The wedding was held on the first of October, that first fresh fling of a spring day with cherry blossoms lining the avenue and the smell of sunlight in the air. Marianne had chosen this day because on the calendar it had glowed up like a promise, the hope of something clean and new that wasn’t tarred with the silliness of April Fools or the bloat of British summertime. It was luck, really, that brought the good weather to New Zealand on that uncertain spring morning. It was also luck that bagged them the venue. She and Ethan had spent weeks debating where to get married, pouring over glossy brochures featuring medieval castles, luxurious hotels with honeymoon suites, country houses and converted churches which allowed you to toss your bouquet extravagantly from the bell tower. Arguing about the cost of fancy desserts and appropriate champagne. It was all very expensive and a little vulgar for Marianne’s liking. She was raised to believe that the most enchanting things in life were free. She had insisted for years and years that if she ever got married she would do it smack bang in the middle of Oxford Street for all it mattered. The best part of a wedding, Marianne had thought as a child, was the cake. I will find the best cake in the world, she would boast to her mother, because everyone likes cake, and not everyone likes a wedding. You can always, as Marie Antoinette put it, let them eat cake.
Growing up, Marianne found it to be true that not everyone likes a wedding. Or, at least, a wedding doesn’t do well for everyone. At the age of twenty-six, Marianne had dragged herself through enough of her friends’ weddings to know that the occasion prompted flourishing happiness for some, and hours of breakdown for others. Only last year, she had been drinking with her old roommate Bill at a colleague’s wedding and over the slurry candlelight he confessed to her his deep desire to kill himself.
“I just can’t stop thinking about it,” he had said quietly, refilling his wine glass, wiping the sweat from his eyes.
“William, William I had no idea.” And as the confetti swirled about the crowd, queer as a summer snowdrift, Marianne felt like she’d been chained to something dark and profound. Some sense of the underworld that she needed to get rid of. Bill had left soon after, taking a cab back to the hotel, and Marianne had gorged herself on the cheeseboard to cheer herself up, because it seemed there was nothing else she could do but stuff away her dreams with sticky lumps of brie. In the midst of all the magic, there was still all this sadness that seemed to coat the world in fear. When the bride passed her, Marianne smiled brightly, but later on she called Ethan in tears.
“Don’t worry,” he’d said, “he’ll be alright. Weddings bring out the best and the worst in people—”And yes, Bill was still alive, but he and Marianne had not spoken since. In all the chaos of organising her own wedding, she had forgotten.
Eventually, she and Ethan found their perfect venue in New Zealand, of all places. It was a rare corner of the world, special in its simple charm of rolling hills and friendly faces. Yet Marianne had a great deal of trouble convincing Ethan’s family to fly out there, even for just one weekend. Ethan’s mother suffered from bouts of depression and an event like a wedding, he said, could prove difficult – if not debilitating – to her state of mind, which had been fragile since his childhood. What’s more, Ethan’s father (they were divorced) seemed to drag himself through life with the sole intention of avoiding tricky situations such as these. He was a plumber who worked hard and spent most of his spare money down the pub, with people he’d known since high school. A cosy existence, free of the kind of complications that Marianne’s parents liked to pick over for a living. Marianne’s parents were academics, the kind of academics who relished a wedding, if only for the excuse to drink nice wine. She and Ethan were very worried about the whole occasion, about their parents coming together for only the second time, about the cost and the question of religion and whether it was weird to give people Love Heart sweets as favours.
“Shouldn’t we try for something more…intellectual?” It was him that said it first, not her.
On the last day of September, they landed crisp and safe on New Zealand ground, ready for rehearsal. To their surprise, they found the priest getting baked under a cabbage tree.
“My god, look at you two!” he exclaimed in his thick Kiwi accent, scrambling to his feet to greet them with a dazed look on his face. “Why I’ve never married such a beautiful couple!” He kissed them both on the cheek with enthusiasm.
“When do the family arrive?” he asked, walking them towards the church.
“Tonight,” Ethan glanced at his fiancé, expecting the nervous expression to show on her lips. She was, however, remarkably composed.
They were being married in a church made of trees. A brand new church, constructed in imitation of a similar design which went viral on the Internet a few years ago. The venue had appeared quite randomly in Marianne’s inbox, with all the sparkle of a super-charged Groupon offer, and she was quite enchanted by its strange beauty, its sense of the ephemeral. She did not want her marriage to be stone-cold and static, confined to a church, but to evolve and shift with the seasons, like this lovely temple.
Ethan and Marianne were just the seventh couple to get married under its bowers.
Silently, they stepped inside the iron framework and stood under the greenery, marvelling at the dappled light playing along the carpet of grass.
“Amazing,” Ethan whispered.
“It’s better than I ever dreamed of.” Marianne turned to him and gave him a long, satisfied kiss. They felt like they could stay here forever, dreamy and alone in this virescent version of heaven. The priest ushered them through their vows before leaving to meet his next clients. They delayed going to the airport to meet their parents, preferring to sit on one of the pew benches, scuffing their bare feet in the soft soil and laughing as they shared their secrets.
“All I want,” Marianne said to her fiancé as they sat later in the back of a cab, “is a few days of harmony. D’you think we can manage it?”
“All I want,” Ethan replied, “is our parents to get on okay. God knows I’m dreading the next few hours.”
“Don’t,” Marianne kissed him quiet. “It will be fine. They love us.”
To their surprise, it was fine. Fine as dinner and mumbled wisps of conversation could ever be. At the end of the meal, Ethan’s father stood up to deliver a drunken speech, exposing an embarrassing array of Ethan’s ex-girlfriends and childhood habits, enough for Marianne’s parents to speculate on for months to come. Ethan’s mother complained about the food and how warm it was for this time of year, her jet lag and sore head, then retired early to her room. Marianne worried, but Ethan knew better.
After dinner, they drank coffee in the restaurant lounge and all talked quite civilly about married life. Brian, Ethan’s father, had consumed a little too much wine and was already slurring off with jokes about how marriage was always a ‘two-way street’ with ‘no exits except death’. He wouldn’t stop, no matter how much Ethan tried to hush him. He teased the young couple about their choice of venue, speculating on all sorts of disaster scenarios which could disrupt the ceremony: lightning storms, forest fires, a rain shower. Marianne’s parents remained very quiet through all of dinner; so quiet, in fact, that Marianne worried there was something on their mind that they were choosing not to share.
Under the cool spring moon, they walked Marianne back to the hotel, leaving Ethan and Brian to have a last-minute tête-à-tête, which Ethan clearly didn’t appreciate. In the hotel garden, Marianne nuzzled herself into her father’s arms like she used to do as a child, feeling small and safe. It was different from how she felt with Ethan.
“Are you going to be okay?” Her father asked her. She thought about the day she first met Ethan, walking up the campus steps to her morning lecture, the sun breaking through a rain shower and the look on his face, concentrated and expectant. He wore his hair very short then – even shorter than it now was – clipped and cool in his blazer, a third-year law student.
“I think so,” she whispered back. The crickets purred around them.
“Just remember, everything is your own decision,” he said cryptically, ruffling her hair gently as he turned to enter the building.
“Goodnight love,” her mother echoed.
She and Ethan spent the night achingly in separate rooms, sleepless and fearful and eager. Marianne took out a pad of paper from the desk drawer and under the header with the hotel logo she wrote a list of all the reasons she was getting married: Love, dreams, sex, money, future, Sunday mornings, love. She laughed at how easily the cliches buoyed up in her mind. Brian’s words had awakened some tiny, irritable worm inside of her, a worm that wriggled with uneasiness. Yet she waited for it to rest and eventually fell asleep, letting the magic of the words she had written take shape in her dreams.
In the morning the sun bathed the grass in golden light and it was just as the first day of spring should look like, so different from October back home, where the streets were bronzed with glossy rain and fallen leaves. Ethan waited among the bright green bowers until Marianne appeared half an hour later, shrouded by the vines and only gradually entering his vision as she stepped through the knitted trees.
“How long?” he mouthed at her. She gave him a funny look as she slowly glided down the aisle, trailing her lacy dress. The church could only seat fifty guests, but there were very few people there. None of Ethan’s friends could afford the New Zealand flight, and Marianne hadn’t wanted to invite so many of her own that the bride’s side would outweigh the groom’s.
“What?” she asked him as they got closer.
“Why have we waited so long for this?”
She stood opposite him over the simple altar and as the priest approached Ethan added:
“I would’ve married you at uni, I would have married you so long ago.” He couldn’t help but grin then, and it was the kind of grin that unravelled the tight poise of his face and showed the fine lines around his eyes, the sparkling hazel eyes that she knew as mirrors of her own soul. She loved him, then, for that fragile smile alone.
“Don’t kid with me,” she murmured. She then looked up to face who they would be soon; who they would be after the magic words and the kiss that sealed them. She stood tall in her crystal heels and white gown, her light hair tumbling long down her shoulders, secured by the flower garland that her little niece had assembled for her that morning from the field of daisies. It was funny, she didn’t feel quite grownup; it was like being a child again, playing dress-up, playing at something that all of a sudden she knew nothing of. The priest stood over them in his robe, casting a shadow into the space around the altar. Marianne imagined that in winter the ground beneath their feet would be scattered with old seedpods and stray leaves fallen from the trees. Were they evergreen? She could not tell; she was no scholar of nature. How different the place would look, all wiry and skeletal. It was a chance vision, the fleeting kind gifted to the mind from a wisp of wind, cold and coming northwards. A fantasy of life at another time, caught in the secret culverts of the land around them.
She smiled as he slipped the ring on her finger, looking into the clouded space of his eyes and enjoying the blind joy that enveloped her.
After the ceremony, they led the guests down the aisle and out of the sparkling world of green onto the garden plains with the ornate shrubbery and the guesthouse lodge in the distance. Marianne’s mother, in her yellow hat, approached her and dutifully kissed her daughter on each cheek.
“It’s been a pleasure,” she said warmly, simply. Her father came and clasped each of her hands in his.
“You look wonderful love,” he told her. “I’m sure you’ll be very happy.” But she felt the clamminess of his fingers in hers, and slipped away. It was as she had felt at her friend’s wedding, that sudden moment talking to William, his face cloaked in cigarette smoke. There was something strange about the way her parents were so keen to share in her joy; it didn’t seem real.
What she would remember most about that day was not the party afterwards, with the sunlight dancing in her hair and the lilting joy of the violins and the woman that sung for them from a makeshift podium. It was not the fairy lights strung across the trees at night, or the sad sighs of the children told they had to go to bed. Not the crumbling wedding cake and the sugared strawberries eaten secretly in the grove by the river, or the sweet laughter of Ethan’s parents as they sat together sharing a bottle of wine and loudly reminiscing. Not the restless, whisky kisses pressed between the sheets in the cool summer evening, with the starriness of midnight pouring through the window. What she remembered most, now, was the feeling of her father’s fingers: cold and foreboding as she pulled away from him and out of her old world altogether.
Yet in the haze of those joyful days, it seemed obscene that in a few more hours they would be returning to a bleak, British winter, leaving behind the Kiwis and their colourful summer.
And love was all, love was all. That was what they said, what everyone kept saying, not knowing what it meant. The daydream of that day, its harmony draining slowly away in the time that was passing, the prickling chaos of day after day in each other’s company. Years flaking from them; precious layers of what they had always wanted to be, sloughing off and collecting in piles on the bedroom floor. There was then the new house, the miscarriage, the man in the white coat who talked to them as if they were children. The strangeness that grew between them. When they had argued, falling back into bed with tired passion, her father’s words flashed back to Marianne: everything is your own decision. And yet.
Here she was at her desk with the wads of paper blocking her view of the window, with the mirror glass behind her and that silver strand in her hair exposed for all to see. They had waited too long; too long they had waited to let happiness wash over them like a morning shroud of marijuana dreams. Marianne sat at her desk because it was the only place she knew where she was. Her head was full of the smell of hospital chemicals and the sound of dogs barking down the lane, old women nattering at bus stops. Blood being sucked through a plastic tube, the soft groan and the closing of his eyes, the shadow self that came over him in those moments. Pale and loitering. Loosely, the memories unravelled from her grasp, so that sleeplessly she would lie awake seeing her mother-in-law’s tormented face, the frown she pulled when she heard the news, the devastation in her eyes. There were too many pieces, too many pieces to pick up, replace.
Marianne lit a cigarette and stared at the ceiling.
In June she boarded the flight to New Zealand – the one she had booked only a week ago – the one her mother had paid for because Marianne was bogged down with the debts he’d kept secret.
Up in the air, suddenly the world no longer appeared in cut glass fragments of what she had lost. The blue sky was open and wide, the land below long and solid. When she landed, this time there was no priest to greet her, no summer insects singing in the grass.
She stepped off the road and made her way into the gardens without stopping, because there was no longer an attendant at the gate asking for an entry fee, a charity donation.
The land was starved. Ten years had passed, and here was the place where his parents had sat looking healthy for once, here the river where the children played, there the place with the daisy ring and the standing stones, the spot where they took their first dance under the virgin moon. The grass was now dry and yellowed underfoot, the breath of winter bitter on her cheeks, like ice kisses left by a dead lover. The irony was not lost on her. As she paced around, traces of litter – plastic rings, bottle tops and molten cardboard – lingered on from summer picnics. There were charred places where bonfires had burned, and Marianne imagined the fatty air filled with ash instead of confetti snow.
From the sky, the rain fell cold and slow. It seemed there was no money to be made from love, not here, not anymore.
The trees which had once flourished together protectively were now gnarled and thin and lonesome-looking, like trees from a fairy story.
How long had they waited for this? The last gasp of a feeling: not everyone likes a wedding. A ghost doesn’t like a wedding; a ghost resents its solidity, she thought, its promise of new absolution. Or was it the dreamy quality? Marianne had forgotten. They had waited too long, and it had cost them.
She sat under the skeleton trees, on the same bench where ten years ago she had dug her toes into the soft earth, sighing. And with the violins sounding sweetly in her ear, she took her shoes off; but the earth was too hard at her touch, encrusted in hoar frost and the dust of other memories, other dreams floating free.