sit by my side, and let the world slip: we shall ne’er be younger.
Pink flowers, Hero had written. Pink ribbons, and pink sashes, and pink flowers.
Beatrice folded up the piece of notebook paper. The tiny ballerina atop the musical box, frozen forever mid-pirouette, tinkled its soft and broken musical chime as she latched the lid again. Back then, as a wise and all-knowing preteen, she had hoped that four-year-old Hero would outgrow the pink obsession by adulthood. That had come to pass, but Beatrice had come to appreciate pink instead. Strange, what you could do with enough time.
She sat back on her heels and made a few notes in the wedding planner folio. The remnants of Hero’s childhood were stashed away here in the attic, a place she preferred to avoid, especially in summer. But they couldn’t push the marriage off to autumn, and Hero had made so many notes as a girl on what her dream wedding would be — she was aggravatingly meticulous about the details — and Beatrice was determined to get it right, it being the second wedding and all. Hopefully the last, although she might not say no to a change of groom.
‘A processional parade of pomeranians to precede me down the aisle,’ she read. ‘With sleigh bells around their necks, and lace stockinettes.’ There was a diagram to accompany that description. (Art, if art had taken a hard left on a B road.) Perhaps the pink would be easier.
‘Here,’ she called back. ‘In the attic.’
‘What are you up to?’
‘Planning your wedding.’
‘Oh, never mind that. Come down and try some cake.’
That heralded the return of the wedding party. Hero and Claudio had gone to an exorbitant artisan bakery for cake tasting that morning — very much against Beatrice’s will. Leonato’s loyal dessert chef had been good enough for every birthday, anniversary, and ancillary occasion since Hero was born. But the best man had insisted, and there was no arguing with the best man if you wanted a peaceful wedding day.
‘The worst man,’ she said to herself, ‘the worst of the worst of the worst,’ and with her unwieldy folio in hand, started down the stairs.
The attic stairs were strictly speaking built more like a ladder, so climbing perilously backwards was the only way down. She saw, glancing over her shoulder, that the hordes were waiting below. Hero waved a fork up at her. ‘We brought back cake!’ she said. ‘For your expert opinion.’
‘I’m not an expert.’
‘No, but you always have an opinion.’
‘You’d be lost without my opinions,’ said Beatrice, narrowly avoiding the shaft of wood that protruded like a malevolent sentry from the ceiling beams. The folio, held precariously between two fingers, started to slip. ‘Hero! Catch.’
For a moment Beatrice wavered between the sarcastic Catch up! and her actual meaning. But it was a moment too long for her fingers to hold on to. She jumped down the last two steps to save the folio, and would have succeeded, had she not landed none too gently on the soft leather of someone’s favourite loafers.
‘Oi!’ she said. ‘Watch it.’
Benedick, immediately on the retreat, was looking as injured as she assumed his toes felt. ‘I could say the same to you.’
‘In case you hadn’t noticed, I don’t have eyes at the back of my head.’
‘Wish I did, so I wouldn’t have to look at you. What’s upstairs?’
‘The stairs don’t talk,’ she said scathingly.
Hero was preoccupied with a mouthful of red velvet cake and clearly trying not to laugh. Next to her, Claudio was holding a platter larger than his face, with about sixteen types of cake in sad little mounds on it. He passed a plastic fork to Beatrice, who resisted the urge to clock him with it. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘did they bankrupt us?’
‘You act like it’s daylight robbery,’ said Benedick, annoyed.
‘The price is very reasonable,’ Hero said placatingly. ‘And they couldn’t give us the whole cake for tasting, could they? Try the lemon drizzle. It’s to die for.’
As Hero had already chalked up one death too many, Beatrice demurred. ‘Vanilla cake,’ she said, and nibbled on some. ‘You lot are dull.’
‘Classic,’ argued Hero.
‘Soul-destroyingly conventional,’ Beatrice continued, just to see the contortion of Benedick’s face. He loved vanilla cream cake, especially the ones that had dark flecks of vanilla bean in the cream. ‘Gingerbread? Ooh, key lime.’
‘I like the currant rum cake,’ said Claudio.
Hero smiled at him. ‘It is so gloriously citron-peely.’
‘Fab,’ said Beatrice, who suspected that the alcohol was the main draw. ‘Well, I don’t care what you pick, as long as it can be made pink.’
‘We are not doing pink,’ said Benedick loudly, from behind her.
She stepped back and, purely by accident, trod on his toes again. As he went swearing away it occurred to her briefly to wonder why he was always lurking around behind her — but that was fleeting, and immediately chased away by Hero’s sudden exclamation.
‘Don’t get cream on the folio! I paid forty quid for that thing.’
‘You paid what?’
‘Don’t worry, darling, it all comes out of the wedding fund.’
‘Benedick’s only cost a fiver, and it’s good enough for his notes.’
‘Benedick can write?’
‘I’ve told you once, and I’ll tell you again,’ said Benedick, hobbling back towards them, ‘the pink will ruin the colour scheme!’
‘And I’ll tell you one more time: my cousin wants pink, she gets pink!’
‘Your cousin doesn’t care about pink!’
‘It’s what four-year-old Hero would have wanted!’
Benedick ripped the five pound folio from his pocket: a small fake leather book, bound with a red ribbon marker to preserve some basic level of dignity. The front page was already falling out. ‘Listen,’ he said tightly. ‘Claudio will be in uniform, and so will Don Pedro, and so will I. That is khaki-coloured.’
‘Have you got any modicum of taste, or do you not realise how hideous it would be to have khaki matched with pink?’
‘Wear something other than your stupid dress uniform then,’ she said. Or Hero could marry someone else. She didn’t care.
Hero was staring at the wood-panelled floor. Benedick came right up to her. Her nose was level with the dip between his collarbones, and it sent a strange feeling straight down through her veins and into the tips of her fingers. ‘Or maybe,’ he said quietly, as if telling her a secret, ‘you could learn to respect what’s important to other people.’
She got up on her toes. They were so close that if she leaned forward she might have kissed the jawline of his stupid bearded face. In another world, perhaps. ‘Or maybe,’ she whispered, ‘you could learn that what’s important isn’t always dictated by men.’
Benedick’s hand moved spasmodically and she saw Hero flinch from the corner of her eye. But Beatrice was not afraid. For all Benedick’s ridiculousness, for all his pompous arrogance and insufferable pride, he had never, and would never, raise a hand against her. Beatrice knew this. Beatrice knew this because long ago life had taken them to a point where that would have been the obvious thing for him to do, and still he had never — even for an instant — given her reason to think that he might be tempted to. So she faced him fearlessly, and as she did she knew that of all the men in the world, Benedick was the one she trusted not to hurt her.
And yet he had. He had.
Benedick handed her the fancy wedding folio — with the narrowness of the space between them, he sort of pressed it to her chest. He must have dived to save it, Beatrice realised, when she dropped it from the stairs. Then he nodded curtly to Hero, and, with a desultory glance in Claudio’s direction, left. They heard his footsteps, heavier than usual, echo down the hallway. Then silence.
Claudio was standing in the same position with a disoriented expression on his face, a parody of the musical box ballerina. Hero came to her, took both her hands, and pressed them to her mouth in a quick kiss. ‘You shouldn’t have,’ she said. ‘Thank you. But you shouldn’t have.’
‘I want to make you happy,’ said Beatrice. If she spoke too quickly, or too loudly, her voice would unravel like a spool of thread. ‘This is your wedding.’
‘It doesn’t matter about the pink.’
‘You like pink, don’t you?’
‘I do, but —’
‘And you don’t care what colour your wedding is?’
Claudio jumped. Any address by Beatrice to him was like a taser shock. She might be able to condition him, if things carried on this way. ‘N-no.’
‘Good,’ she said. ‘Good.’
Hero tried another tack. ‘Most of my wedding ideas were ludicrous anyway. Remember the choir of toads?’
‘They were insane. The pomeranians?’
‘You see? You really shouldn’t.’
‘I want to give you something from your childhood dreams,’ said Beatrice. ‘Before you leave all of that behind.’ It was never in the plan to wed a soldier, never in the plan to fake one death and have two weddings. Hero had thought very little about her future husband. The truth of the matter was that too much time had been spent on the wedding, too little on the marriage.
Wearily, Hero touched a gentle finger to the spot right between Beatrice’s eyebrows. As a child she had thought she could rub out worry by smoothing the creases there. So many memories. ‘See you later, Sweet Bea,’ she said. ‘And don’t be sad.’
‘I’m not sad.’
‘Yes, you are. Don’t be sad. You’re not losing me.’
Alone in the room she and Hero used to share, Beatrice sat with her feet curled up on the window seat. The nursery had been vacant since they were teenagers; as close as they were, it had come as a welcome relief to have their own rooms in the end. And so the top floors of the house had been empty for a long time, something Beatrice never minded until now, when it came home to her that these well-loved rooms had run out of time.
‘I’m still here,’ she said out loud, just to hear the familiar ring of it off the dark wood. But no, the room told her, Beatrice too was now a woman, and women cannot creep back into their cradles again.
She picked up the folio that she had pushed to the floor in disgust. If Hero wanted it as a keepsake, she might have to start writing more like a maid-of-honour, and less like a sentient child’s crayon. Carefully — forty quid, she reminded herself — she flipped to the bookmarked page. In big bright letters, almost as awful as her own writing, there was a note waiting for her there.
WE ARE NOT DOING PINK.
Beatrice stood up so fast that the sound she had been intending to make was swallowed instead. Only she was allowed to be messy in her own book. Anything else was sacrilege of the highest order. Scrawling. In her margins. No, all over her page.
The noise that finally emerged was as unearthly as it was deeply human in heart. She had sheets upon sheets of that writing stashed away in the attic, where she would not go. Books with that writing in the margins, incriminating words that would be well placed curling up into ash in the fire. But she kept them. The bold ‘B’ of her name looked best in that hand. She wondered if the writer still wrote it that way, or if he even remembered writing it.
Beatrice put the folio aside and, with steps as light as breathing, climbed up the ladder to shut the door to the attic. She made herself laugh. There was no one but the old room to hear her.