It would not be inaccurate of me to describe Richard as my closest friend, although I doubt it would occur to him to refer to me in quite the same way. Oldest friend then, rather than closest, and I can say that with confidence since our first meeting took place within hours of our arriving at Oxford, over a tea given by our tutor. It is those initial meetings that stick in the mind. The hands I shook in the first few days of the Michaelmas term are the ones I can almost feel against my palm still. If I try to, that is; if I think back.
'The study of law,' Charles Haddon said to us as we stood in his drawing room, 'will only disappoint those of you who approach it with anything other than the expectation that, in order to succeed, you will have to work phenomenally hard. There will be one or two of you who think, erroneously, that the really challenging work is behind you. That the small modicum of success you have garnered in your little clutch of A's at A level was what mattered. There may even be some among your number who are under the illusion that by having won your place here, you have won also the right to enjoy yourselves. Let me assure you that such an assumption would be the gravest of errors, and one not without consequences. That is all I have to say, for now. There are scones behind you, and tea in the urn by the window.'
If this speech made me want to melt into the curtains and remain there, it seemed to have the opposite effect on Richard, who sprang forward and started a debate with Haddon about an article of his that he'd read in The Times. We were to be tutorial partners for the next three years, Richard and I, and this pattern would continue throughout that time without either of us much minding: me observing almost without comment while Richard and Haddon battled things out between them. We did as well as one another in the end, each of us sticking to Haddon's advice. We breakfasted together in Hall every morning before going to lectures and having lunch in the faculty. Then we came back to College and stayed at our desks in the Old Library until the supper bell rang, breaking only for tea in the Buttery and a stroll around the lake, and of course for our Friday afternoon sessions with Haddon.
It wasn't until after supper each day that we parted company. Richard announced at the outset that he intended to be well-read by the time he was called to the Bar, so he strolled back to the library every evening at eight and, having started by reading the complete works of William Shakespeare, worked his way chronologically through the shelves of English Literature. As he read, I pulled pints and opened bottles in the Buttery bar, glad to be earning some cash and being in company in a way I could control. Within weeks I knew everyone by sight, and, through overhearing conversations and witnessing greetings again and again as I worked, most of them by name.
Richard stayed on at the end of our three years to do some research while I went straight to law school, and I did wonder once or twice whether it was because he hadn't yet reached the shelves that held the twentieth century. He joined me in London eventually, taking up a pupillage in Middle Temple while I was qualifying as a solicitor in the City. My work was purely litigious in the first few years, so that our paths crossed fairly regularly, either because my own firm had instructed him on a case, or because we would bump into one another in the commercial corridors of the Royal Courts of Justice at the end of a day and find time for a drink or two. But as I began to spend more time negotiating deals and drafting contracts, and both of us became far busier professionally, I saw less of him each year than I had done the one before. Still, it was a rare month that passed without one of us lunching the other. We had never, to my mind, been competitive in our studies, each of us accepting that we were evenly matched and predicting, from the moment I became the audience to Richard's performance at Haddon's tea party, the divergent paths our careers would take. Where there was no competition to speak of professionally, there was perhaps a little too much of it in those lunches, each of us trying to outdo the other every time with our choice of venue, or, if we couldn't do that, with our largesse on ordering the wine. It reached the point one month when my turn came around again and I couldn't stand it any more. I was almost tempted to cancel the booking I had made and take him instead for liver and bacon in Leadenhall Market, which would have been sure to have brought the whole thing to a close. But then he met Lucinda, who told him he had to do something about his weight, so it was all over anyway.
He informed me of his intention to approach his physical transformation in the same way that he had approached the canon of English Literature almost a decade earlier, and I wasn't at all surprised when he announced six months later that he had been successful. I saw him next at his stag weekend in Paris. Lucinda had suggested he take her to the Seychelles to propose, and it was his tan, I think, rather than his shrunken waistline, that made it so difficult to recognise him in the hotel foyer. He told me over the weekend that she had planned the wedding with a similar exactitude, and so it was with a degree of reluctance that I made my way to Temple Church that sweltering August afternoon two summers ago. We had always shared a certain ineptitude when it came to relationships, and the speed and skill with which Richard had extricated himself from his single state had surprised me. Because Lucinda had decided Richard's brother should be his best man, I had no duties to perform. I left nowhere near enough time to walk down to Temple from my apartment in Islington and it was too hot to hurry in morning dress. In the end I was really quite late, turning the corner to see the final inch of Lucinda's train sweeping into the church, the bridesmaids stooping to lift it over the threshold before pulling the door shut behind them. I stood for a minute or two, wondering whether it would be intrusive of me to push it open and follow them. In the end I decided against it and strolled on beyond the church to lie on the Inner Temple lawns in the sun. I reckoned I had about an hour before I would have to go and make an appearance at the drinks in the Middle Temple rose garden; any earlier and I'd risk bumping into Richard and Lucinda as they emerged from the church.
I was only mildly disappointed to find, on opening my eyes a little while later and looking at my watch, that I had been asleep for quite some time. The drinks were almost over when I arrived. It was the usual sort of affair, overdressed guests helping themselves to as much champagne as possible either through thirst, or desperation, or both; the canapés wilting slightly in the sun; children becoming bored and beginning to quarrel. Everyone looked worn out, apart from Lucinda. She was by my side almost immediately, demanding to know what I had made of the chaplain's address, and of the choristers. 'Weren't they just divine?' she said, with what looked to be tears in her eyes. I was halfway through what I thought was a passable attempt at covering my tracks when Richard appeared behind her. 'Didn't see you at the line-up old chap. Shame. Where the bloody hell were you?' 'Richard darling, don't swear,' Lucinda said. 'And don't interrupt. Why don't you go and see if your mother needs anything?' She told me not to worry about Richard, that he'd become almost unbearably pompous since discovering that he was tipped to become the youngest Silk at the Bar, and that she hoped I wouldn't mind but she'd put me opposite an old school friend of hers who, from what Richard had told her about me, she thought I might like. 'I'm sure you will, really I am,' she said, gripping my forearm and speaking so quickly I struggled to keep up with her as she carried on, saying, 'She's a total brainbox, terribly high-flying academic at UCL actually, always makes me feel like a complete twit. But she's really lovely, honestly! Talk to her about poetry, that's her thing. Yes, ask her about poets and you'll be absolutely fine.' And then she smiled in a sympathetic kind of a way and said she would have asked me what sort of law I did but that Richard had told her it was far too complicated for her to understand so she wasn't going to after all, and come to think of it, if she was me, she'd probably steer clear of that particular topic of conversation altogether over dinner, if I could bear it, and then she laughed, and I laughed, and the gong sounded and we were going in to eat.
I look back to that evening sometimes and think how strange it was that I chose not to scrutinise the seating plan in the way that I usually do at weddings. Perhaps it was the heat, or the champagne, or the awkwardness of my conversation with Lucinda. In any case, when I arrived at the entrance to the Hall and saw the crowd of people gathering around the board searching for their places, I looked over their shoulders only for long enough to see my own name before going downstairs to the cloakroom to throw some water on my face. And so it was that when I set off across the Hall to find my seat, I knew only that the woman opposite me would be someone who'd been at school with Lucinda. As I came closer and spotted the empty space that was waiting for me on the far side of the table I saw the back of her, this woman Lucinda thought I might like, and I will admit to taking a fairly careful look at what I saw. She was small, which I supposed was why she was wearing such high heels, and her dress clung to her body, showing clearly the shape of her. And her hair. It was long and dark and as I walked past her she swung it to one side and revealed her back, almost entirely bare, her dress cut away to the waist. The bride and groom made their entrance at the moment I reached my seat and because she turned to applaud them I had to wait to see her face. I looked instead at her back once more, following it down to where her body became clothed again and resting my gaze there. As soon as everyone stopped clapping, the woman on my right started to introduce herself. Only then was I able to lean across the table and shake Lucinda's school friend's hand, becoming aware of an extraordinary sensation spreading across my chest and down towards my stomach as I realised who I was looking at. 'Rachel Cardanine,' she said, and smiled at me, and for a moment I thought she hadn't recognised me, that she had forgotten me altogether and that I was, for her, no more than a perfect stranger. But then she laughed a little through her smile, and I understood. She was playing some kind of a game with me, and so, as had been my habit all those years ago whenever she did something like this, I began to play it with her, smiling in return and saying, 'Alex. Alex Petersen,' not letting go of her hand until she pulled it away from mine.
Before I could say anything else the man to her left was announcing a proposal to reorganise our end of the table. The woman on my right was his wife and he didn't see why he shouldn't sit next to her. 'D'you mind, love, what's your name, Rachel? Do you mind, Rachel?' He placed his hand on her bare back and steered her away from the chair she'd been about to sit down on. 'I like to have my princess right beside me. I'm sure you'll understand.' I looked down and saw that the woman was pregnant, and then I looked back at her husband. He loomed above the rest of us, almost as wide as he was tall, with his hair shaved close to his head and rings on three of his fingers. As I started to move, Richard was behind me suddenly. 'Sorry old man, didn't get a chance to tell you about any of this.' He looked across at Rachel, coming round the table towards us, and then at the pregnant woman and her husband. 'Those two?' he whispered into my ear, his breath thick with alcohol. 'Distant relations of Lucinda's. Don't blame me. She did the seating plan. Bit of a rum chap, but apparently he's rolling in it. And her — ' He looked at Rachel, taking her seat beside me. 'Sorry. Should have said.'
Then he was gone and Rachel and I were listening as Adrian, the man with the rings on his fingers, asked the waitress her name. He repeated it back to her as she poured his wine and, leaning across the table towards us, said, 'Makes them feel valued that does, learning their names. Doesn't it, princess?' and he turned to his wife and started to stroke her belly.
It was for the most part a fairly awful evening. After telling us he knew everyone else at the table and there wasn't one of them who couldn't realise assets of at least 'one mill', Adrian pulled out his keys and talked about his car and showed us the fob. He picked up the menu and read out the information on the back about the history of the Hall. When the waitress came back he addressed her by her name as many times as possible and when Rachel said no thanks, she didn't want any more potatoes, he told the woman that Rachel was shy and she did want some really. Then he told Rachel that she was never going to grow any taller if she didn't eat a proper diet. Rachel said nothing until the waitress had gone, at which point she stood and tipped her potatoes on to Adrian's plate. He was silent for a moment but then he turned to his wife and whispered something to her and Rachel leaned in towards me and pressed her hand onto my thigh and said, 'Do you think he fucks her in the arse?' and I felt her lips touch my ear and for a moment I could smell her.
Before I can reply Adrian suddenly raises his voice and I become aware that he and his wife are having a disagreement. It looks for a moment as though it might escalate, and Rachel presses her hand, which she has left resting on my thigh, harder into me. But then princess draws things to a close by saying, 'You don't want me to get upset do you?' and she lifts Adrian's hand up and places it on her belly and they start to rub noses. Rachel pours some wine for us both and raises her glass and, turning her head so that neither of them can hear, says, 'Here's to fucking awful weddings. Don't worry, I'm not going to ask you to rub noses.'
Just as I am beginning to feel uncomfortable about the course the evening is taking the best man stands up and taps his glass with a spoon. Whilst the speeches given by Richard's brother and Lucinda's father are exactly as I expect them to be, Richard's takes me by surprise. He has lost his usual bombast, and displays none of the pomposity Lucinda had felt it necessary to warn me about. He sounds almost nervous, and although at first I wonder whether this is because he has drunk far more than he ought and is struggling to keep things under control, there is in his voice a tenderness I am not sure I have ever heard before. He turns to Lucinda and looks at her as if nobody else is present and then, tentatively, he declares his love and thanks her for allowing him to love her in the way that he does. And then he looks at us all and makes a joke about her mother and he is himself again, and Lucinda's face becomes composed and she turns to whisper something to her father.
Adrian and his princess leave immediately after the toasts. Rachel and I stand together in silence as the tables are moved back to the sides of the room. Then she says 'What a hideous couple' before excusing herself, telling me she'll come straight back. 'I promise,' and she takes my hand briefly in hers as she walks away. But of course she doesn't come back, and I realise eventually that she has gone. I watch Richard and Lucinda dance the first dance and start to calculate when it will be acceptable for me also to leave. I am standing alone as the applause for the dance dies down when I feel somebody behind me. They press themselves against me and put their arms around me and I turn to see it is Rachel and suddenly we are dancing to the next song, slowly, uncertainly. I lower my head down towards hers and I can smell her again. I move my hands onto the bareness of her back. To my embarrassment I feel myself become hard almost immediately and so, it seems, does she. More out of panic than anything else I hold her even closer and sense that she is laughing. She's trying to hide it by burying her face into my chest but I can feel her whole body shaking with it. And the more she laughs the harder I become. She takes my hand and says, 'Shall we get some air?' and she leads me out of the Hall into the night, keeping herself close in front of me all the way so that, I suppose, nobody can see what is happening.
We half ran around the Hall and down the steps and slipped in through a gate to the rose garden. Here she kissed me and undid my zip and put her hand inside and touched me. Then she pulled me further in among the roses and there was a bench and she sat me on it and knelt on the grass in front of me. I cried out when I came. She wiped her hand across her mouth and then she stood and pulled me up and held me for a time.
'Come on cry-baby. Let's get you home,' she said then, and she led me out of the garden, bending over once to say 'Oh god look what I've done to my bloody dress the grass must have been soaking.'
Excerpted from Every Contact Leaves A Trace by Elanor Dymott. Copyright 2012 by Elanor Dymott. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.