The big day
Nigel Williams will never forget the day he got married. It was in June, Nineteen Seventy something or other; The transport arrangements were not elaborate. We got up around eleven, walked out of the flat where we had been living for two years and made our way towards Lambeth Registry office
Saturday 25 January 1997
I went in and drank the rest of his coffee. We talked, of course, about old times. Was Paul still married to Jane? Whatever happened to that couple nobody liked? Did they get married? They didn't - but they still live together. Everyone else - including Steve - seemed to have been divorced at least once. One old friend's wife had left him for the woman next door, who had then left her for a woman in Portugal. Another woman, one of the most glamorous of our generation at Oxford (late 1960s), seemed to spend her time peering through her net curtains to see if her ex was about to violate the exclusion zone which she and a large team of lawyers had devised for him in 1986.
"And you, Nige..." said Steve, his large eyes popping with excitement, "still married?"
I had to confess that I was. And to the same person, too. He offered me what looked like pretty sincere congratulations for having achieved such an unusual thing. Without wishing to seem churlish, I deflected them. People dishing out applause to couples who have managed to stay together always sound - to me - as if they can't believe one has done such an extraordinary thing out of choice.
As I walked away from the coffee shop I found myself thinking about all those broken marriages. All that cold salmon mayonnaise! All that non-vintage champagne! All those handshakes to relatives no one ever saw again! All those public promises turned so sour! Without really knowing why, I found myself thinking about the day Suzan and I got married, around 25 years ago (neither of us, I'm afraid, seems able to be precise about the date). Perhaps to see if it offered me some clue as to why we are still together, to find out if it was - in the words of the person who commissioned this piece - a Defining Moment.
The transport arrangements were not elaborate. We got up around eleven, walked out of the flat where we had been living for the past two years and made our way towards Lambeth Registry Office. I seem to remember opposing a church wedding on the grounds that I was not a believing Christian, a position that, now, seems to me to combine smugness and perversity in about equal proportions. I was wearing two-tone beige platform shoes and a blue suit purchased from a shop in Kensington Church Street called Take Six. Suzan was wearing a white trouser suit. She looked a lot better than me.
Lambeth Registry Office, a Georgian-looking building marooned among urban sprawl, had, on my first visit to it some weeks prior to the event, provoked feelings of terror and inadequacy. On the morning of the wedding, it seemed a friendly sort of place. A West Indian couple were climbing the stairs ahead of us, attended by a large number of friends and relatives, some of whom, it later transpired, were making a day of it and getting married as well. All of my family looked blurred and faraway. Suzan's brother, by contrast, looked in very sharp focus. Of course, I found myself thinking, he's my family now! I nodded to my father. I don't think either of us were able to acknowledge that this was the most grown-up thing I had ever done. Silently, we waited in the forecourt, next to a shop that sold engineering parts.
The first vivid moment I can recall is walking, side by side, into a bright airy room on the upper floor of the building. We were greeted by a small man, who, like everyone else on that windy June day, seemed remarkably pleased to see us. Somehow or other (I can't remember how this was achieved), we were alone with him. He looked, for a moment, as if he was about to tell us the Facts of Life, but, instead, he gave a short, cautious and rather sensible speech about marriage. I'm almost sure he managed to make it sound fun - something the English Prayer Book signally fails to achieve. I noticed he was peering intently at the wedding ring I had brought - which showed two hands clasped together. It turned out that, before marrying people for a living, he had been in the jewellery trade. We talked about rings. He noticed that I was wearing one and we told him that, yes, Suzan had bought it for me when we decided to get married. But, no, it wasn't a wedding ring exactly. It was just a ring she'd bought me when she knew we were going to get married. The little man said he perfectly understood the distinction.
Then they let in the audience. We had our backs to them. I recall experiencing a strong urge to turn round and sing. But I kept my eyes straight ahead as a lot of suits and hats and brightly coloured dresses filed in and made the small, self-satisfied noises you hear from crowds waiting to be amused. I found I was staring at the registrar with an intensity that might have been misinterpreted.
The ceremony itself was pleasantly inconclusive. My strongest memory of it is not the words (I don't think I can remember any of them), but the pitch at which the man behind the desk operated. He was superbly low- key. Behind us, two sets of families kept up the kind of close scrutiny common among umpires or the judges of skating competitions, but our new friend, the registrar, seemed determined to suggest to the audience that there was nothing more significant in any of this than a conversation about the weather.
And there wasn't really a moment when I felt any more married than I had been before the ceremony. Afterwards, my brother bought us all lunch at a restaurant in the same street where I'd bought the suit. Then we went back to my parents' house in North Finchley. We drank a lot of champagne. Don Macintyre, later to be of the Independent, made a speech. We drank a lot of Bernkastel Riesling. Alan Franks, later to be of the Times, made another speech. Steve was there of course, with the woman who later wasn't his wife, and Paul and Jane and the couple who nobody liked. There were all sorts of couples who are no longer couples and quite a few people, who seemed terribly important to both of us, who have long since disappeared from both of our lives.
At four in the morning, when an architect called Mike de Marco was belabouring my head with a cushion and singing a number from the first Bob Dylan LP, my Dad came downstairs in his pyjamas and, with a timidity that I put down to my newly married status, asked me "to turn down the jazz music". Somehow, myself, Suzan and her mother got ourselves into a mini-cab and back to our flat in Stockwell. A week or so later, we went on a honeymoon that I told everyone wasn't a honeymoon, although, when, halfway through its second week, a tall, frighteningly attractive Swiss sculptor asked Suzan to come up a mountain with him I said, "You can't do that. It's our honeymoon!"
If the long, exquisitely pleasurable summer's day on which we got married was a defining moment, there certainly wasn't a defining moment in it. Nothing seems to stand out from what went before or what came after 3 June, Nineteen Seventy Something. Suzan lost her wedding ring in 1983 and, though we talked of buying another one, we never got round to it. I lost my wedding ring that wasn't a wedding ring at the Oasis swimming pool in 1981. Suzan continues to use her own name - even though this seems to predispose banks and building societies to be sure we are on the verge of divorce. I am often called Mr Harrison by people who come to the house to mend things.
"We might as well not have bothered really!" Suzan said the other day. But I suppose we did bother and the fact that memories of that day do not easily disclose its secrets, is, paradoxically, the moment that serves to define it. There is no defining moment in marriage - or, rather, there is an endless string of them. There's us walking down Kensington Church Street on our way to lunch, with Suzan holding a bunch of flowers. A man on the other side of the street calls out: "Best of Luck!"and we grin and wave at him. There's my brother Hugh pretending to be a Mafia boss as he orders champagne and says in a deep, throaty voice - "Today my little brother getsa married!" There's dear, dead Michael Heffernan, the radio producer, who had asked me what I wanted as a wedding present. When I requested an ironing board (as a joke), he decided to take me seriously and turned up at my parents' house with the thing under his arm. There's my ex-girlfriend, climbing out of a car and shrieking, with a force we both knew was purely satirical - "It shoulda bin me!"
I sort through these things trying to understand which memory would be the one I would seek to retain if all the others were taken from me. And what I end up with is the casual, inexplicable moment when Suzan and I first walk into that big, empty, first-floor room in the Lambeth Registry Office. I can't see her because I'm looking straight ahead of me and I know she's doing the same. We're like two kids about to take an important exam. We are both concentrating on the face of the little man behind the desk - the registrar. He looks up, shyly, as I pass him the ring and he turns it over and over in his hands as if he is trying to understand the mystery of it. He has looked quite serious (almost priest-like) up until this moment, but now, suddenly, he looks up at us and starts to smile. At first this puzzles me and then I realise that a total stranger has started to be happy on our account. People have made me feel, up to this point, that there is a lot of duty in marriage. But it is only now I realise that, although there is duty in it, that is not all that it is going to be. Quite a lot of it is going to be a great deal of fun.
`Stalking Fiona', a psychological thriller by Nigel Williams, will be published on 3 February by Granta Books
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