Meaningful Observations That Are Not Unrelated But Occurred Peripherally To The Exchange Of Vows

Twelve hours before we had arrived at our hotel in the dark, and the sound of the sea on this beach was all we could hear.

We had waited on hard seats at Gatwick for eight hours longer than we were supposed to, serene with nervous exhaustion, half-finishing puzzles in a magazine we’d bought in the airport branch of WHSmiths. We’d been told at check-in about the delay, so there was no relief/disappointment cycle of a constantly retreating departure time, there was just the waiting.

By that point we were happy to give ourselves over to the vagaries of airline scheduling. For months, that had seemed like longer, from the point where I had asked her to marry me, and through the decision to buy a house before the chosen date for the wedding, we had found ourselves at the centre of a maelstrom of causality and consequence. As liberating as choosing to take a decisive course into the future had been, and as exciting as it was to have some measure of control over our route into that undiscovered country, it was also hard work.

Every choice, or discussion, for around ten months, seemed to be an important one. No trivial conversations, no small talk. At least none you remembered later, through the completion of the various chores you had to complete.

And then the wedding day itself… that was a glorious burn of excited energy. The culmination of it all…

This isn’t about love, but it is about love. And it isn’t about the wedding, or the sea.

A little under a day before we had arrived at our hotel in the dark, we had arrived at our other hotel in the dark. That had been after a short taxi ride from our reception. That was a much shorter stay, in a very plush room in a more expensive hotel than the one in Greece. It was the first proper hotel we had been in in the four years that we’ve known each other, and it was our wedding night.

I had joked, to anyone that would listen, that having bought a house, and built a wedding pretty much from the ground up, we would be so tired on the wedding night that we would collapse, exhausted.

That wasn’t exactly what happened, but this isn’t that sort of story.

So, roughly ten months before either hotel, I had proposed to her, and she had said yes. We were sitting on the grass, in the middle of walking the dog, when I took the leap.

Roughly three years before that, in the same park but sitting on a different patch of grass, as the dog ran around us, I had kissed her for the first time.

Around ten years before that, I had started dating a girl that, eventually, would be the first I’d move in with. I had my first proper job – the sort where people answer to you, as well as you answering to people. I suppose, really, I was just becoming an adult.

My fiancee, and my wife, was just becoming a teenager.

At some point prior to that, I had been nineteen years old, just heading to university, and she was eight, and who the hell knows what eight year olds get up to. When I was eight, her parents were younger than I am now, and she wasn’t even raw ingredients yet, let alone being cooked up.

I’m thinking about none of these things when I watch her on the beach. I’m thinking about how it’s been nearly a year since either of us got to be really carefree, and how carefree isn’t something that comes easy to me, but how she’s got the look nailed as she skips along the pebble beach, and I walk on behind, slow and awkward.

Anywhere else, I move with the easier gait, but on a beach, she’s got me beaten, hands down. On the beach, she’s grace incarnate, and I’m a person who walks better on solid city concrete. Things improve when the stones give way to sand, but only just, and even though she squeals as the cool water first catches her toes, I can tell she’s loving it. I’m a few feet further up the beach, keeping my trainers dry.

In a day or so, we will buy me a pair of too-expensive faux-leather rubber sandals. A few days after we get back to England, the heel will break away on one of them. But that is over a week away.

The reason our flight was delayed, we found out after a few hours at Gatwick, is that we were waiting for our plane to arrive from Birmingham. The reason we were waiting for our plane to arrive from Birmingham was that our flight was one leg of a flight from Manchester to Greece, but Manchester Airport had been closed down by a cloud of volcanic ash that was heading down the country toward us. The passengers from Manchester were ferried on a coach to Birmingham, where they boarded a plane and flew across to meet us.

We hadn’t quite grasped the situation fully, and when we rushed through the empty channels of Gatwick, and thought we were the first people to board the plane, walking through the door of what we had obviously decided was a fresh, virgin aircraft, into a cabin already full of noisy, impatient Northerners, was a surreal shock.

When we had arrived at the hotel – the Greek one, that is – at 2am the previous night, it was after having spent an hour on a coach, and two hours on a plane, with those frazzled and frustrated Mancunians. From Gatwick’s enclosed tunnels, and gate-to-seat anonymity, to Preveza’s military walk across wind-blown, midnight tarmac, and through the alien night of a strange country, that you can only see picked out in the headlights, speeding into existence a little way ahead of the driver, and disappearing somewhere behind you, our just-married mood was one of relief and peace, surrounded on all sides by festering English resentment that I can tell you with the benefit of omniscience took a couple of days of Mediterranean charm to dissipate.

The sound of the surf, close enough to smell but hidden down in the dark, calmed everyone on arrival. When we’d found our way quietly to a room that exceeded expectation, and stepped out onto a cool balcony, finally away from our fellow passengers, though we didn’t know how close it was, the ocean set the rhythm of the honeymoon.

Down on the beach, she’s up to her calves in the water, and it’s a gentle surf but its waves still chase her up the beach a little each time.

Two days before, I had written my speech, firm in the knowledge that, never mind what everybody else did, I couldn’t say anything that wasn’t true. That meant telling people what she meant to me, and laid out in front of me on the page, it didn’t sound all that romantic. Not like a groom’s speech at all – light on hyperbole, heavy on odd little idiosyncratic details.

Hours later, our guests found romance in a speech that I had thought quite matter of fact. But watching her play, I feel an overwhelming sense that this is where I’m meant to be, and though it isn’t the first time I’ve felt it – if you don’t feel that way on your wedding day itself, for example, than you probably have some problems, if not evident, than surely brewing – it’s the first time I’ve got the time and focus to realise that it’s a genuinely exceptional thing, rather than just a matter of predestination to be resigned to.

About twenty minutes before landing in Greece, we hit a bad pocket of turbulence. Not the worst either of us have flown through, by any stretch, but heavy enough that an imaginative man’s mind goes to the “what-if?” of mortality. And while I’ve never been scared of flying, or even of flying and dying, for the first time my mind fixed on it as a genuine possibility – as something that might happen.

And I realised after a few minutes of catching myself surprised by the preoccupation, that it’s her. I wasn’t scared to die, but I also knew that it was pretty unlikely to happen, during air travel. But for some reason, sitting next to my new wife gave me license to think about it. I knew that if something happened, I’d be there to try and give her comfort, and that made me at once more worried about the possibility of it, and less worried about how much it would ultimately mean, and how bad it could possibly get.

I had no idea what it meant.

In two days, with my new sandals, we will go down to the beach again, and this time we will go in. We’ll have been paddling in the hotel swimming pool on and off since we arrived. Or rather, she’s been swimming, and I’ve been paddling.

When I was fourteen, twenty two years ago, I spent a summer with relatives in Cyprus. I couldn’t swim until then, but I was forced to overcome my fear of it by an uncle who refused to acknowledge that there was such a thing as boys who couldn’t swim. He gave me a snorkel, flippers and a facemask, and forced me out into waters I couldn’t stand up comfortably in. Before long I was swimming with at least a little confidence. When I returned to England, I could still swim a little, away from the safe buoyancy of salt water.

In the hotel swimming pool, with it’s clear blue water, I will clearly remember being pushed repeatedly to dive from the side of my school’s pool, and retrieve a brick from the bottom of the pool, as a clear dozen other lads did the same. Swimming in Cyprus gave me the kick to swim when I got back – not well, but at least without panic.

Swimming, however, unlike riding a bike, is something you can lose the knack for, I have discovered.

For a little under twenty years, I have convinced myself that it didn’t matter that I couldn’t swim in chlorinated water any more – once I spent a chunk of time in the sea again, I’d regain my float, and be able to swim in the sea again.

The second time we go down to the beach, this time with me in my new sandals, and both of us in our swimsuits, I’m holding onto that talisman.

It’s for nothing, though. A short way out, the shelf of the beach drops out completely, and suddenly I find that I can’t touch the bottom any more. I don’t panic, because she’s here with me, but at the same time, I panic a little. My brain doesn’t care, actually, but my body and brainstem want me out of there.

Apparently, me being fearful or nervous about the water isn’t a problem at all. Though after a while, my self-deprecating commentary on the subject every time I’m embarrassed about it is a problem.

But this isn’t about drowning. Except in some ways, it is.

They tell you lots of different things about getting married. Some people try to convince you that it will only be downhill from here. Others, in advance of the big day, tell you that it doesn’t matter what you plan, everything will go wrong but turn out right in the end. That the important thing is that you’re happy, and that everybody there is there to celebrate and support you on what will turn out to be the happiest day of your life.

And this happiness, or resignation, come out of the same driving catalyst: You are announcing your love to each other, in front of the world, and that’s the most important thing.

But that isn’t the thing, at least, not the way I experienced it. Maybe, we’re just not romantic or emotional enough, and everybody else feels these things, in this much clearer, more definitive and social way, or maybe the truth is just more primal or vague or difficult to put into words, so they fall back into cliche.

Two days before the beach, I was writing my speech. A few hours later, I was sitting at the center table in a grand council chamber, surrounded by our nearest and our dearest, talking to my two best men, and yet in almost every way that matters still totally alone. Nobody else, at that point, was sitting where I was sitting.

It wasn’t uncomfortable. Actually, it was a peculiar sort of thrill. But it was intense. I wasn’t nervous, but my nerves were vibrating.

Because the thing people don’t tell you, before or after your wedding, is that even if it doesn’t seem like it, even if you’ve only got a half-dozen of your closest friends there, it is the most public and intense thing most of us will ever get to do. Our world closes down to just two – and then three – people who count at the birth of our child, but most of us aren’t used to the feeling of having called people across the country, or across the planet, just to hear us say something that we are already certain about.

The hard part, as far as a relationship goes – the romantic part, that involves sacrificing ourselves to another person’s will and commitment – is the proposal.

When the groom and all assembled stand, and the bride finally walks through the door, that expression on the groom’s face, that we always read as joy and relief, isn’t quite what we think. Or at least, it wasn’t for me, standing there, two days ago.

The groom has been sitting, surrounded by the noise and buzz and anticipation of more of the people that they love than have ever been in one place at one time, for a while by that point. And as humbling as it is, it is too much for one person – any one person – to deal with. If you’ve got a good relationship – and as I watch her playing on the beach, I’m smiling, hyper aware of how good it is – you never doubt for a second that your bride will show.

That expression that you see on the groom’s face – at least on this groom’s face – is relief, but of a different flavour. It’s because she has arrived, and he knows he isn’t going to be alone up there any more. And though she’s been at the eye of a very different sort of storm that morning, she must feel it a little too.

There, in the chambers, of course, I wasn’t conscious of all of this. I was just happy to see her. Five seconds before she walked through the door on her father’s arm, the room had been full of people and attention, but that was over, now, and though all of those people were still there, they were also outside somewhere, and there were just the two of us. We were still in the middle, and we could still be reached by the things that were outside our circle, but neither of us was dealing with the attention alone any more.

I’m quiet a lot of the time that we’re on this beach, on this first day. I don’t know if she notices – she’s a coastal girl, and being near the sea excites her atoms, till she’s buzzing and boisterous – but it’s okay. We’re still alone with our thoughts, sometimes, even if we’re together. I think that’s a sign of a healthy relationship, too. And she’s not the only one who is in awe of the sea. My head is amazed by it every time, even as my body flinches from the knowledge of drowning.

When we arrived at the reception, a few hours after the council chambers, and a couple of days before Greece, we were drowning again. Not when we got to the hall, or when we were taking the formal photos. But as we stood outside in the quiet of the hall, waiting to be announced, and hearing that low chatter of loved ones again, we both felt the anticipation, and as we stepped through the door into the roar of love and appreciation, and pushed our way through the standing applause and the ruckus, it felt overwhelming, amazing, and a little scary.

Probably too scary for either of us on our own to cope with, but together we moved slowly through, holding each other’s hands tight, and if that sounds a little like being born, again, that’s because in retrospect that’s how I picture it.

On the beach, awash in the ebb and flow of the sea and the sky, and thinking again about how in two days we have been propelled across the earth in a heavy shape of metal, and found ourselves together on this quiet beach, so soon after being in the middle of all that noise and energy, it’s easy to see how we, with our funny little monkey brains, came up with a notion of gods, and magic, and science, and true love.

But really there are just all these little tiny things, and these huge and unavoidable things, and some of them pull apart, and others pull together, and when one thing or the other thing happens, it is what it is, and it is incredible.

She’s stepping with ease across the pebbles onto the sand, and I’m stumbling along after her, laughing and happy.

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Nicolas Papaconstantinou
Nicolas Papaconstantinou is an enthusiastic amateur creative type, and the chap behind Elephant Words. Be nice to him. He growed up kinda wrong.

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