The confetti is still blowing in the street. Ruth watches as Clough and Cassandra get into the white Rolls-Royce–Cassandra laughing as she shakes the pink and yellow hearts from her hair–and drive away. They’re an unlikely pair, no-nonsense policeman DS Dave Clough and beautiful actress and daughter of local aristocrats Cassandra Blackstock–but they met in the course of work and fell in love. And to prove it, they’re getting married. Bully for them, thinks Ruth, although that sounds bitter even to her own ears.
Mr and Mrs Blackstock-Clough are on their way to a reception at Blackstock Hall. Ruth should be on her way there too–next to her, Kate is positively hopping with excitement and anticipation–but all she wants is to get back to her little house on the salt marsh, shut her door and sleep for a week. But Cathbad and Judy are approaching, with Michael and Miranda skipping between them, like an advertisement for family values. Ruth plasters on a cheerful, I-love-weddings smile.
‘Have you got your car?’ says Judy. ‘If not, there’s space in ours.’
‘It’s OK,’ says Ruth. ‘I’ve got my car.’ There’s no way she’s going to risk being stuck at Blackstock Hall, a crumbling stately home in the middle of the Norfolk marshes, without her own transport. ‘I’ll see you there,’ she says, keeping on the smile. Her cheeks are hurting now.
The car park is full so she has to wait before she can get her car out. As she stands, holding Kate by the hand, Nelson drives past in his Mercedes, Michelle at his side. Nelson is frowning at the other cars and doesn’t seem to notice her, but Michelle smiles and waves. Ruth waves back. With any luck, Michelle won’t want to stay at the reception long. She is pregnant, after all.
Within a remarkably short time, most of the guests have left. Ruth’s red Renault and a sporty black jeep affair are almost the only cars left.
‘Hurry up,’ says Kate. ‘We might miss the cake. Uncle Dave is going to cut it with a sword.’ Uncle Dave is what Kate calls Clough, who is quite a favourite with her. Ruth dreads to think what might happen if Uncle Dave gets his hands on a ceremonial sword.
‘They won’t cut the cake for ages yet,’ she says. ‘There’ll be other food first.’
‘Will there be prawns?’ asks Kate suspiciously.
Almost certainly, thinks Ruth. She is sure that Cassandra will have put together a sophisticated menu, in defiance of Clough’s often-stated preference for pie and chips. But she knows that Kate dislikes prawns ‘because they have whiskers’.
‘The food will be lovely,’ she says. ‘Let’s go now.’
As Kate climbs into her car seat, a voice behind them says, ‘Ruth.’
Ruth turns. It’s Tim Heathfield, the detective sergeant who used to be on Nelson’s team but has now moved back to Essex. Ruth has always liked Tim, who is both intelligent and sensitive, but she wants to talk to him about as much as Kate wants to eat a prawn vol-au-vent. Because she knows the reason Tim left Norfolk. Tim was in love with Michelle, and what with Ruth being in love with Nelson, it all makes things rather tricky.
She forces herself to turn and smile. ‘Hello, Tim. How are you?’
‘I’m fine,’ he says. ‘How are you? Kate’s growing up fast.’
‘I’m six,’ says Kate from the car, determined not to be left out of the conversation.
‘Are you going to the reception?’ says Ruth. The jeep must belong to Tim, she thinks. It’s like him, handsome in an understated way and tougher than it looks.
‘No,’ says Tim. ‘I promised Cloughie that I’d come to the wedding but I couldn’t really face the reception. Blackstock Hall doesn’t hold the best memories for me.’
Ruth can understand that. Tim once shot a man at Blackstock Hall, saving Nelson’s life and probably Ruth’s as well.
She can see why he wouldn’t want to go back there. She’s not exactly looking forward to it herself.
‘I’m staying in King’s Lynn overnight,’ Tim is saying. ‘And I wondered if we might be able to meet up for coffee tomorrow. I’d like to ask your advice about something.’
Ruth wonders how long it takes to emigrate. There is nothing she wants less than to have a cosy chat with Tim.
‘That would be great,’ she says. ‘Why don’t you come to the house? It might be difficult to get a babysitter. Say eleven o’clock?’
The reception is in full swing by the time Ruth arrives at Blackstock Hall. The austere grey house has been transformed into a glittery bower full of fairy lights and flowers. There is a marquee on the lawn and a string quartet playing in the entrance hall. Ruth compliments Sally, Cassandra’s mother, on the décor.
‘Oh, it was all Cassie’s idea,’ says Sally, in her vague way. ‘But we’re planning to open the hall as a wedding venue, so if you know anyone who’s getting married...’
But Ruth’s friends are all mired in domesticity or getting divorced. Only her gay friends are still getting married. She smiles and moves on into the marquee where she sees tables laid with a multitude of glass and cutlery, all signs that a long and formal meal is expected.. This means hours of eating and drinking and speeches and little chance of a quick getaway. At least she is at a table with Cathbad and Judy and their kids, miles from Nelson. She sees place cards for Tanya, another DS on Nelson’s team, and her partner, Petra, too. Tanya will not be pleased to be seated at a table full of children.
Kate is delighted to be next to Michael, who is younger than her and perfect for indoctrination. She immediately regales him with a description of prawns. ‘They have little black eyes and long, long whiskers.’
Michael’s face crumbles. ‘I don’t want...’
‘It’s all right, Michael,’ says Cathbad. ‘There won’t be prawns. I’ve looked at the menu. Anyway, we’ve both got the vegetarian option.’
Ruth looks at the menu in the middle of the table and feels slightly sick. All those courses. When will she be able to escape? She can’t even drink because she’s driving. She takes a sip of her water and discovers that it’s elderflower, musty and slightly perfumed. She puts her glass down.
‘Are you all right?’ asks Cathbad, who is sitting next to her.
Ruth doesn’t want to have a heart-to-heart with Cathbad because there’s a danger that she will actually tell him what’s in her heart. Luckily, at that moment, Cassandra and Clough come into the tent, to a chorus of ‘Congratulations’ from the band and the cheers of the guests.
Kate stands on her chair and Ruth doesn’t have the energy to tell her not to.
‘Cassie looks like a fairy princess,’ she tells Ruth.