"You do realise I could be at home, reclined on the armchair in my pyjamas, watching trash with explosions while drinking beer?" I said, hunched over the steering wheel of the van, trying to see if there was anything coming the other way as we went round a bend on the narrow country lane.
"Yeah, but wouldn't you rather be helping a friend in need?" said Rob from the passenger seat.
"I appear to be driving round in circles while a soon-to-be-ex-friend fails to read a map," I replied and then, at the last minute, I saw through the overgrown foliage on the verge and braked hard to avoid the enormous tractor heading straight for us. I swore under my breath and started to erratically reverse the hundred yards to the nearest passing place.
"Watch out for cows!" said Rob, chuckling to himself.
It was the fourth time he'd made comic reference to the unfortunate incident that had occurred the last time I'd driven anywhere. I was grumpy anyway. The combination wasn't going well. It was hot, the hired van's air conditioning wasn't working, we were lost and the tractor driver didn't even wave as I let him past. Worst of all, the kids were on holiday at their grandparents' house - I could have been at home enjoying some peace and quiet. "Do you know where we're going yet?" I snapped.
"It should be round here," said Rob. He was remarkably cheery for a man in the midst of last-minute wedding preparations. I suspected he was in total denial and simply enjoying the sunshine and the time off work. "It's beginning to look familiar. I think Aunt Maria's house is just over this hill."
"I believe you've said that about several hills during the last half an hour and a couple of bridges as well."
"I'm definite this time. Yeah, look in that yard - that belongs to the guy who does chainsaw carvings. Aunt Maria has a thing for him - keeps knitting him socks."
Afraid another tractor might sneak up on me on the twisty road, I only managed a brief glimpse of the wooden carvings as they went by on the other side of a dilapidated fence. Someone had been very busy. Twenty or so thick logs poked up out of the ground, surrounded by wood shavings, their top sections intricately whittled. Sure enough, every single one of them had been lovingly crafted into a three-dimensional replica of a chainsaw.
"And she lives close to this guy?" I asked, suddenly afraid of something other than tractors.
"Yep," said Rob. "That's one of the reasons I don't want to stay long."
"Uh-huh, good call."
"Yeah, cheer up," said Rob, still unnecessarily cheery himself. "We've just got to collect a few boxes, drop them off at the hotel and take the van back and we're done. We could go for a pint."
"I thought you had go help Kate with writing out the place cards."
"Damn. I was hoping she hadn't told you that."
"Nice try," I said. "As your best man, I'm under orders to get you home sober."
"OK, OK. Woh! Stop! This is it."
I pulled into the drive of a charming cottage, its garden full of flowers.
"Are you ready for this?" said Rob as we stepped out of the van.
"Er, should I be?" I asked.
Then a middle-aged woman, wearing far too much make-up and a rather too revealing dress, leapt out of the house, ran over to Rob, grabbed his head and attempted to suck his cheeks off. I stared in horror, unable to move. I was relieved when she finally let him go and it turned out to only have been some form of greeting.
Of course, the relief was somewhat mitigated when, far too late, I realised it was my turn.
"¡Hola!" she shrieked...
* * *
"Thanks, Aunt Maria," Rob called back to the cottage as we loaded the last of several large, but not particularly heavy, boxes into the back of the van. "Can't stop! Ed's got to get home to the kids."
"No, I don't," I said under my breath as we climbed into the oven on wheels ourselves.
"You want to stay for cheese and sherry?" replied Rob out of the corner of his mouth, smiling broadly and waving at his aunt. She was standing in the porch, blowing us exuberant kisses.
Thinking back over the events of the previous ten minutes, I decided to let the matter go. Our escape was even accompanied by a slightly unseemly touch of wheel spin.
"I never knew you were part Spanish," I said when we were on our way.
"She married into the family then?"
"Nope," replied Rob, "she's my mum's sister."
I was confused. "Your mum's not Spanish."
"Er," I said. "Then why does your aunt speak with a Spanish accent, wear lots of lace and like to emphasise everything she says with the aid of castanets?"
Rob sucked his teeth. "Good question. It's mostly a hobby. She doesn't do it when she's dealing with patients. We're hoping she'll keep it low profile at the wedding."
"I can see that," I said. "But you let her make the wedding favours?"
"She insisted. They're very big on wedding favours in Spain. If the things weren't up to scratch, she'd apparently never live it down."
"Who with?" I said. "Your other Spanish relatives?"
"And chainsaw guy."
I nodded. "Now that's the wedding I'm looking forward to..."
* * *
It had been a long day. We'd been travelling all over the place, collecting this and checking on that. I was tired and hot and sticky. It was a joyous moment when we entered the grounds of the hotel and neared the completion of our final errand. I was very much looking forward to getting home, getting cleaned up and then sinking into the armchair for a couple of days.
I grinned happily to myself as we turned the last corner. Another three-quarters of an hour and...
"Hey!" yelped Rob as I slammed on the brakes. "Don't stop here. The car-park's over there."
"I..." I couldn't find the words to reply. I was too busy staring. The hotel was old, ramshackle and sprawling and came complete with turrets and gargoyles. I was surprised The Mystery Machine wasn't pulled up outside.
"You OK?" asked Rob.
"Er, yeah," I said and tried to keep quiet beyond that, doing my best to respect his choice of venue.
We unloaded a couple of boxes and headed into reception. A lovely woman wearing a floral dress with gossamer wings directed us to the furthest reaches of the east tower which seemed to have been set aside for storage. I continued to gawp every step of the way. The walls were painted with idyllic woodland scenes populated by mythical beasts. I was surrounded by unicorns and nymphs. I can only describe it as the house the Addams Family would have lived in if they were fond of pastel colours and ornaments adorned with fairies.
"Have Kate's parents seen this place?" I hissed when I was sure pixie-girl couldn't hear us, unable to contain myself any longer.
"We showed them photos," said Rob, fighting his way through some flowery curtains which had been hung across a doorway.
I didn't entirely believe him. "They must have been pretty blurry."
"They were... selective. Once we'd got round to deciding a date, there weren't very many places left at such short notice."
"I'm guessing there was only here."
"There was also a bowls club in Galashiels."
"That might have been cheaper, at least," I muttered.
We found the enormous cupboard we were looking for and dumped the boxes. Not for the first time, I couldn't help noticing they were very light for their size. Rob hadn't really needed me to help carry them - I'd merely been a good excuse to escape afternoon tea with his aunt. "What's in these?" I said, making to remove the tape from the one I'd been carrying.
"You don't want to know," said Rob, attempting to stop me.
I was too quick for him. "I'm going to find out in a couple of weeks anyway." I ripped off the tape, reached into the box and fished out a wedding favour.
It was more knitted than I was expecting. It took me a moment to work out what it was.
"Toilet roll covers?" I said, raising an eyebrow. "You're handing out toilet roll covers?"
I rummaged around in the box. It was full of toilet rolls sheathed in sparkly woollen wrappers. Each one had a little plastic bride and groom sewn to the top.
"Why didn't she just leave the covers empty?" I said. "The whole lot could have fitted in one box and saved us a journey. Couldn't people add their own toilet paper?"
Rob gave a despairing shrug. "It's all sewn in. People aren't actually supposed to use the loo roll. It would be bad luck for me and Kate."
"They're supposed to sit this up a corner of their bathroom for all eternity to ward off a divorce?"
"Yep," said Rob and then noticed my other eyebrow raise. "You're going to use yours and then give it to the kids to wear as a hat, aren't you?"
"I couldn't possibly comment," I said, setting off for another box.
* * *
We delivered the van back to the rental place and walked to the end of the street, where our ways parted.
"Fancy that pint?" said Rob, lingering on the corner.
I shook my head. "Got to get back for some quality time with the Xbox," I said.
"OK, then. Suppose I'll have to go write place cards. Think of me while you're shooting zombies." He reluctantly turned to leave.
I put out my hand to stop him. "Are you sure about all this?" I said.
"What? The fairies and the toilet roll? No, not really. Wish we could have had sandwiches at the Millennium Centre like you suggested. Too late now, though."
I looked him in the eye. "I meant about getting married."
He did a double-take. "You're the one that's been telling me it's a good idea for, like, half a decade - that it's just accepting reality and that I won't notice the difference."
"That's not entirely what I said. I said it won't make any real difference to your everyday lives apart from that you'll be able to refer to Kate as 'the wife'."
"I do that already," he chuckled.
"I meant without the ironic smirk."
"Oh..." he said and paused. He was still puzzled. "But if that's the only change, then why talk me into it?"
"To get you to the point where I could ask if you're sure."
He blinked. "That's cold."
"Not really." He knew what I was getting at - we'd talked about the issue before. You see, he hadn't necessarily imagined it as a long-term thing when he and Kate had moved in together. Even when they'd gone on to buy a place between them, he hadn't seen it as settling down. More than that, parenthood had been a surprise. He had plenty of commitments but he hadn't really signed for them all. If he didn't fully accept them, things were bound to go badly eventually. I didn't want him to wake up in ten years time, suddenly panicked that he might be getting tied down, and go running off to Jamaica with the postman, leaving Kate with three kids and a mortgage.
"So..." I said. "Are you sure?"
He thought about it, his head bobbing from side to side a bit as he did so. Then he did a strange combination of nod and shrug. "Yeah," he said, genuinely meaning it.
"Drat," I said, sighing. "Guess I'll have to write my speech after all."
"What?" he said, wide-eyed. "You haven't written it yet?"
"Have you written yours?" I countered.
"I never said I'd written mine."
"Well I never said I'd written mine."
"Yes, you did," he said, his voice rising.
I shook my head. "No, I didn't."
"Yes, you did..."
We continued arguing as we proceeded along the street. Somehow we ended up in a pub. We discussed things over a pint or two...
Boy, did we get into trouble when I took him home.
I'm getting two toilet roll covers as a special punishment...
Yours in a woman's world,