After sausages, bacon and hash browns, four men and one dog set off for a tramp along the river leaving Anna and Colin to finish their preparations and grin happily at each other.
“No. Thank you. It’s been a pleasure working with you, plus you made me feel welcome and part of the family. Most folks try too hard, you know. Either to hide their homophobia or to feed their middle-class smugness at being so PC.”
“Yeah. I know. Danny and Paul. Plus forty-year-old spinsters get it too.”
“I guess. But you ain’t one of them any more. I’ll always be Ben’s gay little friend.”
“No. You’re Ben’s lover. And you and he are getting married.”
“I’m not sure we should.”
“Why. Don’t you love him?”
“It’s not that. I’m just not sure I should tie him down. Will he regret it?”
“How long have you been together?”
“Must be nearly twenty years. Though we were in the closet for quite some time.”
“Well then, you tosser. You’re tied down already. Marry the poor sod. He really, really wants to.”
Colin thought for a minute then grinned.
“Yes. I will. And we can squabble and fight and make love together for the rest of our lives.”
“You do that. And let’s have no more silly qualms.”
“No ma’am. Coffee then a shower?”
When Sam and the others returned, it was well past eleven o’clock so they headed for their rooms to tidy themselves. Sam found Anna in her underclothes staring with uncharacteristic indecision into her wardrobe.
“Sam. Help me. What do I wear?”
He grinned and went to look. Poking around among the hangers he found a pair of bright red jeans and a navy blue French-looking thin cotton jumper with a fine red stripe.
“This,” he said firmly. “Bright, yet chic, and happy looking.”
Anna beamed at him.
“Spot on. You are a clever boy. Now what are you wearing?”
“I thought grey chinos and that cashmere sweater some woman bought me only last week. Do?”
“Yes. Smart, casual, and you look truly yummy in that sweater.”
They dressed quickly and Anna put her hair in a soft bun at the nape of her neck. She gave herself a quick spritz of perfume and slid her rings onto her finger.
“We are. And you look good enough to eat.”
He bent his head and took a quick nip of her bottom lip. “Yup. You taste edible too.”
And so it was that they went downstairs laughing. Just in time for a knock at the front door. Sam opened the door to find Jim and Patsy standing outside looking sheepish, with their two smallest sons behind them.
“I know we’re early, but Patsy couldn’t wait to see Anna.’
“Come in then,” Sam said.
They did, and Bill barrelled straight into his legs.
“Sam. Sam. Long time no see!”
Sam bent and picked him up.
“Yo Bill. You good?”
‘I am. You?”
Then he held out a hand to Charlie.
“You good my man?”
Charlie’s round eyes crinkled at the corners.
“I’m well. Happy birthday Sam.”
“Oh yes. I forgot,” Bill’s voice was conscience stricken, “happy birthday Sam.”
Meanwhile Anna put her arms around Patsy.
“Hello Pats,” she said simply.
They hugged for a long minute, then Patsy held Anna at arms’ length and studied her shrewdly.
“You dirty girl,” she said “you’ve been having sex!”
And they collapsed into giggles.
Hearing familiar voices, Bonnie poked her elegant head out of the kitchen.
“Hello Bon Bon. Have you got a kiss for your auntie?”
Bonnie obliged enthusiastically, giving Sam a chance to study the vision that was Patsy Cracksman en fête. She had obviously embraced big hair with enthusiasm, and paid considerable attention to her make-up, while her ample curves were emphasised by skintight black Lycra trousers and a silver leather coat with matching ankle boots sporting needle-sharp four-inch heels. He mentally winced at the thought of those heels on his beloved wooden floors.
Even as he told himself not to be so fucking middle class, Patsy sat down plump on the floor.
Her husband produced a pair of embroidered ballet slippers from his pocket and proceeded to remove the boots and replace them with something more parquet friendly.
“Don’t want to fuck up this beautiful floor,” Pats said as she stroked both it and Bonnie with gentle hands.
“No,” Jim agreed. “Bet it cost you a packet.”
“Not really. It was here, under about ten lots of lino. But I hand finished it myself so there was some backache involved.”
“I’ll bet. The builders were about to varnish our staircase, but Pats would have had a cow. So I hand finished that, and it about crocked me. But she loves wood. So I done it for her.”
“Soft bastard,” his wife commented, uncurling and springing to her feet with the neat athleticism Sam had noticed before, and which seemed so at variance with her ample curves and seeming indolence. She shrugged out of her coat revealing the promised leopard skin in the form of a softly-draped tunic which Sam recognised as cashmere and mentally priced at several hundred pounds. He relieved Jim of two coats and hung them on two of the many pegs that graced the panelling alongside the door.
“Only two junior Cracksmen?” Anna quirked a mobile eyebrow.
Jim smoke his forehead with a meaty hand.
“Jamie is coming with Rod. Shouldn’t be far behind us. The gruesome twosome begged to be excused. Some American cousins are visiting Ireland to buy some horses. My Dad is going over to help them choose…”
“Nuff said,” Anna couldn’t help grinning. “Horses versus me. No contest. And they barely know Sam.”
“Iggerant buggers,” Charlie murmured.
He got away with his cheek because Patsy’s eye fell on the picture of Bonnie in her flower garland.
“What a lovely picture, but why is Bonnie dressed up as a bridesmaid?”
Anna didn’t answer, just pushed aside the pocket doors to the dining room and gestured to the picture of her and Sam. It had been placed where it was the first thing anyone saw on entering the room and beneath it there was a table on which Colin had put Anna’s bouquet and a white leather book for people to write their good wishes in. For a moment there was silence, then Patsy grabbed Anna’s left hand. She stared at the rings on her friend’s finger and winked away a tear.
“You crafty cow. When? Where? How?”
“Yesterday. Register office. Just me, Sam, two witnesses and three bridesmaids. Bonnie was the prettiest. This is our wedding party.”
She got no further before Jim picked her up and swung her around as if she was a child. Then Patsy hugged her and kissed her fondly.
“Be happy Mrs Henderson.”
“I will, Mrs Cracksman.”
Bill and Charlie caught on fast and danced around like dervishes singing a happy invented song.
Patsy turned a mock scowl on Sam.
“You better be good to her, or I’ll skelp your backside for you.”
Then she smiled at him.
“But I can see you are. She looks so happy, I’d snivel if it wasn’t for all the slap on my face.”
Sam grinned back. Then a voice from the hallway shouted.
“Not got a kiss for an old friend?”