“Watch out for Grandma. She’s on the Bourbon.”
I squint through the assembled crowd. Somehow it comes as no surprise to see a tiny bow-legged woman energetically twirling a tartan sash over her gray hair. Dressed head to toe in the most vibrant plaid, she’s a sight to behold.
“Oh, that’s… that’s certainly something.” I raise my camera to my eye. “She’ll be up dancing on the tables soon,” I add hopefully.
“Come on,” Sarah murmurs, nudging my arm. I lower the camera. “We need more pics of the actual couple.”
The actual couple are a bride and groom who look the same as every other bride and groom. Happy, joyful and on the constant verge of tears. They even had the audacity to hold it in church — the whole white dress, husband’s name, Pachelbel Canon shtick. No one standing up during the vows, not even as a joke.
I can’t tell if I’m seriously jaded or if this whole marriage thing is a load of baloney.
I’m probably jaded.
I’ve been photographing these weddings for so long and yet somehow only for a few months.
But every wedding has a highlight, and so far today’s has been Grandma.
Some days it’s a gathering of grown adults dressed as elves, with elvish vows and elvish gowns.
Other times, it’s pretty standard, and this wedding is the most standard of all the standards.
I snap photos of the happy couple for duty’s sake. Sarah’s mostly got it covered, so I’m doing my back-up photos without much effort or imagination. My camera may as well be on Automatic. It probably is on Automatic. I’m not sure I’ve bothered to check in the last hour.
When I graduated film school, my expectations were limited. If you wanna teach film, you go to film school; if you wanna make films, you make films and definitely do not go to film school. Somehow this earthly wisdom from film grads aplenty had passed me by, and I joyfully signed myself up for a heap of student debt and not much job opportunity.
Now I’m not making films. I’m taking photos of people who can afford to have weddings. And that’s only at the end of the night, when Sarah says I can cut loose a little. Otherwise, I’m just hauling her cameras around like the world’s greatest gopher.
I mean, don’t get me wrong. I am great at carrying things.
Cameras. Lenses. Colds. Debt. You name it, I can carry it.
But it’s not what I want to do with my life. Wedding photography isn’t the arena I envisaged myself in.
I was never one of those girls who’d mapped out her dream wedding day by the age of five. I have no attachment to the whole institution. I’m just here to do a job, y’know?
On the upside, at least they usually provide a free bar.
Which is where I currently find myself, twisting the camera strap away from my neck.
The party is always much more entertaining than the wedding.
The problem is, I’m not sure what I want to do with my life.
I’ve always liked the idea of candid, covert shots. I’d love to do a documentary. Wildlife is something I’ve grown to enjoy — there’s nothing better than waking up at the crack of dawn to track down some rare creature in the mountains.
Wedding receptions are quite similar. You find the target. You keep silent. And then you snap.
Usually you snap because it’s so goddamn cold or you haven’t eaten in six hours or because the subject isn’t doing anything worth keeping a digital record of.
Otherwise, you can get some pretty nice footage. For my final year project, I hid out and surveyed some wild caribou all by myself. It was pretty special. I’d like to go back to that style of candid filmmaking, where the camera is an eye and not the whole face.
Sarah slumps beside me, wiping sweat from her brow. “They dance fast here.”
“Oh, yeah. There’s nothing like stalking the bride and groom when they’re speed-waltzing with five other couples. None of those photos are legible.”
I laugh. Gal looks shattered. “What are you drinking?”
Sarah looks torn. She glances at her watch. “Too soon. I’ll wait till the party winds down.”
“Oh, come on. We’ve got thousands of photos of the night alone.” I take a sip of my rum and Coke. “Taking a thousand more photos isn’t going to hide the fact that—” I lower my voice to a whisper “—this wedding is totally dull.”
Sarah gives me a stern look. “Kat, you can’t just say things like that. What have I told you? What if someone heard you?”
“I heard her,” the barman says unexpectedly, wiping down the surfaces. For a moment, I tense in my seat. “I agree with her, by the way. This is the part of the evening where everyone’s too drunk to remember, and they don’t really want to remember, either.”
I grin at him. “Exactly. We’ve been on our feet for like eighteen hours—”
“—and everyone’s just gonna have crazy eyes and be squinting like this.” I do an impression of a Picasso portrait. It makes Sarah laugh, which is something, but then she quickly composes herself.
“Am I the only one here with any kind of work ethic?”
“Do you think I’m standing here in a bow tie because it’s my hobby?” the barman asks dryly.
“Do you think I’m sitting here at the bar because it’s my hobby?” I ask Sarah, taking another sip.
Sarah rolls her eyes. “You’re ridiculous.” Then she takes the glass from my hand and downs an impressive gulp. “One for courage,” she explains.
Behind us, the dance floor quietens and the crowd disperses. Sarah raises her camera like a soldier with a shield, awaiting the battle against subpar lighting conditions and a sudden rush of alcohol.
“You’re not gonna help her?” the barman asks, raising an eyebrow.
I shrug. “I work set hours. And, trust me, it’s looong passed those hours.”
Sarah’s not a bad boss. She’s actually pretty cool. But I’d prefer her a lot more if she turned her perfectionism setting down a few notches.
I turn back to the barman. “You must have seen your fair share of weddings,” I remark.
The barman nods. “You see all sorts. This one, though, it’s…”
He grins. “Exactly.”
We watch as the couple take to the floor. They look ecstatic — shy and nervous, but beaming with joy in one another’s arms. My heart pangs. I wonder if I’ll ever find someone who’ll make me feel that way, but it seems like a distant wish when I’ve got student debts and a job I’m so miserable in that I’m currently drinking at the bar to avoid it.
I watch the couple as though they’re movie stars, as though I’m viewing footage from a searingly romantic Old Hollywood movie. The way he smiles at her. The way she dips her head.
I smile grimly at my glass and dip its contents into my mouth.
Sarah prowls the sidelines, a moving shadow at the edge of the dance floor. I feel slightly guilty for leaving her to do all the work, but I am off-duty and Sarah did say I could have a drink. It’s not my fault that this couple thinks every other dance should be their first dance.
Their first dance was to the Macarena. I have the feeling they may have regretted that decision, hence the need for further first dances.
Lights slide around the couple as they embrace, the music some mushy romantic ballad overloaded with synths. I roll my eyes and drain the last of my drink.
“God, what even is that thing they call music?”
The barman smirks. “Royal Element, I believe.”
“What, the boy band?” I scrunch up my nose. “Seriously?”
He laughs. “No accounting for taste.”
“Why would you have your first dance—”
“I believe it’s their fifth now.”
“—to some vacuous pop chart teenybop nonsense that’s a relic from the time it was made. You want something timeless and romantic, not cheesy and dated to its year of production.”
“Huh, you’re really not a fan, are you?” The barman shrugs. “I mean, I thought it was pretty catchy…”
“Yeah, okay, it might be catchy. I don’t know, I haven’t actually heard it because I’m not five, but… As a first dance?” I lean against the bar, gesturing with hands that seem unable to gesture hard enough to convey my emotions. “I mean, I guess these are the same folks who chose the Macarena, so whatever.” I blink up at the barman, who’s wearing a bemused smile, and push my glass toward him. “Can I get another, please?”
“Is that wise?”
“I’ve only had one.”
He sighs. “I’m worried that the more stupid songs they play, the more likely it is you’ll go on a murder spree.”
“They’re murdering my ears,” I say darkly. “It’s only fair.”
“The photographer sends her regards.”
I smile at that, then take my refilled drink happily between my hands.
“My little sister loves them,” he says, as though this absolves him of bad taste.
“Everyone’s little sister loves them.”
“You have a little sister?”
“No. That’s not the point.” I drink deeply, letting the alcohol soothe my senses. “It’s just manufactured trash designed for mass consumption by idiots stupid enough to fall for the marketing. They’re not even that good-looking,” I lie.
My phone buzzes, probably to the relief of the barman who had been more engrossed than usual in his cleaning.
It’s a number I don’t recognize.
I answer it. “Hello?”
The only sound I hear is garbled feedback. I press a finger in my other ear and ask, more loudly, “Hello, who is this?”
We’re in the middle of nowhere so the reception — not just the wedding reception — is crap. Through the distorted speech, I manage to pick out the phrase “invite you” and something that sounds like “emsayem.”
“I’m sorry, I’m not looking to do any surveys today. Bye.”
I hang up, looking puzzled.
“I couldn’t really hear.” I frown. “Do you know what emsayem is?”
“Some kind of Japanese fish paste?”
I tuck my phone back into my pocket, hoping it’s not anything important. I’ve been applying for all sorts of jobs left, right and center. I don’t remember applying for any in a Japanese fish paste factory, though.
The crowd gathered around the couple burst into happy applause. I stick my drink straw into my mouth and sip in one continuous stream, pondering my mysterious phone call.
Sarah arrives beside me, grabbing hold of the bar. “Rum and Coke,” she mutters wildly. “Make it a double. Triple, in fact.” She glances over at me, looking envious of my drink. “It’s so hot down there. I swear to God, if those people don’t stop dancing…”
“Hey,” I tell her soothingly. “We’ve had the Macarena, we’ve had Royal Element. What’s the worst that could happen?”
As the first booms of the Y.M.C.A. begin to play, I grin over at Sarah. She slams down her drink in irritation. “Fuck,” she snaps. “Anything but this one. This one they’re actually doing something worth taking a photo of!”
I watch her head off into the crowd again, camera in hand. I should help her.
With a sigh, I slide off the stool and onto my feet, my head woozy with booze. “I guess it’s not a wedding album if there isn’t a shot of the extended family making ‘Y’ shapes, y’know?” It’s what I try to say. From the strange looks the barman is giving me, I’m not sure it’s what I actually say.
I replay my spoken words in my head: it’s not a wedding if there’s a shot of the family’s extended shapes. Huh.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” the barman asks, his brows furrowed with concern. “That’s a lot of expensive equipment you’re carrying.”
“It’s fine. I’ve used it all before…”
“I didn’t ask if you’d used it.”
I ignore him and steer myself in the direction of the crowd, head thick with my own idiocy. Oh God, maybe this wasn’t the best idea. Everyone’s so cheerful, singing those four letters of the alphabet over and over again. I locate Sarah among the group, embedded and smiling, as she zooms in on the happy faces of everyone around her.
She takes one look at me and shakes her head. “What the hell, Kat?”
Hellcat. It makes me laugh.
“My dad’s coming to pick me up,” I tell her loudly during the chorus. She waves me away with her hand. I undo the straps of the camera bags and pass them over to Sarah. “Look, I just wanna say—”
I don’t know what I want to say, but I don’t have any time to say it because after the song ends, there’s a call for speeches.
I sigh and slink over to the bar, hopping onto the stool like it’s second nature. Beside me stands the sash-twirling grandma, her eyes alight with more than Bourbon.
“Comfortable?” the barman asks me dryly.
“So much more comfortable without so many cameras.” I smile at him, wondering. I didn’t really notice before but he’s quite the looker. I think. I think I think that. I’m not sure if it’s actually me, though, or the drink, so I haul my head back round to the speeches, just to be on the safe side.
“Aren’t you going to join?” I ask Lady Twirl, pointing over to the assembled crowd listening to the speech.
Her laughter is braying and kinda sad. “Oh, honey, I’ve had a lifetime of listenin’ to that one.” She nods at the elderly gent standing up and pontificating to the crowd. “I’ll take any respite I can get.” She looks across to me, and for some reason I also see this as a movie: two women sitting on stools, one woman elderly, the other newly graduated, and with an ever-cleaning barman between them.
“What?” I ask nervously. Does she think I’m meant to be taking photos? Is she going to tell me off? I sip my drink innocently.
“You’re not that happy, are you?”
Her words are so shockingly blunt that I can only stare at her.
“I understand. Weddings can make me sad, too.”
“Try having it as your job,” I say before I can shut my mouth.
“Oh, lass,” she laughs, “I think I’m more likely to end up working for the funeral home, or at least giving them work.”
There’s a smile on her face as she says this. I can’t imagine being so upfront and casual about my own mortality, but maybe when I’m her age I just won’t give a crap. A balloon of panic swells inside my chest, and I gulp down my drink to make it go away. God, I can’t die yet, I haven’t even created anything. All I have to my name is a short documentary watched by five people on freaking caribou.
It wasn’t meant to be this way. I was meant to be accomplished by fifteen, rich by twenty, and famous by at least thirty. Not working as a dogsbody in a job I don’t like that only peripherally relates to what I want to do with my life.
“You’ll find something new,” the lady insists.
“How do you know?” I ask, paranoid. What if this is it? A lifetime of white weddings and the Y.M.C.A.
“Because nothing lasts forever. There’s always something new — new people, new interests. The only thing that lasts are your whims, and they change all the time.”
I mull over her words, the balloon in my chest shrinking as I grab them desperately to my heart. “You reckon?”
“I know so. I took up skydiving four years ago,” she adds proudly.
I almost choke on my drink. “Skydiving? I’m sorry, I’ve never had the interest to throw myself out of a plane before.”
She winks at me, then gets to her feet. “It’s not another wedding, though, right?” The lady gives me a pat on my arm before dancing over to the crowd. I watch her go, charmed.
“Skydiving,” I muse slowly, twirling the straw in my drink. “I should become a skydiving instructor. That’s what she meant, isn’t it?”
The barman raises an eyebrow. “You said you’ve never skydived before.”
I shrug, leaning forward to the bar. “It can’t be that hard to shove someone from a plane. There are some people I’d love to do that to.”
“Er… You know you also have to jump out the plane, right? They’d be strapped to your back.”
He smiles at me, that bemused expression never leaving his face. He is kinda handsome, but at this stage in my life I’m a desperate virgin and reckon I could fantasize over anything right now. I slip my drink straw suggestively into my mouth, but the barman rolls his eyes and sternly tells me, “Cut that out.”
The straw falls limply from my lips.
I exhale in frustration.
“Love life going great, too?” He smirks. “It must be if you’re hitting on the barman.”
“What love life?” I spin around on my chair. They’re still making speeches, and Dad’s not texted that he’s here yet. Therapy with the barman it is. “I don’t have a job I like, so I don’t have confidence in myself to attract any guy because what have I got to be confident about?”
“I’m not sure one guy could handle you,” the barman remarks. “I think you’d need at least three to keep up with you.”
“What’s that meant to mean? Are you calling me a bitch?”
His expression turns embarrassed. “I mean, at least when you’re drunk, you’re pretty…”
“You can end that sentence there,” I suggest hopefully.
“…direct.” His smile grows. “I’m not going to comment on looks because that’d be inappropriate.”
“No one comments on how I look. I’m, like, sickeningly average. There are some apps I can’t even use because everyone on it looks like a supermodel.”
His forearms bulge attractively as he plants his hands against the counter. “Look. All of that is crap. Ignore it. You’re what, a new grad? Twentyish? You’re not meant to be in your dream job. Your brain’s still developing. You’re not meant to have all this shit figured out until at least twenty-eight.”
I balk. “Twenty-eight?”
“It’s a year older than I am.” His lips quirk. “Means there’s still time for me to get my shit together.” His gaze sweeps me up and down, and not in any kind of suggestive way I actually want. “You know what I went to college for? Photography.”
I stare at him.
“And now I’m here, listening to you whining about how my dream job is your nightmare. About how nothing in your life is going right for you, or at least the way you expected.” He shrugs. “And maybe that’s right. Maybe things genuinely are crap for you. Or maybe you could learn to count your blessings some more.”
He has such a calm way of telling me I’m a bitch.
There’s silence between us for a long while. Only the echoes of Ice Ice Baby break through.
“This is your dream job?” I ask, dismayed.
In silence, he wipes down the counter, his head ducked deeply, as though in shame.
“Because I didn’t realize—”
It’s only then that I notice the quiver of the barman’s shoulders. Oh my God, is he crying?
But then I hear it, the gentle tittering from twitching lips.
I frown at him. “What’s so funny?”
He rubs the corners of his eyes. “Your face. I’m sorry.” He bursts out laughing for real this time, making me glance around in concern. “I’m not actually a photography grad. I’m sorry.”
“I wanted to see how long I could keep it up. Your reaction was priceless.”
“Well, I’m glad my life is such a joke to you,” I say loftily, turning my face away from his.
“Oh, hey now, don’t get like that. I still meant what I said.”
I pretend to be outraged. I pretend to be cold.
“Fine,” the barman says, still sounding far too amused for my tastes. “Be like that. I mean, we’re all fucked in our own ways, is what I’m saying.”
Is it bad that the first thing my mind does is to sigh dreamily and demur, If only? I cross my legs, willing myself to quit being so desperate.
“If you wanna play like that, then,” I say, turning my body back to the bar, “do you want to know why I hate working in the wedding industry?”
He leans forward. “Let me guess. You think marriage is an outdated institution not fit for the modern era. That it’s a waste of time, money and effort for what amounts to a single day.”
“No.” I feel slightly smug as I continue, “I was the bridesmaid at my parents’ wedding.”
“Excruciatingly. It was also the last day I ever saw my mom.”
The barman’s eyes widen. “Wait. What happened?”
“She ran away. Left my dad at the altar. I was ten.”
He stares at me, as though waiting for my mask to slip. “No way,” he says, still peering at me intently. When I don’t answer, he shakes his head and declares, “You’re lying.”
But I laugh to myself, because it’s easier to pretend otherwise. It’s easier than picturing the vivid heartbreak on Dad’s face. It’s better than reliving ten-year-old me’s burning confusion.
“Good one,” the barman says with a smile. “That would swear you off weddings for life.”
My phone buzzes. Just as I’m about to say, “Speak of the devil,” and hop energetically from the bar stool to Dad’s car, the caller ID trips me up.
“Not again,” I sigh before answering. “Hello?”
“Hello, is th—” Static. A garbled voice. It’s like conversing with a broken-down robot.
“I’m sorry, I really can’t hear you.” I stare at my phone, which emits a series of crackles then cuts to clear silence. “Huh. Well, that’s that, then.”
“Aliens trying to contact you?”
“Maybe. It’s not any number I recognize.”
My phone trills suddenly, and looking down, I see Dad’s message. He’s waiting outside.
I smile at the screen.
“Gotta dash,” I say, glancing up at the barman. “It’s been… illuminating.”
“Hasn’t it just,” he remarks dryly. I get the feeling he’s being sarcastic.
When I exit the building, the cool air drifting across my skin is a pleasure I bask in for a short while. Until Dad beeps the horn at me, that is.
He winds down the window. “Have you been drinking on the job?”
“Do you know how hot it is out there?”
I point behind me. “In there.”
“Kat, if you can’t get your prepositions right, I think it might be time for bed.” He pushes the door open for me. “Get in, you silly sausage.”
The thought of sausages abruptly makes me want to throw up. “Please don’t talk about food,” I whisper through dry lips as I fasten my seat belt. The pressure of the belt pushes my stomach inward in a way that’s also quite nauseating.
Dad looks me over. He doesn’t seem too impressed. “Good day?”
“Long day, Dad. Long, long day.” He switches on his music to something a bit too hardcore for what I want right now. “Dad, can I make a request?” The beat of the music is frantic, the singer screaming bloody death at me. Show tunes or death metal — there is no in-between when it comes to Dad. “Can you switch it off, please?”
“What? But it’s Depraved Sin’s newest album. I just bought the CD today.”
I refrain from telling him that no one buys CDs anymore. But thankfully, he takes one look at my probably greenish face and switches off the aural abuse. He turns it to the radio instead.
Safe. Inane. Anodyne.
“This came for you,” Dad says, handing me an official-looking letter.
I stare at it nervously. “What is it?”
“It’s a letter, Kat,” Dad replies wryly. “I think you’re supposed to open the envelope first.”
Ignoring Dad’s snark, I focus on my swooping heart. I never get mail. “Why did you bring it?”
Dad shrugs, steering us out from the parking lot. “Looked important. The kind of mail the birds bring in those ‘Boy Wizard’ movies you like so much.”
It may not be written in elaborate green ink but it does look incredibly plush. The envelope is thick and I’m addressed as Ms. Galbraith. I suppress a shiver. Ms. Galbraith. It lights a quiet thrill inside me, as though maybe I can be worthy of such a professional title.
“Well?” Dad asks after a moment. “Are you gonna open it or just play with the envelope?”
I glare at him. The envelope feels almost too good to open. And what if, when I do open it, it’s just a massive disappointment? Like every other thing in my life? Ugh.
We pause at a junction. Dad looks across to me with a puzzled expression. “Are you overthinking the contents of an envelope right now?”
“Does it matter?” I ask huffily, staring distantly out the window at the night sky. “If I don’t open it, then it definitely won’t be another job rejection.”
Dad rolls his eyes. “It’s a pity your surname isn’t Schrödinger, Kat.”
I shake my head and try to stifle my smile. Such a terrible dad joke.
“Just open it,” he insists as we drive down the empty road. “If they can afford to splurge out on fancy envelopes, it must be good news.”
“Dad!” He can’t do this. He can’t buoy my hopes sky-high only for them to be sent crashing by Fate. Or Karma, or whichever minor god or goddess in the pantheon I’ve managed to piss off somewhere down the line. It’s not fair, and it’s what I’ve endured for months now. Endless rejections. For somewhere to actually accept me… at this point, it’s almost unthinkable.
I create a small incision in the envelope, an act that has now somehow become a delicate surgical operation. It’s only when I pay attention to the ripping sound that I hear what’s on the radio.
“What are we listening to?”
Dad shrugs. “It just came on.”
I scrunch up my nose. And then, taking a deep breath, I unfold the letter.
My eyes quickly scan for any negative, heartbreaking language but there’s no “Unfortunately” on the first line.
In fact, there’s no negative language at all.
The first line actually contains the word “successful,” as in, “You have been successful.”
I stare down at the letter, where each of its words seem to blur into a single black blob of YESSSS!
“Dad,” I whisper urgently. “Dad, look.”
He smiles. “I can’t look, Kat, I’m driving.”
“Okay, okay. But it’s good. I think it’s good.”
“A job interview?”
“No.” I reread it. It may as well be a job interview for how serious I’ll treat it, and how desperate I am for it, but it’s not technically a job interview. “I’ve been shortlisted for a documentary competition.”
Dad’s eyebrows rise. “That’s amazing,” he says, sounding genuinely delighted. “Well done, darling.”
My thumb strokes the embossed logo of the company. MCM. Dark green outlined with silver.
I set my head back into the seat, not wiling to part with the letter. My heart flutters as I consider the journey ahead and how I’ll need to smarten up and charm the socks off these people. It’s not a job interview but it’s still an interview about my career and what I can do for their company.
Oh my God, doesn’t that mean it is a job interview?
The application form had been about twenty pages long and I’d filled it in on a boring Sunday when I’d had nothing better to do. I can barely remember what the point of it was. I try to wrack my brains but even the letter only tells me that I’ve been selected for interview on a particular date. An interview for what, Kat?
My heart begins to pound. All that focus on me when I feel like I’ve achieved so little. I lick my lips, staring at the adjacent stretch of road.
But I’ve achieved this. Someone’s seen some kind of potential in me and invited me for an interview. I’ve achieved someone who believes in me.
Music fills the car and I relax, letting it wash over me. It’s a happy and upbeat number about sunny sunny sunny sunny sunshine girls, and all I can do is smile.
“The one you requested? She’s a bitch to get hold of, but… yes. We’ve booked her in for an interview next week.”
My smile spreads. “Good. I can’t wait to meet her.”
The story continues in 5 Boys in the Band…