Every wedding has a moment where something goes wrong and ours (ten years ago, incredibly) was no exception. I suppose you could say that at least we got ours out of the way early on.
On the morning of our wedding, I was painted and pinned, then poured and adjusted into my white lace wedding dress (oh, how I love that dress!) and acres of tulle veil (ditto!). I was (unusually for me in any scenario, let alone this one) in a state of Zen like calm, just happy. Finally, the hour cometh and I was packed into the magnificent Mr Toad-style bridal car* with my beloved half brother, who was giving me away. The bridesmaids piled into the car behind and we set off on the six mile trip to Romsey Abbey.
What could possibly go wrong now?
It was a happy journey. I had never realised the number of drivers who cheerfully honk and wave when faced with a wedding car. You are nice people. Big Brother was soon in animated conversation with the driver about the Mr Toad car and Romsey was (coincidentally) decked out festively in bunting. The Abbey bells ringing and they were ringing for us. It felt wonderful.
Only as we drew up at the abbey was my sense of bridal bliss slightly dented. I had not realised that the ringing of the bells would attract quite a crowd. Also, in stark contrast to all the rules of bridal panic and maidenly reserve, I was early. Guests were still arriving. So, we drove up, the crowd, bless them, cheered and we drove off again. During the subsequent, unscheduled tour of Romsey, nervousness started to enter my life. After about ten unending minutes, We decided: It Was Time. We drew up at the door of the abbey. Again. The crowd, gamely, cheered. Again. But as we drew to a stop, I noticed a clutch of bridesmaids, apparently in nervous confabulation. I confess it never occurred to me that perhaps the groom had headed for Hy-Brazil on a one way ticket: indeed my immediate thought was, ‘oh God, somebody’s died’ (if you knew my family’s track record, you would realise that this is a perfectly well-adjusted reaction). Not for the first time, I thanked heaven that I had opted for four grown up bridesmaids (plus flower girl and page boy). All the former were ladies of iron nerve and likely to be able to calm me (or my mother) with the aid of a gin and tonic in less than ten minutes — and they were looking worried. The bridesmaid who had clearly drawn the short straw got into the car (huge old one, remember) knelt down before me and took my hands. She took a deep breath and announced,
‘Marcus isn’t here yet.’
Marcus!? My dear friend, my Oxford wing man, he who knew me so well: he who was a trainee vicar and supposed to be preaching the sermon at our wedding?! That Marcus?
Fortuitously, none of this sunk in immediately. A second bridesmaid came forward and said bracingly,
‘I should drive round the block again, if I were you.’
So, presumably to the surprise of the crowd, off we went. Again.
As we drove away, the immensity of my dear friend’s crime sank in. The bastard! David Emanuel famously said of Princess Diana getting out of the wedding coach that she was like a butterfly emerging from the chrysalis. The transformation that went on in my wedding car was that of happy bride to a homicidal maniac in white lace. Two things were in my favour. Firstly: I was uncharacteristically rendered catatonic with rage and, secondly, wonderful Anna, my cousin and makeup artist for the day, had applied so many layers of powder, foundation, concealer — and, quite possibly, stucco — to my face, that it was immaterial whether my face turned furious purple or not; no one could see it.
Meanwhile back at the abbey, quite a lot was going on and one or two rather important things were not going on. Not one of the half dozen ushers, for instance, had thought to tell the groom what was happening, so he, marooned at the top of a very long aisle in front of two hundred and fifty people, was starting to worry. Did I mention that he isn’t particularly comfortable in front of large amounts of people?
Although the wretched Marcus was AWOL nobody could say were exactly short of clergy. There was the amazing Reverend Tim Sledge (whose church it actually was and who was actually marrying us). There was our vicar from home and there was our wonderful lay reader from home, who had known me from a child, and there was the curate of Romsey Abbey. So, it seems, a certain amount of urgent confabulation about who was to do the sermon was going on in the vestry. Meanwhile mobile calls were flying back and forth across the ether. It appeared that our wedding clashed with Farnborough air show and the M3 from London was blocked solid. This may have been an error of scheduling on our part but I had sought to counter the unforeseen by asking Marcus to stay with us the night before the wedding: In Case Anything Went Wrong. With a blasé certainty that I have seldom seen outside the Environment Agency, Marcus had informed me a week before that I was not to be silly. I believe the term ‘bridezilla’ was used.
Seconds before my third arrival, Marcus made his entrance. By all accounts it was a memorable one. The congregation was, naturally, expecting someone to come down the aisle in a white dress but (I am reliably informed) the sight of Marcus legging it down the side aisle to the vestry, pulling his robes over his head as he ran, left a lot of people confused. Only the groom was unsurprised.
Outside the abbey, the crowd cheered again (it was a bit half-hearted, this time) and I emerged from the car. There followed the episode which I think of as the launching of the Cutty Sark. The theory was that my five-foot train and tulle veil should fall to the same length. The bridesmaids, working gallantly to make this a reality, must have thanked god there was no wind, or I might have heeled over like a tea clipper in a gale.
While I was being made ready for launching, I caught sight of Marcus. He looked apologetic; this is very unusual. I shot him a look full of pure white bridal malevolence and pulled a finger across my throat. At this point, someone pulled the front of the veil down over my face. Oh, I thought, that’s what it’s for. I knew, from Nancy Mitford and Jilly Cooper, (I did research, you see) that brides have a tendency to look either too soulful or too eager, going up the aisle. I must say, I haven’t noted it in other brides but my own expression at this point probably merited a thicker veil.
Suddenly the organ started up and the first strains of Parry’s ‘I Was Glad’ swelled out. (I would like to point out that this was a year before William and Kate.) If you are getting married in a large church, this is an an anthem with much to recommend it; the opening section gives the bridal party time to form up, get going and left/right turn (again, something that you need to commit to in a train and veil) before the main part of the anthem kicks in (all spoken like a true music lover, this, I know).
I had one nasty moment as I came in to the church, as my veil caught in the doorway. I felt a tremendous tug (which freed the wretched veil) and, for a ghastly moment, envisaged piles of hair collapsing amidst the tulle. I had reckoned without Hazel and Anna, however: who had created, with hair pins and hair spray, an edifice that would have survived a bomb blast and as I moved forward, I realised that I was going to make it up the aisle hair and veil in place.
And from there on in, I relaxed into the wonder of it. Walking down the aisle, I felt the waves of good will radiating out to us. I remember the smiles: of my cousin, Alice, and a very old friend, Vanessa, in particular. And then I saw Him at the top of the aisle, a Botticelli model in a grey tail coat. I don’t think I really noticed anyone else after that. I don’t think I had quite realised, until that point, what a transcendentally wonderful thing it would be to say wedding vows to the person I loved.
So that was when He became Husband and it’s still the happiest moment of my life. (If you are wondering what He thinks, you must keep wondering, I’m afraid; he is not a great believer in having his emotions set down in black and white.)
Speaking of things set down in black and white, we did get our sermon (me glowering up at pulpit through the mists of tulle). A rousing description of what marriage should be, ended with the words, ‘and yes, it’s about sex’. (I am reliably informed by someone at the back of the church that every hatted head flipped up at this.)
What else? Oh yes, as we came back down the aisle, I noticed a white rose lying on the flag stones before me. It had something of medieval chivalry about it, I thought dazedly. It later transpired that my oldest friend, (an usher — since he was, by now, a pretty long-standing friend of Husband’s too) had managed to cut off his buttonhole with his order of service sheet. Coincidentally (or not) it was the same usher who banged on the door of our room that night and asked for £20 for a taxi. I’d have made him walk but, there, I had taken the precaution of marrying a much nicer person than I.
*I highly recommend these to all brides, especially if you have gone for a big dress, because these cars have acres of room; I suppose you would expect the Edwardians to know a thing or two about accommodating long skirts and the odd train.