Book One: Chapter 31
Saturday 18th June - Wedding Day
Wake up....Get out of bed...Drag a comb across my head.
Peek out of the window and a glorious fiery ball of sun bids "Good morning". It is a perfect day to get spliced, especially when your reception overlooks a small, but perfectly formed sandy beach lapped by the azure sea. O.K., maybe not azure, but definitely blue, well a turbid browny-blue kind of grey.
I survey the garden. Hammer the tortoise is doing a few laps of the lawn, eyeing up the cabbage patch and working out ingenious ways of breaching the chicken-wire fence. A McQueen-esque motorcycle jump perchance? Frank the stupid dog seems to have contracted a benign strain of BSE and is chasing imaginary rabbits, whilst the feline community loll about on the patio, reserving their place in the shade for the rest of the day like German tourists.
I enter the hallway. Youngest brother John is comatose in his room with his girlfriend, with just a 50/50 chance that he will wake up in time for the wedding this afternoon. Downstairs, parents prepare breakfast, croissants instead of the usual gut-busting fry-up. Today must pass with military precision, so please God, spare me your usual fun and games and let everything run smoothly. Please?
First, I drive down to Tesco with dad to purchase some last minute provisions: ice-cubes for the champagne, a few more gallons of H2O etc. At the check-out it becomes obvious that my dad is like a fish out of water, as he haphazardly dumps provisions straight in the trolley, eschewing the use of technical accessories such as the carrier bag. He looks relieved as he exits his Dystopian nightmare.
After I return, my parents and I troupe down to the Leigh-on-Sea Sailing Club to put up the decorations. Sure, our venue has a few stains on the carpet and dad's rudimentary oil-paintings on the wall; there is no silver service and as yet, no place for the D.i.s.c.o. But money could not buy the panoramic vista over the Thames Estuary that yawns into the North Sea, the distant shores of North Kent and the sandy mudbanks soon to be submerged under the tide. The hire of this venue cost exactly £45.00 more than the price of my shirt, yet that cooling breeze coming off the Thames today, the hottest day of the year, is priceless.
Inexplicably, mum is obsessed with balloons and whatever the occasion, you can guarantee that she will spend a whole week blowing up 300 of them. They dominate this morning's procedings and the Ford Ka is stuffed with so many that the vehicle is in danger of floating away. As you may have guessed, this wedding/blessing is being run on a tight budget, so I spend much of the morning furnishing the Sailing Club with strings of tissue-paper bells and vases of flowers direct from Tesco, that look as if they have been made by Class 4B at the local Primary School. That said, it ends up looking quite respectable and countenanced by the clement weather and sun-drenched beach down below, I could not ask for anything better. Not for 150 quid anyway.
I return home just before noon. Tomoko and family are being chauffeured to Leigh in my brother's especially vacuumed Vauxhall Astra. There is mild panic on the other end of the phone; Tomoko juggling one demanding baby and two family members neither of whom speak a word of English. Somewhere beneath this melee, Tomoko and I are getting married, though neither of us have thought about that much with so many things to furrow our brow.
Youngest brother John and Rebecca finally surface from the duvet, saunter downstairs scavenging for food. He asks what time the ceremony begins and where, obviously well-prepared for the day. Hammer the tortoise has entered his hutch to dig out his tux (nobody has had the heart to tell him that no reptilia are invited) whilst the cats have melted into a clump of fur on the patio. With an hour to spare I rendezvous with Tomoko at purportedly, the finest hotel Southend-on-Sea has to offer.
Allow me to rectify this statement. With the notable exception of the helpful/sympathetic receptionist Ashley, this hotel is all faded glory, its Regency exterior belying a shabby, timeworn interior that leaves everything to be desired. It is like biting into a Godiva chocolate with a brussel sprout filling.
Entering the lobby, there is a deafening silence as nobody rushes to help us with our bags. The antiquated lift is modelled on the Parisian cubicle design and ascends in slow motion. In fact the temperamental contraption intermittently decides to down tools and remain stationary despite my hammering the button, forcing us to use the stairs. Upon exiting the lift, there is a small, concealed incline that leaves you flayling towards your door. It is like a crooked house, but without the intention or fun.
Tomoko's mother's twin room is ostensibly an incinerator. No air-conditioning, not even a window to open properly and allow one molecule of oxygen to enter. Stifling is an understatement, all the more worrying when Lily is supposed to be sleeping here tonight. I go downstairs to pilfer the electric fan from the receptionist who is barely able to conceal her disdain. Tough luck.
Tomoko and I share the deluxe suite entitled "Rochford" (a peripheral suburb of Southend-on-Sea, which once housed its mortuary.) We have the luxury of an en suite bathroom with jacuzzi, though this turns out to be a large bath-tub with a few perfunctory jets, rather than the ones you find adorning a Californian beach-house. Still, we have the balcony with its stunning views over the Estuary, or we would have if there was a door to step out onto it. The furniture looks like they were purchased from the "Return" section at Ikea: even the four-poster bed seems to be made of MDF. There is no fridge to store the chocolates, nor the pre-pumped breast milk for Lily that has to be stored with victuals somewhere in the hotel kitchen next to the "brough" (read on for explanation.)
Out of a maximum five-stars, the hotel gets a black hole.
Right, tirade over, back to the...where are we now...oh yes, I am on the cusp of my wedding blessing. We are running hideously late, the unrelenting heat slowing everything down, lest we die of heat exhaustion. Plus of course, there is the fundamental rule of relationships: that you should never hurry a woman getting ready. My Paul Smith suit looks fine, even though after thirty seconds it is marinated in sweat and needs a dry-clean. Tomoko is of course looking a million dollars, dressed in a diaphanous, pearly dress that her friend Motoko has made, with the help of 300 elves whose tiny fingers have woven silk in secret caves, deep in the Japanese countryside.
I have to nip back home to prepare myself. I realise that I have not chilled a special magnum of champagne for Tomoko and I to drink later. In a panic I place it in the freezer and make a mental note to retrieve it before leaving for the church. Alas, with all the commotion, that mental note is erased and consequently the frozen magnum explodes, leaving bags of McCains oven chips treading water in a slush of champagne laced with shards of glass.
Then I notice the silence. Something is wrong and I know what it is. Nan has gone had suffered a mild stroke and has been taken to hospital. She eventually recovers and in hindsight I believe that it was the lesser of two evils, that if she had made it to the church something worse would have happened. Nan remains at the wicket, only just mind.
Having donned the Paul Smith, it is back to the hotel. My brother Simon escorts Tomoko, her mother and Lily in the Vauxhall Astra, cherubic Lily adorned in a flowing, white silk Dickensian christening gown. Perhaps she is destined to be shoved up a chimney in a couple of years? The heirloom was worn by my brothers and mum had enquired whether we would like the bonnet? No, not unless she is auditioning for "Little House on the Prairy".
As I approach the church I spot my vexed mother waiting with the Reverend, no doubt convinced that Tomoko and I had a pre-nuptial altercation or knowing me, that I had forgotten the wedding altogether. I am ushered into the church and survey the congregation, ostensibly all my family and friends. It is probably the only occasion, apart from your own wake, when almost everyone you know is seated together under one roof and it warms the cockles of my heart. Assorted cousins (first, second and step) sit behind work colleagues; childhood friends perch next to forgotten uncles and so on.
Angelina Jolie must have not received my invitation.
Tomoko is suitably late. I suspect she might be doing some last minute dusting or vaccuuming.
Perhaps I have been stood up, perhaps she is making hay with an acned
bell-boy/asylum-seeker back at the hotel?
Here I sit, cuckolded in front of everyone I know.
Fortunately, my bride-to-be eventually decides that there is nothing much on TV, her hair does not need shampooing and dutifully turns up so that the ceremony can commence before people start passing out with heat exhaustion. We sing two hymns, a rousing "Jerusalem" (the "dark, satanic mills" in oblique reference to my office) whilst "Give Me Joy In My Heart" has that blissful, euphoric chorus, one of the few Christian hymns with a gospel feel. Tomoko lip-synchs of course.
The readings: the first by Jude who reads Corinthians 1, which ruminates upon love (beautifully read by the way) and Alex Hunt, who has been cajoled into reading John, episode 12, when Jesus turns water into wine at Cana, a miracle that many supermarket wines perform every year. He has a honed Oxford-University accent that lends procedings a "Four Weddings" atmosphere. Meanwhile, the reverend's sermon dwells upon booze and the dangers of alcohol, which prompts several members of her flock to suddenly lose themselves in the hymn book. Indeed the sermon prophesises the evening's bibulous arc, but at least the inebriates are now aware that the Methodist church is a refuge for old sots.
Tomoko and I stand at the altar, both contemplating how an innoccuous dinner on a Tuesday evening in 2003 snowballed into this, kneeling in front of the Reverend pledging our lives to each other. I mentally tick the boxes as my inchoate wife agrees to look after me "for better or for poorer" since my vocation as a wine writer precludes me from wealth; also "in sickness and in health" since I may have a hangover tomorrow morning. The Reverend pointedly omits my additional vow of doing the washing up and warming my slippers each night.
There is no commercial break between the blessing the christening over at the font. Unfortunately, Lily has gone AWOL and since she is a vital ingredient for the ceremony, matters are on hold until she is located. Perhaps a member of the clergy spotted the 666 birthmark that we hid under her lock of strawberry hair and banished her from the cloisters? Fortuntely she is soon found cradled in the arms of Tomoko's mother, fast asleep and blissfully unaware that she stands on the threshold of Jesus' stable. The Reverend summons the children to gather around the font to witness the baptism and I spend a few moments matching child with parent. I feel as if I am in a Michael Jackson video.
We finally arrive at the point when the Holy Water is poured on Lily's perspiring forehead, which gives her a
rude awakening. It is so tropical in the church that I would not mind being baptized myself. Can you be baptized
twice? Does that guarantee entrance through the Pearly Gates? Perhaps I could
take a quick sip of Holy Water?
No, hold on minute, I don't need to gain immortality...do I?
Lily's eyes suddenly open at her impromptu douching and she wails in protest. Perhaps I chose the wrong religion? Perhaps she wanted to be a Hindu or a Mormon?
Nonetheless, Jesus accepts Lily into the fold. I give him six months before he tries to offload her onto Satan.
The rites are completed and the newly-blessed couple exit the church steps to greet the guests. Over 100 invitees file past offering their congratulations, of which there are three which I do not recognize. The heat is intense, Lily crying for some supper, so Tomoko retreats to the hotel, whilst I walk down the cobbled lane to the Leigh Sailing Club. The tide has ebbed two miles and a few land-locked lubbers are astonished when three hours later, the sea laps the beach down below, lunar forces playing their party trick. More than one guest slurs that they swore the sea was not there earlier.
There is a positive vibe; people are "up" for this reception and the sun has induced a euphoric, jubilant, bachannalian atmosphere. A pre-requisite for any wedding is to have feral packs of ululating kids rampaging through the crowd, re-enacting a lost scene from Lord of the Flies (they of available for hire for those getting wed with childless guests.) Every ten minutes they swarm through in their solopsistic world where adults do not exist. How I would love to be that age again, without a single care in the world.
The fact that we have the decking for wanton al fresco drinking and dancing is all the better. Whilst we await Tomoko's return, I have to fend off ravenous hordes from picking the odd chicken teriyaki drumstick from the silvers. With stomachs empty and food unavailable, everyone resorts to drink, in particular a delicious Macon Burgy et Chatelain 2003 from Verget courtesy of the munificent Farr Vintners. Indeed, a few thirsty souls are well-lubricated before we have even started the food.
Tomoko eventually deigns us with her effervescent presence and the party kicks off. My father makes a brief speech; myself a daring bilingual one, the Japanese section translated by a friend. Fortunately the Japanese posse laugh on cue, the English shuffle nervously as for all they know I could be revealing their sexual fetishes and who is having an affair with who. I must admit that I had not prepared my own speech, so I ad lib how Tomoko and I met, adumbrate the convergence of our lives, the result of which is being fed just below me. It seems to go down well; my audience appears entertained and we all raise a toast with a glass of champagne (Martell if you care to know).
We forget to cut the cake, the mispelt debacle that had radical plastic surgery to change Lucy into Lily. Unfortunately there is some kind of hex on it and the knife breaks in two as we cut the first slice. Consequently most of it remains uneaten and currently resides as breeze-blocks in mums freezer, the one with the champagne slush.
In any case, people are too busy to notice as they are concentrating upon drinking copious amounts of fermented grape juice. Plus the disco is about to commence, but not before Tomoko and I perform the first dance out on the decking, which has been transformed into an al fresco mini-Ritzy under the stars, similar to an MTV beach party but without the fame-hungry bikini-clad babes. We have chosen the Super Furry Animals' "Juxtapose With You" a song that sends a tingle down the spine despite the unromantic couplet: "I'm not in love with you, but I won't hold that against you."
Then for the second "smoochy number", the DJ beckons single men onto the dancefloor to take the hands of my single, available female friends waiting to be swept off their feet. The useless male singletons cower in the corner and fail to answer the clarion call. The sole prospective suitor is a five-year old girl who has lost his mummy but since he is the wrong side of the threshold (i.e. single figures), yet another day passes waiting for Mr. Right.
The DJ's do a marvellous job, kicking off with Chic's peeless "Good Times" and wheeling out the kitsch trash such as Billy Idol's "White Wedding". They are probably spinning an identical setlist at G.A.Y. in London. The dancefloor is packed with happy, sozzled revellers performing their funky moves under the gloaming sky. Meanwhile, the pink posse are doing the washing-up (apart from rampaging kids, every wedding needs a gay contingent so that all sexual preferences are covered.) They have accummulated a tower of washed plates, although I am certain that if the DJ's had suddenly played some Erasure or some Hi-NRG disco anthem, they would have vacated the sink as quick as a flash. The evening culminates with a dozen of us forming a drunken ring, supporting each other arm in arm, slurring the words of Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now". My music credibility is washed out with the tide.
To the drunken sobbing of Cath, barely able to stand and demanding to be taken to the Westcliff Casino without delay, we make our departure and are driven back to the hotel by mum, who reports that nan is convalescing at home. Tomoko and I decide to continue drinking, especially since Lily is sleeping with Tomoko's mum and I open a special bottle of Chateau Margaux 1955 (foursquare, a little tired, the '47 better.)
With that, the memorable day staggers to midnight, thankful to have survived. After reading Tomoko her bedtime story, it is time for bed. Good-night.
Sunday 19th June
Tomoko and I troupe downstairs for breakfast and as expected, it is a gastronomic tragedy of epic proportions. Firstly we loiter for ages before someone can guide us to one of many empty tables. Once seated, we wait for ten minutes before a hunch-backed Transylvanian woman notices our presence and profusely apologises that it is her first day on the job. Somehow I guess the average tenure here is less than a week. Tomoko orders salmon and scrambled egg and ten minutes later, our friend returns to apologise that the fishmonger failed to deliver the fish this morning (yeah right, I am sure your fishmonger delivers on a Sunday.) I load up at the buffet, intrigued by a mutant "fried bread" that has the consistency of dough. I call it "brough" and it is inedible and not of this world. I pay the extortionate room fees and make a hasty exit from Fawlty Towers (without the humour) vowing never to return.
The afternoon is spent in my parents' back garden, opening presents (mostly Thomas Cook vouchers: fortunately we can afford more than a day-trip to Clacton.) Fortunately Hammer the tortoise has forgiven us for not inviting him and greets the Japanese contigent with a bow of his scaly head. Frank the dog simply chews a lump of earth whilst the cats are banished into the washroom since the Mitani family are allergic to felines.
We return home in the evening after an eventful, but successful and highly enjoyable weekend.