A surprise lockdown wedding

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.

A New Zealand wedding

In June I get married, but I have not been to very many weddings. I have never been a bridesmaid. Partially, this is because of my absence or the elopement of others; mostly it is because not very many of my good friends are married. We are growing up slowly, or, rather, doing things differently. Our milestones look different, and are further apart. But I am glad for marriages, and for flagrant, unabashed celebrations of unions. Marriage is just a piece of paper, but so is a poem, a promise, a contract, a treaty. I will never not be glad for two people, standing in front of loved ones, making promises to each other.

This week, I travelled a very long way to go to a wedding. If you were going to plan the perfect New Zealand wedding, it is this one. It takes place on a slanted green lawn (mown, at the behest of one of the grooms, in perfect straight lines) beneath an enormous green tree hung all over with paper lanterns. The pohutukawa is in bloom and the blue sky is bigger and bluer than it has been before. We cluster in the small patches of shade on the family property.

The guests are people with history. I talk to friends I haven’t seen for a decade, people whose sexual history and drunken antics I recall at the same time as hoping they have forgotten mine. Everyone is more beautiful than they used to be. We grew up crooked and not-quite-cool. We bought our clothes in surf shops and our make-up from a selection of five shades in a chemist. We had awkward haircuts and cheaply striped highlights. We had posters of All Blacks in underwear on our walls and drank Smirnoff from the bottle and ate dinner at 5pm. We text each other under 120 character restrictions, for 20 cents a pop and took our lecture notes on pads of paper. We are older now, and nicer. We tread around the edges of lives we no longer share. I look at pictures of babies and talk about babysitters. Where before I knew the details, now I know only the outlines.

I am an outsider, here. But I don’t feel like it as I watch two of my favourite people take hands and pledge love with an honesty and gratitude that pulses with life. I have left my sarcasm and skepticism at the door, and I hope never to let it back in as they gaze into each other’s eyes without blinking. Wide-eyed, the grooms survey a crowd of people who watched them wander, then find each other.

I know both grooms, but I know one particularly well. He is a perfectionist, and a planner. He is a fan of fine fabrics and matched textures. He likes to be certain. His is a wedding planned with precision, each minute allocated, with a timesheet that spans two pages. He is incremental and studied and certain, and I remember very well his certainty when he met his partner-to-be. I remember, too, that he feared his feelings, which were not careful or predictable, but instead fervid and frightening, and overflowing. He has nothing to be afraid of anymore.

I was frightened when he asked me to write a poem to be read at his wedding, especially when I learned that he didn’t want to hear it first. It was the only part of the ceremony he left beyond his control, and I was very aware of the responsibility of that. I played with the words for months before I wrote them, all in a burst, having woken up at midnight with everything neatly written in my unconsciousness.

As I read it, they watched me, taking in each word. It wasn’t easy to keep tremor from my voice (I am a nervous reader at the best of times) as their eyes welled up. In the end I forgot the crowd and only watched them, and I forgot to be nervous.

After the ceremony there were drinks, and then food and speeches, and I sat next to my fiance and across from a very old and extremely beloved friend, with my sister close by, and felt very very lucky. I am grateful for my life, but often sorry for things I have left behind. This week, I was reminded that geographical distance doesn’t need to mean anything; that true friends remain true; and that prolonged absence only means longer and better stories to tell upon reunion. Shared history is everything, and even your changes are shared. And every reunion is another strand to your history. This one is seedy motels and ginger crunch and blue views from green peaks, and the next one will be different, and the same. 

New Zealanders love a joke, and there were plenty of those at this wedding, but running through everything, from the anecdotes, to the cake the groom baked, was a thread of genuine unceremonial love. My wedding will look very different from this one, in nearly all respects, but I hope to draw that same thread with me across hemispheres, and pull it through my own vows, and my own relationship.

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For Rupert and Matt, on love

I want to spend a day behind your eyes, to see the world the way you do.

A piece of driftwood cast up on a black sand beach isn’t perfect by any reach of the imagination but in my imagination, we are sitting on it, our knuckles knots and bolts. There are boulders that rolled out of the earth whole and perfect as pearls, and then split upon arrival for no reason at all, other than the shock of arrival.

I am glad they don’t have a recording of the first time I saw you, standing tall across the room with your smile like a neon beam, because no one needs to see the moment I first understood all the fuss about Moby Dick.

The only secret I keep from you is that I like it when you get things wrong. I like it when your fingers slide off the keys and create discord, a new chord. I like reassuring you, and the way you look up. I always want to make you feel better.

People make a lot of fuss about fixing broken things, clay remade with gold, but perhaps we’re better staying as we are. Our time-rough edges have their own harmony.

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There is true love and then there is us: I would not have taken the apothecary’s poison, but rather stayed alive for 400 years, drawing pictures of you, the nose, and the eyes. I would need at least 400 years to get them right. I would draw caricatures on the street for money and each one would look like you. Dying with you would be a waste of all the things I could tell the world about you, because no one else gets to see your fingers slipping off the keys.

There are many worlds in which we did not meet. The driftwood floats on a rising tide, and there are whole perfect boulders still swallowed in the earth. The lovers live, the whale dies.

There are a thousand worlds in which we did not meet, and so, found together in this one, I will not risk leaving our sea-wrecked Oxford bench. I’m not afraid of time, and I close my eyes with you in them.