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Nobody Has Sandwiches At A Wedding

Photograph by Kate Stanworth, Story by Xanthi Barker


The summer our mother got married, I hadn’t seen my brother in two years. I was sixteen by then and he was twenty and our mother was the happiest I’d ever seen her. She’d met her fiancé, Leon, in the supermarket one Thursday after he saw her choosing apples and thought he’d never seen anyone on TV or in real life take such care over anything. She’d had several boyfriends in the last ten years, but none of them had come to anything. One, the last before Leon, was the reason my brother left. But I liked Leon. He was warm and listened when I spoke to him. It was like someone had fixed all the cracks in the world when I heard they were getting married.


The wedding was planned for the last weekend of June. For weeks, all my mum would talk about was who’d been invited. She never mentioned my brother. She can’t have mentioned him to Leon either, because when the phone rang one evening and Leon answered, he turned to us both, frowning, and said, “There’s a bloke here asking for his mum.” I felt sick. If my brother thought there was a man there, we’d never hear from him again. My mum took the phone. I had to stop myself grabbing it off her. There was so much I wanted to say to him. My brother who used to throw me in the air so high, then catch me so low that I thought my stomach would come out of my mouth. But Mum hung up a few minutes later, acting like there was nothing unusual. “Cameron’s offered to sort the food for the wedding,” she said.


Our mother moved to this city with our father to find work when they were young. They rented a flat and got married and had children. It felt like life had finally begun, my mum said. Her own parents had little interest in her. Our dad was like a miracle, she said. She used to say it was like having her own personal sun, shining in the living room. But soon after I was born, he left. It wasn’t for any of the usual reasons — no other woman, no gambling, no drink. He wanted some peace and quiet, that was all he said. We never heard from him again, though my mother said she saw him sometimes, sitting by the river, watching the water, not moving until the sun went down. I don’t know how she absorbed that, knowing our father preferred nothing to us.


But Mum was like metamorphic rock. She didn’t let it crush her. Instead, she was transformed into something a thousand times stronger and more magnificent. She retrained and got a job she liked. She made new friends. She got funnier, making jokes and teasing us all morning and night. She was our hero. And then that boyfriend came along and ruined it. My brother was older, so it was harder for him to stand it, and easier for him to leave. But still, I resented that he wasn’t there when it ended, that he was just another man who preferred nothing to us. So I didn’t believe for a second his motives were good when I heard he was doing the food for the wedding.


The night before the wedding, Leon went to stay with a friend. Before he left, he whispered in my ear to look after Mum. “She’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said. Mum was panicking. She hated her clothes, her hair, her shoes. She hadn’t heard from my brother all day. “I’ll go and see him,” I said. To my surprise, she wrote down an address not far away.


Walking there, my feet felt like boulders. Thirty minutes took decades. When I found 144C, I checked every part of my body and clothing before ringing the bell. But when he opened the door, Cameron hugged me so hard all space for fear was squeezed out. We were giddy, laughing all the way upstairs. All the things I wanted to say bounded through my head. 


But inside, the place was filthy. There was junk everywhere. The kitchen was even worse. 


“What’s all the bread?” I said. 


“It’s for the wedding,” he said. “Didn’t Mum tell you I was sorting the food?” My face dropped and he snarled at me: “What?” 


I looked around. There were piles and piles of bread. Tables of it. Fat bread rolls cut down the middle. Worse than that, there were bags and dirt everywhere. But I couldn’t see anything that could make a sandwich, let alone eighty of them. “Nobody has sandwiches at a wedding,” I said. We glared at each other. Ten minutes later, after two years not speaking, neither of us bothered saying goodbye.


That night I couldn’t look Mum in the eye. I felt grateful for her busyness. I didn’t sleep all night. I kept picturing the next day, all the people and decorations and speeches. All those hopes — and nothing to give anyone but ugly great piles of white bread.


The morning came and I helped Mum dress. I did her hair with a single yellow flower. She’d asked me to walk her down the aisle. I was terrified. It felt like I’d never done anything important my whole life. But Leon was there, waiting for her. They said their vows and everyone cheered. On the way out, she tripped and Leon caught her and she laughed so loudly it sounded like the angels painted on the ceiling were laughing back. I’d almost forgotten about my brother. All the way to the reception, I was thinking up ways to make everyone stop.


But when they opened the doors and I saw what my brother had done, I ran to him. “What are they?” I said. “Wait until you taste yours,” he said. He was trying hard not to smile. Mum asked everyone to find their seats. “My son made this for us,” she said.


Even years later, I still tried to work out what he’d done. There was bread, yes, like I’d seen in his kitchen, but somehow, among all that mess and filth, he’d turned it into something else. I’ve never eaten anything before or since that looked or tasted like that, though I’ve often begged him to make me one again. When the music came on, I went to find him. “What did you do?” I said. He just shrugged and kissed my shoulder. “I missed you,” he said.

Xanthi Barker was born in North London, where she lives today. Her short fiction has been published widely and her first book, One Thing, was published by Open Pen this year. Find her here @xanthibarker

Kate Stanworth is a London-based photographer specialising in documentary and portrait photography. She has undertaken commissions and personal projects in the UK, Europe, South America and Africa. You can find her here

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