The guests stand in huddles mandated by postcodes: couples, three flatmates, individuals separated by chairs marked with laminated signs. There are conspicuous gaps for the elephant in the room – for social distancing and for everything that has made 2020 a strange sad year. But no one is looking at the gaps. Every masked face is turned towards the door, and towards the couple moving down the aisle with no distance between them at all.
There is nothing solemn about the way they say their vows. Everyone in the room is masked except for the bride and the groom and the small celebrant, who must have united a thousand couples with his simple secular words, but still manages to light them with new humour and understanding. It is impossible to be solemn, standing in our odd, unnatural groupings, as they repeat their promises back to each other, and into the camera in the corner of the room, which holds absent friends, and absent bridesmaids, and families up before dawn to watch a marriage over the internet. We are masked, but you can see all our smiles anyway.
The weather is grey, the courtyard is deserted and beautiful, and the fountain foams like the champagne we sip from plastic flutes. The bride’s dress soaks up the rain from the flagstones because this, after all, is a London wedding, but the flowers are brighter in the surrounding gloom. The groom is a bunched ball of joy; he can’t stop smiling in his blue suit with his new bride, he looks into her eyes like he’s won the lottery.
Walking down the streets to the reception only takes ten minutes but we are heralded by a hundred London commuters slamming sanitised hands on their horns for this union of strangers. The drivers of the red buses won’t join in, but everyone else does. It feels like confirmation that underneath the storm, the earth holds firm; this love is bedrock, and the virus merely another troubled sea. Even as walking in a group of thirteen feels like an impossible crime; even as hugging best friends feels unfamiliar.
The reception is held in the upstairs room of The Alma, and when we enter the busy pub, the entire room applauds, like a scene in a romantic movie where everything turns out alright in the end. They are on their feet as we walk up the stairs, and they are not just applauding at the handsome groom with his immense grin, and not just at the beautiful bride holding her skirt as she ascends, but at the fact that they can share in the joy of strangers, and have one moment of perfect pleasure.
The room is big, and for just a moment you feel the gaps. Wedding receptions are places where you get reunited with old friends, and where cousins stand awkwardly in corners, and where children chase each other in mad tangles under tables. At wedding receptions you peer anxiously around for waiters to get food; you chase empty trays of glasses to top yourself up. There are no crowds here, only the same familiar few who have dragged each other through the long lonely months, and found themselves here. It feels like a reward.
The wedding favours are hand sanitisers emblazoned with the date. The food and wine is delicious, and the waitress smiles as she tops up negronis. The polaroid pictures grow blurry and dramatic as the 10pm curfew approaches. The music is warm and familiar, part of the bones of the friendships. We cannot dance; we are not allowed to touch, but we lean into each other as much as we can, we circle and sway. There are no speeches and no readings, but there are plenty of declarations of love.
It is not the wedding they planned, but it is perfect anyway. They are not from London, but I know them as a London couple, together through hard jobs and difficult flatmates; through heat waves and road trips and protests and Sunday afternoons and moving days and picnics and gigs and theatres and restaurants and long walks in parks. I know them under umbrellas and covered in glitter; wet with sea salt and drenched by rain. I know them shoulder to shoulder on wooden pub tables and smeared with sunscreen in July. They are small bedrooms that smell of smoke, and happy reunions in crowded festivals. They are a couple who wait for each other, and put each other first. They make sense as individuals, but better sense hand-in-hand.
She is vivid and stunning; she is all eyes; she is a stream of hair and a blur of tulle. This is not the wedding it was supposed to be, in a bare New Zealand landscape topped with empty skies. We haven’t toasted marshmallows, nor stood in a tent, nor posed against a low yellow hotel.
He is tall and impossibly happy, he is bright teeth and crushing hugs. They are never far from each other, his hand on her bare back, their heads tipped together for pictures. In the Polaroids they are shoulder to shoulder and indistinguishable, they meet in the middle in a flash of light.