She was always the bridesmaid at the weddings of her friends, yet never once the lucky one who caught the bouquet. When she reached the ripe old age of twenty-five, with all hope of romance dying in her heart, and still no ring adorning the all-important finger of her left hand, she began to despair. One by one, her friends were setting up homes, and instead of venturing out at night, they began to stay in to cook dinner and set slippers by the fire. Funny how quickly everything changed, she thought. They seemed so happy, so content. Later in life she wondered how many of them had actually found happiness, or whether it had all been a facade, the way it had been for her. How many of them had found love, companionship, devotion, a soul-mate, or even just a friend in their men? Were those simply unattainable, sentimental notions that women strived for with no real hope of ever finding? Or was she simply extrapolating from her own lot?
She found herself alone, her dwindling social life well on the way to being placed on the endangered list. Her saving grace was her job, from which she derived her only satisfaction. Even there, she began to feel like a spinster and enviously watched the younger nurses rushing round amidst a haze of perfume and hairspray, preparing for their night out. Friday nights were the worst. Bryony often volunteered for the night shift on those evenings. She and her friends used to have such wild times, too, not so long ago. Rooming in the nurses’ quarters did have its advantages. The building was in Russell Square, a short stroll from the West End and the hubbub of city life. They would trip up to Soho in their heels and their frocks, decked out, feeling glamorous, laughing and giggling, and dance the night away, with one eye on the look-out for their knight in shining armour.
She thought of those innocent times wistfully now, and wished she had not read quite so many stories of princesses living happily-ever-after when she was a child, or all those romance novels when she was older. She still secretly turned to them for comfort every now and again. She had not made that mistake with her own daughters, refusing to allow their heads to be filled with romantic claptrap. She liked to take a little credit for their strength and independence of spirit.
Nowadays, of course, twenty-five was not considered old for marriage. Her own daughters had not married before they were thirty. In her day, it was so very different; and, yes, she had panicked a little.
“Marry me, Bryony,” he had said.
And she had said ‘yes’ when she should have said, ‘not yet’.
Or ‘not ever, not to you.’
She smiled as a robin alit upon the feeding table, cocked its head at her, and flew away. Yes, she had certainly repented at leisure.
He had come down to London for his brother’s stag night. He had two brothers, both older, and within a few months of knowing them, she knew they were both quite wonderful men. John was in insurance and met his bride, Mary, over a building claim – they still laughed about it. John was a very decent sort, helpful and amiable, and still handsome in a distinguished sort of way. The eldest brother, Michael, was quick to laugh, and loved to tell long, meandering stories that had her in stitches. He married his childhood sweetheart, Jane. She had ended up with the youngest brother, Donald, who seemed unlike them outwardly, but he could not be so very different to them, could he? Besides, it was becoming harder for her to meet eligible men, and he came from such a nice family.
Donald was a bank clerk when she first met him, but he was a man who knew where he was going and he had set his sights on her. She was impressed by his drive and his ambition, and flattered by his attention and attentiveness. They got engaged too quickly. He always wanted to know where she was, who she was with, what she was doing, and for her it was a novelty to have someone take such an interest in the humdrum routine of her life. She thought he possessed an odd, uncomfortable charm, which she had put down to nerves. She judged the book by the cover and the cover looked interesting, and not so far from what she wanted.
Inside, she would soon discover, the pages were very different.
The Donald she had walked up the aisle with was quite different from the man who woke up next to her every day. Yes, it was her own fault. She had ignored the little warnings that gave away what lay beneath. Once married, they gradually began to surface, slowly at first, but she could no longer ignore them or reason them away. She strove to please, but he found fault in everything she did. She lost her confidence under the relentless battering her self-esteem was subjected to on a daily basis. Pregnancy was a godsend, the babies a blessing, but by then the damage was irrevocable. He had brutally shattered her rose-tinted glasses. Her husband became an odious figure of a man, who rarely smiled, never told a joke, funny or not. And, as the years passed, so his civility diminished until he spared her the bare minimum, always forced and only ever in public. It was effort enough for him to maintain it with others.
His family pitied her; she saw it in their eyes. Mary had once very tentatively broached the subject of Donald, but Bryony brushed her off. She did not know why she had done that. Pride, perhaps. They had acquaintances, but few people they could call friends. She did not wonder why.
She wondered at herself, her weakness, her inability to break free, and her endless capacity for punishment.
Illustrated by Kemi Athene Pennicott.
Savita Kalhan’s new book, The Girl in the Broken Mirror, will be published by Troika Books on 1 May 2018.