I’m teaching online in December (yay, money!) and will be spending most of my computer time at work, but I don’t want another long posting gap if I can possibly help it.
So here is the first part of a stand-alone HMC short fic, previously unseen by human eyeballs, which I’ll update weekly as the month goes on.
As you might guess from the title, there are massive HMC book-ending spoilers.
Hope you enjoy it!
On the eve of committing matrimony (a week or two before, actually, but “eve” sounded much the more dramatic, which, as he had stolen the phrase from a play to begin with, made perfect sense), Howell Jenkins decided to take a bold step and invite his sister Megan and her family to the wedding.
So bold was this step, so terrifying the prospect, that he could bear to think of it only conditionally, as a series of assumptions:
— That Martha Hatter, who was complaining of writers’ cramp after painstakingly lettering and ornamenting several hundred invitations, would be willing to make one more;
— That Ben Sullivan, who knew his way around that land of strange sights and things invisible to see (from Ingary, anyway)—namely Wales—would not mind making a quick jaunt back there to help Howell’s rellies get safely to the wedding, seeing as how Howell was bound to be too busy on the big day to go there himself;
— That said rellies would not be struck unconscious —or, God forbid, dead—when they saw where Howell really lived and what he did for work;
— That Fanny Hatter-Smith, who had planned this wedding down to the last seed pearl and satin rosebud, would not make an issue of the rellies’ funny way of dressing, which was bound to end in an uproar;
— That Sophie would not utter some pleasantry to Megan that barely concealed a withering insult (much as he secretly hoped Sophie would do that very thing), which also was bound to end in an uproar;
— That Calcifer in his enthusiasm would not set fire to the arbor, the bunting, and the tablecloths, which would be devastating for everyone;
— That Megan and Gareth might simply refuse to show, which would be devastating for Howell himself;
— That (if they did show) neither Gareth nor Neil would make any embarrassing noises of an involuntary digestive nature, particularly at the high points of the ceremony;
— That—and this was his greatest, darkest, most terrifying fear of all—
— That Sophie would not think better of the entire thing (as would any sensible girl) and leave him at the altar, high and dry.
He had changed his clothes before he was even through the portal into the Swansea city centre, this time into a tailored white shirt and black trousers, with a dark blue jacket slung over one shoulder. Once, in a fit of adolescent defiance, he had vowed never again to submit to the noose of a necktie, and he was not wearing one now. He hoped, however, that he’d done enough to impress Megan with a neater, more businesslike appearance than his old rugby
jacket and dungarees track-suit afforded. He had pulled back his hair and tied it; as it was going to be black for the wedding, he hoped that Megan, like Mrs. Pentstemmon, would find it a more respectable colour than bottle blonde. As for his earring—
(Here, as the bus clattered up the long hill, he couldn’t help a sly smile at his sister’s expense. He’d got the ear piercing done back in his college days, a move intended to outrage Megan—which it had, most delightfully. He’d got the tattoo—a small but exquisite Welsh red dragon—at about the same time. This, sadly, was not for his sister’s benefit, as it was proudly ornamenting a part of him that Megan hadn’t seen since he was six years old. But never mind. Would Sophie like it? That was all that mattered. At the thought of her blushing and going all over coy at the sight of it, he smiled happily. Alternatively, at the thought of her yawping “What-in-the-name-of-wonder-Howell-Jenkins-have-you-done-to-yourself?” he grinned with delight. Old Sophie and Young Sophie were in a constant state of adjustment these days, and Howell didn’t know just which, or what combination, was going to turn out to be the real Sophie. He only knew he could not wait to spend the rest of their life together finding out.)
—his earring was a plain diamond stud, elegant but unobtrusive. Still an earring and all, but nowhere near as flashy as the ruby-and-emerald drop number he’d been wearing at Christmas.
Just as at Christmas, he found the Parrys on their way out the front door. From their Sunday rags and from the Bible Megan was carrying—not Doctor William Morgan’s Beibl i Cymru, but some English version or other—Howell guessed that religion was the au courant remedy the Parrys were trying in order to fix the family dysfunction. For, although it was long past Pasg, with months to go until Nadolig, clearly they were on their way to church.
He had not been back home to Wales since the day–only a few weeks ago, though it seemed an aeon—he came bursting out of Ingary into Megan’s back garden on the heels of the Witch, who, unfazed by his sister’s screeches, was attempting to do God-knew-what to Mari and Neil.
Seeing them again, seeing their painstakingly incurious demeanor at his return, Howell determined that his family had handled the strange business of that day in the same way they handled all other strange business—by pretending it never happened.
“Uncle Howell!” Mari cried, and would have jumped into Howell’s arms had Gareth not been holding her. Megan and Neil and Gareth himself just stood there looking bristly and annoyed.
“Not to worry,” he said. “I’ll be right off. I can’t stay. But I wanted to give you this.”
He drew out the splendid invitation with its gleaming golden seal and Martha’s exquisite calligraphy, in golden ink; between the King and Mrs. Fanny Sacheverell no expense had been spared on this wedding. For a moment he held on to it. Considering all the careful preparations—mainly psychological—he had made for this moment, he felt as great a coward as ever. The secret of his other life—his real life—was about to come out.
Ben Sullivan had reassured him, saying, “I’ll go to Wales. I’ll talk to them on the day. I’ve got your back,” and Howell had known—in his heart, thank you so very much, Sophie Hatter, for returning that precious object to me—that it was true.
So. Go on, then. In for a penny, in for a pound.
Placing the invitation in Megan’s hand, Howell said, “I’m being married on Saturday week. You are my family, and if you wish to come—if you decide to come—you will be welcome.”
The ensuing pregnantly gobsmacked silence lasted so long he was about to give it up and turn to leave.
“Uncle Howell?” Mari’s sweet voice broke the tension. “Are you going to marry Sophie?”
With that, all uncertainty and anxiety dropped away. He grinned from ear to ear, happy and relieved and suddenly bursting with pride. “Yes, cariad,” he said. “I’m going to marry Sophie.”
“Is she well now, Uncle Howell? Because she was sick when you brought her here before.”
“Oh, yes. She’s well now.”
Megan, meanwhile, had broken the golden seal and withdrawn from its envelope the invitation, upon which was written, in Martha’s gorgeous hand:
at the marriage
of Miss Sophie Hatter,
of Market Chipping,
to Mr. Howell Jenkins,
to be solemnized
Saturday, 2 August,
at two o’clock in the afternoon,
on the grounds of
the Sacheverell Smith Estate,
A banquet and dance
is to follow.
Megan read it, turned it over, inspected the back as though looking for proof it wasn’t some criminal forgery, then read it again, raising one quizzical eyebrow. Great gods, he’d never known she could do that.
Gareth murmured, “Meg, we’re late. Going to get there just in time for the sermon, miss all the singing if we don’t—”
Megan ignored him. “This Vale’s End,” she said with a piercing glance at Howell. “I never heard of it. Where is it?”
“I think it’s over in Wiltshire,” Neil said helpfully.
“No, no,” Mari said. “It’s over the rainbow.”
“AA motoring guide’ll sort it out,” Gareth said. “Come on, Meg, let’s—”
“It’s Howell I’m speaking to,” Megan said, “and none of you.”
“It’s rather a long way from here, actually,” Howell said. That heavy sense of dread he always got from being in Megan’s presence was beginning to descend.
“I’m sure it is,” Megan said dismissively, passing the invitation to Gareth, who studied it with a beetle-browed frown before passing it back to his wife.
“I thought,” Howell began hopelessly, “I mean, I supposed that, had you wanted to come, you’d need some help in getting there. It’s rather complicated, you see. But a colleague of mine—”
Colleague! A splendid word, connoting not merely paying work, but paying work of a professionally important sort. It made a distinct impression on the Parrys, who at once became slightly less disinterested.
“Nice fellow, from Monmouthshire, not far from Caerleon,” Howell said. “You’ll like him. Name’s Ben Sullivan. I’d come for you myself, but I will be a bit busy that day. Ben offered to take you there, show you around before the wedding starts. Should you decide to come, of course.”
“Ben Sullivan,” Megan repeated.
“Mam, please can we go?” Mari said eagerly.
Megan straightened, folded her arms, and fixing her steeliest I-dare-you-Howell-I-double-dog-dare-you glare on her younger brother said, “Yes. We’ll go. And this had better not be another one of your pranks, Howell.”
“Excellent! Ben will call for you at noon on Saturday, second August,” Howell said. And he turned and walked out of the Parrys’ front garden and off down the road into the warmth, sunshine, and sea-laden breeze of a fine Welsh summer afternoon.