Fiction

The wedding speech

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IT WAS A long time ago and we were unemployed. Me and Mike were sitting in his carport drinking. That was what we did, back then, most nights, when we were unemployed. Problem was we had Ronald Stott with us, and he was getting on our nerves. But Ronald Stott always got on our nerves.

We had never liked Ronald Stott, not since we were kids and he used to show off his Gray-Nicolls cricket bat but wouldn't give anyone else a go. The same went for when he got a remote-control car and a ten-speed bike. Despite the fact that Ronald Stott was spoilt, or probably because of it, none of us had noticed that his parents weren't all that well off. They weren't poor; they just weren't well off.

I'd been in school with him, primary and secondary, and during all those years Ronald never had a single friend. I occasionally recalled the lonely figure in the school ground at lunchtime, standing in an attitude of dogged pride that seemed to say his solitude was a matter of choice. Years later, I'd occasionally take pity on Ronald and try to be a friend to him. But it never lasted long. In fact, after spending time alone with Ronald Stott, I disliked him all the more.

After school, Ronald Stott had gone on the dole and taken up bodybuilding. He liked to show off his swollen body in tight T-shirts and singlets and would use any excuse to take his top off, especially if there were girls around. He started hanging around with a group from the local football club. They spent most of their time outside the pizza place down the shops, watching girls. Some nights they went down to the toilet block behind the library, where they bashed men who met there for sex. After a while they got sick of Ronald, same as everyone did, and that's when he latched on to me and Mike.

I sometimes wondered why Ronald Stott spent so much time with the two of us. Maybe it was all those years he spent alone at school, because he never seemed to take much interest in anyone apart from himself. But he did like to talk, and he talked a lot, and that was what he talked about – about himself. He'd tell us detailed stories about his conquests when out with his footballer mates: sometimes at nightclubs or parties but mostly in houses and garages and gardens and lanes, with girls they joked about afterwards. The local bikes, they called them. He would recount his daily gym sessions: the order of exercises and lifts and the weight lifted; the number of repetitions; how knackered he felt at the end of it and the quantity of food he ate when he got home. He repeated the remarks he made to the old Vietnamese couple who shuffled the streets delivering junk mail. He used to stand in his front yard every afternoon, waiting for them to come past. Ronald Stott didn't really have a great deal to say, but he took a long time saying it. We still didn't like him, he was still spoilt, and his family still weren't well off.

In fact, it was around that time things were starting to fall apart for Ronald's family. His father, a small, angry man with thick-rimmed glasses and a passion for racing cars, had recently lost his accounting job after years of liquid lunches finally caught up with him. He now worked as an itinerant bookkeeper for independent car dealers, and Ronald's mother, as Ronald had no qualms in telling us, was threatening to leave him if he didn't stop drinking and get a decent job. However, none of this seemed to affect Ronald, at least not so far as we could see.

So anyway, the three of us were drinking in the carport when Jenny and her friends pulled up opposite Mike's place. Jenny was Tank's fiancée. Tank was a good friend of ours.

It was late and they had been out somewhere and were dressed up. Jenny and one of her friends got out of the car. I forget her name: the friend, I mean. They stood by the car, caught up in conversation. The two of them were in hysterics over something.

Shelley, who we'd known for a while, was still inside. She was leaning against the door, her face flattened against the window and pale in the streetlight. She was wearing pink lipstick and pink lipstick was smeared across the glass.

Aw, Christ, said Mike. There's Shelley.

What's wrong with Shelley? I asked.

It's nothing, said Mike. She's just been a real pain in the arse lately. Don't worry about it.

You don't look at the fireplace when you're stoking the fire, said Ronald, laughing.

Mike moved his chair over so he was no longer facing the street. It scraped against the concrete and he put his feet up and sank down and sighed.

Shelley's all right, I said. What's wrong with Shelley?

Jenny's friend was calling us over from the street.

Ignore them, said Mike, but me and Ronald went over. Ronald kept nudging me as we walked. I pushed him away.

The friend had eyes shiny with booze.

Do you know what Jenny did? she asked us, pointing at Jenny.

Jenny screeched and tried to grab her friend, but the friend twisted away.

She took her engagement ring off, the friend said.

I did not, Jenny said. Don't tell them that. She started grappling with her friend and making a hell of a racket. They were very drunk. I didn't really want to be around them and I shouldn't have been around them anyway. Not when they were like this, acting like this and drunk and whatever.

The thing was, Tank had asked me to be best man at his wedding and I had to make a speech. I knew that in a wedding speech you have to praise the couple and talk about their love and how they are made for each other, how you knew from the start they would be together forever and that sort of thing. Not that I'm saying it's a lie, but it's not the truth either. Truth is a complex thing and it has no place in a wedding speech.

Yes, you did, the friend said. She was smiling. She had been smiling the whole time.

She put it in her handbag, the friend said to me, looking at me, still fighting off Jenny. She took it off before we even went in.

Yes, you did, she said to Jenny. I saw you. We all saw you.

They kept pushing and grabbing each other. Jenny was trying to put her hand over her friend's mouth. They were wearing tight-fitting dresses, stockings and high heels. The friend's dress was small, red and strapless. Her skin was very white. Wherever they had been it must have been somewhere nice.

Ask Shelley and Michelle, the friend said to me, ducking out of a hold. We all saw it.

Ronald was walking around the car. He put his face against the windows to look inside. The windows were steamed up and the metal was already damp and dripping.

It was a cold night and winter. I had said to Tank that it seemed like an unusual time to have a wedding. Tank told me that Jenny had her heart set on a picturesque church in Brighton on an elm-lined street and not far from the beach, where the wedding photos were to be taken. The problem was that she wasn't the only one who had her heart set on that church and it was heavily booked. Jenny wanted the perfect wedding.

She wants the fairytale wedding, Tank had said grimly.

Ronald leaned over and wiped the moisture off one of the windows with the sleeve of his jacket. He waved to Shelley, who was sprawled across the back seat. She peered through the misted window and tapped it and said something I didn't hear.

Mike had come over by then. He had a stubby in his hand and was looking down the street, away from the car and the girls and their shrill melee. Mike was making it clear that he didn't want to be there.

So what's going on? he asked me.

I watched Jenny and her friend. Their bickering was beginning to irritate me. Mike drank and looked about as though he were standing alone and lost in his own thoughts. Eventually Jenny got hold of her friend and dragged her away from the car. The friend was calling out in a singsong voice.

We saw you. Everyone saw you.

Mike looked disgusted.

The friend was bent over, her head locked in Jenny's fleshy arm. She had to lift her face to look at us.

Are you going to tell Tank? she called out. Are you going to tell him about the ring?

Well, we're going to have to tell him now, I said. Before he reads it in the papers.

The friend looked at me, slightly surprised. She didn't get it.

Jenny suddenly lurched at me and grabbed me around the shoulders. She hugged me and rocked against me, pleading in a small and plaintive voice. I felt very uncomfortable. I was feeling uncomfortable about the whole thing, especially given I had to make that speech.

All right, all right, I said.

Shelley had wound down the car window and was calling for Mike. Her voice was slurred and she looked half asleep. Ronald was standing next to her with his thumbs tucked into his belt and a grin on his face.

Mike. Come over here, Mike, Shelley said. She held a hand out the window and then let it flop against the car. Her head dropped against the door and she kept mumbling Mike's name.

Jenny had her hand cupped over my ear and was leaning all her weight against me. She was a large girl who smelt of alcohol and perfume and sweat.

Do you want to know a secret, she whispered. Do you know what Shelley said?

No, don't tell them, said the friend, giggling. She was quite composed now and stood with her arms folded, shivering slightly. She looked good in that red dress.

Jenny was still leaning against me but now she was talking to Mike.

Shelley wants to kiss you, she said.

Mike sniffed and looked away.

She said more than that, said the friend.

We had only met Tank because Jenny and Mike lived opposite each other. The first time we ever saw Tank was also the first time he took Jenny out. As we had a view of her front door from the carport, we felt as though we'd watched the whole courtship: from polite and slightly nervous goodbyes to pecks on the cheek to passionate kisses and long embraces. We watched and we speculated and somehow we felt part of the whole thing.

At some point Tank had started nodding to us on these nights, after he had made his farewells and was getting into his car. One night he joined us for a beer.

Tank was originally from the country somewhere and we were the first friends he made after moving to Melbourne. Tank had left school when he was young and worked a number of years laying sleepers for some railway out in the desert. He had come to the city to train as a policeman, which he'd done, but he didn't last long in the job. We didn't see him a lot nowadays. Even so, he spent more time with us than anyone else, certainly more time than he spent with Jenny. I don't recall where he was that particular night.

No, she didn't say that, Jenny was saying to her friend.

She did, said the friend, nodding with her eyebrows raised.

Yeah, but not exactly, said Jenny. Not in those words.

Somewhere above us a possum let out a long rattling growl. I went over to Mike, who was still paying no attention to the girls and looking nowhere in particular. Ronald Stott was leaning against the car with his arms crossed and his head through the open window. I saw Michelle sit up, brush back her hair with both hands and say something to him.

What's going on with you and Shelley? I asked Mike.

Mike took a swig from his stubby.

Nothing, he said. Nothing's going on. It's just, I don't know. Tank's been on my back about her. You know, it's all been Shelley likes you, why don't you ask Shelley out sort of thing.

Mike belched.

Tank thinks just because he's getting hitched, everyone should be pairing up.

I looked over at the car where Michelle was sitting and listening to Ronald Stott, nodding. Michelle was a strange sort of girl, willowy and soft-spoken. She made slow, tired gestures when she talked and never seemed particularly interested in anything much.

We listened to Jenny and her friend arguing about what was said and how it was said and then they started talking about something else. The sky was cloudy and bright, a dirty shifting lavender colour.

But come on, said Mike. Shelley? Are you serious?

I sort of like Shelley, I said.

Well, go for it then. You'd be doing me a favour.

Mike looked at his watch.

You really want to hang around with this lot? he asked me. Why don't we just piss off?

I looked around at the girls in time to see Jenny run over to the nature strip and throw up against the trunk of a plum tree. Mike's street was lined with plum trees on both sides and in early spring every one of them was a mass of pink blossoms. It was quite a sight.

The friend ran after her, holding Jenny's forehead and gathering up her hair as she kept vomiting. I think the friend was a nurse. Jenny was also a nurse, and it was because of her unusual hours and long shifts that she and Tank never had the chance to spend much time together. That's what Tank told me, anyway.

Jesus Christ, Mike muttered.

A car door slammed and Shelley was out of the car, unsteady on her feet.

Mike, she said. Come over here and talk to me, Mike.

Shelley always dressed too young for her age and talked and acted like a teenager. She had been going to a solarium for the wedding, and her face and arms and bare legs were all evenly tanned. She was short and broad-shouldered and sometimes mistaken for a boy.

Jenny had finished throwing up and the friend was talking to her and stroking her hair.

But I do love him, Jenny was saying, still down on her knees. I do, I really do. Dripping trails of saliva hung from her mouth down to the grass and she was close to crying. The friend kept stroking her hair and making shushing noises.

Shelley was sidestepping in our general direction. She was wearing a tiny sequined skirt, plastic jewellery and a sort of fancy singlet.

I've got something to tell you, she was saying. She was saying it to Mike.

Jenny had lain down on the grass, which was wet with dew. It glistened under the streetlight. No, it's all right, she was saying to her friend, who was trying to lift her up. Just a nice little snooze.

I heard the car door slam again and watched Ronald Stott walking away with Michelle. Ronald was holding her tight against him and she was stumbling a bit. Michelle was wearing a long pale dress, loose and shimmering as she walked. A strap kept falling off one of her shoulders and she kept putting it back. Ronald was talking.

Was that the last beer? I asked Mike.

Last of ours, said Mike.

I went back to the carport and opened the outside fridge. It was stacked with longnecks belonging to Mike's old man. If I took one, I would cop it tomorrow, but I thought I deserved another beer right now, because next weekend I was going to have to give a speech full of high praise and beautiful sentiments about Jenny, who at that moment was passed out in her own vomit.

From the carport I watched Shelley trying to embrace Mike with her lips pursed. Mike backed away and shoved her. He was still holding onto his stubby. Shelley fell, sitting hard on the ground. She looked surprised for a moment and then she burst into tears, hiding her face between her arms. Mike swore and lobbed the stubby down the street. It went high and smashed loudly. Some birds started to sing out of the darkness and stopped abruptly. Mike hadn't thrown the bottle far, and from where I was standing I could see the long glittering trail of brown glass and the slow movement of froth edging towards the gutter. Mike walked across the street and went into his house, slamming the door.

The friend went over to Shelley. I put the longneck back in the fridge and closed the door. The two of us got Shelley up and into the car. We lay her across the back seat. The friend sat on the seat and Shelley sobbed into her lap. She left the car door open.

So what have you guys been up to tonight? she asked me.

You know, I said, shrugging my shoulders. Same old, same old. Yourself?

It was good, she said. It all went off pretty well. Jenny had a bit too much to drink, but it was her night after all.

She looked over in the direction of the nature strip and the plum tree and Jenny sprawled out and sleeping.

Last night as a free woman and all that.

Oh, was this the hens' night? I said. Was that tonight?

Yeah, said the friend. Didn't Tank tell you?

No, I said. I haven't spoken to Tank for ages. Probably been busy with all the wedding stuff, his rellies coming down and everything.

Shelley started saying something in a small voice, whimpering. The friend stroked her hair and made a shushing noise like she'd been doing with Jenny. She said something about Mike and Mike being a bastard and not worth it and Shelley burst into tears all over again. The friend watched her for a bit.

Well, I hope you boys are going to behave yourself anyway, she said. And make sure that you get Tank to the church in a decent state. I'm serious about that. You don't want to spoil Jenny's day.

What? I said. You mean the bachelor party? Yeah, well. You know Tank. He's the responsible one.

So what's the plan? she asked. Strippers and that sort of thing, I suppose.

Nope, I said. Not at all. Tank said if I hire a stripper he'll walk out. So definitely no strippers.

The friend looked up at me.

So how come you had to organise it?

Well, I haven't really yet, I said. But yeah, I will. I mean, it's supposed to be my job, isn't it. Best man and everything.

The friend closed her eyes and nodded.

Oh, of course, she said. That's right. I forgot you were the best man. For some reason I keep thinking it was going to be one of Tank's old mates. From back home.

No, Tank asked me, I said. Besides, none of them were able to make it.

The friend looked out the window at Jenny, who was lying on her back, her stomach rising and falling. Her dress was hitched up, showing heavy thighs and white underwear under her pantyhose.

I better get her inside, said the friend. She was still stroking Shelley's hair. Shelley had gone quiet. I thought maybe she'd gone to sleep as well. I was looking at the friend. Her skin was very white and you could see faint blue veins underneath. She still looked good in that dress.

Oh well, she said, still watching Jenny. Doesn't hurt to let your hair down once in a while.

Well, you seem to be holding up all right, I said.

What? Me? she said. I'm driving. I'm the designated driver.

Really? I said. I thought you were completely out of it earlier.

No, I wasn't, she said.

Well, you were acting like it, I said. I mean, you seemed to be.

I was just happy, she said. She tossed her head. Her hair was blonde and cut in a bob. It swung and settled.

I was high on life.

Sure you were, I said.

The friend looked at me and scowled.

What's that supposed to mean? she said.

She started attending to Shelley again, licking her fingers and wiping away the mascara that had run down Shelley's face. She looked back up at me, not happy.

I mean, I think I should know what I've been doing better than you, thank you very much, she said. You should spend more time worrying about yourself. You and your mates.

The friend was going to be one of the bridesmaids and Tank had told me that I would be paired up with her in the wedding party; that we would be walking together arm-in-arm during the wedding procession and then I would have to dance with her at the reception. I don't think I knew her name back then either.

 

THE FOLLOWING AFTERNOON me and Mike were smoking cigarettes in his carport when Tank's Ford Escort went right past us. We could see Tank through the window. He didn't even glance in our direction. He was staring straight ahead and driving fast.

Where's he off to? I said to Mike.

A few minutes later the Escort came back and pulled up outside Mike's drive, breaking hard. Tank got out and I was about to greet him when I noticed he was red in the face and looking angry as hell.

Tank had told me why he left the police force. He said it was because he couldn't wear the uniform. He said he couldn't stand the way people looked at you when you were in uniform and that most people, ordinary people, seemed frightened when they saw you on the street. He said other people would look at you with genuine hatred. Tank was a thoughtful and decent guy and he said he hadn't been able to hack it anymore, because the minute he put on that uniform he was a cop and nothing else, not himself anymore. He said that when he was in uniform he didn't feel like a person at all.

Eventually Tank had ended up working with retarded kids, and he was always saying how fulfilling it was and that he'd made the right decision when he quit the police force.

Tank came up Mike's driveway glaring at us. He stood with his hands in tight fists and his muscles tensed. Tank had the thickest arms and legs I'd ever seen. His forearms were as big as my calves.

Where's fucking Ronald Stott?

What's up with you? I asked.

He was here with you last night, wasn't he, Tank said. When the girls got back from the hens' night.

Yeah, well it's a whole new day now, isn't it, said Mike. He didn't seem to notice that Tank was all worked up. Mike was lying back on a banana lounge with his feet up and the pale winter sun on him. He was wearing sunglasses and he yawned and stretched.

A glorious new day, he said.

Tank shook his head and started to say something but turned and marched off. When he got to his car he looked back at us, shaking his head again. He opened the car door and then turned back and pointed at us.

And I've had it with you two, he yelled. I've had it up to here. I mean that. You're fucking wastes of space, the fucking pair of you.

Yeah, well fuck you too, Mike called out lazily.

I rang Tank up that night.

You just tell Ronald Stott that when I find him I'm going to knock seven shades of shit out of him, Tank said. And that's not a threat – it's a promise. You tell him that, all right. Just tell him that.

Then he hung up on me.

A similar thing happened a few days later. This time it was Shelley's car that pulled up across the street. Shelley and another woman got out, a woman we didn't know, and they started walking towards Jenny's house. I saw Shelley saying something to the woman, glancing in our direction. The woman turned and looked at us and then started walking across the road with Shelley trying to pull her back.

The woman stood on the pavement with her arms crossed and stared at us. She looked older than Jenny's other friends and had a hard face. She was wearing large sunglasses, so I couldn't see her eyes. After a while, she began talking in a slow, measured way. She reminded me of a schoolteacher. Maybe she was a school-teacher.

You know Michelle should go to the police about your mate, the woman said. He should be locked up.

What mate? said Mike, opening a bottle.

The woman turned back and asked Shelley something. Shelley was standing on the nature strip, looking at the ground. She seemed embarrassed, or maybe she just didn't want to be there.

This Ronald character, the woman said. Your pig of a mate Ronald. I mean, it is beyond belief. I cannot even begin -

He's not our mate, Mike said, flicking the bottle top over his neighbour's fence.

The woman talked to Shelley again.

He is your mate, she said to us. You were with him the other night. You were seen. And from what I've been hearing, that wasn't the only thing that went on. And I'm talking about the two of you. So you just listen to me for a moment.

It's got nothing to do with us, said Mike. It's her word against his.

But she was passed out! In some lane!

Not when we saw her, said Mike.

The woman held up her hands, swore, started talking to Shelley again and then back at us.

Well, I think you should all be locked up, she said. The lot of you.

She made a sweeping gesture with her arm and then started to storm off. I got up.

Oh, come on, said Mike. You've got to be kidding me.

I caught up with Shelley and the woman outside Jenny's house. Shelley wouldn't look at me. The woman started talking again. Now she was talking very fast and she was angry and she talked all over the place. She said a lot of things but I couldn't get a word in.

When the woman finally stopped talking she held up one hand with the palm facing me and walked away. Shelley followed her and I went back to the carport.

What a bitch, I said to Mike.

I told you, said Mike. But you've always got to be the good guy, don't you?

 

IT WAS SOMETIME in the middle of all this, sometime during that week before the wedding, somewhere in the middle of it all I remember a strange feeling coming over me. It weighed on me for a long time, for what seemed like a very long time. And it wasn't anything to do with what Ronald did or might have done. It was something else, but I couldn't quite work out what. Something about that night, for sure, but it was more than that. For whatever reason, I wondered whether maybe Tank had been right to take things out on us, even if it was Ronald he was actually angry at. I remember thinking that maybe it had been a long time coming. I don't know, but something was wrong and I wondered whether maybe there was something wrong with me, something everyone else saw but I didn't and couldn't and can't even now.

Anyway, it was a really nice wedding. I was best man and I gave a speech about what exceptional and admirable individuals Tank and Jenny were, and how they had a love that I knew would endure for the rest of their lives and long after. I said it was an eternal love, and that destiny had brought them together and they were truly kindred spirits and it was rare to see two people with such a close connection and I said other things too and at the time I meant it all. I was probably just caught up in the whole wedding thing because it was a really nice wedding and I think everyone felt very close. I danced with Jenny's friend and we actually got along really well and I danced with her more than once. Mike spent some time talking to Shelley and I remember seeing Shelley laugh at something he said. And I had to admire Michelle, because looking at her you wouldn't have known what she'd been through and she didn't seem to hold a grudge against either of us.

Of course we didn't see much of Tank after the wedding, given that he was a now a married man, but also because he and Jenny bought a house in the outer suburbs and started having kids almost immediately. I haven't seen Tank in many years now, but I often think that I must catch up with him some time, or at least give him a ring to see how he's doing and where life's taken him and that sort of thing.

As for Ronald Stott, our dislike turned to outright hostility and we used to trade insults on the street, especially when he walked past Mike's carport. Mike and I told Ronald Stott exactly what we thought of him and had always thought of him and I remember Ronald looking surprised and hurt. I also remember wondering whether the whole thing had finally touched a nerve, broken through that self-absorbed shell he'd lived in all his life, and that somewhere in that boastful, spoilt brain of his, Ronald suspected that maybe he had actually done something wrong. I doubt he ever would have admitted it to himself, but I do think something had got in there, finally. At any rate, Ronald got a job in computing soon after and moved out of home and we never saw him again.

Me and Mike both eventually found work and moved out of our parents' houses and to different suburbs. We still have the occasional get-together over a few drinks and invariably spend most of the time reminiscing about the good old days. Whenever the subject of Tank's wedding comes up, which it often does, we both agree that of all the weddings either of us has been to, Tank's wedding was by far the nicest.

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