Barrie Darke has a track record as a scriptwriter, but thinks prose is the main thing. He lives and writes in the north east of England, and teaches Creative Writing in a basement. He has also worked in a prison, where he learnt more than the students. He has been published in the UK by
Byker Books, New Writing North, Sentinel Literary Quarterly
The DelinquentTheurgyHorrified Press, Writer’s Muse, and The Metric;
in Australia by Otoliths; and in the US by Menda City Review, Nossa Morte, Demon Minds, Infinite Windows, Underground Voices, Big PulpPseudopod, and elsewhere.

One of Life’s Big Moments

I’ve always been a skinny man, but for some reason the one pair of smart trousers I have are a little too small for me. Funerals and weddings aren’t great, especially the sitting down parts.

This was a wedding, and we were sitting waiting for the bride to arrive. I was trying my very best not to fidget, in case it aggravated Penny, my girlfriend next to me. Aggravated her even more, I should say. She knew very well, and wasn’t a fan of it, that I preferred to not go near a wedding, and she flat-out wouldn’t believe the tight trousers story, even when I showed her the red dent they left all around me. It was non-stop dirty looks. She accused me of being an anti-romantic and a misery.

I was making an effort though, an almighty one, I really was. And anyway, it wasn’t that I didn’t like weddings, it was more that I didn’t like large or small groups of people. Staying in was all right with me now that I’d somehow reached the age of 31. So here I was, making one of my last efforts before I refused to do anything ever again.

They were friends of Penny’s, these two. She worked (I liked to say that I wasn’t so much out of work as beyond it) in the same council office as Jasmine, the bride, and I knew her a little; I was able to talk to her for three minutes before silences started stretching like holes in old tights and we both looked round to be rescued. I knew him, Ian, less. We greeted each other by raising our chins in the once-modern way, and that was about it. They were a good-looking blonde couple, hadn’t known each other massively long, a few years younger than us and not quite calmed down, him more so than her, from what I retained of what Penny said about them.

I kept my face smiling, or at least neutral, and I nodded at faint acquaintances across the – pews, is it? – and I thought that was enough. The real burden of sociability I would pass to Penny, my resolve was quite steely on that point. She could swap me it for the burden of drinking.

There was the usual wait. The mother of the bride was having a sniffle. The groom and the best man were both ready to jump up at the slightest murmur from behind, and did once or twice, to some boyish laughs. There were little kids inconceivably bored already, and a few teenagers looking into space evilly. I saw, but didn’t hear, some men having banter with each other, and I could smile at the general idea of what it would be.

It started. I noticed the father of the bride before I saw Jasmine, as if I was saving her up. He was short and very fat with a shaved head, and he looked to be not a hundred per cent on where he was or what was happening, like he would reach the front of the church and keep walking till he hit wall.

I looked at Jasmine. I can’t pass comment on things like the dress or what she was wearing on her head, but her face was even prettier than it usually did, nicely pale and freckly, and looking overawed by it all really suited her: shy and vulnerable and all that kind of thing. Then I got distracted by wondering what it was like at weddings years ago, when people saw the bride and surely their thoughts had to turn to picturing her that night when she lost her virginity. There was nothing nearly as interesting as that to think about in a modern wedding. I filed this away to share with Penny, though not immediately. The organist performed adequately, I thought.

Ian joined her at the front, and they inclined towards each other briefly, their shoulders coming up like they were making a private joke within the hearing of the priest. Then they stood more to attention. Ian had his hands joined behind his back. My thoughts turned to the names of children, and how I hoped they would choose things like Dennis or Roger since it would be a shame to see them go, when this happened:

I know that only the sorriest people don’t feel singled out by life for something. When I was younger, I used to picture myself in the school assembly with a kind of heavenly spotlight on me, and this sense even survived seeing the exact same image in About Schmidt a few years later (though my heart gave a nasty gulp, I can tell you that.) But when this happened, I knew straight away I was the only person seeing it:

Ian’s right hand, held behind his back, had turned into a claw. It was big, black, and reptilian, three-‘fingered’, with sharp-looking black nails that would have a face flicked off with one lazy slash. Even from a distance I could see it was scaly. It was so black it shone, like it had never touched mud. I didn’t see it change, it was changed when I focussed on it, like you had to catch up with this matter-of-fact thing. That just made it all the more believable, I don’t know why.

My guts became a kind of icy sluice, and I might’ve flinched, and probably my eyes went wide for a few seconds, but that was all. No one else was reacting to it. I looked around as if I was simply enjoying everyone witnessing this big moment in life, and I didn’t see anyone else doing the same, much less recoiling, screaming, pushing children and old people into the floor as they ran out. I knew it was for me, and that had to be the way it was.

The claw
came and went – sometimes it was just his normal hand. My brain was working really coolly and clearly, I thought, and I took this to signify that the stress of the occasion was causing his concentration to flutter and wow. He should’ve known this might happen, but then again it was his first wedding, so how would he? And what were the chances of him preparing for the eventuality that someone might be ready enough to see it happening?

I also had to decide if the claw was demonic or alien, because there’s a huge difference. But I’m no expert and I couldn’t be sure.

My body, as we stood up and sat down and all the rest of it, went through phases of being cold and then sweaty, and my fingers shook so I wished I could shove them in my pockets, and my breathing was having a party of its own, but I was able to not alert him. I looked at Penny once and gave her a reassuring smile, which she misconstrued as me trying too hard to get into the romantic mood and keep her sweet. She didn’t like that sort of thing, but I had other concerns right then; sorry and all that.

When he put the ring on Jasmine’s finger, his hand was normal – well of course it was, he had it in front of him and could concentrate. But when he kissed her at the end, it was this ugly black eyesore again, hanging down her back. A definite affront, I thought. When he signed the book thing, whatever it is, it was a claw, though the pen seemed to give him no trouble. I wondered if Jasmine would notice the handwriting looking different, though people don’t see each other’s penmanship much these days, do they.

Outside, it was sunny and breezy for the pictures. I watched the photographer carefully, but there was nothing, and from what I could see of Ian when the smaller portraits were taken, he kept it almost always normal anyway. I would still have to see the photos, I thought, even if it meant going round to their house for drinks.

There was chatting and banter out there, as well as congratulating the couple. I wasn’t ready for that last bit yet, so I separated myself off from Penny without saying anything and walked around as if I was heading somewhere important. That way I could overhear conversations, listen out for any coded stuff, people letting each other know they knew. I detected nothing, but perhaps I wouldn’t have known it even if I had.

Penny said her congrats without me, which would be contentious later on, I realised. Eventually I got stuck talking to someone she worked with, a known hypochondriac, a mournful looking and sounding old bloke. He told me that, once, he’d injured himself in such a way that he’d ripped a buttock off. There’s nothing, effectively, you can come back with to that one.

As I thought she would, Penny didn’t really talk to me for the rest of the day. It was a sad thing to realize that I’d probably never think it worth trying to explain it to her, but life is a trade and a sacrifice if it’s anything.

The rest of it happened at a nearby country hall, the speeches and meal and drinking and dancing. A woman who must’ve got herself instantly pissed kept saying ‘Aaahh’ whenever something emotional was touched on in any of the speeches, a noise more appropriately delivered to a child holding up a broken toy. The best man looked pasty and wavery and he choked up at the end, getting a few laughs, a few shouts of encouragement, and one big ‘aaahh’. The food was pretty decent, though my appetite was impaired, and my seat position meant I had to keep twisting round to see how the knife looked in that big claw. It looked pretty scary.

I tried some banter with Penny for old times’ sake. She was always one to sock away a huge amount of food, so when she finished I said, ‘Hey – there used to be a pattern on that plate.’ Not only had she heard it before, she didn’t think I was funny. A few others on our table laughed, so socially I was still bailing water.

Then I had to go for a pee. I passed Ian on his way back from the same place, wouldn’t you know it. He nodded briefly at me, nothing in it, like I hope there was nothing in my chin lift. I kept my eyes away from his hand, but I could still hazily tell that it wasn’t abnormal. Bit late for that, sunshine, I wanted to tell him. All the same, I was glad I hadn’t gone two minutes before I did. I would’ve had to look at his nob to make sure it was all right, and I wouldn’t have been able to pee at all.

I was drinking a bit when I got back to our table, but Penny wasn’t surprised by that. A band came on and did soul stuff. The mother of the bride was the first up there, swaying politely and smiling and still looking weepy. Doors to the outside were open, letting in a nice breeze, and some gold lights were on out there in front of trees.

I went out without excusing myself, and I found a wall and rested against it, looking at the ground. Little kids were running around out there, and some old people were out of the way of the music, but neither group were taking any notice of this man in their midst rubbing his forehead. I didn’t smoke, but I saw myself doing so then. I could’ve done also with one more drink, a double whisky, but I decided not to. I’d never been a brave person, particularly, but then I’d hardly been in many situations where it was called for. I was discovering it wasn’t quite as hard as I’d thought, though I couldn’t say it was easy either. But it was undeniable. Doing it would feel better than not, for the rest of my life. And my brain was still working in that cool, clear way that I didn’t think too many people got to experience.

It was simple, really: in all the excitement, I’d forgotten to congratulate the blessed couple. I smiled at some nearby kids and went back in.

Jasmine was on their table, surrounded by girls and sisters. Ian was standing at the edge of the dancefloor with his male friends, barking periodic pissed laughter. The band were playing slightly rockier 60s songs now. I gave a brief glance to Penny, and saw she was bent over deep in conversation with a woman she worked with. It could’ve been about me.

I cleared my throat and headed for Jasmine, and I thought she saw me coming. The calculation I saw her make wasn’t who is this? it was how much time will I need to spend on him? That was all right, to be expected, she didn’t think I was anybody. I nodded and she managed one of her light-emitting smiles as I leaned in.

I said, ‘I just want you to know that I know – I saw it. It’s all right. If you ever need to talk about it, then come to me. All right? Come to me. It’ll be all right, honestly.’ I nodded again.

If her smile slipped a few notches, that was down to the shock of recognition. There was no point in prolonging the moment. She would remember that.

Ian hadn’t seen us, and he didn’t see me coming. Some of his mates did, and they stood up a little straighter, which was quite good to see. I had to squeeze his shoulder – gently – to turn him round. I couldn’t have been the first person who’d done this that night, but from his hardening eyes he seemed to know something had arrived. With a smile, I reached out and shook his right hand, longer and harder than I normally would. It stayed a hand, of course.

‘You make sure you look after her,’ I said, ‘all right? Or you’ll have me to answer to.’

He managed a smile, a slightly cold one, and thanked me. I let go of his hand after one more decisive shake. Then he turned back to his mates.

I took the long way back to Penny. Call it a patrol.

© Ira Joel Haber

Copyright © 2016, Otis Nebula Press. All rights reserved.