Wedding dresses have a special kind of perfume. The one my best friend Jen was squeezed into smelt like rotted hair, mothballs and musk, but that was because the dress was one hundred and three years old and had been stored with the meticulous care that old ladies take of their broken dreams and bitter memories. The light filtering through Jen’s bedroom window fell upon her cleavage, which rose like two pale boulders over dangerously stretched lace. One sneeze and –
‘It doesn’t look right,’ she said, twisting around to see the back. ‘Does it?’
My mother poked her eager face around Jen’s bedroom door. ‘Can I see?’
‘Come in, Valerie,’ said Jen. ‘You’re filling in for Mum, so you have to tell the truth. What do you think?’
‘Um,’ said my mother. She cocked her head to one side, looking doubtful.
She wanted badly to be a cool mother figure to Jen, the golden child she was supposed to have had instead of me. She wanted to assuage Jen’s fears about the wedding, the choice of groom, and whether she would look pretty while making the biggest mistake of her life. But all my mother could say was ‘um’ because even she couldn’t convince herself that Jen looked like anything except a raw chipolata in a white tourniquet.
A seam popped as Jen turned back to look at me in desperation. ‘Maggie?’
Who was going to tell her that the dress did not flatter her? Who would have the gall to imply that the family heirloom, the exquisite mass of vintage lace that four generations of women before her had worn down the aisle to begin their disappointing marriages, did not fit her? That, in fact, it looked fucking heinous?
‘It looks fucking heinous,’ I said.
‘Maggie!’ my mum snapped. ‘It looks beautiful, darling. It just needs to be taken out a little.’
‘It can’t be taken out. There’s no room in the seams,’ Jen said. ‘I’m too big for it.’
‘It’s too small,’ I said. ‘It’s made for miniature Italian women who eat nothing but tomatoes.’
‘What will I tell Mum?’
‘Just send her a picture,’ I said. ‘That’ll tell her everything she needs to know.’
Jen took out her phone and snapped a selfie in the mirror to send to her mother, who was on a cruise in Europe, or maybe Antarctica, who knows. Jen’s mother spent her life on cruise ships to avoid confronting Jen’s father, who liked to philander in hotel rooms on ‘business’ trips. Jen’s two older sisters lived in London and Abu Dhabi respectively, so I, with occasional help from my mother, was acting as a fill-in family member while Jen planned her dream wedding to Jono, the worst man in the world. The man who once ordered buffalo wings because he thought they were made of buffalo and he ‘liked eating endangered species’.
Mum was elated to have been invited to witness Jen trying on the heirloom dress. She kept shooting me sideways glances as if to say, See? This could be you one day, if only you’d keep your legs together and learn to cook.
The wedding planning was having a strange effect on Jen. It had made her more anxious to please than usual; she’d already bowed to her parents’ emailed demands that she recite her vows in a church even though Jono wasn’t Catholic, and specified to the gram how heavy the invitation cardstock should be. Yet at the same time she exuded a palpable sense of relief, as if she was anticipating a time in the near future when she could finally relax, not from the stress of the wedding but from the stress of waiting to be settled. Her relief sat uncomfortably with me, like an old man with slightly crazed eyes who stands too close. Marriage was what she wanted, but no one except Jen and my mother thought that marriage to Jono would make her happy.
Just as I thought Mum was about to crack and admit that the dress needed a slight adjustment, such as being tossed onto a fire, Jen’s mother called. She must have been by the pool, prawn cocktail in hand, bad tan lines showing above her beach dress. At least, that’s what I imagined everyone looked like on cruises.
‘Hi Mum,’ Jen said.
I heard the tinny sound of her mother screeching down the phone but couldn’t make out the words.
‘It’s too small,’ Jen protested.
‘No, I can’t do it up at the back. My bust. I – okay. Okay. Okay. Uh-huh. Oh. Okay. Thanks. Love you, Mum.’
Jen hung up and burst into tears.
‘She says I have to lose weight to fit into the dress. It’s a family heirloom. She says I can’t be the first one in the family to walk down the aisle in a polyester fright from China. She’s sending me a diet book. It’s called Food-Free At Last: How I Learned to Eat Air.’
‘Oh, Jen.’ My mother patted her on the shoulder. She shot me a look as if to tell me this was all my fault.
‘I. Look. Horrible.’ Jen heaved with sobs.
Jen was a saint in my eyes: a nurse who would give her last hot chip to the sorry-looking dog at the cafe if it so much as nudged her knee. So if she must marry the man who was once hospitalised for sticking his cock into a vacuum cleaner on a bucks’ night dare, I’d be damned if I was going to let her walk down the aisle looking like a sausage.
Something had to be done.
I stepped up behind Jen. Grabbed the delicate antique lace at each shoulder. Pulled down, hard. God, that tearing sound was delicious. Buttons popped and flew across the room. Priceless Edwardian silk shredded and gave up the fight. The dress was ribboned, split from shoulder to waist. There would be no rescuing it now.
‘Maggie!’ my mother screeched, and grabbed at my hands. I thought she might hit me. ‘Maggie, what have you done?’
Jen’s mouth was open as she stared at me in the mirror. Tattered lace slid slowly down pink flesh, exposing her strapless bra.
‘Oh my God. Maggie.’ She picked up a piece of dead lace and caressed it, pale with horror. Bits of the dress were hanging off her shoulders like frayed string. ‘You realise this was all done by hand a hundred years ago. You can’t get lace like this anymore. They don’t make it.’
I shrugged. ‘Tell your mum I did it. Tripped and grabbed you to steady myself. Or that you looked so beautiful I murdered the lace in a jealous rage.’
Jen’s hands slowly went to her mouth. She screeched with laughter. ‘My mother is going to die of horror. You bitch, you’ve killed my mother!’
My own mother put her head in her hands. ‘Oh my God.’
Jen reached towards the ceiling, and the ruins of the family dress slowly crumpled to the floor, leaving her clad only in her bra and undies.
‘I can’t believe you just did that.’
I opened my palms. Innocent, I swear. ‘Hey, now you can find a dress you actually like.’
It might appear that I spend all my days tearing up irreplaceable wedding dresses and bitching about my mother, but there are other things I enjoy, too.
Country music. Sex. Bitching about my mother.
Most of my energy, however, is devoted to avoiding hard work. In my view, the human race invented work for no good reason, and now that we’re technologically advanced enough to make most jobs obsolete, we could be sitting back and letting the robots take over. Yet people around me insist on striving harder and spending more time at work than ever. I can’t understand it. I’ve been doing the same commerce degree at Melbourne University for ten years and am no closer to graduating than I was five years ago. I know what happens when people graduate from commerce: they become accountants. My mother is one. That’s a kind of hell I’d do anything to avoid.
On the evening of the dress-tearing incident, Jen and Jono held their engagement party at a bar around the corner from Jen’s house called The Fainting Chair, a fine establishment with wood-panelled walls that hosts good alt-country bands. The surly owner winks at me above his long sideburns every time I walk in. The party was a great opportunity for endless numbers of old high school and uni acquaintances to improve their self-esteem by asking me about my degree. When are you going to finish? What will you do afterwards? How many subjects did you fail this year? To the last question I always reply, ‘Only three,’ so they can giggle and wait for me to join in laughing at myself. Which I always do, because I’m not an idiot. I have some social graces.
Jen’s parents had offered to pay for the party, but only if she held it at the Melbourne Club and invited all their friends. She declined in favour of The Fainting Chair, saying she just wanted to put some money over the bar and let the guests buy their own dinner. Her parents were so annoyed they didn’t bother coming back from their respective overseas trips to attend.
I doubt Jen would have had the guts to refuse her parents if I hadn’t been around to egg her on. That’s how we work, Jen and me. I’m the dark-haired, round-faced one with eyes the colour of overcooked peas, who stole bottles of rum from behind the bar when we were fifteen. She’s the one with angelic blonde curls who distracted the bartender while I did it. Most of the time she’s a people-pleaser, a dutiful daughter. But every now and then someone, usually one of her parents, pushes too far – asks her to hold her engagement party at the Melbourne Club, the domain of the illuminati – and she turns to me for advice, knowing I’ll say fuck ’em. Then she spends six months in purgatory, apologising to her parents as they remind her over and over about that time they bought her a house.
At The Fainting Chair, a four-piece alt-country outfit were playing in front of the old piano. The music was good and the slide guitarist was abominably sexy. Jen stood by the bar, tapping her fingers out of time, looking nervous. She was wearing a poufy 1950s dress, pink with white flowers, cut low at the neckline to show off her perfect rack. Her curls spilled over her shoulders. I knew she’d spent hours making it look like she’d hardly tried. She was clutching a cider and talking to a cute guy with dirty blond hair and irresistible dimples. One point of the collar on his red plaid flannelette shirt was poking up adorably.
I caught the cute guy’s eye, flicked my hair back as sexily as I could, and shambled over in my battered black heels.
‘Maggie, this is Dan,’ Jen said. I shook the guy’s hand and he smiled, showing those dimples. ‘He’s friends with Biyu’s boyf—’
‘Why haven’t I met you before?’ I asked.
Dan laughed nervously.
‘How’s Lisa?’ Jen cut in. ‘Lisa is Dan’s girlfriend, Maggie.’
‘Uh, not anymore,’ he said. ‘We broke up.’
Jen flushed red. ‘Oh Dan, I’m so sorry. Oh my God.’ She put a hand up to her cheek.
‘It’s all right,’ he said.
Jen stammered something about the band.
‘The slide guitarist is good,’ I said, ever helpful.
Dan followed my gaze. ‘Interesting tatts.’ T
he babe on the slide guitar did have interesting tattoos. Prison tattoos, in fact, done in biro. I could make out a clumsily written ‘memento mori’ on his wrist. I wondered if he’d actually been to jail or if he’d just got really drunk and let a friend loose with a pen.
‘Interesting tatts, interesting life,’ I said.
Jen dragged me further along the bar, muttering about getting me a drink.
‘I’m so embarrassed,’ she whispered when Dan was out of earshot. ‘I can’t believe I didn’t hear about Dan and Lisa breaking up.’
‘Are you going to obsess over a totally imaginary offence all night? Because I don’t think Dan cared.’
‘I can’t help it.’
The unpolished wood bar was rough beneath my fingers as I tried to catch Surly’s eye to get a drink. Jen’s friends were clustered in small groups, wearing suits and glittering jewellery, and I thought I detected the scent of superiority in their aftershave and perfume. They were studiously avoiding Jono’s friends, a group of mining bros who were a little louder and a lot drunker. The suits looked out of place in the dingy bar. I overheard a man muttering contemptuously about the Elvis pictures on the walls.
‘Your friends suck,’ I told Jen. ‘Except me.’ Technically, some of Jen’s friends were my friends too, but over the years, as they’d landed corporate jobs and bought houses and talked about getting engaged while I still wore my trackies to class and sat next to nineteen-year-olds in lecture theatres, I’d started thinking of them as her friends, not mine.
‘Honestly, maybe I should have had the party at the Melbourne Club. Everyone’s weirded out.’
‘No one likes it here.’ She wrapped her hands around her cider glass and looked about, her face scrunched up in worry. ‘But I wanted to have it somewhere I felt comfortable. Jono isn’t helping at all.’
‘Of course he isn’t.’ Jono worked as a fly-in-fly-out rigger on a mine in South Australia. When I first met him I thought he was a handsome, sexist fool who wore deep V-neck T-shirts, drank Canadian Club and ate up the 1980s rock that FM stations fed him. But he turned out to be sly, spending his days off living rent-free in the house in Collingwood that Jen’s parents had given her.
Jen had been working on her Pinterest wedding board for a long time, but getting Jono to propose had been the hard part. They’d been together for six years and Jen had been dropping hints like sledgehammers for three of them. A month ago she broke down over breakfast at a cafe and confided to me that she’d secretly booked a wedding venue last year after she and Jono bought tickets to Paris, because she had been certain he was going propose in front of the Eiffel Tower and if she didn’t reserve Fairy Lights Winery straight away they’d have to wait a whole eighteen months for another warm-weather weekend to become available. Two couples got engaged in front of them during that visit to the Eiffel Tower, but Jono showed no sign of even noticing, let alone dropping to one knee. When they got home she panicked, stuck her head in the sand and pretended she hadn’t paid a deposit for a wedding that wasn’t happening.
‘What should I do?’ she’d asked, hyperventilating. ‘Fairy Lights keep emailing to ask me for final numbers and to decide on a menu. Their florist asked if I want classic or deconstructed arrangements. I told her I want peonies! Oh my God.’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘you can either forfeit the deposit, call it a life lesson and dump Jono – which is what I suggest you do – or, if you’re set on the peonies, you can tell him what date he’s getting married.’
She went for plan B. She informed Jono they were getting married on the twelfth of December and suggested he buy a ring.
He’d shrugged. ‘Okay.’
So now she had three months to organise a wedding.
Jen is methodical. At the beginning of Year Twelve, she outlined her plan. Finish school, study nursing, meet a doctor. She did meet a doctor in her first year at university, but he was so unbearably arrogant she had to dump him in her second year. She revised the plan on the fly and met a miner instead. Somehow Jono was even more arrogant than the doctor had been, but Jen didn’t seem to mind it in him. His main attractions seemed to be muscles and a high salary – although I never saw him share any of it – and Jen claimed he was wild in bed.
Jen and I have been friends since the second day of Year Eight. I had already been at Wodehouse Catholic School for Girls for two years when she arrived. My mother had packed me off there in a mission-brown and orange uniform before I finished primary school, as she’d decided I needed more discipline than what was on offer at the local public school. Of course, the only lesson that truly sank in was the one the Year Sevens taught me when they showed me how to practise giving blowjobs on a banana.
When Jen first turned up and sat next to me in our English class, I suspected she was boring. Her face was too smooth and pretty, eyes set too wide – the picture of innocence. More importantly, I didn’t like how her silver pencil case matched her pens. At lunch I decided to psych her out by announcing I was going to flash the gardener. The school’s gardener was only twenty-one and, though his monobrow prevented him from being thoroughly cute, he was the only male under thirty in the entire school and therefore the object of our collective teenage fantasies. My friends and I had memorised his daily rounds, so I knew he’d be passing by the window during art class. Jen turned to me and said – the only words out of her mouth so far – ‘I dare you.’ I was outraged. How could she, the angelic new girl, call my bluff?