Before M and I could get married in our local Church we had first to get permission. This was because we had both been married before (I got married at Gretna Green first time, being something of a Wild Child in those days, so if you don't know anyone who's done that before, you can now claim confidently that you do).
In order to establish the seriousness of our intent, our suitability and our commitment, we were to be interrogated by a panel of Church Elders. M, a more sanguine soul than I, was relatively content to go through this process; I, being an Aries who hates the feeling that anyone has the power of veto over any of my decisions, fretted over the forthcoming interview, even as I accepted that their turf meant their rules.
The panel consisted of three people: The Vicar, a man who had a reputation for rather splendidly saying utterly inappropriate things with impeccable timing, as evidenced by the time he told a family about to bury their ancient and somewhat formidable matriarch that he had assigned two pews for them at the funeral because their collective bottoms wouldn't fit in to one: The Battleaxe, a village matron who wore too much white powder on her face which had flecked the front of her shirt in a way that was very hard not to look at, presumably in an unsuccessful attempt to disguise her not insignificant and growing crop of whiskers which were also hard not to look at, and who glared at me when we entered and didn't stop glaring the entire time: And finally, The Nervy Man, whose wispy hair had been combed sideways, forwards, upsidedown and backwards, but despite this would never again cover the top of his head convincingly. He wrung his hands which shook a lot, stuttered when he spoke and wouldn't quite meet my eye (having spent several hours trapped with his wife on a stall at the Village Christmas Fete since then I more than understand why).
The Battleaxe thrust forward her chin (clearly forgetting about the whiskers which were thus openly displayed) and opened hostilities: "So, what makes you think you are suitable to marry in our Church?"
M, glancing sideways at me with a worried look, answered calmly and politely for us both.
"And why do you think this marriage will last, when both your previous ones did not?"
And so it went on, with M, who is articulate and diplomatic and generally doesn't allow people to rile him, providing the answers quickly so that I wouldn't have a chance to shout at her. After a few more equally blunt and personal questions, she turned her attention to me.
"We haven't heard much from you," she boomed, fixing me with a Hard Stare. "I have never been divorced," she continued proudly (bully for you, I muttered under my breath to M. Her husband must either be deaf and blind or a bloody saint), "but it must be Very Sad Indeed for your Poor Children." I found my mind wandering to the photographs that sprawl over the walls in our house showing three giggling, smiling, fighting, shouting, happy, normal, larking about kids. Poor was the last word I would ever choose to describe any of them. I felt M squeeze my hand in warning.
I smiled my Most Polite Smile at her. "Why?" I asked, sweetly.
"Because they are living apart from one of their natural parents of course," she said bluntly.
For the briefest of moments I considered getting up and leaving there and then, but M's hand was anchoring mine to the sofa so I couldn't. And then some words an old healer friend who is a Wise Woman said popped into my head.
"Our children are not unhappy," I said firmly. "As you have been fortunate enough never to have had to go through a divorce, you will not perhaps know that it is much better for a child to live with a happy single parent, rather than a miserable married one."
The Vicar had been silent up to this point but now a small movement from him made me glance in his direction. He winked.
Things got a lot easier from that point on, partly because I'd decided the whole thing was nonsense anyway and I was not prepared to share my private thoughts about my marriage with anyone other than my husband, and if that meant we were judged unsuitable to marry in the Church then it was not the kind of place I wanted to celebrate my vows in anyway, (and besides, the interview had demonstrated more than anything else could have that getting married to M was all that really mattered to me), and partly because the Vicar took over. Listening to him talk I realised that if the Church turned out to be the wrong place to marry in, then this man with his sense of humour and his understanding of people would still be the right one to do the service. He shared our sense of irreverence at superficial nonsense but seemed to understand what really matters, which is love, honesty, care and kindness.
The interview ended with the Nervy Man having the final and more or less his only say, which to me pretty much summed up the entire interview: "my daughter's one of your lot."
It took me several moments to work out that he meant she was a divorcee.
We went home, the Vicar promising to come round later and "deliver the verdict" as he put it, with a glint in his eye.
I was cooking supper with a-not inconsiderable vat of wine in one hand, reeling off all the reasons I no longer wanted to get married in the Church, when there was a knock on the door. M answered and the Vicar came in. We all sat round the table and he said: "I'll put you out of your misery- you'd be very welcome to marry in the Church." He paused, looked at me and grinned- "if you still want to, that is?"
"That's great," said M, "we do. Thank you."
With their usual impeccable timing, the boys chose that moment to erupt raucously into the room.
can sing "here come's the bride, all fat and wide" after the service,"
the Vicar told them with a grin. The boys replied that they'd been practicing already and did he know that there was also a second verse that not many people knew about and it
went like this: "Here comes the Vicar, twenty metres thicker!" which they had also been practicing.
He roared with laughter.
"Who is giving you away?" he asked me, when he'd wiped the tears from his eyes.
"I am," said L.
"Ah. And how old are you young man?"
"Seven" said L.
"Will you remember the words?"
"Good," said the Vicar. "When I ask: "who gives this woman?" You reply: "I do, for a fiver. Got it?" and he roared with laughter again.
When he'd got himself under control, he glanced round the room and his eyes came to rest on a montage of photos we have on the wall. Too late, and with a horrible sinking feeling, I realised there was a photo in the middle he might not be all that impressed to see. I glanced at M and saw the panic flash in his eyes as he too realised what the Vicar was looking at.
The Vicar got up and went to the wall to study the photo more closely.
He turned to M. "Is that you dressed as a Vicar?" he asked mildly. While M squirmed I watched a process of thoughts chase each other across his face- no, it's my brother, yes, but it was a work roll play thing, and I had no choice, no it's someone else who just looks like me. In the end he looked a bit embarrassed, laughed and agreed that yes, it was him. I explained that we'd met at a fancy dress party so it was a bit of a theme for us. The Vicar politely refrained from pointing out that it was also me, dressed as a rather obvious tart, beside M's vicar.
"I see." He thought for a moment. "Now I've agreed you can marry in the Church I suppose you're going to tell me it'll be a fancy dress wedding? Will I need to jump out of a Hot Air Balloon or can I just dress up? I do have a very convincing Vicar's costume ready and waiting."
As he was leaving, he turned to me and said "It's just a wild guess, but I'm presuming you won't be saying the words "I obey" in your vows?"
"Certainly not!" I replied, returning his smile.
"Well then," he tapped me on the shoulder, "you'd better behave yourself hadn't you, otherwise I'll slip it in to the vows on the day and then there'll be nothing you can do about it!" And he strode off down the path, whistling cheerfully to himself.