The table looked glorious. Fingers of low sun were reaching into folds and drapes of the heated marquee, lighting the gilded cutlery, making cut glass sparkle, setting on fire the fragrant displays of exotic and out-of-season flowers. Here and there a flunkey of the Wedding Planner busied herself with an orange knapkin, a pink cushion, a stray dusting of golden pollen until everything was perfect.
Except it wasn’t a wedding.
Miles had decided that he and Sandra would celebrate their ‘Lucky Thirteenth’ in style, and employed the minion of a minor Royal to organise the whole shebang from tent-pegs to toasts. Here it was. November. There would be fireworks of course, a huge professional display storming the night sky and terrifying the village dogs again just as they thought the Fifth was all over. She stood motionless by the tent flap, watching the glint of expensive plates finishing the table. A phrase slipped into her mind ... ‘funeral baked meats.’ Hamlet, wasn’t it? Whose funeral? Silly. She sighed and turned for the house, shivering a little as a scarf of November mist unfurled from the gloom of the arboretum and floated over the park.
Two hours later she was all dressed up with somewhere to go. Sandra had to forsake her favourite dress; Miles had other ideas.
“Happy Anniversary, darling!” He looked today like ... not the cat ...no ... the lion who got the cream.
“I’ve bought you something very special this year - yes I promise you it will fit, I made sure of that -” (How? she wondered) “- and I would like you to wear it for me, to our anniversary dinner.”
Inside the enormous, gold-beribboned box were other boxes, elaborately wrapped in tissues and foils. Sandra gingerly opened the smallest. It held scarlet lace. Lace of the most intimate kind, perfectly made to fit the one person to whom it was given. “Oh!” she whispered, and opened another box. More lace - but a dress; she had never seen such a dress before. All the colours of the November sunset danced against each other as she lifted the folds free of their wrapping and held the dress against herself. It was a delicate confusion of layers; it was ... how many? ... seven dresses in one, each layer separate but inseparable from the others, of silk and lace so fine that they drifted around her. She held her breath.
“One more!” Miles lifted the last and largest box onto the bed. It was a mink coat. It was elegant. Beautiful.
“Do you like it darling?”
“I don’t know what to say.”
She really didn’t know what to say. Her husband had pulled out all the stops. He was turning her yet again into the trophy wife. He would smoothe her into the costly garments with the skill of long practice and his uncomfortably hot hands. She would become Mrs. Miles Emery, and thus perfectly adorned would stand at his shoulder to greet their dinner guests - his banking colleagues, his developer friends and all the county’s great and good with their own carefully groomed wives in tow. She nearly said, “Can I invite Beryl?” but thought better of it. Miles had no idea who her friends were, and didn’t want to know. Beryl and Susan and Ann had kept her sane for twelve years at the Hall, but remained well below Miles’ radar. He never asked where the beautiful cakes came from; he thought she bought them.
The five-piece was playing a muted jazz medley and now switched into Happy Anniversary as the first guests strolled out of the darkness to be greeted by the financier at his most affable, and his wife wishing she had stood up to him and slipped the warm fur over her dress. In they came, two by two, all these people she had grown to detest for their self-importance, their pretentiousness, their greed; many of the men in their Armanis and Ted Bakers already stinking of alcohol and the wives not much better in a miasma of Chanel.
“New wife this year, Miles? Didn’t recognise her! Very nice. Very nice.”
The insulting compliments. The empty kisses. The dreary talk of golf stats and business deals, summer cottages and priceless vintages, of high-flying sons and expensive daughters, the tasteless jokes, the bellicose laughter, robbed an exquisite meal of all its pleasure. What was she still doing here with this man? For thirteen years she had been escaping into back kitchens and dance classes but never had the courage to walk away.
Practised hands whisked away the last of the dessert dishes and returned with champagne. Shortly there would be the ritual explosions, spillages and endless uproarious toasts. Sandra noticed the band reaching for fresh music; it was The Anniversary Waltz. That meant one thing: very soon she would have to get up onto that intimate square of dance floor and be trampled by her rhythmically inept husband before the rest of the sweaty party paws were on her. She would feel the hate from the wives boring into her back. She needed a break.
“Excuse me, Miles. Powder room. I won’t be a minute.”
Miles beamed as his stunner rose from the table, the shimmering silk swirling around her delectable legs. Every eye on her.
“Before you go, darling, can I announce another surprise?” He stood up beside her and took her hand firmly.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, the New York contract has come through. So - Sandie and I will be leaving for a new life in the Big Apple in time for Christmas! Wish us luck!”
Sandra’s knees buckled with shock. “Darling ... that is a surprise. My goodness ... please excuse me ... “
With a forced smile she managed to extricate her fingers from her husband’s grip and made for the door.
The powder room was in a linked marquee, just past the service area. There was a lot of activity and sounds of consternation. She hovered; one of the waiting staff came across. “Can I help you, Madam?”
“Is something the matter?”
“Unfortunately yes. There has been a hitch.”
“The entertainment hasn’t arrived, Madam.”
“I had no idea Miles had booked an entertainer.”
“No, Madam. It was meant to be a surprise.”
“What was the surprise?”
“The cake, Madam.”
He gestured toward a massive pink confection emerging from layers and layers of protective wrapping.
“I don’t understand.”
“There is no girl, Madam. No girl to hide in the cake.”
The light dawned. Slowly a smile spread over Sandra’s face. She touched the concerned young man on his shoulder.
“Don’t you worry. There will still be a surprise.”
Sandra went into the Powder Room.
“I don’t know where my wife has got to.” Miles was sounding a little tetchy after his fifth glass. “She’s going to miss the next surprise.”
“You’re full of them tonight!” said the slightly giddy subordinate who would step eagerly into Miles’ shoes after Christmas. Miles waved expansively at a clutch of invited Media and pointed at the door. The quintet struck up Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer as a posse of staff wheeled in the magnificent rose-petalled cake and settled it with care on the dance floor, right beside Miles and his buddies at the head of the table. The party pages in the next GQ were going to give his career Stateside a stratospheric boost.
“Have some Madeira, m’dear!” the host guffawed, as to rousing cheers the top tier flew off into the cymbals and The Girl burst free.
Miles’ face was chalk white.
Seductive under a silvery soft hood, there stood his wife, sinuous in her anniversary mink, swaying, smiling enticingly among the roses ... “Ha HA!” he shouted, pinging some of the glasses, “Great idea! Your turn to surprise me, Sandie!”
The band were having a great time. They grinned at each other and swung into The Stripper. Sandra slipped the rippling fur slowly from her shoulders and flung it into her husband’s face. Every jaw dropped in shock, all eyes fixed on the undulating dancer as layer by shimmering layer she peeled away the translucent silks of her dress until all that remained were a few scraps of delicate scarlet lace.
“Sandie, stop! I order you to stop! Stop that disgusting music! I won’t be treated like this. You are a disgrace, an utter disgrace. This is ... lewd. Ungrateful, dishonorable woman! How dare you?”
She had never used the word before, but the only word Sandra could find to describe Miles at that moment was apoplectic. She gave him the sweetest smile of her whole life and ripped off the red lace as every camera zoomed in for the final shocking close-up, and delighted Media streamed the Emery debacle live, world-wide, all over the web.
The divorce was understandably quick. It left Sandra with nothing in the world except her village friends and what she stood up in. Which was nothing, as the ruined Miles had snatched back everything he had ever given her.
Everything ... except global celebrity. And a most entertaining new career.