A small administrative difficulty

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The Independent Culture
IN MY ceaseless drive for improved personal productivity and a successful life, I have now acquired a special pad. Its leaves are headed "Things To Do Today" (perhaps they should also do one for chief executives headed "People To Do Today"), and there's a space to tick them off, one by one, giving a sense of achievement and control. Would you like to see my very first list? So you shall.

(1) Post letters.

(2) Defrost fridge.

(3) Get divorce.

(4) Broccoli.

Romish priests among you can tell I am English. We are famous in the confessional for trying to camouflage the dreadful moral cruces of life in a blizzard of veniality. "I snarled at my mother. I stole an extra slice of meat at lunch. I lied to American Express. I missed Mass. I murdered and ate the postman. I neglected my night prayers. I had impure thoughts about a big sloe-eyed Mexican woman."

And why not? One gets through as best one can, and the great mysteries of life can become too overwhelming unless clothed in trivia. You just want to get on with it, instead of fretting over unanswerable questions: how did things get like that? How can I make sure it never happens again? Where does the ice actually come from? Will the two alligator steaks thaw out while the freezer compartment is defrosting, because I don't want to eat them tonight, not both, first of all because I'm on my own and alligator is quite a dense sort of meat, and secondly because I'm not very hungry, don't know why, may be coming down with a bug, maybe something I picked up while I was sorting out the divorce papers, down at the Principal Registry of the Family Division at Somerset House, which was the first purpose-built office block in the country, did you know that? I didn't know that. But... well, you know, hot day, strangers drifting in and out, absolute rabbit-warren, just the sort of place you could pick up a bug if you went down there to get a divorce.

Just an administrative matter. Nothing to it, of course. No big deal. It's not as if one is still in the first crucifying turbulence of anger and despair, nor is it as if one still believes in God, good Heavens no, so there's none of this nonsense about sneaking guiltily out to enlist a crew of civil servants in disentangling a sacred vow. Good Lord, no; and even if one did with absolute sincerity swear to dedicate one's life, blood, estate and time to this cause, well, one can change one's mind, this is 1995, dammit, and one can face the world with all the proud insouciance of a water company chairman, a broker at Lloyd's or a Secretary of State.

Not that one is like that: an ethically bankrupt, snout-in-the-trough fraudster. Just because one gave one's word and is now retracting it, does not mean one is a fraudster. This is a legal process. It has been debated by Members of Parliament, drafted by lawyers, assented to by the Queen. It is moral. It is good.

Just an administrative matter. You go down there and you get the forms. Perfectly reasonable that one party has to petition the other. Why would one want a system where both parties could petition jointly? Just because it's gentler? More courteous to someone you once loved, and lived with for so many years? Nonsense. "Husband against Wife", that's what the Law says, and the Law knows best. Only an immature person would complain. And why should they give you the marriage certificate back at the end of the process? What a sentimental thought. How ridiculous. What do you expect from the Law, for pounds 40? Kindness? Empathy? Grace? Grow up.

So you fill the forms in and cough up and that's that. Three months later, all being... well, there's an end to it. After the slow, helpless decline into incompatibility (so young, you see, like unlabelled cans, neither knowing what the other contained), eros dead on the doorstep and agape weeping in the kitchen; after the ineluctability of separation, the selling-up, the crying in the night, the bitter turning-away from lovers embracing in the street or on the screen; after all that, and then the slow rebuilding of life, the moulding of friendship from the ashes of love; now, a line is being drawn, in rusty ink with a cross-nibbed pen, in the oldest purpose-built office block in the world.

Just an administrative matter. It is, I suppose, efficient, painless and reasonably humane. It is also the right thing to do; we are agreed on that. Why it took nearly eight years after we parted to decide to divorce, I am not so sure. Others seem to snarl, part, fight over the assets and divorce, all in the space of months; then, they "get on with their lives". But do they? Hearing divorced people talk, I am sad at the overwhelming bitterness of their words. Perhaps to learn the lessons takes longer, but I am not even sure what the lessons are. Should we learn compassion for our own imperfectibility? Should we learn that a lone mother hand- in-hand with her child is the true Pieta of our times? Should we learn that human love may seem so frail, but let it change its shape and it need never die?

Just an administrative matter; and no call to lie awake all night, letting go, saying final goodbyes. To the man I once was. To the life I once thought I would have. To the tiny civilisation which every marriage is. No call, either, to feel regret that we didn't give our daughter a conventional, stable home when she was little. That we have now trodden on her brave and secret dream that one day we would reconcile. That I spent five years hurting a good woman, day after day, by living with her while being married to someone else. No need for any of that, nor for a sense that, when dawn finally broke, it marked a new beginning.

Just an administrative matter, after all.

The fridge is fine.

I didn't get the broccoli. !