Aged three, Vee first encountered lockdown when she crawled into an abandoned lengthy concrete pipe and emerged out of the other end, smiling. After thirty-two years of unmarried bliss and two kids, she decides to ‘do a Dodd’ and go for a tax break – even though it meant a wedding in lockdown. She is smiling. I guess she had no idea what she was in for.
Mid-week, there is a call from the civil partnership registrar to say that under social distancing rules Vee can finally marry and that she is registered to do so on the coming Saturday. Panic ensues. Vee cycles through a storm to London in her mask, falls to her knees to beg a sales assistant to let her view, touch, even try on, the asymmetrical silk dress she spies shoved among the rails of untouchables. They do, she does, it fits. Then she and her partner rush to buy a ring from a Bond Street jeweller, where they fall about laughing when the smart young assistant seriously tells Vee not to wear it when she goes horse-riding – the last time Vee was on the back of a horse she was all of eight years old, and her one foot slipped its stirrup and the horse bolted with Vee bumping along its side upside down, until her Dad managed to get hold of her.
Vee’s two teenagers bake and decorate a cake, and pack their violins. Vee calls up two lady friends from her old law firm as witnesses, and they arrange to bring along plates of open sandwiches, while her brother in law kindly offers to supply the bubbly.
On the designated day, I don my old silk ‘Japanese’ pants from Whistles’s sale and my Camper sandals – my husband actually puts on a pair of long pants – and we are picked up by Vee’s brother-in-law and his family in an old camper van and are whisked off to Highgate village. Eleven good ‘lock-stepped’ souls are allowed to finally gather, including Vee and her man, all of us unmasked and freezing in vintage white suits and flimsy dresses, on the steps of the beautifully restored classic Regency Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution in High Grove overlooking Pond Square, now a civil ceremony venue. This was once a school for Jewish boys, then a stable yard, and finally became the hall where we were sitting, opened by Lord Shaftesbury whose talk on Ragged Schools for destitute children inspired Dickens to write ‘A Christmas Carol’. We ladies present are, however, especially delighted to be there as we discover that the male founders of this charitable institution begun in 1839, banished all women from the premises along with the influence of their ‘romances’.
An hour later the registrar, a breezy little man in a very blue suit accompanied by his large comfortable lady companion unlocks the doors (this is their first assignment since lockdown) and proudly leads us through the lobby to the Institute’s calm cold high- vaulted Victoria Hall decorated with the colourful Royal Coat of Arms. This was moved from the wall of the Fox and Crown on nearby West Hill, presented to its landlord in 1837 after he heroically dragged to a halt the bolting carriage horses of the new young Queen Victoria.
We sit eight folding chairs apart, admiring the two giant bouquets of flowers still in their wrappings. Vee’s two teenagers take out their violins and play Handel most movingly. Then the couple are called forward and, voices echoing in the chill hall, rivet us with the simplicity and beauty of their responses to the eternal holy words.
The bridegroom reads a delightful wry love poem. Then Vee indicates it is my turn to read a poem that I had written about the three generations of our family present in the hall. It concerns two small silver vases I had inherited from my father, Vee’s grandfather, and the teenager’s great-grand-father that are now our wedding present to the bride and groom. The vases were presented to my father on his return from fighting the Nazis behind the lines in North Africa as a doctor. I place the vases on the table on either side of the jars of flowers, and stand beside them, feeling slightly unreal. ‘Is the poem hers? I hear someone ask. ‘Yes!’ answers Vee emphatically… So here it is :
The snapshot rests against two silver items –
vases from Wright of East Street, Brighton,
a gift from patients to their fighter
behind the lines up North.
Upright he sits, hands in lap,
with polished shoes and Captain’s hat,
The vases are mine now – dented, askew –
their presence renews him –
Then the two teenagers play lively kletzmer music for us, and something magical happens. All of us somehow draw together in a circle, take hands and begin to dance.
Afterwards, we go outside and crowd once more on to the Institute’s porch in the freezing breeze and eat and drink together, and raucously and affectionately swop stories about love and … well… yes… marriage. And passers-by stare at us for for where are our masks? Vee is still smiling.