Spinning straw from gold / by Alex Williamson

It wasn’t that he hated weddings. He just objected to their ubiquity. Their tyrannical hold over one’s social life and financial well-being. The inescapable stag dos and hen dos, and the banter and bad behaviour, the drinking and drug-taking and debauchery everyone pretended didn’t happen but which were as transparent and obvious as a lapdancer’s décolletage. The notion that selfhood could only be defined through the narrative of normative matrimonial bliss. The moment at the altar which one’s early life supposedly built towards, piously intoning vows and mumbling hymns which bore no relation to the agnostic and amoral married life which frequently followed. The grotesque self-indulgence. The wealth signalling. The unbridled narcissism. The latent sexism. The awful photography.

And now another friend was getting married. This time an former work colleague, who was finally settling down to a life of respectability with his French girlfriend. They were to be married in France, just outside of Montjean-sur-Loire, in west Brittany, where the bride spent her childhood and her extended family lived still. Their relationship began as a classic meet-cute. His friend, spotting the woman who was to become his future wife across a crowded restaurant, became instantly smitten, and not being the overly self-conscious type, he sent a waiter over with a scribbled note, written in French, asking for her mobile number. They started dating and soon became inseparable, and very much in love, a reminder that even in an age characterised by algorithmic dating apps and nauseating #swipelife, romance wasn’t entirely dead. At least, not yet.

Despite his scepticism about the mechanics of matrimony, he was delighted to hear the news and wished them well. The wedding was scheduled for early summer, by which time France had been in the grip of a severe heatwave for several weeks. Cruising over the northern departments, he was surprised to see the verdant Breton pastures looking parched and yellowed as one of Van Gogh’s wheat fields. Mature trees bent like saplings as winds gusted in from the north, rippling the surface of the River Loire and harassed the plane on its final approach to Nantes airport. As the fuselage juddered and the plane pitched and rolled, prompting him to grasp tightly the arm of his airline seat, it occurred to him that bringing the children might have been a mistake.

They certainly weren’t supposed to be there. When he received his invitation, he had asked his friend’s fiance, who was organising the wedding, if they might be able to bring their two boys, with the idea that they could remain in France for a family holiday afterwards. His friend’s fiance, possibly being too polite to say non, had agreed, while no doubt while pondering why anyone remotely interested in having fun would willingly bring children to a wedding, particularly one intended for grown-ups, sophisticated, well-heeled and gainfully-employed grown-ups, and it was only later that he realised his request was precisely sort of unthinking, entitled behaviour that parents of young children display in certain situations, precisely the sort of unthinking, entitled behaviour he had, up to that point, always tried to avoid.

Children had no business being at weddings. They bounced around them like loosened balloons, knocking over champagne flutes and tripping up waiters. They were noisy and inconsiderate, and could always be relied upon to throw a tantrum at some point, usually during the ceremony, or to be openly rude to the bride or groom, or foul themselves at the least appropriate moment, often during the wedding breakfast. He’d lost count of the number of times a preschooler flower girl had upended upended her basket of confetti before the bridal march had even begun. Even at his own wedding, his eldest son, then only a few months old, had been as good as gold in the morning, but by lunchtime was refusing to play ball, and had to be breastfed by his wife in a private dining room, while he ate lunch at a table with his parents and in laws, inwardly-screaming at being on his own.

One of his earliest memories was being taken by his parents to their friends’ wedding, two bohemian teachers who kept goats and liked to sunbathe in the nude. Getting to the wedding had been fraught, as his father had been working and his mother seemed to take an inordinately long time to get ready. It was also a hot sunny day, traffic was bad, and his father had trouble parking. They arrived at the church just in time to see the bride and groom kiss. At the after party, held in the happy couple’s large garden, he and another little girl were caught stamping on some seedlings behind their greenhouse, and he had a vivid memory of being reprimanded by the furious bride, who was still in her wedding dress.

It wasn’t surprising that his propensity for inappropriate behaviour and poor decision-making had been present from early childhood. He didn’t buck the trend for his friend’s wedding. Not content with inviting his children along, he followed this up with some dubious sartorial choices. Given the debilitating heatwave, he had decided that no one in their right mind would be wear a lounge suit to the wedding, so he had packed a white Oxford shirt and blue chinos to wear. Both had been severely crumpled in transit, each now resembling the surface of the wind-harassed Loire, and the latter, being a cotton and elastene composite, seemed to cut off the circulation to his legs. Shirt and chinos were complemented with a pair of slightly-scuffed white plimsolls. His wife had chosen an elegant yellow dress, and his children had been coaxed into more appropriate attire.

When he arrived he realised he was indeed under-dressed, critically so, with most of the male members of the congregation wearing tailored suits or at the very least shirts which had seen the press of an iron that morning. Some of the guests he knew from his old life in the property world. He’d fallen out of touch with them after he quit his job and burned his bridges. It was possible some had their noses put out of joint at the manner of his departure. He had worked with both the groom and best man, considered them close friends and confidantes, but both were hungrier for success in that world than he was, and both had left to go on to bigger, better things while he remained at the same organisation. Then he had written the letter. Moved to Scotland. Gone to ground.

He and his wife congratulated the bride and groom, and chatted to some of the other guests, the best man and his fiance, a real estate lawyer, whom he had met briefly before, and another former work colleague and his partner, another former colleague who was once an intern at his organisation and now a communications director in the San Francisco, and others he knew either from his old job or via the groom, the property industry diaspora, and while he was very grateful that his former chief executive wasn’t there, which had been his great fear, the thought that had nagged at him in the preceding months and given him a hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach all morning, each introduction of his wife and children, each explanation of what he was doing with his life now, since he had left the industry and left London, became just that little bit more awkward.

Feeling self-conscious, he and his wife took their explore the grounds of the chateau. Within a small grove of beech trees they found a neglected climbing frame with a swing, and a rusted trampoline which was covered in beech husks. His boys played with these cursorily, before losing interest. Several hammocks had been strung between the tree, and one had already been claimed by a softly-snoring middle-aged man. He hauled himself into another hammock and lay there for a while. A tall, lissom French girl ghosted through the grove with a book in her hand, a French relative presumably, one of the bride’s family and friends lining the periphery of the wedding party in Pierre Cardin couture and Chanel sunglasses.

As they walked down to the lake they passed several round hay bales, left behind by the groundskeeper who was threshing in the next field, driving his tractor in circles over the dry ground and stirring up clouds of exhaust and dust. When he attempted to roll one of the bales, shoving with all his weight behind it, trying to show off to his children, he managed to drive a small splinter of dried grass into the palm of his hand. They stood at the lake for a little while, he and his wife watching the boys dipping sticks into the water, making small ripples on the surface. The enduring fascination of children who are unable swim with bodies of water they could easily drown in.

When they returned to the chateau, the wedding ceremony was underway. They took their places on the chairs arranged on the lawn, four seats at the back. The groom and best man stood in the shade of an arbour in a small orchard, in matching sky blue suits. wearing a white summer dress garlanded with wildflowers, the bride approached from the direction of the chateau. Arm in arm with her father. On an acoustic guitar, one of the groom’s musician friends tenderly finger-picked the chords of a familiar song by Neil Young. It was incredibly hot. His legs felt like two softly broiling hot dogs, and his shirt stuck to the sweat on his back. While he was glad not to be wearing a jacket, a jacket would have hidden patches of sweat massing near his sacrum. Glancing at his children, he could see the glare of the sun on their bare arms. They weren’t wearing sunscreen. He hadn’t wanted to ruin their new clothes.

The minister made his pronouncement and the bride and groom kissed. With that the guests began to disperse and return to the chateau for drinks and photographs. Their eldest son asked if he could have one of the white balloons which had been tied to the chairs for the ceremony, and were now bobbing like marker buoys in the warm breeze. His wife untied a balloon from the chair and handed it to her son. This prompted their youngest boy to asked if he could have a balloon. Another balloon was duly untied by his wife. With their balloon trailing behind them, the boys chased each other in circles around the lawn, their blonde heads glinting gold in the sun.

Almost inevitably, his youngest son’s balloon burst a few moments later, pricked by a rose thorn in the ornamental garden as the guests gathered for a photograph. He reached down at the confetti and took a fistful, then dropped it back onto the floor. A little while later, his eldest son’s balloon slipped from his fingers and wafted off over the beech grove, and disappeared from sight, never to be seen again. So another balloon was untied from another chair and presented to him. It floated beside him throughout the dinner of barbecued chicken and dauphinoise potatoes, which his eldest son consumed with ravenous fervour, while his youngest son, always a slow eater, picked over his food like a pathologist. His wife was deep in conversation with another new mother on their table, while he had been seated next to the obligatory obnoxious guy who was drunker than everyone else.

As soon as his plate was cleared, his eldest son asked his mother if he could take his balloon outside. Fine, she replied, but don’t go down to the pool with it. Once the best man had finished his speech, he placed his folded napkin on the table and went outside to see where his son was. Sure enough, he found him down by the natural pool. His son was stood at the edge, lowering his balloon onto the surface, where he had discovered that if his balloon came into contact with one of the small fountains which fed water into the pool, the balloon would whirl round, the gold confetti forming a sort of aureate cyclone, a spinning ring of gold.

A twilight hush had fallen over the grounds of the chateau. Mosquitoes agitated the moist air. From either side of the pool came the rolling croaks of frogs concealed in the reed beds. The muted thrum of music started up behind him. He decided to stay by the pool. His son still couldn’t swim, and he was worried he might fall in. He couldn’t risk leaving him on his own. In the dimming light, it was hard to measure the depth of the murky waters. And given the choice, he’d rather stay there with his son than drag him back to the party to endure a conversation with the obnoxious drunk guy on his table. So instead he watched his son continue his game with the balloon. He knew he wouldn’t be missed.

Presently his eldest son asked if he would like to have a turn, offering the balloon to him. When he ran the balloon under the water, he took care to do it incorrectly, so he could ask his son to show him how to do it properly. Then he tried again, once more getting it wrong. His son chided him. You’re not doing it right. You need to do it like this.

You’re so much better at it than me, he said, as they watched the balloon whirl in the rushing water. He ruffled the boy’s blond hair and put his arm around his small shoulders. We’re spinning straw from gold, said his son, and he realised the boy was referring to Ace Dragon Ltd, the Quentin Blake book they read together on the flight to Nantes. In the book, Blake had reversed the Grimm Brothers’ fable of the Miller’s daughter with a dragon of limited powers, one of which was the ability to spin gold into straw. On the plane, he had been unsure if his eldest son enjoyed the book. It had gained only muted approval. Now it pleased him to know for certain that he had. Spinning straw from gold. The boy was half-right. If anything the reverse was true. They weren’t spinning straw from gold. They were spinning gold from straw. The precious thread of memory.

Another small voice called out in the gloom, and he just about made out the figure of his youngest son running across the lawn towards them, followed by the best man, who was grinning from ear to ear. His youngest son ran around the pool to him, hugging his leg. The best man drew up next to him and smiled for a moment, before exclaiming, in his lightly-drunk Long Island accent, I just had to wipe your son’s ass after he took a shit, and erupted into laughter. He smiled at his friend and apologised. Then then best man reached for his phone and took a photograph of the three of them standing at the edge of the pool, him with his arms around the boys, gathering them close to him as if his life depended on it, although he was simply holding them in position until the picture was taken. He shook his friend’s hand and thanked him, then returned to the party with his children to find their mother.