2. By the Side of the Bridal Path
Inside the church, three hundred guests – and a handful of regular members of St. Cuthbert’s, entitled in that capacity to attend any service – sat waiting for the ceremony to begin. Matthew had told Elspeth that she should invite as many friends as she wished. His father was paying for the wedding and had imposed no limits; his own list, Matthew felt, was at risk of being embarrassingly small: a few old friends from school, his father and his new wife, a couple of distant cousins, Angus Lordie, Domenica Macdonald, Big Lou, James Holloway; that was about all.
Pat, Matthew’s former girlfriend and occasional employee, had been invited too, and had accepted. Much to Matthew’s relief it appeared that she bore no ill-will towards the woman who had supplanted her in Matthew’s affections; and for her part, Elspeth, by nature, was not one to be jealous. Matthew had reassured her that although he had been serious about Pat, his seriousness had been a mistake; misplaced seriousness, as he described it. “She was really more of a sister,” he said. “I don’t know why I…” He left the rest unsaid, and it was not referred to again. So many men might say “I don’t know why I…”when talking about the carnal, reflected Elspeth; all men might, in fact.
Elspeth had invited everyone in her address book and many who were not. All her colleagues from the Steiner School were there, her suspension having been formally rescinded after the evidence of the other children – prominent among them Tofu – that Olive’s account of the incident in which the teacher had pinched her ear was at the very least confused, and more likely mendacious. But by the time her reputation was cleared she had already resigned, become engaged, and decided not to go back to teaching.
As well as Elspeth’s former colleagues, an invitation had been given to all the children in the class she had taught. They were to attend under the supervision of their new teacher, who had led them into the church as a group and taken them to the pews reserved for them up at the top on the left. Here they sat – Merlin, Pansy, Lakshmi, Tofu, Hiawatha and the rest, hair neatly combed, their legs swinging freely, not quite touching the floor, whispering to each other, awed by the solemnity of the occasion and the significance of what was about to happen to their beloved Miss Harmony.
“She’ll probably have a baby in a couple of weeks,” said Olive knowingly. “I hope it’s a girl. It’ll be a big tragedy if it’s a boy.”
Tofu turned and sneered at her from the pew in front. “Babies take time,” he said, adding, “stupid.”
“What do you know about it?” hissed Olive. “And anyway, no girl would ever marry you. Not in a hundred years.”
“You mean that nobody would ever marry you,” retorted Tofu. “They’d take one look at you and be sick.”
“I’m going to marry Bertie,” said Olive smugly. “He’s already asked me. We’re going to get married when we’re twenty. It’s all settled.”
Bertie, who was sitting a couple of places away from Olive heard this remark and froze. “No, Olive, I didn’t say I would,” he protested. “I didn’t.”
Olive glared at him. “You did!” she said. “You promised! Don’t think you can break your promises like that.” She snapped her fingers to demonstrate the speed of Bertie’s broken promises, then looked at him and added, “Especially in a church. God’s really going to hate you, Bertie!”
This conversation was interrupted by the organist, who began to play a Bach prelude. Although the congregation was unaware of their presence, Matthew and Elspeth had already arrived and were sitting with Charlie Robertson in the chapel at the back of the church, a small, tucked-away room on the walls of which the names of the fallen were inscribed in lead, equal in death, with no distinction of rank, just men. Matthew, feeling awkward, gazed at the lists of names and thought: they were my age, or younger. Some were seventeen or eighteen, and were only in France or wherever it was for a week or two, days in some cases, before they died in that landscape of explosion and whistling metal. They didn’t have a chance, and now here am I, whose life has been so easy, reading about them and their sacrifice.
It was as if Charlie Robertson had read Matthew’s thoughts. “We’ve been very fortunate, haven’t we?” he said. “Being born at the time we were.”
Matthew glanced at Elspeth. He reached for her hand.
“On a more cheerful note,” said Charlie. “Did you know that it was in this chapel that Agatha Christie got married?”
Matthew showed his surprise. “I would have thought that she would have been married in a sleepy little English village somewhere,” he said. “In one of those places with an extraordinarily high murder rate.”
Charlie laughed. “I see what you mean,” he said. “But no. She got married here in Edinburgh. To her archaeologist husband. She said that an archaeologist was an ideal husband, as the older the wife became, the more interested he would be in her.”
Matthew smiled. It was difficult to imagine Agatha Christie as being young; some people were remembered as how they became, rather than how they were; it was something to with names, he thought. Agatha was not a young name. “But didn’t she run away?”
“That was earlier,” said Elspeth, who knew something about Agatha Christie. “Her first, dashing husband fell in love with somebody else. So she disappeared, and was eventually found staying at a hotel in Harrogate.”
Charlie Robertson looked at his watch. “Well,” he said. “We should be thinking of starting. Are you two ready?”
Matthew rose to his feet. Their conversation, innocent enough, had nevertheless made him think. In getting married, he realised, he was giving a hostage to fortune. By taking Elspeth into his life, the chances that the world would hurt him were doubled. She might leave him; she might run away, like Agatha Christie. There was so much that could go wrong in life if you took on somebody else, and then there were children and all the worries and anxiety they brought. There were so many reasons, he thought, for remaining single.
He looked at Elspeth, who was adjusting the veil she had pinned to her hair. I don’t want to hurt you, thought Matthew; that’s the last thing I want. But should I really go through with this? Is it wise?