I’m not quite sure how it happened, but I’m very pleased to say that I was one of the 30 people worldwide who completed the 12 Short Stories in 12 Months challenge.
Many thanks to Mia Botha for putting on the challenge and keeping us all motivated, and to everyone who took part in some or all of the challenge. If you fancy having a go yourself, keeping to very specific word counts and prompts, the challenge restarts in January 2018. http://www.12shortstories.com
Dad would have loved the theme of the ‘coming undone’ story that was my favourite of the whole challenge, so Dad, this one’s for you.
To Have and to Hold (c) Kimberley Cooper 2017
I look down at my daughter. At that little button nose, those almond shaped eyes, that very special look that told me as soon as she was born that she had Down’s Syndrome. But more than anything I see her ivory satin dress, the lace train, and a perky tiara set on top of her dark curls.
Ready? Is any father ever ready to give his little girl away on her wedding day?
While she waits patiently for my answer, a sob crawls out of my throat. This is a day that twenty five years ago, I never thought would come. I never thought she’d go to college, get a paying job and move out and live independently. And I certainly never thought she’d find the sort of love that led to St Mary’s church.
“Oh, Dad.” She tuts and pulls the perfectly folded silk square from the top pocket of my jacket, and wipes under my eyes, which I’m surprised to find are pouring tears down my cheeks. “You’re leaking. Don’t leak.”
I sniff, and smile. It’s the expression her mother and I used to use when Lucy cried as a child over something she found momentous. A grazed knee, a dropped ice cream, a mean comment from a classmate. Yes. Those were the ones which hurt me and Martha too. Made us wonder whether we’d done the right thing sending Lucy to mainstream school, where the kids weren’t always understanding and kind. But in my experience, kids weren’t good with those who were different, anywhere. I seem to remember some wrong-uns at my school when I was a boy. Back then, a fist or a well-placed boot sorted them out. That would never have occurred to Lucy. There wasn’t a mean bone in her body.
I take the handkerchief from her, scrub a little less delicately under my eyes, blow my nose. “It’s ok, pet, I’m fine.”
“Hmmm.” She gives me an old fashioned look like she knows that’s a fib.
“No, really.” I take a deep breath. “Right.” I pass my hand over my hair, smooth back the greying mass, which springs back into the same place it was before I touched it. Damn unmanageable hair. I’ve had it cut short for this day, despite the fact that Martha prefers it longer. Likes to run her fingers through it. And Lucy was always tugging on it when she was a baby. I seem to remember she learned to stand when hanging onto my hair. I don’t know who was more pleased when she learned to walk on her own; me or her. Certainly I had less of a sore head when she did.
“Ok, are we ready?” I echo her question, and my voice cracks, and I have to clear my throat a couple of times.
My beautiful girl looks me in the eye and says solemnly, “This is what I want, Dad, you know that, right? Tom loves me, and I love him. We love each other like you and Mum do.”
I am robbed of my voice again.
A brilliant smile breaks out onto her face, and she puts both hands on her hips, elbows out, in that pose she often used when she was a child, stubborn and not prepared to be persuaded from a course she’d set herself on. Oh, yes, that’s my girl.
I nod. “I know.”
“Well, then. Let’s do this.” She takes my arm and steps forward. I have no choice but to walk too, or face being pulled along like Deddy Bear used to be. Lucy could never pronounce the word ‘teddy’, so Deddy Bear he was on that Christmas Day she unwrapped him, and Deddy Bear he stayed. A grey well-worn stuffed toy that dangled by one arm at all times. Through puddles. In the mud. Dropped in the potty. You name it, Deddy Bear got dragged through it. That toy was in the washing machine or on the line, drying, almost more than it was in Lucy’s bed.
The church doors open, and Lucy gets her first view of the congregation. She shrieks, loud and piercing, and my ears ring. “Daddy, look at all those people! They’re all here for me.”
And everyone bursts out laughing. And clapping. And my heart stutters with joy.
Lucy sweeps the church with her gaze, lets go of my hand and steps in front of me. She beams up at me, and excitedly paddles her feet, running on the spot. She puts her arms round my waist, laying her cheek on my chest. Squeezes hard enough to force a grunt from me.
“Daddy”, she says, “this is so special.”
And it is. And she is.
The buzz in the church simmers down as the congregation settles again, and I can almost taste the expectation in the air. The organ starts up, and the strains of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, drift down the aisle. I have to stop myself from humming along; as I did while I waited for Martha to walk up the aisle at our own wedding, all those years ago. Oh, yes, it took a while for me to live that down. We were almost divorced before we got married.
I look up, toward the altar, and Martha’s there. She catches my eye and I shrug, apologetically, and I see her shoulders move as she laughs. She knows me. And thank God, she loves me. Still. She’s standing, waiting for me and Lucy to process in a stately fashion up the aisle.
But Lucy’s having none of that. No, with every eye on her, and probably every heart in every mouth, she takes my hand and gallops up the aisle, tugging me along like a taller, more smartly-dressed Deddy Bear. Someone in front of us giggles, someone behind snorts, and then again, the whole congregation is laughing and clapping. Love pours out of the walls of this hallowed place as Lucy and Tom’s families and friends get to their feet to welcome the beautiful bride.
And then we’re in front of the vicar, and next to Tom. He only has eyes for her, and she for him.
So when I kiss her hand and pass it to Tom to hold and step away, I don’t think either of them notice.
I join Martha in the pew and everyone shuffles along a bit to allow me some space.
Martha links her arm through mine, and squeezes me against her body, her warm weight so vital and alive. “Good job.”
I shake my head. “I blubbed like a baby out there.”
She sniggers. “Softy.” She looks at Lucy, standing tall and proud next to her bridegroom. Tiara slightly askew now, with the speed of her journey down the aisle. Lucy’s showing the vicar her sparkly nails, painted for this special day. Whether he wants to see them or not.
Martha’s voice is proud. And maybe a little wistful. “She was always Daddy’s girl, wasn’t she?”
And as the tears return to the corners of my eyes, as I watch my only daughter say her wedding vows clearly and loudly, I can only nod and whisper. “She always will be.”