I got married in January in my dead grandmother’s fur coat. I had to take it to the furrier afterwards as the seams had split. The furrier thought that the soft chestnut fur was dyed ermine and said it wasn’t worth getting it repaired; it had split too many times before. The coat probably hadn’t been kept cold enough during the summers, he explained.
There were only 12 family members and one Irish friend at our wedding in a Catholic church in Kingsway. Even the flowers weren’t ours. The priest had suggested that we use ones left over from a splendid Irish wedding there the day before. I walked up the aisle in the fur coat and a short orange dress I’d just bought in the Harrods sale. I felt rather sick. I was three months pregnant and recovering from mumps. When the wedding march started, I realised, too late, that I’d missed my chance of doing it properly. Now I’d never have a white wedding.
I’d already been living with my husband for two years when we decided to get married. It seemed out of place to have a conventional wedding. Why then did I feel that regret as I walked up the aisle about not being a ‘real’ bride? Why, at the last moment, did I make a bid for respectability by asking my Catholic godmother’s husband to give me away? (One reason was that my father was dead and my brother was embroiled in a dispute with his Hackney neighbour, who kept banging on his door and holding up new-born puppies, threatening to sue him and his mongrel Sid for paternity unless he found them homes. Already ‘stressed out’, it was doubtful that he would be able to get out of bed in time for the morning ceremony. He did.)
Of course in not having a white wedding, I was simply following the habits of my friends and peers. Most of us in the Seventies married in registry offices. There was something phoney and passé about the old-fashioned conventional wedding (or so we thought), particularly if you’d been living with the man already. I recall only one exception: R., a young woman who had two white weddings in three years. Her first marriage collapsed at once and at her second full-blown wedding in some formal church near the Strand, she was literally bursting with her prospective husband’s child. Soon that marriage folded and she married once more.
My American friend Liza, who’d been at acting school in London, married a gay friend of mine in a Kensington registry office for £200 so that she’d be able to join Equity and work in English rep. None of the other men she’d asked could go through with it. A couple of ‘straight’ men, still in their twenties, at first thought it would be ‘a bit of a lark’ but then balked, saying that, after all, they took marriage seriously and couldn’t possibly have a fake wedding, even for £200. Initially hard-headed in the determination with which she’d approached various men with her offer, Liza lost her cool when it came to the actual event. That morning she bought a romantic flowery dress and large straw hat from Biba, and at the party one of us threw for her with fizzy white wine she wept tears of remorse. A few years on, after she had divorced her gay husband and remarried, in a respectable Jewish-Episcopalian ceremony, her first husband suddenly spotted her in the first Superman film. He nudged his current boyfriend excitedly: ‘That woman is my ex-wife!’
My grandmother had died a few months before I met my husband. For years she had held onto three bottles of pink champagne for my wedding. She had been longing to see me ‘settled’. It had never occurred to her that I might be happier single, though once while we were walking round her garden, she admitted that some women married ‘just to have children’.
For a short time she had fantasised that I would many M., a young man who would inherit a stately home. My grandmother dubbed him ‘the Duke’, no doubt hoping that the flippant nickname would disguise the fervour of her hopes for me. When she realised I wasn’t interested, she joked that it would be better if I married a sweep. Sweeps would always be in demand and my future husband could earn a proper living.
As we walked round the flower-beds she had planted, my grandmother would reminisce about past weddings – and divorces in her enormous extended family. There was, for instance, the odd telegram she once received about her nephew, from her sister in Ireland: ‘Ordy engaged Jean Hot Ham.’ The future bride’s surname was actually Hutham. Ordy’s wedding to Jean Hot Ham – he claimed to have fallen in love with her as a teenager because of the way she scoffed buns – resulted in an incredibly long and happy marriage, even after the couple were kidnapped, in their eighties, by the IRA, who mistakenly thought he had a role in the House of Lords. He and his captors passed the time exchanging racing tips and ended up friends.
My grandmother married twice. She was the fourth daughter of an Irishman who had gone to Peru with his brother in the 1850s and made a fortune out of exporting guano. He had then settled in England, where he ran the London office of the company. My great-grandfather must have been socially ambitious. For his country seat, he rented a huge old abbey in Sussex, and later he acquired a town house on a 99-year lease in Belgrave Square.
My grandmother’s three older sisters had all ‘married well’ – to an Irish peer, an American millionaire and an English baronet. My grandmother was the youngest by ten years. She told me that her father had apologised to her for not being able to provide a big enough dowry to entice a certain young lord. ‘I can find my own husband, thank you. You don’t have to buy me one!’ my grandmother had retorted.
My grandfather, a soldier in the 13th Hussars, had proposed to her on a train. ‘I didn’t take him seriously at first,’ she explained. ‘When young men proposed to me I just thought they were drunk.’ She was still not in love with him when she accepted his offer several weeks later. ‘I was attracted to another man with black hair and dark skin,’ she confessed. ‘But my friends all told me he was a cad. I decided to listen to them.’
The wedding took place in St Peter’s, Eaton Square. My grandmother fell – deeply – in love with her husband after they married. She had three years of happiness, till 1914, when he was sent to fight in France. Last week I finally opened the box full of her love-letters to my grandfather. I had been keeping it under a table, for 17 years, since my grandmother died.
This is the last letter I shall write before I see you. Darling, I do want you so. I’m trying not to get too excited before the time comes ... Oh the joy of it all. Somehow I feel that this will be the nicest leave yet. Oh I could curse and swear at the war. I don’t want to wait for my happiness.
My grandfather was killed a few days later in a car accident, on an afternoon’s leave in France. My mother had just had her third birthday.
My grandmother, a young widow, was courted heavily over the next few years. Young men back from the war, she told me once, preferred widows to other young women, perhaps because they were more used to men. She soon married again, a colonel with very blond hair who wanted to be an architect. My mother, an only child of five, was a bridesmaid at the wedding.
When my grandmother died, three years before my own wedding, I had to sort out the contents of her house – the house into which she had moved as a young bride in 1913. In the attic was a trunk, full of lengths of beautiful material. Apparently they were part of my grandmother’s two wedding-dresses. Katherine, who’d worked at the house for fifty years, had, by the time of my grandmother’s death, become her closest companion. (The colonel had died in 1955.) But even Katherine wasn’t certain which material belonged to which wedding.
My own husband had some of the material framed for me, as a birthday present. It hangs now, in three large picture frames, in my house; but until last week, I still didn’t know which material applied to which wedding. Some of it is rather grand, heavy cream satin, embroidered with little silver beads in the shape of tulips and decorated with fake seed pearls. The one I like best is more delicate – a long strip of flimsy white material, hemmed with little daisies and poppies, as though they’d been planted on the edge of a field. Perhaps it isn’t even the wedding-dress, but the petticoat, but to me it best represents my grandmother.
It’s easy to idealise the older generation, to see them as symbols of stability. I remember once in my twenties, during some hopeless love affair, seeing the elderly parents of a friend getting out of a taxi in Soho. Calm and grey-haired, immaculately-dressed, they walked arm in arm towards one of the theatres on Shaftesbury Avenue. I longed to be married myself, or thought I did, to the young man who was treating me badly. I subsequently found out that my friend’s father, who looked so solicitous of his wife, had been having affairs for years, and indeed, was having one at the moment I saw them.
Even now, one part of me wants to subscribe to the myth of ‘happy ever after’. Recently my 40-year-old cousin, an incurable romantic, decided to get married on a Spanish island, the former home of his grandparents. I booked myself and my son into a Swedish hotel for the event, combining the trip, rather adroitly, with a travel article. A week before leaving England, I rang my cousin in London and found that the wedding had been postponed. One reason he gave – disarmingly, I thought – was that his brother, who runs a printing firm, had asked for a down payment before he ran off the 300 wedding invitations.
I was disappointed about the wedding being cancelled, especially after I learned that my romantic cousin had arranged for him and his bride, in full regalia, to descend the 365 steps of the Calvario, the stone steps bordered by cypresses and by the Stations of the Cross, with bridesmaids and wedding guests streaming behind them. On our last evening on the island, my son and I walked almost to the top of the Calvario. Yes, it would have been a wonderful wedding. Ahead of us was the mountain with its ancient monastery on top. A few cats slunk about, someone was playing Chopin and, halfway down the long flight of steps near a prickly pear, an old man and woman sat outside their houses chatting across the steps to each other.
On the Iberia flight back to London, I talked to an amiable young Lebanese businessman whose parents owned a house on the island. In the departure lounge I had noticed a graceful woman, possibly Indian, dressed in cream and white, calmly reading a book. About halfway through the flight, I realised she was sitting in the row in front of us. After lunch, she stood up, leaned over her seat and began talking to my neighbour. ‘Did you enjoy the wedding?’ she asked him in beautiful English.
She said she was Persian and talked charmingly to my son, calling him ‘darling’, and explaining that her two sons, like him, were also interested in plants, particularly cacti. (My son had smuggled two large rubber plants into the plane in plastic bags.) I was intrigued. Was she related to the ex-Shah of Persia? Was she a princess perhaps? Hoping to find out, I mentioned the only other Persian woman I knew in London. She didn’t know her.
I then realised that several of the other passengers had an extra-glossy look; not just suntan, but something else I couldn’t define. My Lebanese neighbour began reading his Spanish newspaper. Then he leaned across the aisle to a particularly golden-skinned young man.
‘Have you seen this?’
He pointed out a photograph, obviously of the wedding they’d all just been to. Whose wedding was it? I was now burning with curiosity. Why on earth hadn’t I taken a copy of the news paper at the beginning of the flight? I couldn’t bring myself to say to my neighbour: ‘Oh do let me see your paper!’ It was too embarrassing. As I began to pluck up my courage I realised it was too late. The Lebanese man was leaning across the aisle again and courteously handing over the whole newspaper to the glossy blond man.
‘Please keep it if you like.’
Now we had landed. Suddenly there was a terrible cry from the seat in front. A passenger, pulling his luggage from the overhead compartment in a hurry, had dropped a small suitcase on the head of the Persian woman who, her face red with pain and shock, immediately changed character.
‘Please give me your telephone number. My teeth clashed horribly. I may have whiplash.’
The young man stood grinning idiotically. The English couple seated next to her tried to help. I guessed that they had also been to the wedding. When the young man refused to divulge his number, the middle-aged Englishwoman rang the bell for a stewardess. My son, excited by the drama, and genuinely sorry for the woman who had been so kind to him and his plants, did the same.
‘You’d better give us your number. You don’t know who you’re dealing with!’ said this Englishwoman threateningly to the young man, as we all waited.
This was exciting. Was she referring to herself, or to the Persian lady who, I suddenly thought, far from being related to the Shah, might actually be hand-in-glove with mullahs and in a position to hand out death threats? Or was she indeed glamorous deposed royalty, with a personal bodyguard waiting at Heathrow who might do the young man in? Did the tough Englishwoman mean that she and her husband had some sort of clout in the government? Perhaps her husband was a Conservative MP? I started to feel sorry for the young man who had dropped the suitcase.
We began to file out of the plane. I was now obsessed with getting hold of a copy of the newspaper. I was desperate to find out more about the wedding guests. Like a pig hunting for truffles, with impatient passengers behind me, I searched at breakneck speed for a discarded copy and finally grabbed one from a seat just before we exited. I glanced behind me and saw the young man, in the company of a stewardess, finally write something on a pad. As we walked towards Passport Control I tore the paper open. The society page had been ripped out. Now I would never know who they all were. I had again been deprived of a proper wedding.
A week later, I bought Hello! magazine to see if the wedding was in it. It wasn‘t. That weekend, I searched again in the attic for records of my grandmother. At last I found what I wanted, an album with photographs of her second wedding. There was my mother, the five-year-old bridesmaid, looking very serious. There was the blond colonel. And there was my grandmother, very much the young widow, in a dark broad-brimmed hat, and a darkish skirt with no embroidery or decoration. So now I know about the two wedding-dresses and which wedding is which. I assume that the white underskirt, with its daisies mid poppies, is from the first wedding as well.