Photograph by Snezhana von Büdingen, Story by Katie Marsh
I don’t know if I can do it.
There are twenty minutes to go and I am nowhere to be seen. My suit hangs hopefully on the back of the bathroom door. My shoes have been polished into submission and a bowtie awaits its chance to make it even harder for me to breathe.
All morning my panic has been spiralling, as I realise that everyone else was right. I should never have agreed to this – should never have had the idea in the first place let alone let things get this far.
Soon I will have to face her, but first I need a place to hide. As I stumble through the garden I hear my name being called all over the house. I push on, a child in search of a wardrobe, a curtain, the dusty underside of a bed – anywhere that eyes can’t find me.
I hear the garden door creak and make one final effort, heaving myself forwards before tripping and falling into the one place I might feel safe. I land heavily, face pressed against metal, one arm hooked over the side of the bath that we found abandoned here the summer we moved in.
I lie, the sun warming my neck and back, in this – her favourite place. The haven she visits to think, to play, to sing, to dream. Here she paints huge pictures of the sun and the stars and spoons strawberry sweetness straight from the jars that are now filled with daffodils on linen-covered tables in the barn.
I would do anything for her. A girl so very sure of who she is. The girl everything is for. I slowly push myself over, inch by painful inch, until I’m staring up at her patch of sky. I don’t want to let her down, not this time. I want all that is wonderful for her. Warm arms to bookmark her days. Kindness. Joy.
I close my eyes, and wonder yet again how I let this happen.
It takes a second to register who it is. The owner of the sweetest voice I know.
‘You’re so bad at hiding.’ That chuckle. All the mischief in the world.
I open my eyes. ‘Hello, darling.’ She’s leaning over me, hand touching mine, soft as a snowflake against an upturned face. She is all brown hair and shining eyes and then the glistening wonder of her dress. So different to her usual brightly coloured T shirts and jeans. She wanted to look special today, ‘Like I belong in a dream.’ And she does.
‘You’re so beautiful.’
‘Thanks.’ Her smile could send a firework soaring into the night sky. ‘I feel it.’ She is always so matter of fact. ‘Are you coming out now?’
A pigeon coos complacently above me. ‘I…’
‘It’s nearly time.’
‘I know.’ Shame surges. I am not being the man she needs me to be.
‘If you’re not coming out, then I’ll come in.’
This is how the world works for her. Clear and sure.
I used to feel like that, back when I left the house in control of the day ahead. I was that man, the one with the busy diary and the team and the weekends spent around sputtering barbecues or in cosy pubs. Then, that Saturday, I left home in my car and came back in an ambulance. Now people admire me. Or pity me. I’m not sure which is worse.
Not her, though. In her eyes there has only ever been love.
I check my watch – only ten minutes left. She should be with her bridesmaids being primped and photographed and adored. She should be waiting for the arrival of Charlie, her wonder horse, climbing into the carriage that he is going to pull.
Instead, she squeezes in at the opposite end of the bath, face tipped up towards the trees. Her stiff skirt rustles.
She gently takes my hand. ‘You can do it.’
I wish I believed her. For weeks I’ve been telling everyone it will be fine. That I will be right beside her all the way. And then, yesterday, that step. The slam of the flagstone. The bruises blooming across my face.
I don’t want her joy to become my failure.
I steel myself. ‘Darling, I just think it’s better if…’
She doesn’t let me finish. ‘You won’t fall. I won’t let you.’
Such faith. I wish I trusted my body that much.
‘I don’t know.’
I look at my hand, at the rim of the bath, anywhere but her.
‘I don’t want to let you down.’
‘Don’t be silly.’
‘You said no buts. Live life with no buts, and all of your heart. Remember?’
She holds up a finger. Wags it. ‘No. No buts. Now come on. We’re late.’
‘I can’t even get up.’
‘Yes you can.’ She climbs out with an ease I can only envy and reaches for me. I wait one second and then my fingers close around hers.
Once I’m on my feet again I look for my stick, but she holds on to me instead.
And, finally, I see it. I see that she is strong, strong enough for both of us.
Soon, suited and brushed, I stand with her at the entrance. Eyes fill at the sight of this beautiful girl, so joyfully stepping out to her favourite Beatles song. People must see the whites of my knuckles as I hold on to her. They must see her turning towards me, checking, walking more slowly to let me keep up.
But their smiles are kind. And as we move unsteadily together, the months of beds and wheelchairs start to fade. I am not who I was, but I am still her father. And my girl is beside me, aiming for the man she chose. And so, at last, I raise my head high as we walk towards all the love in the world.
Katie Marsh had a ten-year NHS career before leaving to write full-time. She lives in the countryside with her family, and is the author of four novels, including the 2018 World Book Night pick 'My Everything' and the Kindle bestseller 'A Life Without You.' She loves strong coffee, the promise of a blank page and stealing her husband's toast. She is currently writing her fifth novel while ignoring the washing up. You can find her here @marshisms
Snezhana von Büdingen is a Cologne-based photographer. Renowned for her portraiture and social documentary artwork. She was born in 1983 in Perm, Russia, studied Journalism at the University in Osnabrueck and Photography at the Fotoakademie Cologne. The exploration of people, culture, and life are the central facets of her work. She always chooses to shoot with analogue film on her projects. Find and follow her here @snezhana_von_buedingen