made Lottie’s theatrics harder to vindicate.

Dawn went over to lean on the window for some air. The room was so high up, the highest point of the house. Staring down gave her a slight feeling of vertigo, so she gripped the window frame to steady herself. She could see the ushers talking animatedly far below. One of them clenched his hands as though he was cold. The sun had moved behind the clouds and the temperature outside appeared to have cooled. And yet her face felt flushed and she was certain the room was getting hotter. She suddenly felt something behind her back and spun around, but as she turned, she saw there was nothing. Lottie was still by the dressing table and there was no one else in the room. Dawn dismissed the feeling, putting it down to pre-wedding nerves and walked over to inspect her wedding gown.

‘In a way I’m glad you didn’t leave your dress here last night,’ Lottie trilled. ‘I’d be terrified of tripping up on it and ripping a hole through the middle of it or something awful!’

Dawn looked up at her old friend for a fleeting moment, musing to herself she had also considered a similar scenario. She laughed off the comment and rearranged the veil, making it as compact on its hanger as possible.

‘Why don’t you hang the dress here in the light?’ Lottie waved to the dressing table where she was camped amidst the cluttered flowers and jewels.

‘Ah no. I think it’s probably better out of the way over here,’ Dawn rationalised.

Lottie shrugged and continued adorning her headdress while Dawn settled herself back on the chaise-longue. For some reason getting ready seemed to be taking much longer than planned, she could have sworn she was nearly finished only to now discover she looked a mess.

The light in the room seemed to be darkening. She felt her body heat rising further as she fastidiously unpinned and re-pinned her tangled hair. She was finding it harder to breathe, as though a thin gauze cloth was covering her mouth and nostrils. Her head started to spin and she felt the inexplicable compulsion to try and remember the words to the Lord’s prayer, despite the fact she had not recited it since being forced to as a small child in school.

Lottie went on about how she couldn’t wait to see the photographs after the wedding of the two of them together, they would look sensational. Through her stupor, Dawn nodded in agreement; they had always looked lovely together. They were often mistaken for twins, both petite and fair, with matching green tourmaline eyes.

Both girls suddenly looked up as a flash lit the sky. There was a loud rumble as they went to the window and saw a torrent of rain pouring from the heavy violet skies above. Lottie shut the window with a dramatic slam, ‘Oh no! The day will be ruined!’

Dawn frowned and said slowly, ‘I suppose they will have to move everything inside.’

She looked out as one of the ushers appeared to have slipped and fallen on the grass whilst carrying two chairs under both arms. ‘Don’t worry. It’s good luck if it rains on your wedding day,’ Lottie pipped brightly.

Dawn said nothing. She called for the maid to update on the new plans as she nervously powdered her face. The maid finally arrived and hung Lottie’s freshly-steamed dress by the armoire. She also brought Dawn’s bridal bouquet – a ribbon-tied arrangement of large plush white roses and blue forget-me-nots. Liz reported the ushers had said it looked like this was just a passing shower. They were hoping it would brighten up and they would have time to put the chairs out again for the ceremony as planned. Guests were still arriving and were being served drinks in the reception room downstairs. She told Dawn not to worry before asking if she needed any help getting ready. Dawn’s stony face softened and she said no, everything was under control.

The maid left the girls once more and Dawn turned to finish her never-ending task of preparation. She looked up and saw Lottie was somehow already dressed, spinning her layered skirts and admiring where the fitted bodice cut away on her collarbone to reveal smooth cream shoulders. She looked breath-taking. Her mad baby curls were fettered under the wreath of bejewelled flowers, and the gems around her neck glistened a silvery blue. Lottie looked thoroughly pleased with herself, she was ready to walk down the aisle. The sight gave Dawn a sudden chill, jolting her senses awake. She realised she was still in her dressing gown, nowhere near ready, ‘I don’t know why I’m taking so long. I feel I keep doing the same things over and over again in a loop. It’s like I’m stuck in some weird time warp or something. Are we running late? What time is it?’ she asked.

‘No! Not at all. Don’t worry about the time. We’ve got forever left. Don’t think about it. I just thought I should get dressed so that I’m free to help you,’ Lottie flounced to the window to distract her friend. ‘It looks like the rain is actually stopping. They’re starting to bring everything back out again. So it seems you will get married in the garden today after all.’

There was an off-beat tone in Lottie’s voice that Dawn couldn’t quite put her finger on. ‘Good. What a relief. I better hurry up then,’ she said as much to herself as to the room.

She rushed now to finish. Neither her hair nor make up seemed to work the way she wanted. Everything seemed to get more disordered the more she tampered. The room was sweltering and making her feel claustrophobic. It was becoming unbearable.

At last she had to accept the state of her handiwork and rose to put on her wedding dress. She went over to the armoire and slowly slipped the fragile lace over her head taking care not to rip the fabric. The dress was barely-there, decorated with hundreds of shimmering beads in spirals at her feet. She lifted the long ornate veil and stood in front of the armoire mirror. Lottie rushed behind to help her fix the veil in place. Suddenly, out of the corner of Dawn’s eye, a small black shadow lunged in the mirror. Dawn spun round, crying out sharply; she had pricked her own finger with one of the pins and droplets of blood oozed out. She put her finger in her mouth and saw there was nothing where the shadow would have been. Her heart hammered under her breastbone as she allowed Lottie to help her fix the veil on her head with two diamond hairpieces.

Dawn glanced at her face in the mirror – her hollowed cheeks drained of colour and her eyes were flat shards of glass. She looked strangely unreal, not like herself, as though she was wearing a translucent grey mask over her face. She took a step back and gazed over the reflection of the two girls: she in ivory, Lottie in rose, standing behind with her hands resting on Dawn’s shoulders. An eerie feeling crept upon her skin. If it wasn’t for the difference in their dresses, they could be one and the same person, though Lottie radiated fully in bloom whilst Dawn was fading to ash. Lottie – unusually silent now – was biting her red lips, hands slightly shaking. Dawn felt heavy breath on the back of her neck and saw Lottie furrow her brow as she seemed to be concentrating. Dawn continued to stare at the two of them in the mirror. Her head pounded and her nostrils fought to find any air left in the room. Her rasping throat tightened as though it was being slowly but firmly squeezed. She sluggishly mused, ‘I can’t go. I’m too late now. I’m not ready and I can’t go like this. I will not be getting married today.’

Her legs felt unusually heavy and as she tried to move, it seemed as though her feet were stuck in blocks of cement. She tried to catch Lottie’s tourmaline eyes, but they were fixed downwards and her face was strangely contorted. Dawn struggled to breathe as the mantra chanted again inside her head – or perhaps it came from the outside – she couldn’t tell, ‘You will not be getting married today.’

A knock broke the spell and the door flew open. They both turned as the flower girl ran in – Dawn’s young cousin. Dawn gasped, brusquely pushing Lottie’s hands away and gulping air to fill her lungs. The child impatiently asked if Dawn was ready yet, they were so very late and the guests were all waiting outside. This was the third time they had been called. Odd, thought Dawn, she didn’t remember anyone telling them to hurry all morning. Her eyes skimmed the outline of Lottie’s dress, not able to look at her face. The child passed Dawn her bouquet and pulled her away from Lottie.

The three girls proceeded down the stairwell to the main house, along the upstairs corridor, down the large stairway to the hall downstairs and finally to crunch across the gravel stone path that led to the walled garden. They could hear the string quartet playing. All the while the fever in Dawn’s cheeks burned deeper. A darkness seemed to follow them on their procession. And then the familiar notes of the bridal march began. The child went ahead, dropping petals onto the carpeted aisle. The guests stood to look as Dawn entered the garden, tightly gripping her bouquet for support as Lottie walked behind holding the veil. Dawn felt she was half-running from the dark cloud gathering speed behind her. She was racing to get to the alter before something might make her stop. Perhaps she would trip, her veil would rip, be pulled off so that she fell backwards, breaking an ankle, stopping the ceremony… But the sun shone fiercely on, the music swelled and she saw her groom waiting for her ahead. She smiled a smile of pure happiness and succumbed to the golden glow that hovered over the entire garden; in that instant the darkness behind her disintegrated.

Dawn glided down the remainder of the aisle, bride and groom exchanged their solemn vows, sealed their fate with a kiss and signed their legal declarations. It was done. They were married. The guests clapped and threw rice over the newlyweds as they walked past. The puerile fears of the morning started to fade like a distant dream.

Dawn and the groom were swept up in a whirl of celebration as their family and friends cheered their congratulations. Champagne flutes tinkled and trays of canapés emptied as the guests cooed over the ceremony and looked forward to the wedding feast and dance to follow. The photographer jauntily rallied everyone together for the group photographs and took his time assembling the family portraits before calling the full bridal party including Best Man and Maid of Honour. That’s when they realised Lottie was not there. The ushers searched the gardens, whilst the maids searched the house. But it was the child who found her. On the gravel stone path at the back of the house, there was a crushed heap of frothy blush tulle and golden curls crowned with tiny blue flowers. It took a moment to understand this was Lottie. Amongst the gathered wedding guests, it was a strangely farcical scene, except Lottie’s head was lying at an awkward angle and her bodice was drenched with a dark red which was seeping through the gravel stones towards the feet of the guests. Far above her, the window to the attic guest room was open wide. The feint waft of acetone and wet metal mingled in the breeze.

Copyright 2018 Joon Haque. All rights reserved

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