You are cordially invited to celebrate the engagement of
Helena Rose Shelton and Jonathan Edward Richards at
Eden View Plaza and Hotel on Sunday, 14 March, at 11 a.m.
The gift registry can be found at:
We look forward to seeing you there!
‘Here on your own?’
The temptation to look around in surprise and say, ‘What do you know? So I am!’ right in her face is almost too hard to ignore, but given that I’ve only just arrived it feels far too early to make a prat of myself.
I would at least like a couple of mimosas before I do that, so I have something to blame it on afterwards.
‘Oh, yes,’ I say, smiling politely at Lena’s mum. I’ve met her twice: once, at graduation, and the second time a few months ago when I went to visit Lena after her heart surgery. I guess she must know about me, the same way as I know about her. All through second-hand stories and the occasional appearance on Lena’s social media. I wonder what she knows about me, and decide that I’ll give her a pass for asking me if I’m here alone.
Until, that is, she clicks her tongue and pats my arm with sympathy I never asked for.
‘Helena did mention you’ve had a hard time meeting someone. Such a shame.’
A muscle twitches in my face, my smile becoming strained. Hard time meeting someone? Is that what my friend said about me, or is that just what her mum took away from the conversation? I doubt it’s what Lena actually said, in all fairness: she loves hearing stories of my dating antics as much as I enjoy telling them.
‘Not like my Lena,’ Mrs Shelton goes on, with one of those ‘I’m such a proud mum but if I smile demurely enough we can both pretend I’m not bragging’ smiles. ‘Gosh, she got so very lucky with Johnny, didn’t she! Meeting on the first day of university and now engaged! Just wonderful, isn’t it? Oh, is that your gift?’
Her eyes drop to the card in my hand, barely giving me time to recover from the emotional whiplash. And, because Lena’s mum is apparently That Kind of Person, she looks a little bit snubbed at the fact I’m only holding a card and have not shown up wielding the outdoor pizza oven that was on the registry.
(And, honestly, a registry for an engagement party! Is this a thing now? Is this really the same Lena who adopted us donkeys for our twenty-first birthdays?)
She blinks, and then the disdain really settles into her features when she gives my outfit a very slow, very critical, once-over. I shuffle from one foot to the other. Even without yet having entered the party, I know I’ve made a mistake: my swishy green midi skirt and white T-shirt are way too casual compared to the cocktail dresses and casual suits everybody else is wearing; I left my dark, shoulder-length hair natural today and wonder if that was a mistake, too. Maybe I should’ve made the effort to curl it, or attempt some classy updo? Mrs Shelton’s gaze lingers for a while on the scuff on the toe of my ankle boot, and I clear my throat to get her attention. Better hand over my gift and get this whole thing over with, I think.
I keep the smile plastered on my face as I hand her the card to be placed on the small gift table, which she appears to be guarding.
I mean, I guess ‘guarding’ might be a little harsh, but Mrs Shelton does somewhat remind me of a dragon guarding its haul, not least because of the garish burgundy two-piece she’s wearing with its crocodile-scale effect.
‘It’s a gift voucher for a manicure,’ I find myself explaining. ‘I thought it might come in handy for the wedding. Or just, you know, as a bit of a treat. So she can really show off that engagement ring.’
‘Oh!’ Suddenly, her face splits with a wide smile. ‘Gosh, that is thoughtful! Well done, you! Oh, just a moment, Sophie, that’s Johnny’s great-aunt and uncle arriving, I’d better . . .’ She’s off before she even finishes her sentence, leaving me to breathe a sigh of relief and grab a mimosa off a passing tray.
It’s a challenge not to down it all in one.
Instead, I take a very reserved (but very long) sip, and scan the party.
It’s a helluva venue. The Eden View Plaza is one of those fancy boutique hotels in the town centre, and it’s got a lovely conservatory area. There are tasteful arrangements of bouquets, a few sets of tables and chairs, and waiters milling around the room with trays of canapés or drinks. It looks posh, and beautiful. The only (literal) dampener on the party is the fact that it can’t extend outside, where it’s currently pouring down with rain.
It’s a bigger event than I’d imagined. Not that I’ve been to very many engagement parties – three, I think? Maybe two? – but this all feels a bit ‘above and beyond’. Actually, it feels a lot above and beyond. When my stepsister Jessica got engaged last year, we just had a family trip to our favourite restaurant. And she definitely didn’t have a gift registry for the occasion.
Then again, maybe they’re the kind of couple who go above and beyond for everything now. Johnny did take her on a spontaneous weekend away for Valentine’s Day – a holiday Lena has always pooh-poohed as pointless before now. But I suppose that’s bound to change when your boyfriend uses the day as the perfect opportunity to propose.
It seems like Lena and Johnny have invited all their family as well as plenty of friends to celebrate their engagement. I recognise a few faces from their Instagram accounts, and a few more of our mutual friends.
Finally, I spot the happy couple themselves.
I make a beeline for them just as they wrap up a conversation with some other guests I don’t recognise, and wave my free hand to get their attention before someone else can steal it.
‘Lena!’ I call.
They both turn – as do a few other people – and Lena grins her gap-toothed smile at me, bouncing on the balls of her feet and throwing her arms around me once I’m close enough to be hugged.
‘I’m so glad you made it!’
I hug Johnny, too, and tell them both, ‘Congratulations! I’m so excited for you both. And thanks for the invite, today.’ It’s not like I haven’t spoken to them since he proposed a month ago, so I’m not totally sure what else to say. Do I repeat all the things I said over WhatsApp or in the comments of her Instagram and Facebook posts?
I settle for grabbing Lena’s hand and saying, ‘Let’s see it, then!’ like I’ve seen people do in films.
She giggles, letting me, and then twisting her fingers this way and that to show off the sparkling diamond on her left hand. It really is a beautiful ring; Johnny knows her taste well. It shines so brightly that the photographs she sent us of it are only a paltry imitation.
Johnny wanders off to greet some of his own friends while Lena tells me all about the ring, the Valentine’s weekend away, gushing about how surprised she was, and then she hugs me tight again and says, ‘Oh, it’s so good to see you, Soph! You didn’t have to be up too early to get the train here?’
‘I would’ve travelled all night to get here in time,’ I joke, although I’m actually quite serious. When did meeting up with friends become so difficult and require so much advance planning? I swear if I want to see more than one friend at a time, we need at least five months’ notice to align our schedules. It makes me miss the impromptu afternoons mooching around the shops at uni, or the summers where we’d just say, ‘Hey, I’m on my way to you! Let’s hang out!’
I say as much to Lena and she laughs.
‘Maybe we all need to get engaged more often; give us a good excuse to meet up!’
Even though I laugh along with her, even though I smile, something prickles uncomfortably along my skin and sits heavy on my chest. It’s only a moment later that I realise what’s wrong: it’s panic; it’s the realisation that my friends might not make the effort to come and see me without ‘a good excuse’ like getting engaged, and that is not looking likely any time soon.
But obviously I don’t say that out loud, because it’s Lena’s day and I’m not going to be that girl who’s so upset about not having a boyfriend that she has to bring everyone else down too.
I think Lena must sense something is a little off with me because she changes the subject quickly. She grabs lightly at my arm and leans in close, cringing.
‘I saw you got cornered by my mum. I keep telling her not to verbally attack everyone who walks in, but . . .’ She rolls her eyes. ‘She didn’t have a go about your outfit, did she?’
But I know Lena means well, and she wouldn’t have cared if I’d shown up in grotty old pyjamas so long as I was here to celebrate with her, so I grab her hand to squeeze it. ‘Honestly, you don’t have anything to worry about. She’s just welcoming people to the party. It’s keeping her out of trouble, right?’
‘Hmm.’ She purses her lips long enough to give me a withering, unconvinced look, but then starts laughing again, beaming. And she is beaming: she’s so bright and sparkling even without that diamond ring on her finger. She is someone who is so obviously happy, so completely in love, so utterly content with everything in her life right now, that it’s impos- sible not to notice.
I want that.
It’s a small but familiar flare of jealousy, the same kind I get when I see someone post about their promotion at work or that they’re on some fabulous, sunny holiday while I’m stuck in the office.
I want what you have. I want to feel like I have everything, too. It’s just so bloody miserable, being single. Watching my friends settle down, get engaged, get mortgages, even start thinking about having kids or getting a pet with their significant other . . . I’m happy for them, obviously, obviously, but each time they share good news I feel a little more alienated.
Pushed aside, forgotten about, a little less important in their lives.
It’s lonely. I can see why nobody wants to be single.
I wish I had what they all have. I wish I had a boyfriend – and trust me, it’s not for lack of trying on my part. I just wish that whenever other people asked how my dating life was going or if I’d found myself a partner yet, they didn’t always look so sorry for me.
Like I don’t feel sorry enough for myself already.
Lena looks across the room at Johnny, where he’s now talking to some older family members, and I think, I want that, too. I want that feeling and I want someone to share it with. It doesn’t matter that he’s oblivious to her in this moment, because he’s hers, and she knows that if she needs him, he’s there, and their lives are so intertwined by now they know each other as well as they know themselves.
I hate feeling jealous of my friends. I don’t want to be.
‘I’m so happy for you, Lena,’ I say, and I really do mean it. I clink my mimosa gently against her glass of champagne in a ‘cheers’ and take a drink.
But? There’s a but! Thank God. Looks like the grass is not always greener and—
‘But do you mind not calling me Lena? It’s just that, well, Johnny’s family are . . . they’re very traditional, and they don’t like nicknames very much.’
I almost spew my mimosa all over her.
I catch myself at the last second, clamping a hand over my mouth and trying to choke it down, but I’m coughing so hard that some dribbles down my chin and Lena has to pat me on the back while all of her guests stare at me for making such a scene.
Well done, Sophie. A veritable model of poise and grace. Lena manages to acquire a few paper napkins (so posh that, at first, I think they’re made of cloth, but it turns out they’re just ten-ply and disposable) and dabs at my chin and neck like I’m a child. Somehow, this feels more embarrassing than when I had to help her take a bath after her surgery because Johnny was away with work for a week and her parents were off on holiday. My cheeks are on fire, and dozens of pairs of eyes are burning into me. ‘I didn’t get any on you, did I?’
Lena doesn’t even look at her pretty white tea dress to check, only waves a hand dismissively. She beckons a waiter over, switching the napkins for a glass of water, which she hands to me. ‘It’s fine. You alright?’
‘Yeah, yeah, I’m – sorry, you just . . . Are you serious?’
‘Don’t call you “Lena”? Because Johnny’s family don’t like nicknames?’
She blinks at me, startled, too surprised to say anything at all.
‘Johnny’s family,’ I repeat. ‘Yes.’
‘. . . Johnny’s.’
She huffs, pulling a face that’s somewhere between embarrassed and exasperated – although I’m not sure if that’s aimed at me or her soon-to-be in-laws. ‘Well, it’s just, you know. They’re very . . . posh.’
I do know. Johnny comes from old money. Johnny was a university student who was baffled by the idea of an overdraft, and whose parents own property. As in, multiple. Including holiday homes – again, plural. There were rumours one of Johnny’s aunts knew Prince William and Kate. Johnny has a family crest with a Latin motto.
That’s not why I’m confused, though. ‘Johnny is a fucking nickname, Lena.’
She pauses. ‘Oh. I guess so.’
She can’t be serious. This cannot be the first time this thought has occurred to her.
Except it obviously is, which means I shouldn’t have said it.
While I’m at it, I may as well also point out that the link they made for their gift registry says ‘HandJ’, which looks a bit too close to ‘hand job’.
‘Lena’s quite modern, though, I suppose,’ she says, her tone shifting to something prickly and defensive. ‘And I go by Helena in work. It’s not like everyone calls me Lena.’
‘Oh, yeah. Yeah, I know.’ Shit, shit, shit. Where is the ctrl+z for real life? ‘No, I get you. Helena. I’ll remember.’
Helena smiles at me, but it’s a bit strained and a clear indicator that it’s time to wrap this up before I inadvertently insult her and the groom any further. I give her another hug and tell her congratulations again, because that feels like the way you’re supposed to wrap up a conversation with the bride-to-be at her engagement party, and she makes an excuse about seeing her cousins and needing to go and speak to them, which suits me just fine.
I cannot get away fast enough.