“Make yourselves comfortable, this could take some time” was my cheery cry to the last guests as they made their way up the path towards the church. Shit, why am I worrying? This isn’t my wedding after all. Still, knowing my family’s propensity for delay, plus the distance they have to travel, means I feel almost compelled to assure everyone that any excessive tardiness is not totally unexpected.
Eventually there was a flash of metal and two ostentatiously decorated cars meandered their way up the country path. The first disgorged four green bottles of wine, better known in their proper guise as the bridesmaids. They patiently stood in a gaggle as the silver Jaguar swung round, everyone craning for a look as the bride made her first appearance.
“Wait, stop! Don’t get out, sit there for a moment!”
Is there an issue with the train? A patch of mud in the way? No, it seems that the video cameras aren’t quite in position and so my sister has to wait for the shot to be arranged before she can step out into what quite thankfully has turned out to be bright sunshine.
With everything in place, the sound guy is given a nod and the church filled with music. By prior arrangement, the bridal procession is to be preceded by me escorting my mother to her seat. I resisted the overwhelming urge to turn to her and put on my ‘talk to old people voice’ and say “ALRIGHT DEAR? I’M HERE TO SHOW YOU TO YOUR SEAT. NOW ARE YOU BRIDE OR GROOM?” and instead merely parade gently with her to the front. Once there it becomes clear that either we walked far too fast or just set off too soon, as we now have to sit and wait for a full minute for the song to play through to the appropriate moment.
A word about the music my sister has chosen. Whilst I arrived at my wedding to the strains of Mark Knopfler, Rachel preferred a more conventional route and so went for the old faithful of the theme to Love Story. At dinner the previous night I had gently pointed out that she was choosing to arrive at the church to music that originally accompanied the moment when Ali McGraw’s character bought the farm due to cancer. I was assured that this juxtaposition had been considered and was unlikely to be spotted by anyone else. So it was that the music swelled to a climax, Ryan O’Neal shed some Oscar-nominated tears, the congregation rose to their feet and my sister proceeded down the aisle for the moment she had been building up to since Christmas.
As I watched this all unfold, even a committed atheist like myself couldn’t help but be more than slightly moved by the significance of where we are. Harewood Church closed for business, so to speak before I even moved to the village as a small child so I have only ever known it as a relic. It sits normally as a monument to a community lost to history, operating in a rather half-hearted manner as a museum to the still magnificent alabaster tombs of past Earls and landowners that are scattered around its environs. The only time you normally see it full of people as it was in its heyday is every Christmas Eve when the entire village marches down for the annual carol service, illuminated by candles and bare lightbulbs and warmed by scarcely adequate personal heaters. It is all as if to ram home the fact that this is a makeshift operation in a building which isn’t supposed to hold people anymore.
For the wedding, however, things are different. The altar is dressed and lit, the pews lined with people in their Sunday best (or penguin costumes), there are flowers everywhere and a priest at the front ready to conduct a Christian service. For the first time in my life I’ve seen the church alive and functioning, just as it was originally created and just as it had been just a generation earlier. If nothing else I am glad we were all there to see it.
The service itself presented me with a brief moral dilemma. Given I rejected all notions of religion and spirituality a long time ago, just how is one supposed to behave when the process of singing hymns and offering prayers begins. Not only am I sat at the front, but I’m sharing a hymnbook with my mother who I’m aware can make me feel like I am five years old again with just one withering glance. I settle eventually for miming the hymns or humming along, whilst dispassionately staring ahead in discreet silence whilst the rest of the congregation offer up their praise to their fictional deity.
The vows conducted, the signing of the register was accompanied by several songs from a mature ladies choir from the neighbouring village who serenaded us with immaculate harmonies for what seemed like forever. I may well be committed atheist but I was tempted by their performance to find belief again if only to offer up a prayer to the heavens that they weren’t going to start on a fourth song.
The end of the service resulted in what I hope will be my only missed cue of the day. As the bride and groom pass by us towards the back, my father and mother immediately set off behind them, leaving me glued to my seat unsure whether to follow. I elect not to, reasoning that my responsibility for protecting the precious registers overrides everything else. As everyone else starts to file out, I march to the corner and pack everything back into its protective briefcase. I later learned that this caused some minor puzzlement outside as whilst the rest of the family assembled for the post-service photographs I was nowhere to be found, trapped inside the church at the back of the queue of people who were steadily emerging into the sunshine. I suspect that was actually a lucky escape.
Next on the agenda was pretending to be nobility for the afternoon, as the bride and groom posed for more photographs on the steps to the entrance to Harewood House itself. Escorting my mother down, I suggested that in years to come, my sister and her new husband would be able to wind their children up, showing them the pictures and telling them “this is where we lived when we first got married”.
Next, it was onto the terrace at the back of the house for the champagne reception where live musicians serenaded what would turn out to be an entire afternoon of mingling and chatting. It was here amongst the crowd that I worked out just what this wedding represented and how it neatly illustrated the difference between my sister and myself.
I live my life for the immediate present. Despite occasional bursts of nostalgia, I’m defined by what I do and the people I know day to day. Looking back, I move through phases of life discarding much of what has gone before. I’m in contact with nobody from my school days. I have barely any connection with the people I knew at university and have entire photo albums full of pictures of former housemates and past colleagues, all of whom were close trusted friends at the time but who now might as well be strangers for all the links I have with them. Hence my wedding was a small-scale affair, attended only by close family, the only link to the outside world being best man Louis as befitted his status as the one true friend I respect, admire and trust.
My sister, on the other hand, defines herself totally by the people she has known and the places she has been in life. Her guest list was drawn therefore from virtually every life experience she had ever known. Making conversation on the sunshine-drenched steps were childhood friends, old junior school teachers, friends from her teenage years, her old headmaster, university friends, contacts from study in France and former colleagues stretching back almost a decade. She had assembled around her the sum total of her life experiences so far, the people and memories that defined the person she had been up to that moment, just to share the event that represented the crowning glory of her life so far.
Philosophy aside, I reminded myself that I needed to exercise self-restraint. I still vividly remember the first champagne reception I ever attended, not long after moving to the capital. Louis had invited me along to the presentation of the Guardian Book Awards and I spent a very pleasant two hours mingling with celebrities, competition winners and invited guests, all the time having my glass refreshed by attentive waiters. As a consequence I probably downed a bottle and a half of champagne without noticing, its effects only become apparent when we emerged into the evening and my legs stopped functioning. Repeating the experience at a wedding would be ill-advised so after the first few glasses I put my glass down on a wall and walked away from it, thus preventing the ingestion of any further sparkling nectar.
It was during the drinks that we ended up as something of a tourist attraction. Although on a semi-private bit of the terrace, the rest of the park was open to the public as usual, visitor numbers swelled by the added bonus of Chinese dragon boat racing taking place on the nearby lake. As various party members were assembled for yet more photographs, small groups of immaculately dressed Chinese people wandered by and whipped out their own cameras to capture the occasion they stumbled across a genuine English white wedding.
After everyone had mingled with everyone else and I’d run out of ways to politely decline the offer of a fresh glass of something I’d regret within the hour, the party migrated once again down the hill to the palace of lilies and sheet-draped chairs, better known as the venue for the dinner reception. This was as you might expect a lavishly and expensively catered affair, a meal suitably befitting the occasion. That said, I’m never the biggest fan of reception dinners due to the production line nature of it all. No matter how highly skilled the chef, the experience can never live up to a proper restaurant meal. At such an establishment I can be reasonably assured that my meal has been specially cooked upon my request, the chef applying the highest standards before allowing the meal to come to my table with his name attached. Dinner receptions to a set menu mean that effectively the kitchen is required to generate 80 identical platters simultaneously and it is maybe inevitable that quality control will suffer along the way. Still, the meal was edible and satisfying even if there did appear to be a 10-minute gap between the top table receiving their main courses and the rest of us being furnished with hours. I speculated to nobody in particular that they were probably hand-rearing a fresh batch of roast ducks for the main body of the guests.
With dessert (“a trio of Yorkshire rhubarb”) polished off and coffees distributed, it was time for the speeches. Most of my public speaking style was learned from watching my father on such occasions, the ability to mix humour with pathos and heartfelt emotion. It is one trait I am glad I inherited. The presentation of embarrassing pictures passed without a hitch and everyone laughed in all the right places. I was particularly entertained by his use of a well travelled anecdote about a friend of his at university noting that all women eventually turn into their mothers, noting that the last time I’d heard him use it was at my grandmother’s funeral some nine years earlier, an occasion that had much of the same crowd in attendance. Still, you would be hard-pressed to find a similar tale that worked as both a humorous aside at a happy occasion and as a moment for fond reflection in front of a group of mourners.
The groom’s speech was something of a revelation as Mike, my sister’s new husband, has a maybe unfair reputation for being a man of few words. A decade-long association with my sister can do that to a bloke. It was, therefore, good to hear him speak at length and offer up the usual effusive thanks to the assembled crowd. As he sat down I noticed my sister stuffing discreetly into her bag the notes she had prepared just in case it fell to her to fill in any gaps.
Everything else (best man, cake cutting etc) based by in a blur and as the sun fell it was time for the final part of the day’s festivities as what was left of the party migrated to the courtyard for drinks and dancing. The traditional first dance was to the accompaniment of the hired wedding singer, a besuited crooner who put in a passable rendition of I’ve Got You Under My Skin even if his top end and overall timbre perhaps left a little to be desired. By this time it was late evening and the amount of time we had all been on the go had begun to take their toll. Tales of carnage would inevitably emerge from the rest of the evening but after saying polite goodbyes, Mila and I withdrew from the festivities and made our way home.
For every member of my family, I suspect it was a watershed moment. My sister had the wedding day she had been imagining since the age of five. My mother saw her only daughter progress up the aisle just as she had done forty years earlier and my father fulfilled his final duty of ceremonially giving her away to the charge of the man she had chosen.
What of the brother of the bride? Well, he too got to live out his own white wedding fantasy, leaving the reception arm in arm with the best-looking of all the bridesmaids.