By Jill Paris
“Where ‘re ya goin’?” asks the cab driver in full Irish brogue.
Mumbling the address sounds as foreign as driving on the left side of the street feels. A second later, we’re headed to an unfamiliar road in one of Belfast’s outskirts.
“Helen’s Bay,” he says. “Lovely area.”
“Is it? I’ve never been there.”
“It’s a smallish village on the North Down coastline between Crawfordsburn and Seahill, just west of Bangor. Town’s named after a grand lady,” he says informatively.
After a beat he turns back for a quick glance.
“Looks like you’re off to a fancy do,” he says with a grin, eyes half-hidden beneath the brim of a worn navy cap.
I stare out the window at stunning brick homes like those featured on the covers of storybooks, the ones that evoke “Once upon a time.” I’ve seen this place before. The woman who’d sat next to me on the plane mentioned this area. I remember thinking how fairy tale the sea-lined cottages had looked. As the aircraft descended I could even make out the pink rose vines, their vibrant hue offset against dark grey and ashen stone. I’d wondered who was lucky enough to live there?
The evening hour is past nine o’clock, yet dim light shines over this community beside the Irish Sea. The weather fortunately is mild for late May, the cabbie tells me. I can hardly believe it. I’m off to a “fancy do” in one of those lovely homes I’d viewed from on high. But, there’s one tiny hitch to this imagination come to life. I am to attend the wedding reception of two people I’ve known for less than forty-eight hours.
I’d landed in Belfast on a Wednesday. It was now Friday. That first night I recall wrestling with the no smoking room policy at The Fitzwilliam Hotel. I’d already gone downstairs twice for a cigarette. At check-in, I’d warned the clerk he may be seeing a lot of me. “No worries,” he’d said with a wink. I was wearing pajamas underneath a trench coat, yet still looked somewhat clothed. It was just past midnight and completely dark outside. Nobody other than Front Desk Man would see me. He’d always given a friendly little wave each time I’d passed.
I’d pushed the revolving doors for the third time and stepped onto the drizzling sidewalk then noticed three people circling the ashtray. Up until then I’d had the designated area “all to meself,” as they say in Northern Ireland. Judging by the volume of laughter they’d appeared a bit tipsy. Then again, my room’s mini-bar had suffered some serious damage and I was sporting a nightie so, who was I to point a finger?
“Is this where the cool kids hang out?” I’d said addressing the back of a young woman with long blond tresses. The girl with golden hair spun around with a smile as big as the city’s Ferris wheel.
“Hiiiiiiii,” she’d squealed like an old friend who’d finally found me after a ten-year search. I think she may have even hugged me a little.
Her name was simple: Cathy Martin, yet she was anything but. The sort of beauty you envied in high school and probably voted The Girl Most Likely to Have It All and Then Some. Within moments she’d invited me inside to share a champagne toast with them. She and her fiancÃ© had registered for their marriage license that afternoon which explained the giddy celebration. The Best Man and his wife were the duo smoking out front. Perched on a divan next to a roaring fire sat her handsome betrothed. He immediately stood and shook my hand across a low table cluttered with bottles and glasses. They epitomized those beautiful couples featured in society pages.
“Please, take your coat off,” Cathy had suggested.
“No, I’m a bit chilly,” I’d lied. The Irish are casual and friendly, yet I’m fairly sure this did not include drinking in my nightgown — not in public anyways.
We conversed easily for about five minutes. Their friends joined us shortly. Then she suddenly declared I should come to their reception.
“Yes, please come,” her husband-to-be agreed.Â “We’d love to have you there.”
Sincerely touched by their inducement I’d quickly said yes. “Remarkable kindness,” I’d thought. The four of them said their good-byes. Cathy promised to coordinate the directions via e-mail (and that she did), and now, here I am, barreling up their driveway having second thoughts. The twenty-five minute cab ride lasted longer than our fireside chat had two days ago.
The Beverly Hills of Belfast
The driver halts at the bottom of a narrow lane. He doesn’t think he can turn around up there so I’d best get out here. I pay the fare and remove the gift certificate envelope I’d bought at a store called Equinox for mock-admittance. I have no formal invitation, but if grilled at the door, my generous offering inscribed to “Cathy & Mark” will be ample proof I am not a wedding crasher.
“This must be the Beverly Hills of Belfast,” I whisper. Approaching the residence flanked by enormous white tents a girlish thought comes over me. Maybe I’ll catch the bouquet! I’d caught at least three over the years, but have yet to prove the theory. Surely it’s considered extra lucky to snag one in Ireland. Or, then again, Cathy may be so appalled I’m here, she’ll hurl the wedding garland at me for having the unmitigated gall to show up. “We didn’t actually mean for you to attend,” she’ll laugh. Her guests will boo and hiss at me — ME, an absolute nobody from the states here to infringe upon the happiest day of her life.
Tip-toeing across the gravel as if not to wake anyone, a cluster of tuxedoed gentlemen look my way. Stopping abruptly, I suddenly feel like a bastard at a family reunion — and a rather fat one at that.
While touring the United Kingdom over the last three weeks a seven-pound roll has declared residency around my waist. Due to this fact, I’d been forced into purchasing a new (bigger) dress in Edinburgh for a writer’s conference in Belfast. I’d feigned ignorance in converting the U.S. size to the larger U.K. size, yet was secretly horrified to see a two-digit numeral on the tag. True, my mid-section looked unusually pregnant. In a country where Guinness tops the five basic food group’s pyramid — living it up with the locals had morphed into simply living large.
The helpful saleslady at the Harvey Nichols department store suggested I “get meself a pair of magic knickers.” Knowing this charming word meant “underwear” I thought she was joking and what she actually intended was something like, “Honey, you’re going to need supernatural powers to suck in that gut.” When I laughed she assured me a ladies garment called Magic Knickers existed and simulated pulling up a girdle. Apparently, this was their version of Spanx the body shapewear favored by celebrities in America.
After leaving the women’s department I’d hurried upstairs to lingerie and picked up what reminded me of the lower half to a surfer’s wet suit. Too embarrassed to try it on, I held it against me, stretched the waistband to determine girth, quickly paid and left. The black spandex restraint now pinched my abdomen tighter than a Hollywood facelift. And, having guessed about two sizes too small, I’ve possibly ruptured my spleen.
Five girls in Faerie-inspired dresses skip around me; their sashes flutter freely as they giggle uncontrollably. Oh, to be twelve right now. I’d race behind that thicket of nettles, peel out of this suffocating thing, and never, ever come out.
I’m too late for hide and go seek. Those men are motioning for me to join them.
“Do you need a light?” one of them says.
“Thanks,” I say lifting an unlit cigarette to my lips. I’d forgotten I was holding it.
I introduce myself then ask if they’ve seen the bride and groom.
“They’re probably in the marquee,” says the tallest guy with hair shinier than a black stallion’s mane. His eyes are so twinkly that I’m seriously considering moving here.
I’m not familiar with this Irish wedding term. Is that like a large neon sign?
“Just in there,” he says pointing to the tent.
Sidling past high tables positioned at the entrance, I slowly make my way inside. The mood shifts quickly as if romance setting is commanded by dimmer switch. Hundreds of guests are drinking and posing for photographs. The wonderland looks lovelier than any banquet room could afford. Beneath the colorless draped ceiling are softly lit candelabras on several round tables; evocative violet lights peek through silken sheaths. Attractive guests adorn silvery-swathed chairs. Sprays of snow-white flowers burst from every corner. A dance floor to the right of the bar sits empty, waiting patiently for the formalities to end.
I spy the groom seated at the center table. I avert his attention by standing next to him in total silence then wait for his nod to security. Any minute a large brute wide enough to block an entire rugby team will drop kick my American arse right out of here.
“YOU CAME!!” he exclaims jumping to his feet. I hope his reaction is more happiness than shock.
I present him with the gift card. He’s genuinely grateful for my gesture then places the contents inside the pocket of his wedding coat.Â Says I really shouldn’t have.
“Let’s get you a drink!” he insists.
Ordering me a beer, he spares a few moments to alleviate my awkwardness. The Best Man appears and is also delighted to see me. I feel as welcome as if I were the guest of honor in my own home.
“Has Cathy seen you?” he asks.
“No, I haven’t seen her yet,” I say anxious to glimpse her in what’s sure to be bridal couture perfection.
He escorts me to where she’s seated on a lounging sofa. Entwined in pearl lariat necklaces, she looks up and flashes her lit-from-within smile. Her long hair curled loosely hangs down around her bare shoulders. The strapless satin gown glistens in candlelight, outdone only by her radiance.
“Oh, I’m so glad you could come,” she says sweetly touching my arm. Her voice rings with contentment, the sound of wedded bliss.
“Thank you for having me,” I murmur. “You’re a gorgeous bride, Cathy.”
There’s her signature grin again.
A Toast to the Fabulous Couple
A clinking of glass can be heard from inside signaling the speeches. Someone kindly directs me to an empty chair. Cathy’s brother, Leo, is the first to speak. While listening to a heartfelt tribute to his sister I am saddened to learn their beloved father has passed away. Leo asks everyone to stand and raise a glass in fond memory. Tears fill my eyes partly for not knowing and mostly for her loss. How full of pride he must have been to have her for a daughter. I’m proud to know her and I’ve only just met her. Yet, I suspect her darling Daddy’s here in spirit.Â By now, the love in this room has surely reached the heavens.
Soon the solemn thoughts give way to humorous tales of her youth. Christened Catherine Rose on 28 December 1972, I discover she served up ice cream near Crawfordsburn and was good at getting attention hence her first boyfriend at St. Bride’s when she was only four. She later studied abroad in Milan and Paris. Her Public Relations firm in Belfast handles the Fashionweek press and I suddenly realize this is no ordinary wedding — this is THE wedding.
After Cathy’s new father-in-law gushes over how much he “loves her to bits,” the dashing groom regales how he and Cathy met, how her infectious smile “took him off his feet” and I swoon at his sincerity. Gazing out across the room he looks into her eyes and utters “I love you so much.”Â I am probably the only person here who finds the way he says it the most endearing part.
Cathy steps up to the microphone and continues, “I couldn’t let you guys have the last word.” She fondly reiterates how he’d proposed after whisking her away to St. Tropez. If I didn’t like her so much this enviable detail would cause such deep-seated jealousy I might turn green. Yet, there’s something about her genuineness, the ease in which she shares her feelings — I’m elated she’s found this wonderful guy who popped the question a day early because the ring was burning a hole in his trousers’ pocket.
Cathy leaves the stage and floats into the center toward her wedding flowers placed in a glass vase, a sleek gathering of white peonies tied with ribbon.
I sit up straight and wonder where all the hopeful gals will stand.
She’s turning towards me.
“To all the single girls…,” she pauses, flashing a devilish glance my direction.
My heart is pounding.
At the table in front of mine is an elderly woman cloaked in a periwinkle scarf. The bride, with a will of her own, reverently places the bouquet into the arms of this lady, her namesake, the elegant Catherine Grimley.
Applause explodes and I’m weeping for the second time. This is even better than out-jumping a pack of singletons. Rather than flowers, I carry home the amazing grace of this moment which, to me, embodies the beauty of Belfast.
As the Best Man takes the stage, I ask the lady seated to my left why he keeps talking about this “Julian” person. She has the oddest look on her face.
“That’s his name,” she tells me.
“Whose?” I wonder.
“Well, then who’s Mark?”
“The Best Man,” she says a bit mystified.
Then music begins to play.Â It’s the song “Love is in the air.”
“OK, everybody, let’s see yaz clap the Be-Jesus out of this one!” the DJ shouts.
Julian had never said a word. He’d read the gift card I’d wrongfully addressed to “Cathy & Mark” and had generously spared me embarrassment. Who does that? I’m now crying for the third time of the night.
As the volume builds and laughter and joy surround me, I think, the Irish that’s who. If anybody would forgive such a horrific mistake, it would surely be Cathy and Jules. They’re the sort to share a laugh over this. They’re the sort who invites strangers to their wedding reception. After all, they’re from Belfast, the sort definitely lucky enough to live there.
* * * * *
Jill Paris is a writer based in Los Angeles.Â She holds master’s degrees in Humanities and Professional Writing.Â Her work has appeared in The Best Travel Writing 2009, Travel Africa and Africa Geographic magazines and a variety of online publications.Â She is currently writing a book based on her short story “My Lucky Safari.”