‘I’m still strangely excited about being married.’ Not my words, but those of one of my oldest friends who married his long-term partner just a few weeks ago. Theirs, he said, was not a wedding. Just a signing on the dotted line before they whisked each other away for a few days.
When my husband and I married a year ago, the same friend was there as my witness. Ours was a wedding, albeit not a big one. We made a day of it and what a day it was. The stars aligned, the sun shone. It was, everyone who came agreed, near perfect. Much of the credit for that must go to my husband. He’s an organiser. A man who thinks of everything — and everyone.
We were hardly anticipating a bad day but you can’t guarantee perfection. And in Edinburgh, you certainly can’t be sure of the sun. But somehow we managed to marry on the only day of the week it didn’t rain. Underneath blue skies, our small party tripped lightly through a city bathed in warm sunlight, from the ceremony to drinks at home, then later to dinner at a nearby hotel.
Yet it wasn’t a place any of us — my friend included — could have imagined when we came of age more than half a lifetime ago. This wasn’t part of the script that was handed down to us. Each of us, in our different ways, had made a life without it. Then, just as we were safely ensconced in middle age, almost past caring that the world hadn’t cared much for us, the world caught up.
So, 12 years to the day after my husband and I met, we stood in the splendour of the City of Edinburgh’s registry office on George IV bridge. And it was then that the import of the what we were doing — and what we were able to do — hit me even more than I’d imagined it would. I got that we’d only recently won the right to do this at all and yet somehow I had kidded myself that the formalities would be, well, just that.
Whilst the world went about its business outside on the Royal Mile, blissfully unaware of our simple function, a collection of significant others in our lives had their eyes fixed on us. They bore witness as we repeated our vows, exchanged rings, and enjoyed our first embrace as a married couple. Such commonplace rituals, customary moments in ordinary lives. But this wasn’t anyone else. It was us. And it was remarkable.
In the days and weeks that followed, friends would ask me jovially, ‘How’s married life?’ ‘Oh, you know, much the same as unmarried life’ I would invariably respond. We had been living together for more than a decade after all. But just occasionally I would venture beyond the obvious cliche. In fact, it wasn’t quite the same.
Over time it was the ring that helped me make sense of it. Mine that is, not my husband’s. He doesn’t like wearing rings. Though we exchanged them on the day, his was just an old one that came to hand and went back in the drawer. But mine, notwithstanding it was secondhand, was bought for the occasion and it’s stayed firmly on my finger.
In fact, I quite liked its hand-me-downness, not just because it was cheaper, but because it had a history. I liked it that my ring had previously been the token of another love which we will never know of. The sense that even though that love had been and gone, it was being handed on to us.
The ring is, of course, a token of ‘our’ love now, his for me and mine for him. It’s a symbol of reciprocity. And yet for all its profoundly personal meaning, it’s something more than that. It’s an emblem of progress, of rights fought for, of a place in the world we scarcely imagined when we first ventured, with trepidation, into youthful gay relationships.
Not for us back then a place in the sun — out in the open. When we first started out, not recognition, but prohibition. Lurking in the shadows, looking over our shoulders. The love that did not speak its name. Or worse, the occasion of sin that did — all too volubly. So as I casually caught sight of the ring in its seemingly improbable place on my wedding finger, it spoke to me not just of my husband and our marriage, but of how far we’ve come.
As it happens, I’ve long worn a ring on the wedding ring finger. One given to me by my husband too. It was partly just because it fitted there best, but there was a bit of mischief. And once or twice, the mischievousness worked. ‘Does your wife work in Edinburgh?’ a colleague in London asked me not so long ago at all. It was an innocent enough mistake, but it was made possible in part because what we have now was impossible then.
The traditional present for a first wedding anniversary is something made of paper. And there’ll be some paper in the mix when I hand over my bag of gifts. But it’s the piece of paper we walked away with that day, our marriage certificate, that still gives me a thrill. Just like the ring, it wasn’t supposed to happen. And when I look at it, every now and again, my heart skips a beat.
All this has happened because we changed normal. To borrow a phrase recently used in another context by the journalist, Fintan O’Toole, when we got married, we personalised the political. And that’s why, a year on, like my friend I too am still strangely excited about being married. There is a newness to this ordinariness which is still deliciously extraordinary.
As our friend, the poet, David Kinloch, put it, in a poem he wrote for us and read on the day, ours is a marriage ‘on the level.’ That may not sound like a big deal if marriage was never denied to you. But it’s not something we ever saw coming, still less took for granted.
So, when we celebrate our paper anniversary quietly with friends — we’ll drink not just to them and to us — but to the change which got us to this place. And we’ll raise a glass to all those for whom that change came too late. Their love was no less worthy of the recognition that we can now enjoy and celebrate. Even for us, it was, as I said a year ago, a late call. But I’m so glad we made it.