‘Ladies and gentlemen, please be upstanding for the arrival of the bridal party.’
As the guests got to their feet, a black-clad coordinator pressed a button on a carefully concealed laptop, and the opening notes of Ed Sheeran’s Perfect began to play.
Great, thought Luke, the presiding registrar, with an inward sigh. Ed Sheeran. Again.
It wasn’t that Luke had a problem with Ed Sheeran or his music. It was more the fact that over the last six years, he had heard more Ed Sheeran than any other artist-so much so that he was now of the opinion that brides should be forced to choose something else as their down-the-aisle music, if only to provide a little variety for the registrar. Still, at least it wasn’t Pachelbel’s Canon.
It had always struck Luke as strange, that so many couples on their big day opted for the exact same things as everyone else. Surely they would want to put their own spin on the proceedings. He certainly would if it was him. But he wasn’t married, and that wasn’t likely to change any time soon.
Truth be told, he had been dreading this ceremony. Today marked the first anniversary of his singledom. A whole year had passed since he and Simon had split, and yet the urge to crawl under a duvet with a tub of Ben and Jerry’s was as strong today as it had been back then. But duty called, and here he was, wearing a muscle-memory smile that belied his sadness, about to unite two people in matrimony.
At no point during his training had Luke stopped to consider the emotional impact that marrying other people might have on him. Why would he? Back in his early twenties, he’d had every conviction that life would pan out exactly as he envisioned. He’d meet an amazing guy, get married and settle down, all by the time he was twenty-six. That was the deadline he’d set himself, mainly because that was the age at which his parents had had him. Surely by twenty-six he would have everything sorted out. Well, not exactly.
He did meet the amazing guy, and he had settled down, for a time. One house, two dogs and three happy years later, he and Simon were engaged. After years of officiating at other people’s weddings, Luke was finally able to start planning his own. Every ceremony now became its own catalogue, with Luke silently appraising each individual aspect. He made mental notes on everything, from the décor to the flowers to the colour of the groom’s shoes. Later he made physical notes, compiling lists of things he definitely did and didn’t want. But it wasn’t to be.
Nine months after getting engaged, he and Simon had split. All Luke’s plans, all his hopes for the future had been dashed to pieces like a beach hut in a hurricane. With his relationship in tatters, he had wanted nothing more than to hole up at home and ignore all responsibility. But it was summer, which meant peak wedding season, and a seemingly endless parade of couples whose relationships had all proved stronger than his.
The following six months had been the hardest of Luke’s career. He found himself resenting the couples whose ceremonies he conducted. He envied them, and judged them much more harshly than he would have done had he not been grieving the loss of his own relationship. He poured scorn on their outfits, their taste in music and above all, their choice of partner.
In his thirteen years as a registrar, Luke had married a staggeringly wide range of couples. Occasionally he came across a pair so stunningly beautiful that both parties looked like they had been designed by a computer. Such couples were rare, as were those at the opposite end of the spectrum. The vast majority of people fell into a vast middle ground, which is to say that while they weren’t to his taste, but he could see why they would appeal to someone else.
Then there were the people who would have been “middle-grounders” were it not for one fatal flaw. Some displayed lapses in taste which, in Luke’s opinion, were entirely unforgivable. One groom earned his disapproval when he turned up in cream chinos, another for sporting a rather distracting walrus moustache.
‘Honestly,’ Luke vented to his best friend, Ellie, during their weekly Saturday night debrief, ‘it looked like he’d attached the head of a broom to his top lip. You could have swept the floor with his face.’
His criticism wasn’t just aimed at the men. At least a dozen brides had shown up wearing what looked like an entire tube of foundation, and one daring lady had walked down the aisle in a dress slashed to the navel while her guests looked on, apparently unfazed by the amount of cleavage on show.
‘I mean, I applaud her confidence,’ Ellie said, giggling into a G&T later that evening.
‘I wasn’t, I didn’t know where to look.’
‘My Mum would never let me get married in a revealing dress. Hell, she wouldn’t even let me buy a revealing dress. And as for Dad, I think he’d actually implode with embarrassment.’
Meanwhile, others exhibited personal shortcomings that made him wonder how they ever got a partner in the first place. One bridezilla had insisted on certain guests moving further back because she didn’t like their outfits and therefore didn’t want them to be visible in the photos. Another had refused to walk down the aisle until her mother had rushed around, frantically removing all the dahlias from the floral displays. After insisting for months that they were her favourite flower, it seemed that on the day, she had decided she didn’t actually like them after all. Luke had stood there waiting, his face a picture of impassiveness, when it truth he was sorely tempted to sneak the groom out the back door while his bride was fussing over flowers.
‘How on earth are these people managing to find partners willing to marry them?’ Luke ranted to Ellie after Dahlia Gate. ‘I look at them and I think, this lot? This lot, really? These people have managed to beat me to it. It makes me so angry.’
Ellie soothed him with the usual platitudes. One man’s meat is another man’s poison. It takes all sorts to make a world. Statistically, around forty per cent of them will end up divorced anyway. She then suggested that maybe it was time to consider a change of career, but Luke brushed her off, saying it was just a phase he was going through and it would pass. Thankfully, he was right.
So gradually as to be imperceptible, Luke’s mood stabilised, and he found himself able to conduct ceremonies without experiencing visceral stabs of jealousy towards the couples in front of him. He found pleasure in his job again, delighting in the knowledge that he was an instrumental parts of so many special days. Until today.
Today the jealousy was back, and more potent than ever. He didn’t want to be here. He wanted to be at home, parked on the sofa watching his Game of Thrones box sets with the dogs. At least he still had the dogs.
As he stared straight ahead at the open double doors, Luke’s mind conjured an image of another wedding-one that had not taken place and now never would. He saw Simon, in his sharp navy suit with a magenta pocket square and a carnation in his buttonhole. Saw the two of them walking along parallel aisles to the soft, lilting melody of Howard Shore’s Evenstar. Now there was a track not many couples would think to have as their down-the-aisle music. For a few precious seconds the image of his own would-be wedding floated before Luke’s eyes, but then the first of the bridesmaids appeared in the doorway and the image vanished, popping like bubbles on water.
The bridesmaids’ dresses were…interesting. Not many people opted for bright orange, and with good reason. It had a tendency to either wash people out or make them look like giant pieces of fruit that had sprouted legs. In more unfortunate cases it did both. In Luke’s experience, only women of colour could really pull off orange-an opinion that remained unchanged once all four bridesmaids had filed in and taken their places on the front row.
Next came the bride herself, accompanied by her father. She looked lovely in her strapless fishtail gown with her long blonde hair braided down her back. Her father, a jovial man in his mid-sixties, wore a grey suit with an orange calla lily in his buttonhole. It was a strange combination-the muted, tasteful grey coupled with the flamboyant riot of colour that was the calla lily. Luke didn’t hate it, but he was a long way from liking it.
The service itself passed without incident. Luke tried his best not to zone out as the couple read their personalised vows to each other. It wasn’t that their efforts weren’t charming or heartfelt. It was merely that writing your own vows had become something of a fad in recent years, and having heard dozens of renditions, Luke was always struck by just how similar many of them were. Ironic, really, that the vast majority of supposedly personalised vows should end up being so very samey.
As usual, there was that one guest who very loudly and deliberately cleared their throat after Luke asked if there was any reason Ben and Stacey could not legally marry. This inevitably set off a flurry of giggles among the other guests, although Luke did notice that a few members of the groom’s family did not join in.
In little more than half an hour, the whole thing was done and dusted. Ben and Stacey were legally husband and wife, and as the guests filed out to the tune of Just The Way You Are by Bruno Mars, Luke began gathering his things together. He retrieved his water bottle from a nearby window ledge, and was just about to take a sip when he overheard one of the groom’s sisters say, ‘I can’t believe he’s married her.’
Luke paused for a fraction of a second, before realising that doing so would make it obvious he had overheard. So instead he flipped the cap of his water bottle open and took several long draughts, all the while listening closely.
‘I know,’ said a second voice belonging to Ben’s other sister. ‘She’d have been out on her ear if it was me. Still, it’s his decision.’
Intrigued, Luke opened up his ledger and made a show of consulting it, his brow furrowed as if deep in thought.
‘Six months though!’ the older sister hissed angrily. ‘It wasn’t even like it was a drunken one-off!’
Ah, infidelity. That old chestnut. Luke should have known.
‘I agree, he should have left her,’ said the younger sister now, ‘but he didn’t, so the best thing we can do now is support him.’
‘He’s too soft,’ said the older one, ‘He’d never have had the guts to leave her.’
‘She might surprise you. You never know, it might work out.’
‘I tell you what, she better move heaven and earth to make it up to him.’
‘Come on, let’s go get some champers, eh?’
With that, the two sisters left, wending their way out to the front steps where people were gathering to throw confetti.
So, Ben and Stacey’s was not the perfect relationship after all. It was one of the products of his own hopeless romanticism: Luke’s naïve assumption that all those entering into marriage must have blissful, rock-solid relationships, and by extension, must be doing it for all the right reasons. Not as a means of papering over cracks, and certainly not out of fear of being alone or starting over. How quickly that particular notion had been dispelled, and yet, even after thirteen years, Luke still struggled to reconcile with what he now knew to be the truth.
It was never nice, discovering that a couple had a chequered past, and that the road to marriage was at least partly paved with suffering and betrayal. But it was reassuring to be reminded that there was no such thing as the perfect relationship, and that the wedding itself was a mere snapshot of a couple’s life, not a mirror of it.
That evening, Ellie came round for their weekly catch-up.
‘I come bearing gin and cookies,’ she said when Luke opened the door to her. She held up a Sainsbury’s bag and grinned, and Luke replied, ‘You’re an absolute darling.’
Half an hour later they were sat at Luke’s kitchen table, washing down their Domino’s pizza with ice-cold G&T (doubly strong because Ellie had poured them, and she had no concept of measures).
‘So, how was it?’ she asked through a mouthful of pepperoni.
Luke told her everything, from the generic music choices to the questionable bridesmaids’ dresses and the surprising revelations he had overheard afterwards.
‘I know it sounds awful, but it made me feel better in a way, knowing that.’
Ellie made no reply, merely cocked her head to one side and gave him a look that said, ‘Keep talking, you know you need to.’
‘You know what day it is, right?’
‘Of course. Why do you think I bought the gin?’
Ellie grinned at him, and Luke couldn’t help but smile back.
‘I didn’t want to go in this morning,’ he admitted. ‘I thought I’d feel really jealous, and I did at first. But then by the time I left, I just felt bad for them. For him, mainly. And I realised that there’s no point being jealous of those people, because what they have is not what I want. I just trick myself into thinking it is when I see all the glitz and glamour of the day itself.’
Ellie was silent for a moment, staring into the depths of her gin glass. Luke watched as she swirled the contents round and round, making the ice cubes clink against one another. Suddenly she stopped and looked up at him, and said in a low, gentle voice, ‘You’ll get your wedding, you know. One day. You will.’
The words triggered a memory of this time last year. They had been sat at this very table, Luke sobbing so hard he could barely breath. The skin around his eyes was swollen and puffy, and at one point a great string of mucus shot out of his nose and halfway down his T-shirt. Ellie, being the great friend that she was, calmly ignored it, and only told him many months later that it had been ‘absolutely gross.’ There was no food that evening. Apparently, Luke’s appetite had left along with his now ex-fiancé, and like Simon, it did not look likely to return any time soon.
A year had passed since that night. Somehow, it seemed like both yesterday and a lifetime ago. Simon was gone, but Ellie was still here, as steadfast and dependable as ever. Something she said that night had stuck with him. Like a well-aimed arrow, it had managed to pierce the dark underbelly of his grief, lodging itself deep within him. As he bewailed the cancellation of his upcoming nuptials, Ellie took his face between her hands and made him look at her. Then she said, ‘Your plans are all still there, they’re just not with him.’
Luke had been so stunned that for a moment he stopped crying altogether.
‘But what if there is no one else?’ he asked her, giving voice to one of his deepest fears. ‘What if I’m alone forever, and no one else is interested.’
Ellie released him. Sitting back in her chair, she looked him up and down, and then, to Luke’s astonishment, she laughed.
‘Come off it,’ she said, smiling kindly at him. ‘Have you met you? Trust me, there will be someone else. And if that doesn’t work out, then there will be someone else after that, and someone else after that. There will always be someone else.’
Wonderful Ellie, so full of wisdom. She had given him hope then, and she gave him hope now.
Some relationships could survive infidelity. Perhaps Ben and Stacey’s would. All Luke knew was that his and Simon’s did not, and that he had been right to end it, even though doing so had been like putting his own heart through a shredder.
Ellie was right. His plans were still there. There would be a wedding at some point, he was sure of it. It just wouldn’t be to Simon. Perhaps his groom would wear a navy suit with a magenta pocket square. Maybe they would walk down parallel aisle to Howard Shore’s Evenstar, or maybe they would opt for something else entirely. If life had taught Luke anything, it was that no matter how much planning was involved, nothing-not even weddings-ever panned out exactly the way you envisioned.