Jo is a woman in love with Lyle Peters. Today she is a guest at his wedding.
Jo takes another draw of her cigarette and blows the smoke out into the pure Wiltshire air. It mingles with the heady scent of blossoming flowers. Opposite her is an impressive oak tree, which Jo softly strokes. She is suddenly acutely aware of our relationship to nature. The moment is sharp and clear as day – this is a shock to Jo. She feels as if over the past year and a half she has been stumbling through life slightly out of focus. It has been like a dream, or rather, a nightmare.
When Jo returns to the hotel room, Lorraine is flustered and stunning in a rose-printed dress.
“You ready?” she says, and then: “Where the hell is that stupid fascinator?”
Jo has a sudden urge to hug her sister and tell her how amazing she is. Ever since Dylan’s disappearance Jo has latched onto people, aware of how easy it is to lose. The desire for intimacy makes Jo feel strangely embarrassed.
“…fuck’s sake, I literally just had it. Jo, check the bed, will you?”
Jo moves the bedcovers around slowly, finding nothing. She pauses. Her face crumples.
“…nothing? Jo? Jo? Shit, what’s wrong?”
Lorraine sits beside Jo and puts an arm around her shoulders.
“D’you want to tell me what’s going on?”
Jo nods. Shakes her head. Shrugs.
“God, I’m so pathetic,” she says, her voice strangled. Tears spill down her cheeks and Lorraine wipes them away.
“Whatever it is, you’re not pathetic. No…you’re not getting all emotional over the wedding, are you?”
At this Jo begins to cry properly. Lorraine rocks her. They stay like this for several minutes, then Lorraine pulls away and looks Jo in the eyes.
“Oh, God, Jojo. Oh God, you aren’t.”
“I…can’t remember. There was something there before Dylan…and then afterwards, I just…he was spending so much time with me. He was so sweet, so comforting…I honestly would have lost my mind if it wasn’t for him. And then I realised that I’d wanted that basically the whole time. But…”
Lorraine lets out a long sigh.
“Jo. Jo, Jo, Jo. Why didn’t you say something before?”
There it is again, that question that Jo has constantly been asking herself. Why? Because she was scared of ruining her and Lyle’s many years of friendship. Because she was scared of rejection. Because it would seem as if the trauma had triggered Jo’s feelings – that wasn’t the case but that’s what it seemed like. No matter. No reason would ever be enough – the fact remains that she had had her chance and lost it.
Although they weren’t married yet. “Jo,” says Lorraine, who senses her sister’s mood. “Don’t think about that now.”
“There’s no ‘if’. You cannot do it. Not now.”
“Oh, God, Jo.”
Lorraine stands up and begins pacing around the room.
“Look,” she says. “I can’t imagine how you’re feeling. Lyle is such a good friend and he’s done so much for you but…Jo, you had time. You had years. I wish you’d told me this earlier. I wish you’d told him earlier. It’s not just about him or you but Natasha, too.”
Oh, Tasha. Jo imagines Lyle’s lips pressed against Tasha’s, Tasha in a wedding dress, Tasha as Tasha Peters. She is perfect for him in every way.
“Do you even know if the feeling’s mutual?” Lorraine is saying. “It’s a huge risk, Jo. It could ruin everything. You stay quiet and-”
“Live a lifetime of misery?”
“Babe, time is the biggest healer. You move on. You’ve done it before. I’ve done it before. Everyone does it. It’s the end of a cycle. D’you hear what I’m saying?” Jo wants to believe Lorraine. She wants to fast-forward and skip the horror that is this wedding. Maybe the cycle will end but in this very moment, in this very room with Lorraine’s hand now upon her shoulder and Jo’s tears smudging the make-up that has for once made her look half-decent, it feels like an impossibility.
The church is beautiful. Everything about the wedding is beautiful, of course. Jo sits next to Lorraine at the end of a pew, as far away from the ceremony as possible. Lorraine has pointed out the bathrooms to Jo. Yes, confessing to Lorraine has reaped some benefits – if anything, Jo is glad that she isn’t suffering in silence anymore. Not that it makes her feel much better.
It’s all a blur. Jo’s eyes fill with tears at the sight of Tasha. She stumbles through hymns, occasionally drifting off. She squirms at the prospect of confessing her love for Lyle in front of so many people. What had she been thinking? She couldn’t stand up and ruin something the couple had been anticipating for weeks, months, years. She would achieve nothing. She would be escorted out of the church, the guests would think of her forever with hostility, perhaps the relationship between Lyle and Natasha would be ruined and never repaired. Although…wouldn’t that be a small success? Jo shakes her head fiercely. A man nearby glances at her.
No. And yet.
“If anyone knows any reason why these two shouldn’t be married, please speak up now.”
There it is. The last chance before Lyle and Natasha are bound for life. Jo’s heart stops and she stands.
A ripple runs through the congregation as every head turns in Jo’s direction. Lorraine, who has been trying to ignore the pain in her left foot (wearing kitten-heels was the stupidest idea) freezes and glances to her right. No, she is definitely standing. The absolute, fucking…no, Lorraine can’t even think of the right word to describe her sister, who has, frankly, never been one to listen to Lorraine. Jo coughs and holds up her mobile phone. Lorraine can see her trembling.
“Sorry,” Jo says. “Probably not the best moment to, er, take a photo.”
The tension within the congregation dissipates and there is laughter. Jo steals a glance at Lyle and Natasha; the bride is using the opportunity to shakily wipe away a bit of lipstick, smiling. Lyle looks the most relieved, almost too relieved. Unless that is Jo’s mind playing tricks on her. Soon they are united – Lyle and Natasha – whilst Jo’s heart is violently torn in two.
Jo’s heart has been broken before. “Boys will be the death of you,” Jo’s mother had told her at seventeen. Dylan, however, had been eleven. Hair like sunshine, eyes cornflower blue. People told Jo after Dylan went missing that she would forever see him in a perfect light. You don’t hear people at funerals talk about how annoying or expensive or troublesome their children were, only perfect. Not that Dylan was dead, of course. Missing, but not dead. “Jojo!”
Lyle’s face is flushed from drink, his eyes sparkling. Jo lets herself be pulled into a hug, smiling in spite of it all.
“Congratulations,” she manages to say, touching his cheek. A brief, stolen moment of intimacy.
“Thank you so much, Jojo, thank you for being here. Isn’t the venue great?”
They chat about the wedding, the honeymoon to Spain, how the police force is treating Lyle. He is animated – he is obviously the happiest man on the planet today, and rightly so. He has married a good woman, a stunning woman, a woman with a stable career.
“Tasha is beautiful,” Jo keeps saying. “She’s the highlight of the day.” If she keeps saying things like that maybe she can erase her fantasy. She could never be like Tasha, so what is the point of anything?
“You look stunning today too, Jo,” Lyle says softly. Jo’s heart pangs. Why would he say something like that?
“Thanks,” she says. “Lyle. I…I’m sorry that…Dylan couldn’t be here.”
Lyle’s face rearranges itself. How he has gone from looking like the happiest man in the world to the saddest Jo doesn’t know, but she bites her lip and is unsure whether she should have mentioned her son. It would have been bad not to, surely? Jo sometimes feels like her emotions are tangled weeds – surely there must be too many things a person can feel at once.
“Why are you sorry, Jo?” Lyle asks in a strangled voice. He looks like he might cry. “I’m sorry. Dylan was like a son to me, and I failed him.”
Jo’s heart leaps at the idea of Dylan as Lyle’s son. Lyle looks distraught. Is he thinking the same thing? Has he been feeling the same way all this time?
“No…” Jo says hoarsely. “Don’t say that. You can’t blame yourself. You were so sweet to have even offered to take him camping. You did everything right.”
Jo blames no-one but herself. If she had gone with them – with Lyle, Tasha and Dylan – she would have been sharing a tent with Dylan. He was her son after all, her responsibility. She had missed the trip to catch up on work. On work. Of all things. She remembers the weekend so clearly. Dylan had been banging on about going camping for ages. She had sat in front of her laptop, watching as the burnt orange leaves from the trees outside floated away from the branches, and envisioned Dylan, Tasha and Lyle huddled round a campfire somewhere, cosy despite the dropping temperature.
“No, Jo,” Lyle is saying. “I think about that Saturday over and over. If we had just kept a better eye…”
Lyle stops, like he has just thought of something. Jo, too, feels the peculiar sensation that something is immediately very wrong, but then Lyle begins to cry, and she assumes that it’s just the shock of seeing him so pained. She hadn’t realised how much it must have affected him. He clutches her hand, sending shockwaves through Jo.
“It’s ok,” she soothes. “He couldn’t be here but…one day we’ll be together.”
Lyle whimpers. Lyle had thought of Dylan as his son. His son. Maybe he had thought that they could one day be a family, just as Jo had many times.
“Sorry, I’m sorry,” Lyle says. “Do you…want a drink, Jo? Can I get you a drink?” Before she can respond, Lyle is gone. Jo feels as if something is incomplete. She stares at Lyle as he walks away, wondering if there are weeds tangled up in Lyle’s own head. She thinks about that weekend again, a year and a half ago, still clear in Jo’s mind. Going crazy at home by herself all day in front of the computer. After all that the job never worked out anyway. The burnt leaves. The mild spring air of the wedding makes that October seem so distant. It’s the weekend, a Saturday, which is the same day that the others left for their trip. The same day…no, it was the next day that Lyle and Tasha woke up and found Dylan’s tent empty. The next day. Jo sighs and suddenly realises that she is incredibly drunk. Well, at least she achieved something that she set out to do.
Tasha is weeping in a toilet cubicle. She thought she could go through with this. She knew it would hit her at some point but she thought maybe by then it’d be too late to turn back. She stares at the new sandals she bought for her new sunny, Spanish life.
Tasha gets up and unlocks the cubicle door. He hasn’t ventured into the Ladies yet but his voice is getting desperate.
Tasha wipes away her tears but her eyes remain glassy and bloodshot. Fuck it, she thinks, this is a fucking mess anyway. Sometimes Tasha feels like her emotions are tangled weeds. It would explain why she loves and yet hates this man, why she hates herself.
“Tasha, we need to fucking go, we’ll miss the flight!”
She can only stand, facing him and shaking her head, lost for words.
“We have to go, Tasha. Remember what we said? Remember what we planned? We planned it so carefully, baby. We can’t go back, you know that! I know, I know, it’s awful,” he says, cradling her as she cries.
“Lyle,” moans Tasha. She is weary with tears but the reality kicks in and she pulls away from him, walking out of the Ladies.
“I can’t, I can’t!” she wails. “Lyle, he’s dead. And Jo thinks he’s alive, she’s-”
“Stop fucking speaking so loudly,” Lyle hisses, grabbing his wife’s hand and pulling her towards Departures. He talks low and quickly. “She won’t. There will come a point when she accepts that he’s gone. It may be in two months, it may be in ten years. The fact is that we won’t be here. We’ll have started a new life, Tasha, with all of this behind us.”
“How can you act like this? It haunts me every night when I go to sleep. I see Dylan waving at us from that tree. Climbing it was your fucking idea. It’s the biggest tree in the world and then Dylan just drops from it like a dead weight and we fucking…oh my God, I can’t think about it, I’ll be sick. Getting rid of his body like that, and Jo had no idea…”
Tasha stops and crouches down on the floor, shaking.
“Tasha, the fuck?! We’re gonna miss this flight. Baby, please, this is our only chance. Do you want to go back and confess everything – eighteen months later? Do you want this to be the end of the life that we’ve just started together? Do you?”
Tasha moans. Lyle doesn’t know what the hell to do. People are staring at them. He feels sick to his core, of course he does. He was in shock at the time. It had been a huge mistake, he knows that – it was a mistake to just leave Dylan’s body to float away in the river – but it happened, and life can only go on. The truth would have crushed Jo, would have crushed everything. They can’t go over and over something forever.
His face crumples. As well as Jo, poor Jo, he feels as if he will never ever be able to make it up to Tasha, the woman who committed herself to a man like him.
They clasp each other’s hands and walk through the airport.