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The guests stood in small pockets across the expanse of lawn before being corralled by the photographer. Maggie dutifully took her place next to her now son-in-law, smiling at her daughter. Like all brides, Julie looked lovely, thought Maggie. A less biased and perhaps uncharitable eye might have thought Julie unlikely to grace the pages of a magazine: short, still a little on the plump side despite the rigorous self-imposed diet, she had never been conventionally pretty. But today, her obvious joy manifested itself; the beaming smile was reflected back at her by Philip, her husband. In fact they hadn’t stopped smiling at each other since the ceremony.
Formal photographs taken, wedding breakfast consumed, speeches made, the party broke up into fluid groups, bride and groom meandering among them. Julie found her parents standing at the bar.
‘Can I have one of those, please, Dad?’ she asked, seeing David with a glass of red wine in his hand. Another was duly ordered.
Maggie turned to her daughter. ‘How are you doing, love?’ she asked. ‘You can relax now, you know. You and Philip should start enjoying yourselves. It is your day, after all.’
‘We’re fine. And we can’t thank you enough for everything you’ve done, you and Dad.’
‘The least we could do. You are our favourite daughter, after all.’
‘Dad, I’m your only daughter.’ It was a well-worn joke between them.
‘It’s just a pity Uncle Mike couldn’t be here.’
Maggie tried not to show her real feelings to her daughter. ‘Yes. Well. You know how things are with him. This new project is taking up all of his time, and he had a meeting with some producer or other that he couldn’t get out of.’
In truth, Maggie was relieved that her brother wasn’t here. He’d have found fault with everything, and tried to steal the attention away from Julie and Philip. Ever since they’d been children, Mike had been critical of everyone who wasn’t part of his world. He’d been Micky then, a cute kid taken by a doting mother first to a model agency, then theatrical agent. He’d been given a part in a children’s tv show at age 8, and then at the ripe old age of 11 had had a spin-off series specially written for him. And did this success go to his head? You bet it did. Where he’d been precocious and petulant, he became insufferable. And then puberty kicked in. The sweet face became a battleground for acne, an outward manifestation of the unpleasantness within. Unlike Dorian Gray, Micky had no portrait in the attic. As his tantrums increased, so the work diminished, then fizzled out altogether. There was fresh meat out there, more malleable, more talented, and much easier to handle.
Maggie, despite being older by two years, but being close at hand, found herself the target of much of Micky’s vitriol. Even his doting mother found him too much to take, and escaped via an early death from a stroke. The eighteen year old Micky left his grieving father and sister, taking his bulging bank account with him, and departed for pastures new. By this time, he’d partially regained his good looks, and his long-suffering agent was finding him some half-decent work. But old habits died hard, and the huffiness started to re-emerge. Jobs over time became fewer and farther between, just about keeping his head above water. In the last quarter of a century, Mike had tried many things other than regular gainful employment. Acting and the entertainment business were the only things he knew. His foray into film was a disaster, and the theatre was too hard: all that line learning and the tedium of repeated performances. How could he be expected to do that? And so his career, if that was indeed what it had been, was spiralling downward.
The emergence of the ‘reality show’ held some hope. So-called celebrities were eager to throw themselves into the path, or even under the wheels, of anything that would put them in the public eye. Mike was no different, and he badgered his agent incessantly for any opportunity. Despite having not worked for more than a year, Mike’s lifestyle hadn’t changed; the façade of success had to be maintained. And his lifestyle was expensive: the house, the car, the drugs. His debts were considerable, and not all of them owed to reputable sources who were less than understanding when it came to repayment. He’d thus far managed to fend off the threatened violence from Darren, his dealer, but it was a close run thing.
Then a month ago, he got a call from Maggie. He’d been sitting on the invitation for weeks, not bothered to reply. Who cared that his dumpy lump of a niece was getting married? Not him, that was for sure. So what did the stupid bitch Maggie want now? Money to help pay for the farce? Not that he’d spoken to her for how long? a couple of years certainly. And not that she’d ever asked him for anything, but he chose to eliminate that thought from his mind.
‘What do you want?’ She’d barely had a chance to say hello.
‘I’m very well, thank you for asking,’ Maggie replied, despite knowing her remark would be lost on Mike. ‘Julie is asking if you plan on coming to the wedding; you haven’t replied.’
‘Haven’t I? Hmmm.’ There was no hint of apology in his tone. ‘Doubt it. Too much on. When is it anyway?’
‘The 12th of next month. At Radley Hall.’
‘That dump?’ In truth Mike had no idea whether Radley Hall was a dump or not, didn’t know where it was even. ‘Well. Probably not then. Got a new job coming up. Big new tv thing. Just waiting for that useless idiot who calls himself my agent to tie up the loose ends. I expect it to start in a couple of weeks. One of these survival things, you know, they drop off a bunch of people guaranteed to drive each other round the bend on some god-forsaken island and pray they stop short of actually killing each other. So won’t even be in the country, most likely.’
All of which was a patent lie, not about the type of tv show, but that he’d been offered a spot on one.
‘Really? And this is definite is it?’ Maggie had heard variations of this story before, with most of them turning out to be just that – with no actual job at the end of them.
‘Well,’ Mike hesitated. ‘As definite as these things ever are at this stage. You have no idea how hard it is these days . . .’
Maggie’s attention waned as soon as Mike started on the familiar rant about how hard his life was, how his talent was continually overlooked. She waited until he’d stopped.
‘So, what shall I tell her?’
‘Look, if it all falls through, I’ll do my best, but I’m not promising. I’ll ring you if I’m coming.’
Maggie had made the usual excuses, her hopes divided between wanting at least something like work for her brother and his appearance on Julie’s big day.
The day before the wedding, Mike had been deliberating whether to grace the event with his presence after all, when his ‘phone rang. It was Felix, his agent.
‘Speak,’ he barked.
‘Mikey.’ That didn’t bode well; Felix called him that when he expected whatever he had on offer to be met with an argument. ‘There’s a new Big Brother series in the works, with old child stars in the mix. When I say old, I mean now grown up – oh you know what I mean.’ Phrasing was all; Felix was ever conscious of Mike’s fragile ego. ‘Anyway, they want you. Money’s good, obscenely good. I know you’re not a fan, but this could be really good for you, a springboard if you like. Very high profile, and who knows where it could lead? What do you say?’
The silence from Mike stretched like a bow string. Then, ‘Hmmm. What are we talking? And when?’
‘Let me messenger the details over to you. They want an answer pretty quickly. I can get it to you within the next couple of hours. Look it over and call me, okay?’
Not that Mike would have admitted it, but he felt elated and not a little relieved. He paced around his sitting room, unable to settle. Felix was right, this could indeed be good. The injection of cash would be more than welcome. He’d read the info Felix was sending over, but had pretty much made up his mind to go for it already. He poured himself a large vodka. I might even go to this damn wedding tomorrow, he thought. Surprise, surprise! Show them I’m still in the game, he thought.
The doorbell rang. At last.
Mike opened the door, not to the motorcycle messenger he was anticipating, but to two very tall, very wide, very muscular men.
‘Evening, Mike. Darren wants a word.’