Pledging your life to another person is quite a big step. Doing it in a pandemic is something else altogether.
It’s just over a week before our wedding. I get a message. One of my bridesmaids met with a friend and that friend has discovered they are COVID-positive. My bridesmaid tries to get tested but doesn’t manage it for the next ten days, giving me time to imagine at leisure what could happen if she came while unwittingly carrying the virus. What I imagine is the damned side of a Bosch triptych.
My levels of paranoia quickly reach coked-up Ray Liotta at the end of Goodfellas. I refuse to see or touch anyone. Those helicopters are following me. I have to tell my bridesmaid she can’t come to our wedding. For good measure, I also tell her that because the tests aren’t 100% accurate she can’t come even if she tests negative. I am consumed by guilt, and to assuage it, consume a whole month’s recommended alcohol intake within a few days, binge-drinking Rescue Remedy.
There was a time, I remember, when my engagement was going to be lovely and generic. I imagined the wedding would be the same. This period ends on February 8th. We’re in Devon, where I grew up and where we’re getting married. My future father-in-law pulls the paper over. COVID-19 – a virus that sounds like one of the tediously named planets at the arse-end of the universe – is sweeping through Wuhan. On the front page, Li Wenliang, the doctor whistle-blower, is dead.
From this moment I know our wedding plans are deeply and darkly fucked. Still, never one to let a plague ruin my plans, we nip to the church to meet the vicar and set a date. We pick the week after my birthday: September, when the light is warm and soft and ’tis the season of mellow fruitfulness; when farmers are jovial and race around in their tractors having taken enormous amounts of whizz to complete the harvest season.
Then it hits: lockdown. Friends’ weddings are cancelled. All weddings. All life as we know it is cancelled. But in a fever of optimism, we sent out invites to 60-odd people. This will prove to be the first of many miscalculations.
For months there’s not much we can do but alternately hope and imagine awful scenarios. I started running up hills, a pursuit reserved for maniacs. I’ve also started taking 4am walks and hugging the huge cedar tree in the garden. Fortunately, the man I’m marrying thinks this is quite a sensible thing to do under the circumstances and joins me. Under the tree we get our act together for martial law instead of marital bliss.
Suddenly, there are more pressing concerns. Lockdown is over. Now we must focus on practicalities: we need rings. For rings we need gold. But the problem, we realise, is the price of gold is going up. I look at graphs with angry lines and am adamant we hold off a while. Miscalculation. The price of gold soon reaches an all-time high as people fear the breakdown not only of the global economy, and civilisation as we know it. That was how we bought the most expensive gold known to man. The man I’m marrying, a financial journalist, tries to rationalise the purchase, saying, ‘If we live for another sixty years, or even seventy if we start fasting, it’ll work out at £6 a year. It’s an investment.’
I’m not great with money but I am good with potatoes and have often dreamed of returning to a medieval-style potato bartering system, which is now looking hopeful. I keep a sprouting potato in the cupboard, a custom I acquired from my mother, who always kept at least one bag of germinating potatoes in the boot of her car. I put it in a large pot on the balcony and soon it’s growing hundreds of little potatoes. However, I don’t brag about my potato harvest, as balconies quickly become a privilege issue and I’m afraid of being attacked for having a balcony despite having lost all my work.
The village church we’re to be married in was supposed to re-open in June. In August we receive an email saying that it won’t even re-open by September due to mysterious cleaning issues. Thus begins our battle with the parish committee. The head of the committee has a thing for bureaucracy. Now, I’m not here to kink-shame anyone, but this man is a petit bourgeois vigilante (PBV). He wants to close off the whole village, but closing the church is all the control he can exercise, so he’s determined to exercise it on us.
I was christened in that church, my grandfather is buried somewhere in that graveyard – we’re not entirely sure where – the vigilante’s father was a nice man who used to give us potatoes and I have ancient, fond memories of being told off by the previous vicar. I am getting married there.
‘If they won’t open the doors, can we get married outside the church?’ I ask this vicar. No, we can’t. I’m keeping my name and that’s more than has ever been asked in this parish. If you get married outside you are officially practising paganism, he warns, while adding we can’t get married later than 3.30pm: we have to be wed before sundown.
We offer to clean the church ourselves. We’re informed there are rodent droppings. We are unafraid. I’ll eat them for breakfast! My husband tells me that I will do no such thing the day before I get married. Our friend offers to rally her army of cleaners and sponge the church to NHS standards. The parish vigilantes can’t say no to this: the church will open.
On the day of cleaning, in one final, impressive display of power and machismo – and despite the fact we’re legally not allowed to sing during the ceremony – the PBV makes the cleaners disinfect every single hymnbook.
The countdown begins. My elderly father comes from Spain two weeks early to attempt quarantine in our one-bedroom flat. At every government announcement we hold our breath and forget to breathe again for two weeks (it’s one less thing to do and it keeps my father safe). Regulations get tighter, so we’re now required to uninvite 30-odd people – an event that has become known as the ‘massacre of the innocents’. Initially, this is a horrendous exercise undertaken with a lot of weepy self-flagellation. But as we creep into the double digits, we become ruthless de-inviting machines, tearing up our spreadsheets and de-inviting at will. There’s an eerie calm for a few days after this crazed spate of culling people we love, then we realise our new miscalculation: we forgot to include ourselves in the numbers. It now seems preferable just to uninvite ourselves.
Having narrowly avoided calling the whole thing off, the next challenge is the reception taking place entirely outdoors, to avoid being responsible for anyone’s untimely death. So we’re really rooting for good weather. Instead we’ve had two summer storms. We’re warned that if the weather stays like this the marquee won’t stand up in gale-force winds and the boggy ground won’t support it anyway. I wander around with a twitching eyelid and matted hair muttering, ‘Indian summer, the Indian summer is coming,’ while people look at me pityingly. We’re having a wedding during a pandemic, how the fuck is the weather still the most pressing problem?
Despite abiding by the rules, we’re erecting a marquee where a local family were busted by the Devonshire constabulary for having a family birthday party for a 92-year-old. Neighbours have been asking what’s going on. So we have to prepare ourselves for a raid, again. This is mostly psychological preparation and involves informing guests not to be alarmed if armed police storm the candlelit marquee during speeches. Oh, and if guests could kindly print off these ‘test and trace’ forms to fill out while enjoying the canapés.
Somehow, our wedding day arrives. The weather is perfect. My family is alive and able to join us. I haven’t slept for six weeks but the hallucinations only help pack out the crowd. I don’t get stuck behind a tractor on the way to the church but I do get stuck behind a hedge-cutter. Sadly this guy hasn’t taken any whizz, so I’m late, but not so late that the sun’s gone down. In church, I turn to my family and my mother smiles. At least I assume she smiles. I can’t see anyone’s expression because they’re all wearing masks.
We wear our gold wedding rings, which are worth more than their weight in gold. The night draws to a close, my husband and I sit around the bonfire and as the smoke seeps into our clothes I lean in and whisper, ‘I am never getting married again.’