As well as being a self-employed garden designer, I volunteer at our local community centre, so I have more than enough to do. Nevertheless, when a certain ‘save the date’ email landed in my inbox, I dropped everything and booked a flight.
‘I’m going to stop Helen making a fool of herself,’ I told my sister.
‘You’re a killjoy, Luv. I can’t wait for Mum’s wedding. It’ll be fun being the daughters of the bride.’
I was born during our mother’s student anarchist phase, so I was brought up to call my parents by their first names. By the time my sister came along, twenty years later, my mother Helen had learned that life is easier if you pretend to be a nice normal family.
‘It’s all very well for you, Amy,’ I said. ‘It’s my father she’s marrying, not yours. Helen and John are terrible together. I know, because I spent the first eighteen years of my life refereeing. To be honest, I was relieved when they separated. Anyway, what’s the point of getting married at their age? It’s so expensive! And things have changed since they shacked up together in 1972. Back then people said they were living in sin.’
‘I bet that’s why they did it,’ said Amy, with a grin. ‘And now they’re getting married for the same reason.’
‘What’s that?’ I asked, shouldering my cabin bag.
‘The shock value.’
On the short flight from Stansted, I made a list of reasons not to get married, and when we landed at Belfast International, I was ready to talk sense into Helen. But when she picked me up in her vintage camper van her first words were, ‘Lovage dear, I’m just off the phone with Amaryllis, and she told me about your ideas for the wedding. It’s very kind of you to take time off work to help me plan my big day.’
Sneaky Amy had undermined my mission. I was so shocked, I dropped the scrap of paper with my list written on it. The wind carried it away.
By the time I’d pulled myself together, we were hurtling through the countryside at breakneck speed. It was now or never. I had to speak up or forever hold my peace.
‘Helen, can we stop for a coffee? I have something important to say to you.’
‘Can’t it wait? I don’t want to be late for the reunion.’
I thought she was talking about my father. ‘Is John back from Liverpool?’
‘This has nothing to do with John,’ said Helen. ‘My old school is holding its very last reunion.’
‘You’ve always said you despise reunions. What’s so special about this one?’
‘Did you not hear the word “last”? McCracken House amalgamated with a boys’ school yonks ago, and now the Old Girls are calling it a day. You’re right, I’m not a fan of reunions, but this is my last and there was a spare ticket for you. I can have a drink if you’re there to drive me home.’
Now I knew why my mother was overdressed for an airport pick-up, in high heels, a smart buffet dress and an expensive scarf Amy had given her. I was wearing baggy jeans, ankle boots and a jumper I’d been wearing when I tackled a particularly thorny rose bush.
‘I can’t go like this,’ I howled.
‘Of course you can. Who do you think is going to be looking at you?’
‘But there’s a hole in my top!’
‘No problem, we’ll tell people that’s the style over the water.’
When we whizzed past the signpost to Helen’s village, I stopped arguing. On the motorway I tried to make myself look presentable, while she cut up lorries and reminisced about her schooldays.
‘I didn’t enjoy school, Lovage. Most of the teachers soon gave up on me. The only one I couldn’t deter was Miss Green. That woman gave me no peace. I never put my hand up, but she asked me questions anyway. And she used to tick me off about the state of my uniform, even though she didn’t dress like the other teachers. They wore frilly dresses and put their hair up, but Miss Green had short hair and her suits were tailored tweed. I thought I was well rid of her when we left school, but the day my A-Level results came out she was in the school office handing out the envelopes. I turned my back on her when I opened my results, which were fine.’
I was trying to apply mascara without getting any in my eye, but Helen’s tone froze my hand. ‘What do you mean, “fine”?’
‘I’d passed with the bare minimum. I didn’t care, but Miss Green was watching me with a pitying look on her face. I couldn’t believe it when she said, “Helen, are you sorry you didn’t work?” As if my results were any of her business! The cheek of the woman!’
‘What did you say?’
‘I didn’t want Miss Green to know she’d got to me, so I turned my back on her and walked away. But I’ve never forgotten those words. That’s why I decided to go to the reunion. I’m hoping to meet some other Old Girls who remember her. If I can have a good bitching session, I’ll be able to put the ould scunner out of my mind. And I’m expecting you to back me up.’
We had reached the centre of Belfast, where Helen expertly eased the camper van into a parking space. Then, to my amazement, she led me up the steps of City Hall.
McCracken House was a minor public school, and the committee of the Old Girls Association were blowing the last of their funds in style. When I saw the stunning ballroom full of lavishly decorated tables, I made Helen hand over her scarf. With a metre of Hermès draped over the hole in my jumper, I circulated and eavesdropped. Most of the women present had attended the reunions regularly over the years. All around me, groups of white-haired grandmothers embraced and talked over one another. Younger women, who had been in the school’s last few cohorts, were exchanging contact details, sharing family photos and setting up business meetings.
Helen followed in my wake, clutching a glass of fizz. Peering anxiously into the crowd she said, ‘I can’t see anybody I know.’
‘Your school friends must have changed over the years,’ I reminded her. ‘When you last saw them, they were probably doing the twist in mini-skirts and hot pants.’
‘Oh no dear, you couldn’t wear both those things together. Good, here’s our table, at last.’
We were seated with two other women who were attending their first and last school reunion. One of them was a dead ringer for Margaret Thatcher, and the other could have played Miss Marple without rehearsal. They didn’t know each other and neither of them remembered Helen. She didn’t remember them either. Making conversation was going to be challenging. However, the locally sourced lunch menu looked enticing, and Helen had pre-ordered a bottle of Pinot Grigio.
‘No wine for you,’ I whispered to her. ‘You’ll need your wits about you to handle these dames.’
When I filled my mother’s glass with water, she didn’t argue. She was too intimidated by Miss Marple and Mrs. Thatcher, who were very grand. I’d have had to take out a bank loan to buy their outfits, and although they’d ordered the most expensive wines on the list, I could tell they were used to better vintages. I was hungry after my journey, so I let Helen get on with the socialising while I focused my attention on the goat’s cheese starter. Forgetting what a lightweight I am, I also got stuck into the wine.
Fragments of conversation floated my way while I stuffed my face with salmon and champ. I was impressed to learn that Mrs. Thatcher was a professor and Miss Marple was a judge. Although they had never met in adult life, they knew each other by reputation. They were polite, kindly women, but my mother was overwhelmed by their status. That’s why she did what she always does when she feels out of her depth. She smiled brightly and repeated the last three words of their sentences. The atmosphere loosened up until my elderly companions were chatting like old friends. By the time I’d cleared the cheese board and necked all of Helen’s wine, they had exchanged phone numbers and were laughing together.
Awash with Pino, I tried to help my mother put the memory of her bullying teacher behind her forever.
Everything was going swimmingly until I remembered, through a haze of alcohol, why I’d been hijacked into being Helen’s plus one. My job was to back her up while she slagged off the horrid Miss Green to a sympathetic audience. Awash with Pino, I tried to help my mother put the memory of her bullying teacher behind her forever.
‘Excuse me,’ I said, leaning so far over the table I nearly took out the floral arrangement. ‘Do you happen to recall a teacher by the name of Green?’
‘I do, with great respect,’ said Mrs. Thatcher. ‘She was a wonderful teacher. Her science lessons were a revelation. I owe the success I’ve enjoyed in my career to her instruction and guidance.’
‘….instruction and guidance,’ Helen echoed.
‘I couldn’t agree more, Lettice,’ said Miss Marple. ‘Miss Green was inspirational. She was my form teacher, and I credit her with developing my natural sense of justice.’
‘….sense of justice.’
Mrs. Thatcher shook her head sadly. ‘With hindsight, Cicely, I don’t think Miss Green’s colleagues appreciated her qualities. She wasn’t at all like them. In fact, she was quite the feminist.’
‘….quite the feminist.’
‘You’re absolutely right, Lettice. In those days people tended to exclude anyone who was slightly different.’
‘….was slightly different.’
Suddenly two pairs of steely professional eyes were trained on my mother.
Cicely said, ‘Helen, you must have known Miss Green. What was your opinion of her?’
‘….opinion of her?’ said my mother in a shaky voice.
Lettice nodded encouragingly. ‘Don’t be shy. We’d love to hear your opinion of her.’
‘I suppose she was quite nice,’ Helen said feebly.
This was not the response I’d expected, and in my inebriated state I wasn’t having any of it. ‘Come on, Helen, be honest! Miss Green questioned you aggressively and harassed you about your choice of clothes. Worst of all, she belittled your academic achievements.’
At that moment the chair of the Old Girls’ Association rose to introduce a speaker. Under cover of a gushing introduction my mother stood up and grabbed my elbow. ‘Get on your hind legs, lady,’ she hissed through gritted teeth. ‘It’s time to hit the road.’
‘But we’ll miss the speeches,’ I burbled, as she propelled me down the steps of City Hall.
‘Sod that for a lark.’ She tugged her Hermès scarf off my neck. ‘Thanks to you there’s been too much said already.’
On the long drive home neither of us spoke. By the time we clambered out of the camper van on to the drive of Helen’s bungalow, I’d sobered up and was feeling low. When my mother gives you the silent treatment it can last for months, so I feared I’d lost all hope of talking her out of getting married. But I felt better when the prospective bridegroom came out to greet us. I hadn’t seen my father for ages, so we had a lot of hugging to catch up on.
‘Well now,’ said John, after he eventually put me down. ‘I can tell there’s been drink taken. Have you girls had a good time? Helly, did you find anyone who remembered that teacher? What was her name again? Mrs. Brown?’
True to form, Helen shot him a withering glare and said, ‘Silly old man!’
John’s bushy eyebrows combined to form a hairy caterpillar above his nose. It was a warning sign I remembered from my childhood.
‘Silly? You can talk,’ he growled. ‘You’re the one who wants to blow our savings on a big wedding!’
‘Nonsense! The wedding was your idea! You even suggested hiring a brewery for the reception!’
‘It was a vineyard! Anyway, why not go for broke? If a thing’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing well.’
Helen’s shoulders were sloping into a crouch, like a cat about to pounce on its prey. Her posture took me back to when I had to umpire my parents’ food fights. Even now I can field mashed potato at ten paces.
‘John, are you saying our wedding is not worth doing?’
My father’s eyebrows separated and raced each other for what was left of his hair. ‘That’s not what I said. At least, I don’t think it was.’
I saw my chance. ‘It looks as if neither of you is sure about this wedding. Why not wait a while before you tie the knot? Just imagine what you can do with the money you’ll save!’
Just then Helen’s phone pinged. When she read the message her face brightened.
‘Cicely says thank you for the best laugh she’s had in years. Apparently Lovage and I made her and Lettice feel like schoolgirls again. They’ve gone on to have drinks at a hotel with some other women who were at the reception, and they can’t stop giggling. When they mentioned Miss Green, everyone agreed she was very good at her job, but she could be mean at times.’
John laughed. ‘Fair enough. When you think about it, that’s most people.’
‘What’s more, they’re going to set up a Facebook page and organise activities for the rump of the McCracken Old Girls. There will be garden tours, visits to exhibitions, meals out….This is great news. I haven’t had a group of girlfriends since I moved back to Northern Ireland. I can’t wait!’
I pressed my advantage. ‘It sounds wonderful, but Cicely and Lettice are high maintenance. You’ll need your savings to keep up with them. Why not put off the wedding?’
‘Good idea,’ said John, rather too quickly. ‘It’ll give me time to save up for the perfect venue. Vineyard receptions don’t come cheap.’
Thanks to the McCracken Old Girls, my parents’ wedding was postponed indefinitely. What Helen really wanted was lovely social occasions, and she got those in spades from her new pals. John moved in with her and took up clay pigeon shooting – something else which doesn’t come cheap.
‘Everyone’s happy for the time being,’ I told Amy. ‘And I’ll have a Hermès scarf for my next birthday, thank you very much.’
‘Dream on,’ she replied. ‘You spoiled my fun. I’d already bought a fascinator.’
LOARN ©Geoff Wilkinson
Loarn’s early stories for Funny Pearls are available on Amazon as ‘Up the Community Centre Book One: The Thank You Sweets’. In 2022 Loarn launched her debut crime novel, ‘Samvida and the Purse of Gold’. Links to both books are on Loarn’s website, www.patersonloarn.co.uk. Currently she is writing an all-new humorous novel about Lovage’s efforts to build her bee-friendly garden design business.
You can find all the previous episodes in this series and more information on the author on the Up the Community page.