Chapter 9: Penny – May 1974

Charles and Penny became engaged to be married the summer after they first met much to the delight of both sets of parents and Charles’s siblings.  Penny’s father and mother had been stationed back in Wiltshire after her father’s stint in Belize. The Donaldson’s had suggested to Penny that she invited them to stay with them for a few days over the Easter holidays.

‘It’s such a nice big house for having guests’, Jane had said, ‘a shame to waste the space and the opportunity.’

The stay had gone particularly well.  It was impossible not to like the Donaldson family and Penny’s parents had led such an interesting life that their tales of different part of the world entertained them all.  Gwen was in raptures over Lincoln, particularly the Cathedral and the Close.  She had researched much of the history and couldn’t wait for Peter to show them around even prepared to climb the 300 steps to see the unsurpassed view of Lincoln and its surroundings from the Cathedral tower.

Penny was in heaven surrounded by all the people that she loved best.  Since Christmas she and Charles had met up almost every weekend, either he came home or she travelled to Cambridge to see him there.  The two of them were so close that they seemed to read each other’s thoughts.  They had their lives together mapped out soon after they had met.  They would get engaged in the summer but would not marry until Charles had been ordained and had a parish to go to.  She would finish her teacher training in the summer of 1973 and hope to get a teaching job in Lincoln so that she could continue to live with his family.  He would finish the following year and hope to get a decent living where they could settle into the vicarage as a young married couple.  They would start a family as soon as possible and they wanted at least four children.

Although their goal was something to look forward to they both threw themselves into their everyday lives enjoying the present and the people around them.  Penny was so happy that she wanted to share her felicity with everyone.  She wrote regular letters to Rebecca and Suzanne telling all her news and sending occasional photos.  Sadly all of them had lost touch with Caitlin.

It was decided that Penny and Charles would marry in Lincoln Cathedral and Peter would conduct their marriage ceremony.  The reception would be at the Donaldson’s home where they would erect a marquee in the walled garden and hire caterers to do a buffet for the guests.  The date was set for July 14th 1974.  As for bridesmaids what Penny wanted above anything was for her three best friends and Charles’s sister Jo who had become a close friend too, to be her attendants and Agnes and Dan to be flower girl and pageboy respectively.

Penny wasn’t sure if Rebecca, or Suzanne for that matter, would want to be a bridesmaid.  She would have to choose very un-embarrassing outfits to have any chance of Becca agreeing she realised.  Caitlin though had always wanted to be her bridesmaid and Penny would be very upset if her friend were not with her on her big day.

Penny sent her invitations out to each of her three friends weeks before the rest were mailed.  With each she sent a letter.  With her invitation to Rebecca she asked if she could come up to London and stay so that Rebecca could help her to chose her dress.  To Suzanne in hope that they would meet up when she came to London to stay with Rebecca, giving the reason for her mission.  To Catlin she wrote a letter begging her to make contact as she wanted so much for her to be there for her wedding and that she really wanted her to be a bridesmaid.

The trip to London was organised for the first week in March.  Rebecca would meet Penny at Kings Cross and the two of them would head to Liberty’s to reconnoitre the bridal department.  Rebecca knew all the staff and was sure that Penny would find a wonderful dress.  Suzanne would meet them in the afternoon and they would go to Bertorelli’s for a treat, as they both liked the food and the family atmosphere of the Italian restaurant.  The plan was then to go back to Rebecca’s flat and partake of copious amounts of wine while they caught up with all of the news.

Penny and Rebecca flew into each other’s arms on the station platform, absolutely delighted to see each other after so long.  Penny looked softly pretty in a flower print smock dress and Mary Jane shoes.  Her blonde hair curled down her back and around her shoulders framing her heart shaped face with the serious grey eyes that crinkled delightfully into soft smiley lines.  Rebecca, taller and slimmer than her friend, with her straight dark hair sliced into an asymmetric bob looked altogether more sophisticated thought Penny.

Rebecca was dressed in dusty pink cord jeans tucked into long boots and wore over it what looked like Penny’s father’s army greatcoat.  The look was completed with a bag swung across her body that looked very like a binocular case from the same dressing-up box.  Breathless with excitement, Penny enthused,

‘It’s so lovely to see you.  You look amazing, so stylish!  I have so much to tell you and I’m so looking forward to seeing your flat and hearing all about your life and seeing Annie and everything…’ she declared.  They linked arms and Rebecca steered Penny toward the tube as they chatted away as only old friends can.

Rebecca loved showing Penny around Liberty where everyone greeted her by name as she swung through the store browsing the eclectic merchandise, Rebecca seeing things anew through the delighted eyes of her friend.  They made their way through to the bridal room, which housed everything that a bride would need for her big day.  The idea was that Rebecca would help Penny pick out two or three dresses that she liked and then her mother Gwen would come up for the day and help her to make her final choice.  Penny was awestruck by the beauty and the detail and workmanship as the assistants picked out dresses from the racks and slipped them out from under their protective covers to show her.

Penny who thought that she was short and quite dumpy (not) had a reasonably good idea of what suited.  Having worked in fashion for some time now Rebecca had become very good at picking out the right shapes for customers.  She used this ability now to steer Penny towards a very simple shaped sleeveless dress that fitted the body and then softly flowed out into a small fishtail train.  The simple bodice was made from a heavy guipure lace lined with soft silk which extended to hip length from where the silk flowed to form the skirt.  A matching short sleeve bolero of the lace material lined with the same silk completed the outfit.  Rebecca could tell at a glance that this would help to emphasise Penny’s tiny waist.

There was general agreement from all the assembled that Penny should try this ensemble.  While Penny went into the fitting room to get started Rebecca flitted around the room selecting shoes, bags, veils and flowered head-pieces for Penny to try, she was enjoying this.  She poked her head into the fitting room to lend a hand with the fastenings and passed a pair of white beaded court shoes to slip on.  When Penny emerged Rebecca and the two assistants gasped audibly.  Penny looked amazing.  She took a look at herself in the mirror and Rebecca caught the look she remembered from school. When Penny was trying not to burst in to tears her lip would wobble.  Rebecca went over and threw her arms around her friend

‘You look wonderful Pen, don’t cry!’

‘I’m only crying because it’s so perfect’, she sniffed, ‘this is the one, I’m sure of it.’

‘Brilliant’, teased Rebecca, ‘I see you’re as quick to choose the right dress as you were to choose the right man!’  They all laughed at this and set to trying different headdresses to go with the outfit.

Suzanne was waiting for them outside the designated pub. Penny and Suzanne exchanged hugs and whoops of delight as they greeted each other.  Penny full of admiration for Rebecca’s skills in helping her to find the perfect dress,

‘Even though I know she wouldn’t be seen dead in anything like it herself!’ Penny laughed.  They piled into the pub, which was snug if rather smoky inside, and found a table in the corner with a window seat.

‘I’ll get a bottle of wine, shall I?  White?  Suzanne asked, heading for the bar.  The three girls sat and chatted for over an hour sipping their wine.  Their conversations veered from news of each other’s lives, nostalgic recollections and back again with frequent references to and speculative wonderings about Caitlin.  Penny was closely questioned about Charles, what was he like?  Looks, personality, his family were all examined with no hesitation from Penny who could talk on this subject forever.

‘So you’re going to be a vicar’s wife Pen’, said Suzanne thoughtfully, ‘you’ll be a little like your mother, taking a back seat to your man’s career.  Will you mind that do you think?’

‘I’ve obviously thought it through’ Penny answered seriously, ‘It’s not what I had in mind, not the moving anyway.  I’m not nearly so career minded as either of you two as I’m sure you will remember.  Once we’re married we want to start a family and have at least four children, and a dog, and a cat and maybe some chickens….’

‘Oh well in that case you’ve chosen really well as you’ll need the big house that goes with the job’ remarked Rebecca, smiling.  Then she added looking serious, ‘What about the religious part though Pen?  I never thought you were that…’ she searched for a word, ‘pious’.  Penny laughed as she replied,

‘Definitely not pious!  I think that I am quite spiritual though, and I like people and want to help them.  Charles and his whole family are good people’ she emphasised, ‘Not at all pious, in fact they are a riot most of the time.’

It wasn’t until much later in the evening when they were sharing a Knickerbocker Glory contentedly that Penny broached the subject of bridesmaids.  She tentatively out-lined her plan and then asked directly,

‘How do you two feel about being bridesmaids for me?’

‘I’m really honoured that you have asked’ replied Rebecca carefully, ‘But would you mind awfully if I wasn’t?  I’d love to be there for you of course, and do whatever you need but I’m not really cut out for bridesmaid gear.’

‘I thought you might say that’ answered Penny, ‘and no, I don’t mind awfully as long as you’re there with me for at least a day or two before.  What about you Annie?’

‘Well if Becca is not cut out for bridesmaid gear I’m definitely not’ responded Suzanne, ‘can I do the same deal?  I promise to be with you.’  She leaned over and squeezed Penny around the shoulders, ‘Think of the money you’ll save in frilly dresses!’

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