Was It Destiny?

Thirty years ago we promised that if life took us in separate directions, we would meet at this place, the corner of Trafalgar Square in London if destiny had not joined us in the meantime, and I can tell you it had not.

Still, I am drawn by agreements, pacts or call them what you will so on the date and hour agreed I took my woman of the moment, Katherine, to the spot where we would have met if life was less chaotic.

It was an interesting tale, as Katherine told me, and would have remained so if, out of the corner of my eye, I had not spied a lady in a wheelchair, grey haired and slightly plump but somehow as I remembered her: is not that always so?

I paused in mid-speech and, leaving my date on her own, walked over to that sedentary person and said; “Samantha” and she turned her head to me and said “Yes.” In those eyes was the angel I loved before I discovered complexity, and the memory of my first kiss! 

I walked back to my bewildered partner and said brusquely, “Let me get you home, I have business here” and I almost pushed her towards the taxi-rank and gave her address to the driver at the head of the queue. We are not always kind or mindful or faithful towards another’s feelings, I am not anyway, and I failed on that day to be civilised, but Samantha was my centre and imperative, and to leave her now could not be embraced: that’s how I felt anyway!

At the time we parted, I loved her as only the young can do, but she was engaged to a man who was shaped to be a hero and served as a pilot in the RAF; a sportsman to boot, and I had nothing to offer her apart from those “insights” writers trade for drinks. 

When young, she was in a place where “Insights” have little value, but somehow she loved me despite all that. She called me “Unemployable” and so I was: an “adventurer without budget,” but her beauty, inside and out, made me want to be a normal man, and so I became a journalist with a daily paper but by then she was gone: transported off to another space in the arms of her hero who, I now learned, had died in a motor accident which also left her paralysed.

Here she was, and here I was, almost by coincidence: I as a matter of sentiment, and she because she wanted to connect with her past I presume, but did that matter in the end?

Looking at her, still with elements of that beauty I remembered, I raised her hand to my lips and dreamt that we were both young again and brought together by destiny. 

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One For The Road

“Was he my hero,” I ask myself, this man who’d walked another path than mine; climbed mountains I would never see but whose eyes lit up with understanding when I talked. You do not have to be young to be lost, and living on the edges of approval was a fate we  both shared. I was twenty four and he “just over eighty” as he’d said for several years.

He was difficult by all accounts, and refusing to be wrapped in his obituary: we shared a horror of the commonplace as seen from Chaos Road. His morals were doubtful, career had been patchy, but he was exuberant in person and a celebrator of the smallest event.

He was there by force of circumstances and I, because I lacked direction, but our bond was to “Grab the moment and let the morrow damn you if it can. “

“Drink and smoke forever, and dance till your legs betray you, and never let the buggers see you beg for a reprieve.” Such was his advice to me, barely comprehensible, but his defiance of the fates was born on every breath. His eyes were full of mischief and his hands were never disciplined but he still knew the urgency of wanting “a good night out.” His mind was free to travel, his memories were infinite and in our wish to be “free of it,” we shared a common bond.

“Take me away with you. Let me see the moors once more, sit in a bar and share a smoke with friends” he pleaded, and so one night I stole him from his old peoples home, sneaking out during a shift change, and climbed into my wreck of a car, “Nearly as old as me” he said, smiling at the thought.

For one night only, we sat and smoked and drank where no one would know us, as if we’d discovered home. I was not and never have been, “Romantically gifted” but he told me, “If you find a woman who’ll love you, discover her every day. Eighteen or eighty, or somewhere in between, will not matter in the slightest. Their eyes will be the pool in which you swim and their happiness the point of every day,” and as he said it, I felt him shut down for a moment.

His Annie was seventy-two when she died, he told me, and chided him each and every day for all that she celebrated him, and in the central well of values he loved her without question, and missed her presence always. “She’s a corker ain’t she” he said holding up her photograph, taken on their fiftieth wedding anniversary outside some city pub, and she was smiling up at him and her look was saying, “What will I do with you?” but she’d made an odd man happy which is a hard thing to do.

I got sacked the next day and barred from seeing him because common sense will stand no reckless acts but I will raise a glass to him forever: the bravest man I knew.

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That Lasting Memory

Value her as he did, and love her as he did he could not promise to value her always, and that scrupulous thought forced him to walk away and not look back. That look she gave him then, empty and yet charged, would haunt him all his life, as if he had, with unconscious wantonness, trampled on some sacred ground: her sacred ground.

Before the age of knowledge, when she discovered him walking in his oddness, and smiling at the view it had all seemed so simple and innocent and tender, He, whose life was like some dried and arid plain, a stranger to passing moisture or interest, had wondered at her giving heart, and how she made a prayer of all she did. It seemed a wonder in his life, to be found and loved so openly, but he was young and oddly scrupulous.

He felt he must be understood yet free, and had still to discover that all things have their price, and that life cannot be lived without some compromise. Later, in years ahead, he often looked back and saw her timeless beauty and those haunting eyes imprinted in his memory, staring up the path as they had then and always would, and looking at him across his history in each new circumstance and saying with a simple truth, “You never knew what I gave you” and he never had till now, when love, once more, was like a stranger in his life, and tenderness only touched him in his dreams.

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An Opportunity Too Far

Robin understood everything he needed to know about the state of marriage, or so he thought: for him, being a contented man was a matter of policy. He taught as a lecturer at a minor university and expressed his passion for life through the game of ‘real tennis,’ which is a sport known to very few people and likely to remain so.

With his wife of twenty-two years, Margaret, who worked as a teacher at their local school, he embraced a routine where risk was not invited and so it might have continued if his book, “The Secret Life Of Bores” had not become an unexpected success,granting him a profile on the campus normally reserved for those who studied more glamorous topics like photography or estate planning.

Within the privacy of his home, he bonded with his wife while watching television dramas and eating snacks. Sometimes after dark, once or twice a month, the two might meet at a mutually agreed address somewhere in the middle of the mattress and share their cautious version of intimacy: variations were enjoyed, of course, but from a predetermined menu free of the unexpected.

 After all, “less is more” as some wise man said, but perhaps he had a headache at the time. So it might have continued until fame cast a new light on the previously ignored Robin, offering up opportunities normally reserved for the rash, and a number of primitive anarchists.

Andrea, to whom he was a personal tutor, had read the book in its entirety, and here before her every Wednesday was the man who penned those magic lines. I met her, but only through his eyes and heard her speak, but with his voice, as he told me “She talks about the book as if we have known each other always” and other verbal celebrations normally voiced by the misguided. Robin was a predictable man, and surely that would protect him, or maybe not?

One day, I understand, as he sat in his room, Andrea walked in for her private seminar wearing a long coat. Her eyes were full of appetite and without a word she let the coat fall to the floor revealing that otherwise she was undressed, before advancing on the shocked, or possibly entranced, object of her admiration!

She moved to touch him as if he were a Stradivarius, valued only by the cognoscenti. As his resolve was challenged and will crumbled, he offered up a desperate commentary. “Is euphoria the path to ruin?”  Andrea failed to reply !

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Frank Caplan

At the age of nineteen I had a temporary and precarious job as a backroom assistant in a bakery shop. In between heaving trays of bread I allowed myself to dream, and to aid that process, I used to scan the local paper for jobs while eating lunch. At last I spotted an ‘opening’ for, and I quote, “Office Boy and Would Be Executive,” in the jobs section of the local paper. There was a number on the bottom of the advertisement rather than an address, a deliberate ploy I later discovered, so I rang the number and a cheery confident voice answered in a rich south-London accent, “Frank Kaplan, What can I do you for?” he said.  I admit I was ‘thrown’ but determined to continue, the alternative being working as a shop assistant ‘till the end of my days,’ so I said I was ringing in answer to the advertisement. “Ave you got any experience in any office of any kind?” he said, possibly put off by my young sounding voice. “No, I said.” “How old are you?” he asked and I told him I was nineteen.

“Come tomorrow at 10.30 and we’ll have a chat” said Mr Kaplan. “I’ll see if I can get away from the shop” I said. “No probs” he replied. “Either you turn up for the interview at 10.30 tomorrow morning, or you haven’t got the job. That’s how it works round here.” That was my first introduction to Frank Kaplan, and to say he was an original character is to stretch the word ‘original’ to bursting point. Still, it is the only one I can think of.

The job interview was memorable: I was decently scrubbed up and suited. I felt I had to grab at any chance I was offered; Stacking bread in the back- room of a bakery was not on my pathway to dreams. “Come in, come in” said Frank, a fat cheery man whose trilby hat was visible on a chair near his desk. “So what makes you think you’d be any good at any job” the opening question, to which I desperately replied, “Well, I think I’d certainly be quite good anyway”. There was a pause, the fat guy started laughing. He shook around a fair bit in his chair, and then began a series of wheezes and gasps meant, I presume, to indicate the later stages of laughing hysteria.

I sat as impassively as I could through his whole performance, which ended with him looking at my CV, obviously lacking in both content and detail. “It’s the way they walk Stanley. The way they walk. Tell’s you all you want to know.” He explained to me later on when I asked him why he took me on, “But what about their competencies?” I might ask, and he would reply “Stuff that. You can always learn to be competent, but character is character, and that’s what I look for in a man. I’ll find the opportunities, you tidy up after me and we’ll get along just fine”. “Have I got the job then I asked nervously”. “Course you got the bloody job. Start now. “

“But what about the bakery?” I asked. “ Who gives a toss about the bakery,” he said “ I need you here” I looked at him and I thought to myself, I’ve only been there a couple of weeks and here’s a permanent job of sorts and a bit of excitement so I’d better grab it. “Okay” I said, “I shall start straight away”. “That’s what I mean” said Frank. “Character: you’ve got spades of the stuff. You just don’t know it yet” What he meant by “Character” was not yet clear and the definition of what constituted “good character” was to become an ongoing topic, made more interesting as his unusual approach to life became apparent.

He was a great respecter of the marriage state as long as,  “it did not cramp his style.” He believed firmly in the payment of taxes, but not by himself, and thought  “The Truth” was a horror novel written by some disturbed Hollywood mogul. In short he introduced me to a view of life which would have astonished my mother. A ducker and diver to his very marrow, Frank Kaplan thought honour was the fall back position of the foolish and, and in our short time together he tried to show me that “There is another way Stanley. Another way me old sport”

It was a vigorously developed philosophy explained to me before representatives of Her Majesty’s police force walked in and interrupted our Monday morning conversation. His final parting words to me, “At least I’ll see my pals again.” Good old Frank. He had friends everywhere, or so he said.

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For The Love Of Dreams

She dreamed of a life where commissioners opened doors in hotels so she could travel to a penthouse suite far above real life. Once ensconced, she would feed on canapes and sip from something cool and refined, not always alcohol, while reflecting on the disordered world below.

She inherited her beauty from her mother, a courtesan of note, who visited her infrequently and was rumoured to enjoy minor-royal connections. She spent her childhood with a relative of sorts, who warned her regularly that giving into appetites would lead her down her parent’s ruinous path. Her father, apparently well-connected though nothing could be proved, stayed in her mother’s life for the length of an assignation, leaving his daughter with some features but no parental care.

I met her on a train as she journeyed to the university sited in my town and then my life. I was chaste in my courtship and caring in my manner, I like to think, and for a time that seemed enough for her. She sought kindness and a tolerance for dreams, and I offered her that with open heart. I was slightly older than her by thirteen years, and safely wrapped in a dead-end job, but in those early days that seemed of little consequence.

She did not live with me but “In halls:” a posh way of describing university lodgings. For a term we met frequently and I was pleased to show her the city she now called home. We dined out on fish and chips and talked of adventure over polystyrene cups but she seemed happy and trusting which, I think, was new to her. I was happy, soundly so, and towards the end of her first term she stayed with me and in my arms: I cannot forget.

In the morning I fed her egg and toast and she sat in bed, the picture of a contented girl, drinking coffee from a mug and balancing my tray upon her knees. To make the one you love content is a great prize I discovered, and I dreamed it would be my mine to treasure for all eternity.

At term’s end she was to set off by train again, and I saw her on her way, holding her bag. When we arrived at the station there was a man or boy there, depending on your viewpoint, who “Just happened to be going in the same direction as her, and would she like to travel to her home by car?”

She looked uneasy to be fair, and glanced at me requesting my approval. I, innocent by discipline, agreed of course, because we trust in those we love: there can be no other way.

You will not be surprised to know that journey took her away from me indefinitely. Blessed by the looks her mother gave her, and gulled by the fortune the young man enjoyed, she drove past her home to a hotel somewhere in London, where a commissioner opened the door to the lift so she could travel to the suite she dreamt was hers by right while surrendering to her paramour. She sent me the letter demanded by good manners, in which she explained that she would love me always but could not live in suburbia and I offered nothing more.

It is not polite to be unduly bitter so I settled for sadness and lived with it indefinitely. Twenty years later, to channel my regrets, I wrote her story in a book and some kind publisher issued my tale under the title “Breakfast With Honor” because Honor was her name. For reasons no one can explain, the book achieved a level of success which placed me in a bookshop in London signing copies for a straggle of customers as they passed by my desk.

She was older now, of course, but to my eyes the same: married she said, but not currently, and mother to a daughter. She said she would wait for me by the door and, as she walked away, I asked myself. “Can you have the same dream twice?” Time will provide the answer.              

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Memory Lane

Her dad is eighty eight,  not in the best of health: there is no choice: he must go to a home. The daughter is worried but her day is filled with work and battling through the grind of middle age. She has her own family now: they must come first. It is the new order where the old are  children once again, with little to hold onto but memories and a cup of tea. Life must rush by, that’s all we understand. We cannot let our problems hold us back. 

 This is all she needs , but somehow she must find the time to  settle his affairs. Her father has no power now; lives as  a guest in his own life, smiling at a world he no longer  influences or understands: most of those who loved him are long gone. He used to dance, he tells the nurse as she settles him into  bed. She smiles kindly in a busy way: pleasant but unmoved: she’s heard it all before. These old boys do go on. She turns away and moves towards the door.

The daughter walks into the house he called his home, not where she grew up but still with  objects she knows well. That crazy plastic parrot sitting on a branch; the cupboard filled with china from God knows when. The photographs of course, she always looks at those. Here they are , she with her mum and dad. Sitting on the beach, she eating her ice cream: he always wore a hat regardless of the place. She smiles at last and looks around the room. Just by the door his old desk sits. What is in there”?   She  opens a drawer and peers at what’s inside. She sees a pile of letters, yellow now with age, and tied with some old ribbon, red and  frayed. Not really knowing why she picks them up and takes a letter from the pile. It’s dated 1942 while he was on the front. Fighting for his country somewhere far away. He’s never talked about it . She removes the letter from the envelope and reads.

“Dear Elspeth,

It’s bloody hot out here. We’re on the move tomorrow. Some big push. That’s all I know. God knows what will happen,  but if I don’t make it through always know how much I loved you. It made me proud to have you in my life, and your photograph is always with me.  Be happy and, if I don’t get back, just get on with it as you always do. Somewhere up there will be a star. It’s me twinkling and smiling down on you.

All my special love, Harold xxx”.h

His daughter felt her eyelids fill with tears. Her Dad. He always made the time for others, not himself. Without knowing why she climbed into her car and went to see him driving in a haze. Entering the room she sees him lying there. Propped up in bed and patient with his lot. Sitting down she moves to hold his hand. “I love you dad. I’ve loved you all my life”. “I know you silly fool. ” he says and smiles.

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A Moment Of Indecision

The clock beside me said 6:23am: digital and with unmoving hands, but still the weight of the day bore down upon me. At 2pm today I would become a married man and what was rising through me was raw unprocessed panic: the knowledge I was on the edge of a terrible catastrophe!

I’d had doubts, of course, those are normal, but suddenly I realised I was walking into a form of prison where personality is not allowed to express itself and only general patterns of behaviour are permitted. Did I want to be that conventional!?

My family loved her, my parents loved her, my friends were impressed that I had “tagged” someone so presentable and sensible but now, at this “late hour” I realised I had been herded to a pasture called “Common-sense” and I could not bear the prospect. I loved her, of course, and that gentle way she dealt with failings, of which I have many, but her kindness was suffocating me, and the idea of being trapped in this union seemed unbearable.

As the rest of my family slept in the house around me, I packed a bag and crept down stairs. Using my key I opened and closed the front door as quietly as I could and then hurried away up the street before anyone could see me.

I had no plans, panic seldom does, but escaping was all I could think of and I would explain myself to the world another day. At this early hour the tube station was not open so I just kept walking towards the next one and then the next, worried that someone from my area would recognise me and ask me what I was doing: that did not happen.

At last, at 7am, the stations opened and I planned to go to Euston but first I travelled on the circle line going round and round while wondering about my life. I had no strategy except possibly going to Manchester, where I had been a student and whose streets were full of memories, adventures and those trysts which remind us we were not always domesticated.

Calmer now, I began to think a bit about what I had done, and some confusion ran through me because, I must admit, I am not an easy man as you may have realised, but Sarah had that patience which can bring peace to any soul. What she saw in me I cannot say? While thinking this fear flowed through me, but from the other side: was I wrong?

Perhaps she was the one girl who could tame my chaos and help me make something of my life, but now it was too late: my absence would have been noted and people would be trying to reach me. Needless to say, I had turned my phone off so no one could trace me: how would I explain myself?

To try and settle my nerves I did what all wise men do; left the underground, entered a pub and bought myself a drink to calm my nerves: I needed to do some ordered sensible thinking. The fates are not always kind, and sometimes seem downright unpleasant so as I raised my second double whisky to my lips I heard a song I love come from the speakers, “If you leave me now,” by Chicago. It was one of my dad’s favourites and he used to play it and swing my mother round the kitchen to its melody: she’s passed on now and he’s married someone else but those memories always linger don’t they?

At last, as far away from common sense as you can travel in a lifetime, I returned to the underground to complete my journey: the time was 11:03. I was full of indecision and regret and uncertainty and almost any kind of “Un” you can imagine, but I was too embarrassed to go back: Sarah would never forgive me, and perhaps the news had already got through to her.

I arrived at Euston station at around 11:20 and walked towards the departure boards, as ruined by his own stupidity as any man can be . As I did so, I heard a voice I recognised call out my name: it was my step-mother’s elder brother, doubtless on the way to the wedding and not one of my favourite people. “Steven” he called. “What the hell are you doing here. You are getting married in two hours!?”

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Life Without Regard

My grandmother, I remember, draped a fur around her shoulders long after they ceased to be fashionable, even when reclining on the sofa in her home. She delighted in making statements such as, “I have offered up my life to scotch and cigarettes, I have given both those brave substances licence to kill me yet both have failed to do so.”

At the time she said this I was twenty three and my grandmother seventy-five, and an embarrassment to her relatives and all those who sought to live a  moral, prayer filled life including the tired solicitor who managed the trust fund which gloriously removed her from the need to worry about everyday concerns. She was my heroine, and as soon as I was old enough to hear, she would regale me with tales of what she called “elegant debauchery” which meant, I think, that whatever the company or its state of undress, there was always a man servant to pour the wine.

“Let them at least see what they cannot enjoy” she might say as she emptied another portion of her grandfather’s fortune down her throat. My mother, her daughter, hated her of course, and clung to more orthodox versions of sanity, but she could not avoid her mother’s company as, it had been made clear,that to absent herself from her mother’s daily life was to lose all access to her unregarded wealth.

My grandmother told me candidly that my mother was a disappointment and she looked to me to maintain the family honour and reputation for excess. “Learn about wine and the beauty of a woman,” she told me. “Let nature speak to you, and music fill your soul and then write of your experiences: that is your destiny.” My father was long dead, rescued from a life he had come to find unbearable by, well, death itself I suppose. Grandmother was armed with nuances of every colour and variety and delighted in disturbing those she thought unworthy of entering her salon. “Bores darling. Unutterable bores who measure everything and understand so very little.” Thus was the vast majority of mankind exiled from her regard. She drawled the word “Very” in such a manner it sounded almost like the gurgling of the toilet emptying commonly held values into some mysterious waste system.

Even the best of us, may find weariness curbs our ability to express our inner being, but for some reason, “Fatigue” itself seemed as reluctant to enjoy my grandmother’s company as were morals or any sense of social propriety: to my young heart she was an inspiration and a pleasure seeker “Extraordinaire,” dressed in period costume.

Her daughter had been raised to despise any manifestation of professional activity but, regardless, recoiled from the well-heeled debauchery so prized by her mother. After my father died my mother avoided any further connection with the opposite sex having, I suspect, spent the last of her optimism on that brief romance.

Events of course, may take an unexpected turn as I was to find out one afternoon when I entered the house at the precise moment my mother pushed my grandmother down the stairs, exhausted in all probability by the unending wait for her mother to do the decent thing and expire in the customary manner.

I don’t think it was loyalty; more a question of style really, but I kept that little secret in the family and, after a cursory inspection, the police left us to it and a funeral was arranged. The church, which opened its doors for reasons which escape us all, was packed to the alter with every kind of lounge lizard, artist and a general body of people recognised by my grandmother as breathing with style if not purpose. The vicar, may his god bless him, scrapped a few facts from my grandmother’s life in order to construct a eulogy, and after a service of no great length we all repaired to the Hall and a wake which unfolded without reference to manners or decency.

The next day, the loyal solicitor arrived at the Hall to read the will. My mother was disinherited without comment, and the hall and trust fund were passed to me in their entirety on the understanding that I did not tarnish the family name with respectability. Without comment I moved my quarters to the ground floor and my mother to a local B&B. After all, no one can be unhappy with the prospect of a cooked breakfast in their life can they!?

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Wedding Of The Century

I was best man at my oldest friends wedding recently. I calmed him as we stood in church waiting for his beautiful bride to make her appearance. The waiting lasted forever, you know how it is, but at last she appeared, stunning to a fault, and the church organ burst into life with the enthusiasm customarily displayed on such occasions.

It must be added, at this point , that she and I had been lovers for some months before this happy date but we had decided that silence was the kinder alternative to breaking my old chums heart, especially given the size of his trust fund and the fact that both her and my circumstances were significantly more modest in comparison. It had been the custom for years that he pay for holidays, so he could benefit from my social skills and I could share an experience I would otherwise not be able to enjoy, and it was on a trip to St Lucia that the warm bond between the three of us was deepened by an unexpected development.

Carletta, that was her name, and I had not always “clicked,” as it were, but over time, we had warmed to each other  to the point where, when he asked me to look after her for a couple of days when he sprained his ankle, both of us saw this opportunity to deepen our friendship as a gift from heaven, or possibly not from heaven, depending on your moral standpoint.

Like me, her finances did not run to exotic holidays, meals at expensive restaurants or those little items of jewellery with which he often demonstrated his love for her. ” He is the boring  yes no yes” suggested Carletta in her delightful accent, and I tended to agree with her, “But he has a lovely heart and is both loyal and generous” I suggested and she nodded in agreement while rubbing her engagement ring with the middle finger of her right hand. A touching gesture, I thought, made a little incongruous possibly,  by the fact we were both lying semi-naked, having just concluded what I considered to be an enjoyable episode of horizontal gymnastics.

Such was her fervour for me at that moment, that she suggested dumping my dearest friend and gambolling her whole future on my unimpressive career.  She soon saw the sense when I advised caution and so she suggested that a couple of years wedded bliss, with me near her to take the edge of the tedium, followed by a divorce citing “mental cruelty” where I could be a reluctant witness in her favour, might secure our finances, rather than just giving into our romantic instincts and walking off into the sunset and almost certain penury.

I do have a conscience, of course. Who doesn’t ? But while I allow it to comment on my actions I do not offer it a management role and pretty much do as I like.  Nevertheless, I was determined to make the adjustment as painless for him as possible. Carletta and I agreed that, after the wedding night, bedroom Pilates should be kept to a minimum making him more susceptible to the deep-thinking and tender hearted beauties I was determined to place in his company during our customary ” Lad’s night out.”

As the ceremony progressed, things took an unexpected turn when the vicar raised his head to address the congregation and asked, ” Can any man show just cause why these two people may not be lawfully joined together .” There was the customary silence before the groom piped up, “The bride is having sex with my best man.” Silence returned for another half-second or two before pandemonium broke out among the congregation and my best friend planted a decent right hook on the side of my head.

There was no reception.

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