Read all about Betsy, the happily engaged twenty-something whose eyes should be all over her wedding plans but are all over another man instead. Her mother Helen, playing the part of the ecstatic mother-of-the-bride, while keeping her own secret love affair under wraps. Nat, who lies for a living and is questioning how much longer she can keep it up. And Jenny. Full of love, desperate to be loved back and about to tell one tiny fib that will spark a hundred more.
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If only, just for once, my shift had finished on time. I wouldn’t have been swallowed up in the throng of early-evening commuters en route to Paddington tube station, pushed the longer way back towards Marble Arch. And she wouldn’t have seen me.
By the time I round the corner onto Connaught Street, past a vet’s with its window filled with colourful doggie outfits and a café serving flavoured macchiatos, the chill October air is already biting at my face. I realise my gloves are still sitting in the staffroom next to the family-sized tin of Christmas-is-coming Quality Street chocolates. There is a moment where I consider going back for them but the crowd marching forth behind me, their heads bowed penguin-like to the wind, is more of a barrier than I can be bothered to deal with.
I try really hard not to notice at first. I even cross to the other side of the street because I can see what’s coming. But the boutique’s floor-to-ceiling glass windows wrap around the corner it sits on, making it impossible to miss. The walls inside have been painted a dark grey and the bright light is bouncing off every one of those white dresses, illuminating the entire shop like some giant searchlight calling me home. It’s all so pristine and orderly, the exact opposite of the frantic mess I’ve just left behind.
As she steps out from the fitting room, I can’t help it, I cross back over the road, not even bothering to look for oncoming traffic, and as I get closer, I can hear the warm laughter and giddy squeals enveloping her. Who are they, I wonder? It looks like her grandmother, a sister perhaps and a bridesmaid or two. Then I see what must surely be her mum. They share the same pretty almond eyes and confident smile. She’s seated in a deep blush-pink chair and as her daughter steps forward she starts to rise, her hands moving slowly up to her heart.
Oh my goodness, that dress! Clearly, I don’t know one end of a wedding gown from the other, but this one looks regal. There’s so much of it for a start and the closer I look, the more I see: tiny glass beads that catch the light, sequins that seem to shower down the skirt like precious raindrops. Whoever made this knew what they were doing. She looks like she’s been stitched into it; it fits her so perfectly.
I step closer to the window now, place the tips of my fingers onto the pane of glass and watch, completely absorbed, as her mum gathers her beautiful daughter up in her arms. The love. I can feel it through two inches of toughened glass and I realise I’m holding my breath. As my fingers creep higher up the window and my nose gently touches it, I see how everyone is so lost in the moment. There could be a riot going off on the streets out here and none of them would notice. My thoughts flick to my own mother and her last letter, ‘When You’re Missing Me’ written on the envelope in unusually untidy handwriting – perhaps the pain or medication was starting to overwhelm her by then.
There’s something about this time of year, when the weather turns and the first signs of Christmas start to magically appear overnight in all the shops on Oxford Street when no one’s looking. After dark, the windows of Selfridges fill with an explosion of designer colour, an exciting surprise for all the commuters passing on the bus the next morning. For me it just means I’m coming to the end of another year without her and I can feel my spirits physically sag inside me at the thought of it. Twelve years now and I still miss her desperately and the way she used to dismiss every problem with a cheery ‘Everything will be alright in the end. And if it’s not alright, it’s not the end.’ Well, not always, Mum.
Oh, the bride is twirling now, sending a whoosh of air up under that skirt, and I have to use my freezing fingers to wipe my frosted breath from the window pane to get a better look. Her mum is crying. No big heaving sobs, just a few delicate little tears picking their way down her perfectly made-up face. Then she’s pulling out an embroidered hanky and dabbing at the corners of her eyes. I bet this family are going to have the most magical Christmas together. I’ll be working.
It was last Thursday when someone decided we needed to sort out all the Christmas rotas at work – those with husbands and young children bagging all the best days off, those without (me) getting lumbered with everything else. I went straight home, untied the little bundle of notes Mum left for me and gently teased the missing me one open through sad little sobs. I’ve read so many of them since Mum lost her battle with breast cancer when I was just sixteen. Dad read them to me at first. We used to sit on my bed, under the star-scattered canopy and a string of fairy lights that Mum had spent one afternoon putting up and I could never bring myself to take down, and off he’d go. Letter in one hand, my tense little fingers squeezed in the other, forcing himself not to cry because that’s not what she wanted. First Boyfriend, First Broken Heart, Graduation Day. How she had the strength to write those letters, I’ll never know, and as a vulnerable teenager sometimes I couldn’t bear to listen to them. Now, I tackle them myself.
Come on, Jenny, you’re made of tougher stuff than you know. Remember, you are me and I am you. Promise me you won’t let anything ruin the big, beautiful life you are yet to live – not even if you must do it without your mum. What is it we used to say? Pull on your big-girl pants and get on with it! That always made us giggle, didn’t it? It makes me smile now as I’m writing the words again. You can do it, I know you can. Try your very, very best. Think of the fun times we shared, then go and find your own fun, because there is plenty out there waiting for you. Don’t waste your tears on me, darling, they won’t bring me back. I haven’t gone, I’m watching you every day…
I’m not sure if it’s the cold or the memory of her, but I’m starting to shake a little. I need to go. Just as I make that decision, the door to the boutique flies open and the friendly smile of an older woman holds me there. Her face is so inviting and kind. She looks like the sort of woman who floats elegantly through life, one who would never get her hair wet at the swimming pool. I try to make my escape, muttering a quick apology, stepping back guiltily from the window, but she’s pulling me in.
‘Are you wanting to make an appointment? I won’t have you standing out there in the cold until we’ve finished. Come on, I can book you in quickly.’ She’s fiddling around by the till now, pulling out a huge concertina file. ‘What’s your name?’
‘It’s Jenny, but I er…’ The bride-to-be’s family have noticed me now and I’m feeling a bit ashamed of the bobbling Topshop duffle coat I thought I’d try to get one more winter out of. I see my reflection from the other side of those huge glass windows. Urgh! Major hair fail. Attacked by the cold evening air, it has erupted into a giant lollipop of frizz. My cheeks are unflatteringly flushed and, now that I’m in the warm, I can feel my nose start to run and I’m wondering if I can get away with a quick wipe on my sleeve. I am so far from the vision of styled perfection in front of me.
Naturally, everyone else is a bit dressed up for the occasion. This is special, right? The mum’s in a pastel tweed skirt and jacket while the girls are all cream cashmere, chic cropped trousers skimming above pretty embellished flats – the sort that always seem to make my ankles look thick – or floaty floral dresses belted at the waist to show off their neat figures. Even Granny looks all elegant in a midnight blue dress that flares at the sleeves, a ring of tiny pearls at both wrists.
‘OK, you are in luck, Jenny, because I have a cancellation tomorrow at 6 p.m., otherwise you’re looking at a six-week wait, I’m afraid. And I’m so sorry, I haven’t even bothered to introduce myself. I’m Helen, I own The White Gallery.’
‘I’d take it if I were you.’ The bride, who’s got to be a good three years younger than my twenty-eight, is turning her full attention to me now. ‘I’ve been to just about every wedding boutique in London and Helen knew immediately that this dress was the one for me, long before I did. She’s the best there is.’
‘It’s from the Elie Saab Fall 2018 collection,’ smiles Helen, looking all proud of herself. And rightly so, she’s nailed it. ‘A dress that has about 230 hours of handwork in it. See the way all the detail cascades down over the tulle? Only the very finest embellisher could create something so beautiful, so faultless.’
‘OK, tomorrow it is!’ Then – crazy woman alert – I actually start to do a quick bit of mental arithmetic to see if I’ll have enough time to leg it back here when my shift ends tomorrow. No! I need to get out of here before I start inviting them all to my big day. I can always call and cancel it later and no one will be any the wiser. Anything is better than admitting I just got busted having a right good nose at total strangers enjoying such a private moment.
‘Perfect! I’ll see you then.’ Helen squeezes the file shut, sending a waft of warm air up into her immaculately blow-dried hair.
Then I’m back out into the flow of determined commuters, hurrying against each other, fighting to make the lights, fighting to dive into the last seat on the tube, then fighting to be the first out the sliding doors when it finally flies into their station. The whole thing is exhausting. As I sit, counting down the ten stops to East Putney, I can still smell the day on me. I wonder if the man sitting next to me, legs splayed open so he’s helping himself to more than his fair share of my seat, can smell it too. My thoughts drift back to Mrs Rodgers, and how she struggled to get her newborn to latch on – the reason I was so late finishing today. That and two births, one very stroppy matron and a delivery ward full of dads-to-be convinced ‘we’re contracting’.
Sweat, tears, blood, vomit, urine… I’ve had it all on me today. From the second my shift started at St Mary’s, it was brutally busy. I got Mrs Johnson, a first-timer who’d done her homework and produced a birth plan three sheets long. As she handed it over, she looked at me and asked the same question most of them do: ‘Are you a mum?’ Then I watched as the confidence drained from her face when the answer was no. It’s not a medical thing, I’m sure she knows I can do my job. But just then, right at the beginning when she’s scared of everything that’s about to happen to her, she needs to know I know how terrified she is and that I came out the other side and everything was OK. I can’t offer her that, but I feel her worry. It’s hard for me too. Every time I ease a new life into this world, I wonder if I will ever be on the receiving end of that most precious gift. Will my hands, the very first to touch every newborn I deliver, ever cradle my own? Will I ever open the letter marked ‘You’re a Mum!’? And now I think about it, why was she so sure I would be? I suppose it’s not quite the same, writing ‘Now that you’ve been barren for fifteen years’, is it? Mum’s letters didn’t come with instructions, I guess she only wanted me to open them when they’re relevant. But she must have known I’ll eventually open them all regardless, just to hear her voice dance around my head again.
By the time I force my key into the lock of my basement flat and step over the mountain of unpaired shoes that Marianne, my frequently absent and chaotic flatmate, has dumped there, I’m struggling to feel my fingers. I should have gone back for the gloves. That lovely bride might have been out of her dress by then and on her own way home too.
But I can’t get her out of my head. I’m thinking about that dress as I’m stabbing the fork through the film of a microwaveable meatballs and rice; her mum’s face as I’m picking up Marianne’s trail of clothes that are running from her room down the dark, narrow corridor to our shared bathroom – always falling short of the laundry bin; and as I draw the curtains across the metal security bars that criss-cross the window and sit on my bed to eat dinner, I’m thinking about what feels like the next letter Mum intended me to read. The one that says ‘You’re Engaged!’ on the front. I can tell from the exaggerated exclamation mark how excited she was trying to feel when she wrote it.
I don’t know why I decide to read it tonight. I’m about as far away from an engagement as Marianne is from owning a pair of rubber gloves. But I do. Maybe I just want to feel close to Mum again. To hear the sound of her voice surround me. To pretend for a moment that I am fulfilling all the hopes and wishes she had for me.
How old are you, I wonder, poppet? I was twenty-seven when your father proposed and that felt just about the perfect age to me. And now, here you are! On the tip of something so magical, I barely know how to describe it to you. The thought that you have found someone you love so much that you want to spend the rest of your life with them is all the comfort I need today. The knowledge that someone else out there loves and adores you is no surprise at all.
The truth is, if I was there, I’d be a mess. The thought of letting you go to build a life that might include me a little less used to keep me awake at night, even when you were just a little girl. It would stir up so much sorrow and excitement in me, leaving me staring at the ceiling for hours. I used to drive Dad nuts, worrying about things he said didn’t need worrying about.
I’ve thought a lot about what advice I should give you at this point in your life and actually, it’s far simpler than you think: just love each other. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But when life gets in the way, don’t let him be the thing you push to the bottom of your list. Cherish him and be sure he does the same for you. Be kind to each other. Let him be the one person who never finds fault in you. Let you be the one person he can talk to about anything – everything. Build a little wall around you both so no one can ever hurt you.
And your wedding day! I’ve written another letter for you to open that morning, Jenny, but since you’ll be planning it now, this is what I say. Go Big! Go white! Go over the top! Don’t shy away from what should be a huge, joyous celebration. Buy the enormous dress, order too many flowers, drink too much champagne, overspend (a little!) on the honeymoon. Don’t ever look back and wish you’d gone for the six-tier cake. Have it! You deserve it, my darling. We’ve made sure the money is there for you, so now is not the time to be sensible!
I’m so sorry I’m not there to help you with all the wonderful planning – we would have had so much fun together – but perhaps I will guide you in some way neither of us expected. Think of me when you’re smelling those roses, or choosing the scent you’ll wear on your wedding morning. I’ll be there in every twinkle of the cut-glass crystal during your toast, I’ll be the sound of laughter travelling across your reception after the speeches. Don’t cry any tears for me on your wedding day, Jenny, it would break my heart to think of that. Instead, place a beautiful bouquet of flowers where I might have sat.
And know that I will love you forever, even longer if I can. I won’t waste my words being sad about what might have been, just like you mustn’t waste your time being sad for what you’ll miss. The fact you have opened this letter at all is all the peace I need. You’ve found him. You’ll be happy and I can rest now. Congratulations! I honestly feel like I might explode with pride. Love Mum x
That’s when I dig out Mum’s engagement ring from my bedside drawer. Dad gave it to me the day before he proposed to Sylvie, sixty-four days after we buried Mum and another twenty-eight before my heartbroken older sister Lulu packed up her own life and took the marketing job up North. It’s an Art Deco emerald-cut aquamarine, encircled with a halo of diamonds. She never took it off, until Dad had to. She loved it. And so do I, because it carries all the promise of a life so much more glamorous than my own. Perhaps that’s why I decide to keep it on now.
I slip it on to the third finger of my left hand, like I have many times before. But I leave it there this time and huff back into the kitchen to dump my half-eaten excuse for dinner into the bin. If Sainsbury’s are going to advertise this as ‘Meatballs & Rice’, they might have the decency to put a meatball in it. I open the fridge to retrieve the Curly Wurly I’ve hidden at the back behind the out-of-date Greek yoghurt and some cheese that’s really starting to whiff. I’ve Post-it-noted my name all over the chocolate but, no surprise at all, Marianne has beaten me to it and helped herself. Still, nice of her to leave the empty wrapper in there for me to bin.
Perhaps I shouldn’t entirely blame my thieving flatmate for putting me in this devil-may-care mood, but I decide there and then not to cancel Helen tomorrow. For once, I’m going to be the silly one and do something spectacularly stupid.
What I Didn't Say is available for pre-order on Amazon.
Read Jade's debut novel, The Almost Wife