"They want fireworks?"
"Yep," said Rob, sitting across the table from me. "And not just a couple of rockets and a sparkler. They want our names written in flame."
"Oh, goodness." As his best man, I'd gone round to his flat for the evening to chat about the impending celebrations while his fiancee, Kate, was at my house, receiving wedding wisdom from Sarah. "Are you going to arrive in a vintage car to the sound of bagpipes and then be ushered in for caviar nibbles and the gentle melody of a string quartet?"
"Something like that. Kate's parents have pretty much given up on her brother ever settling down, so this is their one chance at wedding glory. Money's no object and it's all going crazy. Have a look at this catalogue."
He handed me a glossy brochure which was at least half an inch thick and I began to flick through it.
I glanced at my stopwatch. "You've only got a minute left, by the way."
"Don't think too long," I said, "or I'll rip your arms off and feed them to you."
"OK, OK, I'm a little out-numbered here. You won't be laughing so hard when it's my turn to play the Genestealers."
"We'll see. Forty-five seconds."
Well, we told the women-folk we were going to chat about the wedding but the table wasn't exactly spread with seating planners. It was covered with squared, cardboard tiles representing the interior layout of a derelict spaceship. Up one corner, a handful of little plastic figures marked where Rob's space marines were cowering in fear from an imminent assault by my encroaching horde of four-armed, slobbering aliens. We were playing Space Hulk. Littered amongst the bits of board were counters, dice, snacks and beer.
I didn't feel too bad, though. We'd mentioned the wedding on occasion and at least I was looking at a catalogue. It appeared to be entirely full of outlandish cakes, however. Each was oddly evocative of a three-way collision between a fairground ride, a flower arrangement and a confectionery shop.
"Gah," said Rob in frustration. "I'll move this guy here and put him on overwatch. And move flamer guy along..."
"And then my last guy will panic and shoot blindly down this corridor while swearing loudly."
"Fine," I said, handing him some dice. "You need a six."
He rolled a five. "Do I get any bonuses for the swearing?"
"No, but you've got two more shots and fifteen seconds to take them."
"OK," he said. "Give me the dice."
"I just gave you the dice."
"No, you didn't. Give me the dice."
"You just rolled one of them. Look. Here." I picked two dice off the table where he'd put them and handed them to him again. "Three seconds." He flung them down and they ricocheted off a tub of Pringles, bounced and flew up in the air. One landed in a jar of salsa dip and the other danced off the table and disappeared under the sofa.
The stopwatch beeped.
We looked at each other and then both leaned forward and peered into the jar. "Chunky," I said. The dice was beginning to sink but it clearly showed a two. "Better go find the other one. You need a four."
"You were rushing me," he muttered as he got down on his hands and knees and started poking around under the furniture. "Did you see where it went?"
"The dice are your responsibility during your go." I turned my attention back to the catalogue. "There really isn't anything in here but cakes... Oh, my mistake, here are some swans."
"Technically, it's now your go," he said, his voice somewhat muffled from beneath the table. "Want to come help me look under here?"
I munched on some Pringles and sucked spicy tomato from a numbered cube. "It's not my go until that shot is resolved. Is there anything in this catalogue other than cakes and swans?"
"The swans are cakes, too," Rob said, emerging somewhat dustily from his search and handing me another, even glossier, brochure. "THIS catalogue is for the nuptial livestock."
"You're kidding..." I took the book from him. "You're not kidding. Tell me you're not planning a release of live butterflies."
"Nah. I was thinking more along the lines of some white doves. Someone lets a couple go every so often and that's our cue to pull out a pair of Uzis and shoot at each other in slow motion while various bits of scenery explode."
"A John Woo theme," I said, rubbing my chin. "Interesting. How's that sitting with Kate's parents?"
"They're not so keen. Mike's up for it, though."
"He's just humouring you. When it comes to the actual day, you'd better be taking things seriously. You've picked the wrong minister to mess with. Any sign of doves and he'd whip a shotgun out of his robes and fill them with buckshot before we got a chance to move. Then he'd get on with the service as if nothing had happened. You know it's true."
Rob considered this for a moment. "It is, isn't it?" he said, slightly nervously.
"Uh-huh," I nodded. "And don't think you're done when the wedding's over. He'll grab you by the shoulder every few months, look you in the eye and ask you if you're keeping your vows. It's part of the on-going customer service."
"He'll get on well with my future mother-in-law... Are you going to have your turn?"
"Oh, yeah." I'd forgotten about the game. Rob's under-the-sofa shot had hit (allegedly) but I was still in a strong position. As the alien player, I also didn't have to race against the clock. I took my time. "I'm going to move this slavering monster with big teeth up the corridor while your guy shoots at it..." Rob rolled some dice and then swore. "...until his gun jams. Then these other slavering monsters with big teeth..." I moved a counter into his marine's line of sight, flipped it over and replaced it with three plastic figures. "...are going to use their enormous claws to turn him into mince." I rolled some dice. Rob rolled some dice. I banged my head on the table.
Rob smirked as he removed my three Genestealers from the board. "What are the chances of you rolling a total of eleven on nine six-sided dice?"
"I don't want to think about it," I said, in between bangs. "Tell me what you're expecting me to do for the wedding."
"You're best man. You've got to organise the stag night for starters."
I moved some more little plastic aliens. They all got shot or flambeed. "Are you sure that's wise?" I replied. "My idea of a good evening is going to the cinema, having a couple of drinks and then grabbing a bag of chips on the way home."
"I was thinking more of a weekend than an evening," said Rob, starting his go. I reset the stopwatch.
"See. I'm just bound to get it wrong. If I'm in charge of a weekend, we'll end up knitting."
Rob wasn't having any of it. "Take us go-karting, or something. Come on. A weekend away from the kids! Must be tempting."
I contemplated a couple of days with a group of younger, salaried blokes whom I didn't know very well. It's the kind of situation I cope with much better if I have my three small human shields running round me. I couldn't really say no, though. "OK, I'll look into it," I sighed. "When's the wedding going to be, anyway?"
Rob shrugged. "Not sure. After the baby's born, definitely. Kate's getting big already and she doesn't want to look like a fairy that's swallowed a blimp in the photos." He paused in the middle of moving one of his pieces and looked worried. "Just don't tell her I put it like that, all right?"
"Wouldn't dream of it..."
My mobile rang and I answered it. "No, this isn't Kevin... Nope, I don't know anyone called Kevin. You've got the wrong number." I hung up. "That's the third time today. It's different people phoning up to offer this guy job interviews. I've had a couple of texts as well."
"Don't think I'd hire someone who got his phone number wrong on his CV," said Rob without glancing up from the board.
"Tell me about it. Two minutes left." He continued dithering over his marines. My eyes wandered around the room. The walls were stacked floor to ceiling with books, games and objects of geeky desire. It was like a rift in space and time had opened and half the stock of the local Forbidden Planet had fallen through. "It's a shame your study's going to have to go," I said. "What are you going to do with all this stuff?"
Rob looked at me blankly.
"Er..." I said. "This flat currently only has one bedroom. You're going to need two bedrooms. You have four available options: the kitchen, the bathroom, the lounge and this room. I would advise against the kitchen or the bathroom and your big telly is in the lounge. If, however, you were to replace the desk over there that's covered in computer equipment with a bed, this room would make quite a nice bedroom."
"Don't be daft," he said, concentrating once more on his marines. "A bed wouldn't fit in that space."
"True. You'd need to move the bookcase full of Deep Space Nine videos, the Lego Star Destroyer and the life-size cut-out of Lara Croft to fit a bed in, but you wouldn't need quite so much space for a cot. You might want to leave a decent splatter radius, though. Cleaning vomit out of Lego is a real pain - you have to use a toothbrush. One minute."
I was hoping I'd distracted him enough but he made sure to finish moving before he replied. His surviving marines had almost escaped and had thrown up a wall of flame behind them. My remaining Genestealer turned into a pile of ash and teeth.
"Hadn't really thought about it," he said. "Won't the cot be in our room?"
"For six months or so. Maybe longer. Depends whether you ever want a sound night's sleep again... or if you're planning any more."
Rob choked on his beer. "Give us a chance. It's months before the first one arrives."
"Three months. Might be less. It'll take you that long to off-load all this stuff on eBay." He looked horrified but I pressed on. "You could always move house instead but that's going to take time as well and, if you're faffing with mortgages, you're going to need to consider how much of the next few years Kate is going to be on limited pay. Or if she's going to be off for as little time as possible and you're going to be home. Or if you're both going to work and you have a wadge of nursery fees to find. How many children you're intending to have will affect all the calculations. Better start thinking."
The shutters of denial went down behind Rob's eyes. "I thought we were supposed to be discussing the wedding. Your go."
I shook my head for any number of reasons. "You've as good as won," I said. "Set things up for a re-match while I go to the toilet. We can talk kilts when I get back. But just because you can fob me off, don't think you can do the same with Squirtle. He, she or it isn't going to go back in for a few days while you get round to auctioning off your Magic: The Gathering cards and Bobba Fett lunchbox."
Rob grinned. "You're just jealous I have them."
"Well, yeah," I said, heading out the door, "but that's not the point."
I left him to it. As I was washing my hands, I caught the distant but unmistakeable sound of an electronic rendition of The Ride of the Valkyries turned up loud enough to hear above traffic and three wittering children.
"Did my phone go?" I asked when I returned to the room.
"Yeah," said Rob, putting the last of the plastic figures into place. "It was for Kevin. I told the woman I was his parole officer and that I was wondering where he'd got to, too. I don't think she'll be bothering you again."
"Cheers." I sat down and reached for my beer and a pile of dice. "Now it's time to snack on fiery death, big-teethed alien scum." I went for a warm-up roll. I got five ones and a splattering of salsa.
"Or maybe not..." I added.
* * *
Hope you're keeping well, Dave. Everyone I meet at the moment seems to be suffering from something. Lewis is croaky from a sore throat, Fraser has an infection (don't ask where), Marie's been exposed to chickenpox and Sarah has come into contact with scarlet fever.
I'm just feeling nervous.
If we all get through this week without seeing a doctor, I'll be amazed...
Yours in a woman's world,