By Fran Clark
My mother once told me, and I must have been ten years old at the time, that the happiest day of any young woman's life is the day of her wedding. I didn't want to wait until I got married of all things before I could be happy. My big brother, Charlie, made me happy. Many is the time we sat and dipped our toes in the pond and drank lemonade, then our Charlie would belch the alphabet and I'd laugh until I cried. What about the time Teacher Wenstall had pneumonia and we had two weeks off school? I know I was happy then.
Some of the happiest days I ever spent, though, were the days we could afford to go into town to see a movie – 'Living Pictures' we used to call them. At the Tivoli Cinema on a Saturday afternoon I could live any life I wanted and become any one of those beautiful actresses I chose to be. But it wasn't until today, my wedding day, that I understood what my mother meant. I'm happy, I know I am, but I can't help thinking about what could have been.
Three days before my fifteenth birthday the annual inter-county choir contest was due and I was promised a new dress. Not handed down three times with patches and worn out collars, but brand new, bought to fit and very likely to be fashionable. I was excited. I waltzed into the Church Hall that day but slowed down so that Rita Farnworth could take in every inch of the crisp, lilac cotton and watch the skirt swish around my knees as I walked by, never mind that the collar was stiff and uncomfortable, I would act like a movie star if it killed me. She noticed me at once and I smiled.
“Oh Barbara,” she said. “Don't you look dandy. Such a shame you weren't chosen to sing the solo, all dressed up like that.” The other two witches at her side laughed into their podgy hands and would have carried on if Sister Mary Mercy hadn't coughed loudly and looked over the top of her glasses at them.
“Never mind them,” Evan told me as I pushed past him to find my place. “They could never look like you look in that dress, Barbara.”
“Thanks Evan,” I whispered, just seconds before our first hymn began. Sister Mary Mercy tapped her stick on the pulpit and we all breathed in at the same time. I knew full well that my voice was not the best but I loved to sing despite the looks I got from the others and despite our Charlie howling like a dog whenever I practised my choir songs at home. We sang three hymns and then it was the turn of the visitors.
It was when I took my seat in the audience for the visiting church choir to sing that I saw Michael, standing in the front row with his cuffs and his top button fastened like a grown up. I didn't know his name until the competition was over and we were all having an outdoor tea by the pond. Someone called his name and he turned around. He was the tallest boy there with the greenest eyes and thick red hair. His ears turned a wonderful beetroot colour when he sang his solo but when his voice poured out into the wooden church hall the audience was motionless. It was my sister, Susan, who prodded me in the ribs at the end of his solo to let me know that my mouth was still open. Michael's voice was not like any I had heard before. It wrapped me up like a blanket on a chilly night, rocking me gently so I might sleep peacefully for one hundred years.
Susan had to prod me again as we sat to have tea at Dystar Pond.
“You're staring, Barbara,” she said, “and if father catches you, you'll be cleaning out the pig sty until you're twenty.”
“When I'm twenty I will be married to Michael and we'd have had six children.” I said.
“Wash your mouth out you terrible girl and don't let father catch you talking like that.”
Michael's choir had won the inter-county championship and he picked up the prize, I saw his ears redden again and laughed out loud. Susan tutted at me.
It was a very hot afternoon, everyone had eaten far too much but it didn't stop the boys fooling around by the pond. Someone had tied a long cord to the branch of a tree hanging over the water and all the boys took turns swinging from it. I watched them and laughed and then noticed Evan staring at me.
“I meant what I said about your new dress,” he knelt beside me and Susan. “You do look very pretty today.”
“Thank you,” I said, but I scarcely glanced at him because Michael walked by on his way to the pond to watch the others swinging from the cord. Evan rose to his feet, quickly.
“Watch me swing!” Evan's voice was a little too loud and enthusiastic, and he pushed my brother Charlie aside so that he could take a turn swinging from the cord. He leapt towards it, arms outstretched, and just about grabbed hold. His movements were jerky, his feet thrashed wildly, to and fro. I could tell he was trying to swing higher and higher and the other boys were becoming impatient. I saw Michael shake his head. I shook mine too at Evan's foolishness.
Suddenly his hands slipped down the cord and he yelled like a mad man but kept trying to swing as high as he could. Someone called to him, “that branch can't take any more,” but just as Evan turned to smile at me he fell into the pond with such a loud splash that one girl screamed.
The boys all laughed at Evan as he tried to tread water but very quickly his head disappeared. I got to my feet. Despite the sun I felt cold. I moved closer to the pond, straining my neck above the gathering crowd to see if he would pop up again. I stopped, my arms crossed over my chest before realising that I was standing next to Michael. He glanced only briefly at me before jumping into the pond, his red hair sinking below the bottle green water. A few of the men had waded in and some of the older ones were pushing the little ones back onto the grass and up the slope. No-one would make me budge.
Then I saw red hair again and a pale looking Michael coming up for air and looking hopelessly at the the faces in the crowd at the water's edge. I was shaking because I couldn't believe we could lose poor Evan like that. Evan was the only boy that spoke to me in our village. The others called me Batty Barbara because I wore thick glasses and couldn't see the chalk board in the classroom without them. Evan defended me every time.
I felt an arm around my shoulders as Michael came wading in from the Dystar Pond along with the two other men who'd jumped in too, there was no sign of Evan. I realised it was Susan's arm around me and she held me so close. Large tears rolled down her eyes but she made no sound. That's when I noticed the silence, no more laughter, no chatter. Only a disaster could shut us up.
I was certain I was the one who heard it first. A scratchy little chuckle. Susan's arm loosened. Then a stifled laugh. I recognised it and turned around. Evan's laughter was uncontrollable.
“Evan!” His mother was at his side, hugging him until her dress became soaked. I walked towards them.
“Did I make you scared?” He was looking at me.
“But how did you – ?”
“I held my breath and swam underwater. I wanted to surprise you all.” He felt the back of his mother's hand around his ear and his father dragged him home, to give him a good hiding Susan said. As everyone gathered up the remnants of our picnic, I looked for Michael. I searched the crowd as it dispersed but he and his family had gone. Packed away and vanished.
As the years went by I sometimes questioned whether or not Michael had actually come to our tiny village that day. Everyone remembered the two men that jumped in after Evan, but no-one mentioned Michael. Was he real? Or was he just a 'living picture'? He did not compete the following year or the year after that. I never saw him again.
When it happened that the only boy in our village who ever spoke to me asked me to marry him I found myself saying yes. It could have been to avoid cleaning out the pigsty ever again or to avoid having to sleep top to toe in a bed with three other sisters but I said yes and today I marry Evan.
He stopped playing silly pranks but he never stopped loving me. He waited until I was seventeen to propose and Mother said it was a good age.
“You look beautiful,” she tells me as I pick up my bouquet and make my way downstairs to the waiting carriage. “Isn't this the happiest day of your life?”