Man and Wife, p.1
Man and Wife
For my father
Table of Contents
Part One: The Man of Her Dreams
Part Two: Your Heart is a Small Miracle
Part Three: The Greatest Girl in the History of the World
By the Same Author
About the Publisher
part one: the man of her dreams
The Most Beautiful Girl in the World
My son comes to my wedding.
He’s my best man. That’s what I tell him. ‘You’re my best man, Pat.’ He looks pleased. He has never been a best man before. Not that he makes a smirking speech about what I got up to with sheep during my wild youth, or tries to get off with the bridesmaid, or even gets to look after the rings. He’s only six years old.
So Pat’s best man duties are largely ceremonial. But I mean it when I tell him that he is my best man.
He’s the best of me, my son, and this special day would feel hollow if he wasn’t here.
In a few days’ time, when the wedding cake has gone and the new married life has begun, and the world starts getting back to normal, some teacher will ask Pat what he did at the weekend.
‘I went to my dad’s wedding,’ he will say.
And although he doesn’t tell me any more than that, I can guess at the knowing laughter that unguarded, innocent remark, endlessly replayed, will cause in the staff room. How they will chuckle. How they will sigh. A sign of the times, my son’s teachers will think. Children spending the weekend watching one of their parents get spliced. What a world, eh?
I know that my father would have felt the same way, although the old man wouldn’t have found it remotely funny.
Even in his last years, when he was finally becoming resigned to what modern men and women do to their lives, and to the lives of their children, I know that my dad really wouldn’t have wanted his grandson to spend his Saturday afternoon watching me get married. A nice kickabout in the park would have been all the excitement he needed.
But I think they are all wrong – my son’s teachers, my father, anyone who thinks that the first time should be considered more special than the last time.
Placing no other above thee…
What can be bad about placing no other above thee? How can another try at getting it right ever be wrong? Unless you’re Elizabeth Taylor.
As the years pass, and I start to see more of my father staring at me from the mirror, I find myself more often than not in agreement with his views on the lousy modern world.
But you were wrong about this one, Dad.
We all deserve a second chance to find the love we crave, we all warrant another go at our happy ending, one final attempt to turn our life into something from one of those songs you loved so much.
One of the old songs.
It’s a small wedding. Tiny, even. Just a few close friends, what’s left of our families – our mothers, our children, her sisters, my dad’s brothers, my mum’s brothers – and the two of us.
Me, and the most beautiful girl in the world.
And I can’t stop looking at her.
Can’t take my eyes off that fabulous face.
Can’t get over how wonderful she looks today, smiling in the back of our black cab, making our way to that little room on Rosebery Avenue where we are to be married.
I feel like I am seeing Cyd for the very first time. Does every man feel this way? Even grooms with plain brides? Does every man feel that his bride is the most beautiful girl in the world? Probably.
With all my heart, I want the best for her. I want this day to be perfect, and it chews me up because I know that it can never be perfect.
There’s no father to stand by her side, and no father to welcome her into a new family.
Our dads were both working men from the old school, strong and gentle and unsentimental, and those tough men from that tough generation had hearts and lungs that proved surprisingly fragile.
Our fathers went years before their time, and I know that we will miss them today, today more than ever.
And there are other reasons why there will be a few clouds hanging over this perfect day.
There will be no church bells for us, no hymns, no doting vicar to join us together, and tell us when we are allowed to kiss. Because no church would have us. Too many miles on the clock, you see. Too much life lived.
I thought that I would regret that too. The lack of the sanctified. I thought that would be a definite damper on the proceedings.
But when she takes my hand, somehow it doesn’t matter any more, because I can sense something sacred in the small, secular room with the women in their hats, the men in their suits, the children in what my mum would call their Sunday best.
Everybody smiling, happy for us, white lilies everywhere, their scent filling the air.
There’s no place more sacred than this place.
And if anyone is blessed, then we are blessed.
A small wedding. It’s what we both wanted. Making official what we have known from very near the start – that we are building a life together.
And to tell the world – the best is yet to come. What could be more hopeful than that? What could be more right? More sacred?
If I am honest, there’s a large chunk of me that is relieved to be avoiding the traditional wedding.
I am glad to be skipping so much of it – from the dearly beloved pieties of the church to the mildewed graveyard waiting just beyond the shower of confetti to the multi-generational disco where drunken uncles wave their arms in the air to ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’.
Goodbye to all that.
Just a simple ceremony joining together two complicated lives.
Lives that are not just beginning, lives that already have a history. And you can see the happiest part of those lives, those histories, in the two small children who stand with their grandmothers in the front row of what passes for the congregation.
A solemn little girl in a long yellow dress, primly clutching a bouquet of white flowers to her chest, a child with her mother’s wide-set eyes, dark hair and lovely face.
And a slightly younger boy in a bow tie and frilly dress shirt, no jacket – what’s he done with his jacket? He was wearing it the last time I looked – who can’t match the girl’s show of unsmiling formality, can’t even get close to it, so he grins shyly and shuffles inside his brand-new shoes, looking as though this is his very first time out of trainers.
Peggy and Pat.
Her daughter and my son.
My beautiful boy.
Pat is holding my mother’s hand. And as the registrar asks about the rings, I not
The smooth, sweet roundness of the baby and the toddler he once was is dissolving to be replaced by sharper, more angular lines. Time is moving on, slipping by when I wasn’t looking, and my boy is starting to look handsome rather than pretty. Growing up, every day.
Cyd smiles at me as though we are the last lovers left alive. And I think – no buts. I have absolutely no reservations about this woman. She’s the one. In sorrow and in joy, from this day forward. She’s the one.
And my spirit lifts because today I feel brand new, as though the good old days are about to finally start. Although there are many things behind us, some of them wretched and sad and painful, there’s also so much ahead of us, so much to look forward to, so much yet to come.
I am certain about this woman. I want to spend the rest of my life with her. In sickness and in health. For richer, for poorer. Forsaking all others. Fine by me. I want her face to be the last thing I see at night and the first thing I see in the morning. I want to watch that face as it changes through the years. I want to know every birthmark on her body, to commit every freckle to memory. To have and to hold. Until death do us part. Count me in. Good. Great. Where do I sign up?
There’s just one tiny, tiny pang of doubt…
And I force it from my mind, refuse to acknowledge its existence. It doesn’t go away. It’s a small and distant misgiving, lurking in some secret part of my heart, but I can’t deny it’s there.
Not so much a cloud over this perfect day, more of a distant rumbling of thunder.
You see, I know that I am in this room for two reasons. Because I love her, certainly. I love my bride. I love my Cyd. But also – how can I put it? – because I want to rebuild my family.
It’s not just the husband bit that I want to get right this second time around.
It’s also being a father.
To her daughter. To any children we may have together. And to my boy. I want a family for him, too, as well as myself. A family for my boy. For both of us.
A family once more.
I am here for this incredible woman. But I am also here for my son.
Is that okay? Is it forgivable to be here for two reasons? For two people? Is it all right that our love story isn’t the full story?
Someone is talking to us so I try to ignore that sound of faraway thunder. The registrar is asking the bride if she promises to love and to cherish.
‘I do,’ says my wife.
I draw a deeper breath.
And I do, too.
My son has a new father.
He doesn’t actually call the guy dad – come on, he wouldn’t do that to me – but I can’t kid myself. This guy – Richard, bloody Richard – has replaced me in all the ways that matter.
Richard is there when my son eats his breakfast (Coco Pops, right? See, Pat, I still remember the Coco Pops). Richard is there when my boy plays quietly with his Star Wars toys (playing quietly because Richard is more of a Harry Potter man, not so big on light sabres and Death Stars and Jedi Knights).
And Richard is there at night sharing a bed with the mother of my son.
Let’s not forget that bit.
‘So how’s it going?’
I asked my son the same question every Sunday as we took our places in the burger bar, our Happy Meals between us, among all the dads and little boys and girls just like us. You know. The weekend families.
‘Good,’ he said.
That was all. Good? Just good? And it’s funny, and a little bit sad, because when he was smaller, you couldn’t stop him talking, he was full of questions.
How do I know when to wake up? Where do I go when I am asleep? How do I grow up? Why doesn’t the sky stop? You’re not going to die, are you? Obviously we’re not going to die, right? And is a Death Star bigger than the moon?
You couldn’t shut him up in the old days.
‘School’s okay? You get on with everyone in your class? You’re feeling all right about things, darling?’
I never asked him about Richard.
‘Good,’ he repeated, poker-faced, drawing an impenetrable veil over his life with one little word. He picked up his burger in both hands, like a baby squirrel with a taste for junk food. And I watched him, realising that he was wearing clothes that I had never seen before. What family day out were they from? Why hadn’t I noticed them before? So many questions that I couldn’t even bring myself to ask him.
‘You like your teacher?’
He nodded, biting off more Happy Meal than he could possibly chew, and making further comment impossible. We went through this routine every weekend. We had been doing it for two years, ever since he went to live with his mother.
I asked him about school, friends and home.
He gave me his name, rank and serial number.
He was still recognisably the sweet-natured child with dirty-blond hair who once rode a bike called Bluebell. The same boy who was so cute at two years of age that people stopped to stare at him in the street, who insisted his name was Luke Skywalker when he was three, who tried to be very brave when his mother left me when he was four and everything began to fall apart.
Still my Pat.
But he didn’t open his heart to me any more – what frightened him, the things that made him happy, the stuff of his dreams, the parts of the world that puzzled him – why doesn’t the sky stop? – in the same way he did when he was small.
So much changes when they start school. Everything, in fact. You lose them then and you never really get them back. But it was more than school.
There was a distance between us that I couldn’t seem to bridge, no matter how hard I tried. There were walls dividing us, and they were the walls of his new home. Not so new now. Another few years and he would have spent most of his life living away from me.
‘What’s your Happy Meal taste like, Pat?’
He rolled his eyes. ‘You ever have a Happy Meal?’
‘I’ve got one right here.’
‘Well, that’s exactly what it tastes like.’
My son at seven years old. Sometimes I got on his nerves. I could tell.
We still had a good time together. When I gave up my inept interrogations, we had fun. The way we always had. Pat was a pleasure to be around – easy-going, sunny-natured, game for a laugh. But it was different now that our time together was rationed. This time together had a sheen of desperation because I couldn’t stand to see him disappointed or sad. Any minor unhappiness, no matter how temporary, gnawed at me in a way that it really hadn’t when we still shared a home.
These Sundays were the high point of my week. Although things were going well for me at work now, nothing was as good as this day, this whole glorious day, that I got to spend with my boy.
We didn’t do anything special, just the same things we had always done, bouncing merrily between food and football, park and pictures, games arcade and shopping mall. Happily frittering away the hours.
But it felt different from when we lived together because now, at the end of all these ordinary, perfect days, we had to say goodbye.
The clock was always running.
There was a time in our lives, in that brief period when I was looking after him alone, when his mother was in Japan, trying to reclaim the life she had given up for me, when I felt Pat and I were unique.
I stood at the gates of his primary school, separate from all the mothers waiting for their children, and I felt that there was nobody like us in the world. I couldn’t feel like that any more. The world was full of people like us. Even McDonald’s was full of people like us.
On Sundays the burger bar was always packed with one-day dads making stilted small talk with their children, these wary kids who came in all sizes, from lovely little nippers to pierced, surly teens, all those fathers making the best of it, looking from their child or children to their watch, trying to make up for all the lost time and never quite succeeding.
We avoided eye conta
As Pat and I lapsed into silence, I noticed that there was one of them at the next table being tortured by his daughter, a saucer-eyed ten-year-old in an Alice band.
‘Je suis végétarienne,’ said the little girl, pushing away her untouched Big Mac.
Her father’s mouth dropped open.
‘How can you possibly be vegetarian, Louise? You weren’t a vegetarian last week. You had that hot dog before The Lion King, remember?’
‘Je ne mange pas de viande,’ insisted the little girl. ‘Je ne mange pas de boeuf.’
‘I don’t believe it,’ said her father. ‘Why didn’t you tell me you’ve turned vegetarian? Why didn’t your mother?’
Poor bastard, I thought, and I saw the man’s love life flash before my eyes.
Probably a corporate romance, the woman in from the Paris office, trailing clouds of charm, Chanel and an accent that would make any grown man melt. Then a whirlwind courtship, seeing the sights of two cities, the time of moonlight and Interflora, an early pregnancy, probably unplanned, and then the woman buying a one-way ticket back to the old country when the sex wore off.
‘Je suis allergique aux Happy Meals,’ said the girl.
Pat had stopped eating. His mouth hung open with wonder. He was clearly impressed by the girl at the next table. Everything bigger children said or did impressed him. But this was something new. This was possibly the first time he had seen a bigger child speaking a foreign language outside the movies or TV.
‘Japanese?’ he whispered to me. He assumed all foreign languages were Japanese. His mother was fluent.
‘French,’ I whispered back.
He smiled at the little girl in the Alice band. She stared straight through him.