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The Black Dress

Author: Mary Gourlay

‘I’ll tell them myself.’

Relief flows over his face, he objects but knows it’s best. My parents won’t want to hear I’m pregnant, not being married is a real disgrace. We're standing outside a bar just a street away from where they live. He’s wearing a collarless white shirt I’d bought him from a second-hand shop and blue jeans, his glasses look tinted in the sunlight. He's like a little boy, I feel old but there's only two years between us. The lid of his zippo lighter snaps down and he draws the smoke into his mouth. His face has a slight tan from our recent hitchhiking escapade to Dublin, I thought it would be fun but I was sick most of the time. As I leave him and walk to their house I have a sense of being pulled back into the past and I remember the weight of that oppression.

I open the door and shout hello, the hall is dark and smells musky. I've never lived here, but I know it well because it was my gran's house. I turn the smooth hexagonal handle and the door opens, dad's in his chair by the fire and mum appears from the kitchenette opposite. We sit at the table and mum pours tea in our cups, a beat takes over my head, I try to gauge their mood and look for an opening, then it's out. They are silent, a cold isolated feeling enters my body, I want to leave, I don't want their judgement.

After this things roll into action. An evening is fixed for our parents to meet - I don't feel up to it, but put the food on the table and wait. We live in a small flat three stairs up, I hear footsteps in the close and they arrive at the door, his mum looks young with dark permed hair and a zigzag patterned dress. I must remember not to look at that or I'll end up with one of those headaches again. She drops a bag of chocolates and whiskey into my arms and takes her coat off, his dad does the same, they seem pleased. Another knock and my parents with tins of export and more whiskey, squeeze into the hall. I take the coats, bury my face in them and wish the darkness to obliterate the night, then I return to the living room and put on a smile. It's awkward, but with few drinks the tension eases and they eventually approach the wedding arrangements. Tired of being overlooked in the conversation, I yawn, bid them all goodnight and pour myself into the dip of our badly sprung bed and pull the covers round me. My hands rub the mound of my stomach and I think of the baby inside. I wonder how I can love something I don't know, and then I drift into sleep. I'm woken by a barrage of swearing and shouting, something about the Orange Order and Papism. It's the middle of the night, they're still here, I don't believe it. Our bedroom door opens and a voice whispers, ‘Your dad's peddling somebody's bike along the street like a demented dog and the others are waiting for a taxi.’

Apart from the unfortunate end to the night, wedding plans have been made. So the next day I take the dress I intend to wear from it's hanger, and put it on. There I am in the mirror, small and fair, in a black muslin dress edged with flowers, I feel comfort hidden beneath it's folds. But my dress is ruled out, my mum insists it's not appropriate to get married in black. What I want doesn't seem to matter.

Finally the day arrives, I open the curtains and look down into the narrow street, below I see my sister getting out of a car with a box of flowers. She pushes a white carnation into the bridegroom's buttonhole, he stiffens, she smiles and reassures him it's just jitters. A soft laugh hums from my mouth because I know he's been worried I won't go through with the whole charade. Downstairs my sister passes me a peach poise to match my dress, and we're ready for the registry office.

Then it's done – the vows said and the forms filled. We reach the door and flashes of light and confetti pour over us, the sun is out and I lick my lips to make it easier to smile, I wish I had my black dress on.

A car takes us to the hotel and before long we are sitting down with the meal in front of us, and I realise I'm hungry. Before dad stands up for his speech, mum rubs a soup stain from his shirt and pats him on the shoulder for encouragement, not that he needs it, he loves the sound of his own voice. The dancing starts and we make our way around the floor in time with the music, then we sit down, glad it's over. I kick my shoes off and my feet puff with relief, there is a lot of talking but I take no heed. Then I hear something about, a break doing us good, and I wonder what's going on? Mum comes over, ‘We've arranged a bit of a honeymoon in Kirkcaldy for you both.’

I close my eyes and clench my teeth in frustration. Mum stands up and gives an affirmative nod to the others, then joins my sister on the dance floor. In the morning I run through the rain to the car with a small holdall of clothes. We're at the mercy of his dad now as he agreed to drive us, then pick us up in a weeks time. The window steams up and the car's four track tape rolls round the length of the journey. I press my head against the glass pane, look at my husband and think, tomorrow is ours.