The Unknown Bridesmaid

The Unknown Bridesmaid

by Margaret Forster

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Overview

A child psychologist struggles to come to grips with her own dark childhood memories, in this “mesmerizing, unsettling novel” (The New York Times).

When eight-year-old Julia was asked to be a bridesmaid at her cousin’s wedding, she was thrilled. Nothing, not even her mother’s resentment of the expensive, inconvenient traveling, could dull her excitement. But when the day finally arrived and she took her cousin’s baby on a secret stroll around the block in his pram, her entire world shifted. She couldn’t possibly know the impact the fateful trip would have on her future.
A lifetime later, Julia is a child psychologist working with young girls at risk. In her sessions, Julia has a knack for determining which of her young patients are truly troubled, and which are simply at the mercy of the oppressive adults around them. In this quietly powerful story of the relationship between past and current reality, Julia’s own troubled childhood begins to invade her present, and she is forced to confront the events of that day—and discover whether the truth about her past, and her guilt, is as devastating as she has always feared.

“The book it most reminded me of was Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. There is the same sense of psychological detective story, of piecing together the fragments of an unresolved past.”—The Guardian

“A gripping read.”—The Observer

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609452223
Publisher: Europa Editions, Incorporated
Publication date: 09/02/2014
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Margaret Forster studied history at Somerville College, Oxford. She is the author of many successful and acclaimed novels, including Georgy Girl (made into a popular movie and Broadway musical) and Keeping the World Away, as well as two bestselling memoirs (Hidden Lives and Precious Lives) and biographies, including the award-winning Daphne du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Julia gave the child the doll, and waited. There was a toy cradle in the room, and a toy pram, the old-fashioned sort, not a buggy. Beside the cradle and the pram was a neat pile of miniature blankets, and sheets, and pillows. No duvets. Julia made a mental note to include a duvet in the choice of bedlinen. Most children today would be used to duvets, not sheets and blankets. Sheets and blankets might confuse them.

The child, a girl of eight, small for her age, thin and quite frail-looking, though she had been examined and pronounced perfectly healthy, held the doll in both hands, gripping it round its shoulders. She looked at it without any apparent interest. It was a baby doll, with a bald head, and blue eyes which could close if the doll was tilted in a certain way. It was dressed in a Babygro, a blue one, and underneath it wore a paper nappy. After a minute or so, the girl looked up at Julia, and frowned. She put the doll down, and folded her arms.

Quietly, without speaking, Julia picked the doll up and gave it a cuddle, patting it on its back as though it were a real baby. Then she went to the toy pram and put the doll into it. The girl began to show some interest, but this interest was more in Julia's action than in doll or pram. Carefully, Julia tucked the sheets and blankets round the doll until only its head, with its closed eyes, was visible. Then she pushed the pram backwards and forwards, edging it nearer and nearer to the girl, and then finally letting it come to rest right beside her. The girl immediately pushed the pram away, quite violently.

Julia was eight when the invitation to be a bridesmaid came from her cousin Iris. It was a great surprise to Julia's mother as well as to Julia herself. Iris's mother and Julia's mother were sisters, but they were not close. Julia's mother had always felt that Maureen, her older sister, treated her with disdain. She'd felt this all her life, and so had been happy, once she had married and moved away from Manchester, where they were both born, to keep her distance. But a wedding changed things. Julia's mother understood that her sister would want the gathering together of her family, if just to match the gathering on the bridegroom's side. The bridegroom was a major in the army and his father was an MP. Maureen couldn't match that but she could at least have her sister and niece at her side.

But, though she understood this, Julia's mother did not immediately accept the invitation for Julia to be a bridesmaid; she waited three days, and then she rang her sister up, saying she doubted whether Julia could accept because of the expense involved. There would be the dress, the shoes, the flowers, and she had no money to spare for any of those things. She reminded her sister that she was a widow on a small, a very small, pension. Her sister was furious, but she tried to keep the anger at Julia's mother boasting of her poverty (which is how she regarded it) out of her voice. She reminded herself that her sister had had a hard time, and was indeed quite poor, whereas she herself was comparatively well off, and ought to be magnanimous. She said her sister was not to worry about the expense. She said that of course she would pay for Julia's outfit and everything that went with it. She had always intended to and should have made this clear. If Julia's measurements were sent, a dress would be made and shoes bought.

Julia's mother still made a fuss about expense. She and Julia were to stay with Maureen, so the cost of a hotel was not involved, but a train ticket to Manchester would be pricey. Then there was the expense of getting to the station in the first place. The buses from their village were rare, and at awkward times, so a taxi would be needed. On and on Julia's mother went, moaning about money, doing sums on scraps of paper, looking in her bank book and emptying loose change out of various tin boxes marked 'gas' and 'rent'. Julia, always a good and obedient child, held her breath and waited. Meanwhile, a swatch of material arrived in the post, sent by Maureen to show Julia the colour and texture of the dress being made for her. It was not pink. That was the first disappointment. Julia had always assumed the dress would be pink. Instead, it was not exactly white but a kind of cream. And it was not soft or silky. This scrap of material felt like cotton, or even —'Good heavens,' said Julia's mother — rayon. 'If it's rayon,' she warned Julia, 'it will crease instantly.'

A taxi to the station was not in the end needed. Julia's mother had told everyone about the coming wedding, dropping the name of the bridegroom's family ever so casually, and she and Julia were offered a lift by the village shopkeeper's daughter who was going into Penrith that day. But nobody met them at the other end. Manchester station was, to Julia, terrifying. She held her mother's hand tightly. 'I don't know what to do,' her mother kept saying, which didn't help Julia's fear. 'Maureen said we'd be met.' Clearly, some arrangement had gone wrong. After a good fifteen minutes of standing stock-still on the platform where they had alighted, Julia's mother told her they would have to get a bus. She had a vague memory of a bus which went to the end of Maureen's road, but had no idea where the bus stop could be found. 'We will have to ask,' she said, in tones of horror. What, Julia wondered, was so terrible about asking where to find a bus stop? But her mother's agitation had communicated itself to her so completely that this wondering did not help. The noise in the station, the shrieking of the trains as they arrived and departed, and the surging crowds of hurrying people, made Julia terrified.

That was her recollection. Aged eight. Terrified, over something so unthreatening.

* * *

The girl's mother was waiting in the adjoining room. One look at the woman's face and it was obvious that she had recently done a lot of weeping. Her eyes were red and the dark shadows underneath them appeared shiny, as though they were damp. Her hair, thin hair, bedraggled, had been pushed back behind her ears, but little tendrils had escaped and clung to her cheeks.

'Well?' she said to Julia, making no movement towards her child, who stood in front of her mother, waiting. There was no gesture of affection. She didn't, Julia noted, even look at the girl. It was as though she were not standing there, entirely submissive. 'Well?' she said again, her voice rising higher this time on the question.

Julia smiled, and sat down. 'I think Honor might be thirsty,' she said. 'It was rather warm in my room. I'll just get her a glass of water. I won't be a moment.'

It would have been useful to have a two-way mirror in that room, but there had never been any money for that helpful device, and Julia was not sure if she herself would have agreed with the spying element. Useful, though, in a situation like this. But re-entering the room, carrying water for Honor, Julia was pretty certain nothing significant had happened during the two minutes she'd been absent. Mrs. Brooks hadn't folded her daughter in her arms, or in any way tried to connect with her. Both mother and child were in exactly the same positions, their faces wearing exactly the same expressions, both of them tense and silent.

'Well?' Mrs. Brooks said, this time neither challenging, nor impatient, but resigned.

'Sit down, Honor,' Julia said gently. 'Drink this. You look hot. You must be thirsty. Mrs. Brooks, would you like some tea or coffee?'

Mrs. Brooks shook her head. 'Let's get on with it,' she said. 'Let's have it straight, for God's sake.'

Julia looked at her. She looked into the mother's eyes steadily, unblinkingly, keeping her expression entirely blank, no frown, no slight smile, waiting. Honor drank the water greedily, in three big swallowings which were heard distinctly.

Mrs. Brooks closed her eyes and sighed. 'What happens now?' she asked.

* * *

The bridesmaid's dress didn't fit. Julia's mother was almost delighted by this. There was no dismay in her voice as she said to her sister Maureen, 'The dress doesn't fit, it's been made too small!' Her tone was one of peculiar triumph.

'Or Julia has grown since you sent those measurements,' said Maureen, adding, 'if they were accurate in the first place.'

Julia stood miserably in the too tight dress while the sisters argued, each insulting the other in every word said. Julia tried not to listen. She wondered if she was allowed to take the dress off now it had been demonstrated that it didn't fit her. There was a mirror in the bedroom where this unsuccessful fitting took place, a full-length oval-shaped mirror on a wooden stand. Julia could see herself only partially because the mirror was slightly swivelled, making the lower half of her body invisible. It was a little like looking in a fairground mirror. She felt she was distorted, though she didn't know if this was the fault of the tight dress or the mirror. Whatever the reason, she felt miserable, standing there waiting to see what would happen when her mother and aunt stopped arguing. It never occurred to her to give her own opinion.

Then Iris came in. Oh, she was so pretty!

'Julia!' Iris said, laughing, holding her arms out. 'How you've grown! What a big girl you are!'

Julia blushed deeply. She'd forgotten what her cousin looked like, all that long blonde hair, so smooth and sleek, and the big blue eyes and the round face with the neat little nose, and the perfect skin with cheeks so pink, glowing with health and happiness. Julia couldn't credit that her Aunt Maureen was this girl's mother. Where had Iris's prettiness come from? And then Iris saved her.

'Mummy,' she said, 'Julia's dress doesn't fit. Phone Mrs. Batey right now and get her round here to see what she can do. I can't have my best bridesmaid in a dress that doesn't fit. Poor love, look at her, it's a shame.'

Mrs. Batey came. She was in a huff, suspicious that the dress not fitting would be blamed on her dressmaking skills, but Iris handled her expertly. Mrs. Batey, Iris cooed, was clever. Mrs. Batey could see ways of managing things which no other dressmaker could. What Mrs. Batey saw was that all the dress needed was the side seams let out. The waist dropped, and the hem let down. There was time, just, to do all this (at a price), and for Iris, Mrs. Batey would do anything.

During the next few days, before the wedding, Julia saw how everyone was in thrall to her cousin Iris. She was both loved and admired. Her own mother, Maureen, adored her. Julia could not have said how she knew this, but know it she did. So did Julia's mother. 'Sun rises and sets with Iris,' she complained, though why this had to be a complaint Julia could not fathom. 'Spoiled, she's been spoiled from the day she was born. There could be a shock coming.' A shock? Julia was alarmed and worried, and asked her mother what would this shock be, would the lovely Iris be hurt? The reply to this was far too enigmatic for an eight-year-old. Julia didn't get the full significance of 'She'll have to come down to earth with a bump once she's married.' A bump didn't sound too dangerous. Iris could surely survive it.

Julia had flowers in her hair, which pleased her enormously, cornflowers and daisies, cunningly wreathed together and attached to a velvet band. They made up for the dress being off-white and quite plain. And she had a posy, too, tied with blue ribbon. 'You're as pretty as a picture,' Iris said. It was Iris who was the picture. Even Julia's mother was silenced by the vision of Iris in her bridal gown. The dress was simple, nothing meringue-like or frothy, cut on the bias, the satin draping perfectly round Iris's slender figure. 'How do I look?' Iris asked. 'Lovely,' was the chorus, and again, 'Lovely, lovely.' Then Maureen began to cry, and barely stopped for the rest of the day. Tears of happiness, tears of joy, or so she said, but even Julia could tell these were tears of loss and pain. They were 'so close,' this mother and daughter, or so Julia heard guests constantly saying to each other throughout the wedding reception. Never been such a close mother and daughter. They were more like sisters, someone said, which Julia thought perfectly ridiculous. Did that person have eyes? Could she not see what Maureen looked like, what Iris looked like? Sisters?

* * *

Honor had required extra care after her difficult birth. That, of course, might explain a lot (the difficult birth). And the fact that Honor was a girl and not a boy. It had emerged early on that Honor 'should have been' a son, not a daughter. Julia hadn't asked why Mrs. Brooks had wanted a son, why she cared about the sex of her first baby. It was not, after all, relevant. Mrs. Brooks herself, it had also emerged, was one of three sisters, the middle one, also 'meant' to be a boy. 'I was never forgiven,' she had told Julia dramatically. Julia had smiled politely, and skilfully steered her back along the path she wanted her to go along. So, she had said, tell me about Honor as a baby. This was also a tale of woe. Honor was difficult, didn't feed properly, cried most of the time, took ages to regain her birth weight, couldn't hold her head up until she was three months old, maybe more, and really Honor's development had gone on like that, difficult, right from the start.

Julia asked, at one point, who Honor showed affection to.

'Affection?' Mrs. Brooks echoed, as though affection were a disease.

'Does she have a pet, perhaps?' Julia pressed. 'Or a soft toy she cuddles?'

'She's been given plenty of soft toys,' Mrs. Brooks said, sounding angry, 'she hasn't been deprived of soft toys, I can tell you that. She's had teddy bears and every stuffed animal you can name, a whole zoo of them.'

Julia nodded, and politely asked again if Honor had shown affection for any of them and was there a particular toy she took to bed?

'She's ten,' her mother said, 'she's too old to take toys to bed, for goodness sake.'

Julia nodded again, and made a note. 'What about relatives?' she suggested. 'Her aunts? Your sisters or cousins? Does she have cousins she's fond of?'

'No,' said Mrs. Brooks.

'No to aunts, or No to cousins, or both?' Julia said. 'No to both,' she said, and did not elaborate.

Considering how defensive she always was, Julia was surprised no justification for this lack of contact followed. The subject was considered closed, but Julia wouldn't agree to this. 'Friends?' she queried. 'Is Honor fond of any school friend, or has she been until recently?'

'She's never been keen on friends,' Mrs. Brooks said, but this time sounding almost apologetic and not aggressive. 'I've tried,' she went on, 'I've invited children in her class to come and play after school, though Honor didn't want me to, but it wasn't a success.'

'How many times did you try?' Julia asked, injecting as much sympathy as possible into the question.

'Once,' she said, 'then I took the hint. What was the point if Honor wasn't interested? It just made me look silly when I had to play with the other child.'

'What did you play?' Julia asked quickly.

'What?' Mrs. Brooks was annoyed again.

'What did you play with the other child?'

'Heavens, you expect me to remember that?'

'Why?' said Julia gently. 'Was it a long time ago, this one play date?'

There was a distinct pause, a real hesitation. Something was being weighed up, but Julia didn't know what. It was time, perhaps, to ask this woman more about herself. She liked talking about herself. Julia had already heard how she had had the most unfortunate of upbringings, which involved a great deal of detail, in the telling, about her parents' divorce and how this had affected her. But time was short. She couldn't let Mrs. Brooks get going on her own troubles.

'I think,' said Julia, 'I need to talk to Honor's teacher.'

* * *

The wedding was on a Monday, which scandalised Julia's mother. 'A Monday!' she kept exclaiming, as though this day of the week had some in-built taint attached to it. But Monday it had to be, for reasons Julia never understood except that they were to do with the bridegroom's next tour of duty with his regiment and his father arriving back only on the Sunday night — it was all complicated. However, a Monday it was, a wet Monday. More horror from Julia's mother when the curtains were opened that morning and the weather revealed. Julia herself felt miserable just looking out on the lashing rain and wild wind stripping the trees of leaves. In her mind, the very word 'wedding' was equated somehow with sunshine and blue skies. How could there be a wedding in this storm?

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "The Unknown Bridesmaid"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Margaret Forster.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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