I found myself waking up with a smile on my face, beautiful light leaking in through the gap in the curtains. It’s the wedding day. Not my wedding day, of course, but Juliet and Jacob’s. I got out of bed and wandered out to the kitchen to make myself a cup of tea. The kettle boiled just before my phone rang.
“Are you doing anything this morning, Nina?” Lizzie wanted to know.
“Oh, nothing much--.”
“Good, can you come with me?”
“To the wedding? Aren’t you going with the other bridesmaids?”
“No, to collect the flowers.”
“Thanks. You’re a lifesaver. Now, I’ve already had a mimosa, so you’ll have to come and get me.”
I agreed and whisked on my dress, then raced out to the car with a handful of things. Lizzie was still at her parents’ house. When I pulled up out the front, she tottered out to the car and slipped into the passenger seat.
“Thanks for getting me.”
“No trouble. You’ve just got to navigate.”
“Alright,” Lizzie agreed, lacking confidence.
She brought up the map on her phone, as I’m not allowed to while still on my P plates.
“Thanks. We’re heading towards the M2, aren’t we?”
“Yeah, if you want to get slugged seven dollars each way.”
I shot Lizzie a look.
“How did things go the other night with Laurel and her boyfriend?”
“Yeah, alright. The boyfriend seemed like a bit of a dropkick, but, like, the best of the guys she’s dated so far.”
“So, a net positive?”
“I wouldn’t go that far.”
On the M2, I accelerated.
“Laurel seems to like him. I wouldn’t date him--.”
“He must be a real bad egg, then.”
“What? I was only kidding. I’m sorry. John seems nice.”
“I’m not dating John.”
“You seemed cosy with him in Toukley.”
Upon arrival at the bridge, we parked just out of the way, then emerged from the car. Traffic was blocked owing to flooding from a storm last night. Sure enough, the florist raced across the bridge.
“I’m so sorry,” she apologised as she handed over flowers as if they were a newborn.
“These flowers are beautiful,” I gushed. “Thank you so much.”
“I’ll be able to get to the reception venue. There’s a back way. You’re Lizzie, aren’t you, one of the bridesmaids?”
“I’m Lizzie.” She raised her hand to introduce herself. “This is Nina, my cousin.”
“Lovely to meet you both.”
We carried the flowers back across the bridge. I retrieved the car keys from my pocket, so that I could unlock it and open the back door, my heart thumping within my chest.
“Somehow we might actually pull this off.”
We carefully laid the bouquets across the backseat. I fastened the seatbelt over them, just to be safe. Lizzie and I got back into the front seats and drove away from where we’d parked for the handover.
“I’m taking the toll roads, I don’t even care.”
I pulled into the right-hand turning lane. Once the lights changed, I turned right, to take the M2 back to the house, where Juliet and the other bridesmaids were getting ready for the wedding. I parked out the front and carried flowers out of the car. Cradle it like a baby – the florist’s care ran through my mind until the job was done. Once the flowers were safely dropped off, I returned to the car. I peeled down the sunshade and slid across the cover over the mirror. While the bridesmaids were having fancy hair and makeup done, I could do my own. I already felt sweatier than I would have liked. Still, I didn’t mind the way that my look turned out. Once I was ready, I figured that I may as well drive to the church, because it wouldn’t be worth going home. I met Geoff there, who got dropped off in a police car.
“You’re certainly a man who knows how to make an entrance,” I remarked.
“Yeah, I suppose so,” Geoff acknowledged. “I heard that you’ve been the flower fairy this morning.”
“Yeah, I went with Lizzie, saved the day hopefully.”
Geoff and I entered the church and found somewhere to sit. Jacob arrived with the groomsman shortly after. I recognised a fair few of the people at the wedding, having met them at some time or another, but there were still plenty of strangers. It should have been Mitchell with me. Still, considering that isn’t possible, having Geoff with me was good enough – more than good enough.
“Thank you for accepting my invitation,” I murmured to him.
We rose to our feet as the bridesmaids began entering the church, with Katie entering first, wearing a pink chiffon floor-length gown. She smiled from side to side as she slowly walked down the aisle, carrying her bouquet. As Katie started to line up, the other bridesmaids followed – Janey, Lizzie, Juliet’s sister Erica, Isaac’s girlfriend Ginnie and friends Georgina and Lucy. Then, Juliet entered, arm linked with her father’s. She wore a floor-length wedding gown, its lace patterned paisley. Juliet’s roses were white and pale pink, reflecting the tones of the bridesmaids’ gowns. They slowly walked down the aisle. Juliet and her father beamed at the wedding guests, bathing in their love. eaching the front of the church, they exchanged kisses on their cheeks. As Juliet’s father sat down, the wedding guests, including me, did as well, at the instruction of the minister. She and Jacob linked hands, both beaming. They were already welling up with tears. The minister spoke of love, commitment and devotion, welcoming us to Juliet and Jacob’s wedding ceremony.
“Jacob.” He turned to him. “Will you take Juliet to be your wife, to live together, according to God’s law? Will you give her the honour due to her as your wife and, forsaking all others, love and protect her, as long as you both shall live?”
“I will,” Jacob vowed, gushing, overjoyed and swept up with love.
They exchanged rings.
“I now declare you husband and wife.”
The minister permitted them to kiss, but they’d already gone for it. We rose to our feet, cheering. Once they finally parted, Juliet and Jacob raised their linked hands into the air. Following the formalities, the bridal party, plus the bride and groom, were able to sit down. The minister gave a sermon, about love bearing all things. I found myself looking at Geoff, although his eyes were focused up the front. The sermon was followed by prayers and readings. Finally, Juliet and Jacob rose to their feet, and were declared husband and wife once again. They were about to run for it, when Erica remembered to hand back over the bouquet. Flowers in hand, Juliet and Jacob ran down the aisle. At the doors of the church, they kissed again. After the ceremony, they held afternoon tea. Somewhere in moving out from the sanctuary into the church hall, Geoff must have wandered away from my side, or maybe I left him. I approached the wedding cake on a wooden table, a simple two-tiered design with white buttercream icing and a gold leaf decal dusted diagonally down the cake. Lizzie discarded her bridesmaid’s bouquet.
“I need a drink,” she announced, fanning herself with her program.
“I’ll get you an orange juice,” I offered.
“An orange juice,” I clarified, given that I figured that the church wouldn’t have had champagne.
We would have all night at the reception to get plastered, if Lizzie chose to do that. I located the orange juice, served by one of the nice church ladies alongside tea and coffee.
I returned to Lizzie, handing one glass over to her.
We clinked glasses.
I took a sip.
“Looking for Geoff, are we?”
Lizzie must have caught me glancing around.
“Yes,” I confirmed, defensive. “He’s here with Mitchell’s invite, I do feel a little bit responsible for him.”
“If you say one word--.”
“My lips are sealed,” Lizzie promised.
She mimicked sewing them up and throwing away the key. The Best Man started waving his hands around, so we decided to do what we were told. We gathered around with our drinks. Hand in hand, Juliet and Jacob walked over to stand behind the wedding cake.
“Thank you so very much for coming, we both feel very blessed.”
Jacob kissed Juliet on the cheek and she giggled. They cut the cake, to the cheers of their wedding guests. Once they’d fed each other, the cake was whisked away. It returned at what seemed like lightning speed, sliced up and being handed out.
I took a slice on a serviette, then we wandered outside for some fresh air with our cake. Glancing up into the jacaranda tree which stood tall in the church backyard, fluffy clouds shifted in above. I doubted that it would rain. Holding it with the serviette, I took a bite from the cake, from the icing end, the buttercream delicious. Juliet and Jacob had been afforded a beautiful day for their wedding, events of the morning following last night aside. Following afternoon tea, we passed through the church to mill around out the front. Juliet, Jacob and the bridal party were heading down to the bush on foot. Sun shone through the trees onto the bouquets of roses held by the bride and bridesmaids. I couldn’t help but marvel at the flowers. The bouquets weren’t all exactly the same. Within Lizzie’s, there were other white flowers too, not roses.
“Do you know what kind of flowers these are?”
“They’re chrysanthemums, I think, but don’t hold me to that.” Lizzie giggled, raising her bouquet to her face before lowering it again with a laugh. “I’m not a flower expert, despite this morning.”
The photographer called the bridesmaids over for a bridal party shot.
“I’ve gotta go, babe. Are you going with Geoff to the reception?”
Lizzie walked backwards in heels, which I thought was quite impressive.
“I hope so.”
“You go for it.”
Maybe baring my soul to my closest-in-age cousin wasn’t the best idea after all. I waved goodbye, then turned around and looked for Geoff. He didn’t seem to be amongst those milling outside the church. I anxiously headed inside.
I located Geoff standing and chatting away with some young guys I recognised, with whom he and Mitchell had attended school.
“Are you coming with me to the reception?”
Please say yes, please say yes.
“Yeah, that would be great if you could give me a lift, thank you,” Geoff accepted, and I could have cheered.
We bid farewell, then walked back to the car as I fetched my keys. My breath hitched, at the thought of driving Geoff.
“It was good to see Robert again, I haven’t seen him for a while,” he mused as we got into the car.
Driving to the reception venue, I couldn’t get that close, so we’d have to leave the car in Parramatta. I pulled into the carpark and parked.
“Let me give you some money for the parking,” Geoff suggested, reaching for his wallet.
“No, it’s fine,” I assured him, speaking as casually as I could.
We got out of the car and locked it behind us, then walked through Parramatta. I heard the reception from a distance.
“This is a less dramatic entrance than you made at the ceremony.”
“Yeah, I suppose so.”
We approached the venue. A bird swept through the sky. As the sun went down, a dusting developed across the blue of grey and pale pink cloud. The sky deepened it its colour, and I hoped that it wouldn’t rain, although if we did, it would be fine. I walked underneath a tall tree. We reached the balcony, where drinks were already flowing, and stood and chit-chatted there for an hour or so, without a care. By that point, I felt a little buzzed on the two glasses of champagne I’d already consumed. There were two rows of warm-coloured fairy lights strung up underneath the ceiling. Lizzie sat at the head table, but Geoff and I approached the table with the place cards on it.
“Table three, Nina,” he pointed out.
Geoff scooped up the place cards from the table. They were set out in rows, for each table. I took one of them from him. It did not bear my name, nor his, either. On one side it was printed ‘Focus on the good in your life’, with smiling flowers amidst the words. I flipped it over. In the corners were the date and the wedding hashtag - #foreverwinters – a play on his, and now her, surname. The centre bore Mitchell’s name. He was the invited guest, after all. We found the table, near the window, with floral arrangements on it similar to the bouquets. I was grateful for the opportunity to sit down.
“Twice in one day, mate,” Robert remarked, sitting opposite us. “Great to see you, Nina.”
I smiled. Robert’s customary grin fell.
“I heard about what happened with Mitchell, I’m so sorry.”
“It’s been a huge shock, a huge change.”
“Do you have any leads on where he might be, what might have happened?”
“Not really, no.”
I could see Geoff twitching, so I placed his hand on mine and beamed.
“But, the police are doing everything they can. I’m sure we’ll have Mitchell back with us in no time. We’ll find the answers.”
I looked back to Robert, noticing a wrinkle in his expression. We were at a wedding, so I chose to ignore it, because I needed to be able to stay in the moment, with Geoff, who still seemed to be just as uncomfortable.
“Everything is going to be alright tonight.”
“Welcome, welcome, welcome, thank you so much for joining us,” the MC began.
I recognised him, although I couldn’t exactly place his face. Did I know him through Mitchell’s cricket, maybe? He can’t have been a current player. The MC introduced the bridesmaids and groomsmen, two by two.
“Introducing Mr and Mrs Jacob and Juliet Winter!”
Hands linked and raised, the bride and groom strode into their wedding reception, to the band playing a cover of John Paul Young. As we cheered them in, Juliet and Jacob took their seats at the head table.
“Eat, drink, be merry, and we’ll be back before too long.”
The MC took his seat, then the waitstaff started to come around with the entrees. It was a pretty classic wedding with an alternate menu – I received these cute little raviolis, and Geoff got a feta and caramelised onion tart.
“Is yours nice?” he asked me.
“Yeah, it’s lovely, thank you,” I answered. “How about yours?”
“It’s good, it’s nice, it’s tart.”
Geoff took a sip of water.
“Is that a joke?” I quipped.
“Um, no, but yeah, because that would be a good one.”
I laughed a little too loudly. Every time my eyes swept across the table, my gaze fell upon the name card.
“You keep looking at where it says Mitchell.”
Across the room, I heard someone wheezing, which distracted me. Jacob’s great-grandfather sat at his family table. His shoulders hunched over, his frame almost convulsing with every cough.
“Is he alright?”
“Yeah, I’m sure he’s fine.”
All of a sudden, the bloke sat bolt upright.
“Isn’t this a lovely night?” he remarked.
I couldn’t help but grin, as he kept eating his entrée. In honour of Jacob’s grandfather, I poured myself another glass of wine. I took a sip, then a plate of main course was put in front of me. While I ate pesto chicken with a parmesan and Panko crumb, I struck up a conversation across the table.
“My brother’s in first-year at Macquarie,” Bianca told me. “His name is Simon, do you know him?”
“Yeah, it kind of rings a bell,” I answered, stretching the truth a little. “I’ll have to keep an eye out for him.”
I glanced across the room to the bridal table. Juliet didn’t have a hair out of place, although Lizzie appeared a little worse for wear. Every now and then, somebody would get up from their seat, to go to the bathroom or the bar, or something. They would happen to gaze upon me and I would catch them staring. Sometimes they’d squint a little at the sight of Geoff, like they’d met Mitchell before, and didn’t think that he looked like that. Juliet and Jacob were introduced for speeches.
“Firstly, I would like to thank you all so, so much for coming and celebrating with us today.”
Juliet turned to her new husband.
“Getting married today to this wonderful man has been a dream come true.”
He kissed her on the temple.
“I’m so blessed to be this man’s wife, Mrs Winter, until the end of time.”
I kept my eyes on Juliet.
“It’s now time for the happy couple to cut the wedding cake.”
“Wait, do we have a knife?”
A member of the waitstaff handed one over, decorated with a bow. Juliet and Jacob plunged the knife into the bottom tier of the cake. We applauded. They stuffed cake into each other’s faces, and we laughed to be polite, the icing complimenting Juliet’s makeup. After they served dessert, guests started to mill around. All of a sudden, I felt Lizzie’s hands on my shoulders.
“You’re coming to dance with me,” she declared.
Geoff was on his phone, so I got up and followed her to the dance floor. Juliet already twirled, her engagement ring catching the light. We started to dance the night away. I danced so that my chest would feel lighter. In the end I danced until my feet felt sore, until I almost wasn’t thinking about Mitchell and the loss gestating in my heart. I promised myself that I would outdance everyone else, as if that would numb the pain.
“May I have this dance?”
I spun around to see Geoff standing there, hand extending towards me. Beaming I took his hand. My chest felt tight, and I suspected that my heart was beating rapidly. The world around me seemed to pulse.
“Are you OK, Nina?”
“Yeah, yeah,” I assured, even though I felt woozy. “I just need to sit down.”
Stumbling backwards, I sat down on the retaining wall. My feet felt sore and swollen, but I don’t think that was the problem.
“Take deep breaths, just take deep breaths until you feel a bit better.”
Geoff started rubbing circles between my shoulder blades.
“I’m sorry, I feel really embarrassed.”
“It’s OK, you’re OK,” Geoff assured me. “Just breathe, make sure you breathe.”
“I’m OK, I’m OK. I want to dance, I want to dance with you.”
Pleadingly, I beamed at Geoff.
“As long as you’re alright.”
“I’m fine,” I ensured, taking Geoff’s hand.
While we were dancing, my eyes started to sting a little, which I tried to ignore, figuring it must have been smudged mascara.
“I don’t look like a racoon, do I?”
“No,” Geoff answered, squinting with bemusement.
“Thank you, thank you.” I leaned against his chest. “It should have been Mitchell, but you’re pretty nice.”
Geoff shifted back, but I didn’t fall.
“I think that we need to go back to get another drink, what do you reckon?”
“Alright,” I agreed, even though I wanted to keep dancing.
We walked back to our table, where Robert and Bianca were sitting.
“They’ve served extra desserts,” she remarked, chowing into a salted caramel brownie.
“What a bonus.”
“Calling all the single ladies! It’s time for Juliet to throw her bouquet.”
Despite being single, I didn’t really want to go. It felt cliché and desperate, but Lizzie eyeballed me from across the room. We headed over there and gathered around. Juliet tossed the bouquet over her shoulder. I stood there next to Lizzie as the women around me scrambled, and finally the bouquet landed in Katie’s unsuspecting hands.
“That’s not fair, you’re fifteen.” Lizzie reached for the bouquet. “No way you’re getting married next.”
“Yeah, no way for either of us,” Katie retorted.
Finally, the reception came to an end. Juliet and Jacob ran underneath a tunnel of our hands, emerging into a flurry of sparklers, waved by their bridal party. They kissed once, then got into the car to leave for their honeymoon.
“I reckon that we should probably head off,” Geoff mentioned as he turned to me.
“Alright, let’s go.”
I bid farewell to Lizzie.
“Are you sure you’ll be alright to get home?”
“Yeah, Mum’s coming to pick Katie and I up, she should be here soon if she isn’t already.” She smiled. “It’s really sweet of her, she wanted to make sure that we got home safely.”
“Yeah, it is,” I replied with a smile. “Look, Geoff and I are going, I’ll text you if I see her.”
“Thanks.” Lizzie grinned, then wiggled her eyebrows. “Have fun.”
Stepping outside the reception venue, I marvelled at a tree ablaze with fairy lights. Geoff and I walked down the hill, and I texted to say that Aunty Melissa hadn’t arrived yet. We wandered into Parramatta, where I’d parked. They’ve set up the tram tracks with chairs for outdoor dining. I longed to reach for Geoff’s hand. Instead he took the car keys from me.
“I’m on my fulls, is it alright if I drive?”
“Yeah, of course.”
We returned to the car. Geoff unlocked it. We got into the car, him in the driver’s seat and me on the passenger side. I could have leaned across and kissed him. My heart thumped within my chest. Nothing happened, though, because nothing ever happens. Geoff started the car and reversed out of the parking spot, driving back to my place. I was too tired to talk much along the way, even though I wanted to. It had been a good day, but still filled with too much longing. At home, Geoff pulled up in the driveway.
“Thanks for the lift home.”
“Would you like to come in?”
“I’ve got to get home, I’ve got to pack for Goulburn.”
I unclicked my seatbelt.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, we’ll get the car then.”
The younger sister of missing Sydney man Mitchell del Reyan, Nina del Reyan lives on Dharug land in western Sydney. She has recently commenced a teaching degree at Macquarie University. Nina loves her family and friends and is deeply committed to finding answers and justice for the families of missing people.
Abbey Sim is the founder of Huldah Media. She is a creative writing, law and theology student who lives on the lands of the Dharug people in Sydney, Australia. Abbey desires to explore themes of hope, love and longing through her storytelling. She is the author of 'Shadow' and 'From the Wild'.