The smell of wedding fever is a heady melange of sweat and a cocktail of perfumes gone stale. This church is an ancient place which has become the final rest of figures notable in their day, names now forgotten by most, their engraved tablets dulled with age. “Oh look!” snorts a young man pointing to a 16th Century marble plaque and momento mori. He is in deep discomfort from the unaccustomed constriction of a plum coloured polyester morning suit. “Oh look, it says that Sir Ronald McDonald is buried here. Not so happy now!” His laughter rings out in the church that is rapidly filling up with people dressed to the nines in an array of wedding costumes. He is ignored. For some the day is an opportunity to display like peacocks; for others the torment of wearing a tie is almost insupportable. Kisses hello spark an outbreak of duelling fascinators, bobbing feathers like reindeer antlers perilously close to entanglement.
They have come together in the sight of Almighty God to witness all the frippery and entertainments displayed at a recent royal wedding which today’s bride has painstakingly recreated for her own special day. The music the same, the flower colour scheme the same, bridesmaids forced into similar beribboned tulles, and a reading from the First Letter of Patience Strong possibly down to miscommunication somewhere along the line.
Heels are stratospherically high and Fake Baked calves are taut and prominent. Old animosities are revivified and the heated over-excited atmosphere of a wedding creates a pressure cooker for animus to be heightened. There is the crackle of suppressed violence between two of the ushers, both of whom have slept with the bride, and neither of whom was invited to marry her.
The sophisticated sound system screeches an alarum, reacting badly to a frequency given off by Great Uncle Harold’s equally sophisticated hearing aid. Hands fly to ears to block out the piercing sound. The lay reader in his unnecessary pom-pomed biretta dashes to the mixing desk in the choir loft which nobody, least of all he, knows how to work.
Up in the gallery he encounters the organist who is trying to squeeze out a passable rendition of Nimrod from an instrument which has been suffering from the unseasonably wet weather. Its bellows give a wheezing impression of pleurisy and there is a sharp bang every time the D pedal is pressed. The organist gives up and segues into an improvisation in the style of Buxtehude, inserting a cantus firmus of Who do you think you are kidding Mr Hitler? not very subtly concealed on the 4-ft for his own amusement. For the trumpeter, whose trousers are an inch too short and expose his hairy ankles, this is his first ever wedding gig. He is nervously blowing spit out of his instrument, every so often inverting it to look into the bell with a frown, as if suspicious there may be ferrets up there.
The singer, who is a mezzo with soprano pretensions, will be welcoming the bride up the aisle with an exquisite aria by Handel whose name does not appear on the order of service. Instead Handel’s oeuvre has been ascribed to the well-known opera-lite crossover artiste who sang it during the royal celebrations. It is hoped that reference to these nuptials will add a flavour of class and nobility to today’s proceedings.
The singer, dressed in a vibrant red, is performing some physical jerks which are designed to unite the left and right frontal lobes of her brain, and convey her into a centred and grounded place which will endow her with the voice of an angel and the concentration of a ninja. She is scrunching up her face and blowing out her lips while spitting out “I’d like a coffee in a proper copper coffee pot” but the effect is of someone having a severe flare up of their Tourette’s. The lay reader wonders, mildly concerned, if she might be having a seizure, and if so, will she recover sufficiently to get through the service and lead the hymns which no-one else will sing because the wedding guests are all English and haven’t wielded a Celebration Hymnal in anger since primary school. It isn’t his responsibility and he is not the designated first aid officer for the parish, anyway. What’s more, he has knobs to twiddle on his mixing desk, and rushing about to be done to make sure none of the guests actually starts fighting.
A sudden draft and a waft of waxed jacket fills the church as a party of twenty ramblers enters, wishing to see the interior of a church which they have bookmarked in their trusty guidebook to local places of interest. They are dressed in a variety of impermeable outdoor- and leisure-wear. Millets has been enthusiastically plundered for stout shoes, waterproof trousers, cagoules, walking poles and Kendal Mint Cake to protect them from whatever the Regent’s Park’s terrain might challenge them with. Their leader has a long black cleft stick which he uses to steady himself as he rambles, and which gives him an air of Hades out walking Tartarus. But the dog at his feet is only a single-headed Bishon Frise who lifts his leg proprietorially on a length of ribbon artfully cascading down from a flower arrangement and yaps in falsetto as he does so. The walkers too have a sense of entitlement and queue lengthily and noisily for the single lavatory that is helpfully located at the back of church. Some hunker down on the flagstones happy to take the weight off their feet and shed their rucksacks and walking poles. A couple bring out sandwiches and offer round thermoses of tea. Several ease off their boots.
A bell rings and there are murmurs of, “She’s here.” Three small girls and one boy dressed in white satin outfits topped with little boaters that, weirdly, have teddy bear ears on them, as if the need to underline the exquisite cuteness of these little munchkins cannot be left to chance, are being shushed as they chatter and bicker at the west doors of the church. The bride’s face is set in grim determination, fixed both by nature and by an aesthetic surgeon, and she grips her father’s arm as if she has just performed a citizen’s arrest. There are grownup attendants too who have been forced mercilessly into peach satin with leg-o-mutton sleeves. The bride’s revenge for a catalogue of misdemeanours by her best friends over the years has been long planned and will be savoured.
“Overture and beginners,” hisses the organist needlessly and thunders out the first chord of the celebrity-endorsed baroquery. The singer takes a deep diaphragmatic breath, and this in turn provokes a loud clank from the loose floorboards under her feet, causing her to start, believing someone is creeping up behind her. Her voice, high and pure and just a little bit sharp pours out a melisma like Castrol being decanted hesitantly into an engine. The trumpet, when it comes in, will mirror her phrase, sinuously continuing the vocal line with effortless imitative beauty. But alas, the trumpeter in his haste to leave home on time for this gig has brought not only his sheet music in the wrong key but also the wrong trumpet. As the singer’s long piercing note rings out into the church, the trumpet takes over a painful semitone lower. The singer clenches her buttocks and breathes deeply and noisily, and the floorboards repeat their faux bourdon. At this she whips her head round to confront whoever is stalking her from behind and catches sight of the organist’s horrified face as he struggles to decide which tuning to emulate. The lay reader from the sanctuary whispers to the vicar as they sit side by side on sedilia that the brass is obviously favouring baroque pitch. The vicar returns with, “very baroque” and his comment is less musical observation than pejorative pronouncement.
Singer and trumpeter continue their unnatural duet as the bridal party sways up the aisle. The groom’s mother is dressed in purest ivory with a funereal corsage, quite out of royal sync, in calla lilies. The bride’s mother considers the lilies and raises her painted eyebrows as far as nature and injected botulism allow and elbows the usher nearest her alerting him to the arrival. The usher seems to be sucking a gobstopper, one of those everlasting ones which don’t get smaller, and it protrudes from inside his cheek like a bubo. He is down to read a bible passage which will prove a challenge in the circumstances. The aisle of the church is truncated so that the bride and her father get to the front almost before the first page of the Entrance Music has finished. There are twelve more pages to go which means that the congregation will have to stand and listen patiently while the battle for pitch sovereignty continues between the singer and the trumpeter. The organist has decided to try to drown out the painful noise by pulling out his crumhorn stop and turning the volume up to eleven. The mezzo-soprano too, keen to show that it is her version of the key which reigns supreme, expands her considerable chest cavity to deliver a vocal technique more can belto than bel canto. It is powerful, if unpleasant.
The congregation is restless, the bridesmaids young and old are bored, and the bride is questioning the wisdom of having chosen a piece of music that is eight minutes long to process up an aisle which does not have even a fraction of the extent and grandeur of a major cathedral. The eight minutes, however, is only the length of the version she has heard on Classic FM of this celebrity-endorsed music; she will soon become aware that this is usually a da capo aria and once it seems to have finished, it will happen all over again. Something else that is occupying her mind is that the husband-to-be standing sweatily beside her is doing a sort of nose whistle roughly in time to the music. It is not clear whether this is due to a head cold or a hitherto undisclosed habit of snuffling as part of his musical appreciation. She can smell his increasing moistness and her ire is stoking up as she recalls their argument over whether he should spend a significant amount on a decent suit (her desire) or get one from the ‘value range’ at Burton (his idea) which had turned out to have little passing acquaintance with a natural fibre.
During the musical argument emanating from the organ loft, the mother of the bride is having an awkward moment with her upper partial. The usher beside her, gob still stoppered, is gently caressing her inner thigh under cover of the extensive ruffles of her cerise and lavender costume. She is half thrilled and half preoccupied with the thought of her teeth falling out.
The mother of the groom has concerns of her own. Not only have the stamens of her calla lilies smeared their tangerine pollen over her ivory jacket, lending the fabric a colour-hint of nicotine, but she is also aware, because of the tag which is clamped unglamorously to her right ankle, that the clock is ticking on the few hours that she is permitted before the curfew which forms part of her bail conditions kicks in. This bloody music is going on beyond a joke. She had been looking forward to – nay, counting on – a bucketful of wine and a hearty go at the finger buffet. This looks to be in jeopardy.
One of the ramblers has brought her father on the excursion who is at the inappropriate and devil-may-care stage of deafness. “Can’t they turn the sodding music down?” he bellows from a side chapel. The reply is also bellowed since no other volume will be comprehended, “No, Dad, it’s not a CD.” More bellowing, “I’m not senile, I can tell it’s not a CD, I wouldn’t pay thirteen quid for a noise like that.” There are shushing sounds from members of the congregation and the leader of the rambling group shakes his staff menacingly. His dog yaps.
The sound of keening in the choir loft signals that the trumpeter has succumbed to despair and that the singer has won. The organ comes to an overly triumphant close. There are audible noises of relief around the church. The organist leads the weeping trumpeter away from the edge of the balustrade over which he is dramatically leaning and helps him down the loft steps and out of the church. The floorboards clank unsympathetically.
The vicar is not sure he hasn’t lost his audience even before the nuptial ceremony has started. He remembers his father’s advice when, aged eight, he stood as the Socialist candidate in a mock election at prep school: stand up, speak up, shut up. It has always stood him in good stead, and he considers himself a proficient orator. The odds were stacked against him obviously, as the short-trousered offspring of universally Tory-voting parents were unlikely to vote for him even when, as his manifesto had proclaimed, in his communist utopia, there would be wine gums offered on the NHS and a total ban on cross-country running, rugby and quadratic equations. All the teachers had said that his was the best speech, but the time for Socialism in this exceedingly minor prep school had obviously not yet arrived. Later on in his life, Socialism had been replaced by self-interest and Evensong, yet he still prided himself on his statesman-like ability to hold an audience. He shakes himself out of his reverie realising that he might have his work cut out with this lot.
“Dearly beloved,” he begins.
The groom is unhappily considering this phrase as the sweat pools at his neck and in other crevices. He can feel the beginnings of a nasty chafing rash on his testicles. His underpants are too tight. He is not at all sure that ‘dear’ or ‘beloved’ are words he is able truthfully to assign to the woman standing next to him. He has sneaked a look at her face which is rigid both with chemicals and barely suppressed fury. It is a familiar face, too familiar, and he knew when they had first moved in together that he had made a frightful mistake. The first mistake had been to move into her mother’s house where it seemed that he had two harpies where previously he’d had only one, criticising him, shushing him, and frequently making him climb on to the roof to attend to the satellite dish. His intended’s father did balance out the female-to-male ratio, but he sensibly spent most of his time at the bookmakers where the odds on a happy win were usually more favourable than the odds on a happy evening in the bosom of his family. The groom reflects on the series of unfortunate events which led up to him standing in the sight of Almighty God and various friends of the bride all of whom want him dead for his having bagged the prize instead of them. He wants to call out that he’s made a mistake, that they can have her, that he didn’t mean any of this to happen, but instead he just cries a little bit, silently and miserably. Beside him he hears his blushing bride hiss, “Oh, for fuck’s sake!”
Back in the choir loft the mezzo has puffed herself up with the sense of victory now that the trumpeter has slunk away. Shortly she will be singing “I’m only human, I’m just a woman” which she has rearranged herself to a key more appropriate to her fach. She hasn’t yet decided whether she will roll her Rs or go for a more relaxed approach and she hopes that as she gets going and judges the mood of the church, the style to adopt will become apparent.
One of the small bridesmaids has been jogging from foot to foot and an older, peach-clad bridal attendant keeps telling her sharply to stay still. But an usher has been teasing her from the pew behind by repeatedly tipping her boater over her eyes. The bridesmaid has begun to sob and her wails are increasing in volume. “I need a weeee,” she gulps as fat tears roll down her face and a thin stream of urine trickles down her leg. The older bridesmaid pinches the child painfully and drags her by the arm down the aisle.
Not many people are listening to the vicar as he tells them all why they are here, what they should be happy about, and why it will be their responsibility to uphold this union. “It’ll never last” declares the auditorially-challenged elderly walker. He proceeds to reel off statistics about the instance of divorce in the UK since 1968 in a voice that could accurately be described as stentorian. Some of the younger congregation laugh and the older ones simply shrug and quietly agree. The lay reader is wondering if there is some formula which demonstrates the inverse proportion between the immutability of a bride’s botoxed face and the likely durability of the union. Maths has not been his strong point in life but he feels sure that he is on to something.
“If I speak wiv’ the tongues of m –“, the reader tries to push the massive gobstopper into his cheek as he reads but it keeps falling into the front of his mouth hampering his articulation. He laughs openly each time this happens. “…or of angels but do not ‘ave love”, more laughter but by the time he gets to “resounding gong”, the plosive G is too much for his mouth and the gobstopper is launched like a mini shot-put over the lectern, and with enviable accuracy into the ample and be-lilied balcon of the mother of the groom. With a string of expletives that might plausibly form part of the idiolect of a navvy, she hurls the sweetmeat back at the reader. Her days of goal-shooting at school having not been ones crowned with trophies, the missile angles wide of its mark and hits the vicar in the face. He clutches at his eye and utters a strangled roar of pain.
Blissfully unaware of the drama unfolding in the sanctuary, the organist believes the reading to be finished and that it is time for more music. He strikes up an awkward three-four intro to the solo which late last night he had googled, never before having heard of this seminal Kris Kristofferson classic. He had found a YouTube version sung by Roger Whittaker and a handy set of the dots to boot from which he is playing today. “I’m only human; I’m just a woman” growls the soprano, surprising herself with the richness of her baritone. She essays escape from this register and glides uncertainly up the octave finding this, too, not remotely the key of the sheet music in front of her. “Lord give me the strength” she booms making her rolled R incongruously Italianate. “Yesterday’s gone, SWEET JESUS!”. This last ejaculation as one heel of her performing shoes slides into a crack between two of the clanking floorboards. She lists sideways, arms flailing and disappears from view.
Down in the church, the bride has made a snap decision. She throws off her veil, stamps on it and turns away from the sweating and blubbing groom. Grabbing the one usher who has not had his hand up her mother’s skirt, she drags him down the aisle, out of the church and takes command of the wedding car which is humming at the kerb. The rattle of tin cans and the flap of streamers proclaiming, “Just Married!” at the bumper of this vintage Model T Ford resolve the dramatic departure into a faintly Laurel and Hardyesque cadence.
The vicar, an avid watcher of television soap operas is, however, unaccustomed to the flouncing out of brides in actual real life. Slightly shrill, and aware that his words might now be a trifle redundant, he tries a nuptial blessing: “Holy Father, who formed man in your own image, male and female you created them, so that as husband and…um…wife, united …er…in body and heart, they might fulfil their calling in the world. May the Lord bless you; may the Lord make His face shine upon you; may the Lord lift up His countenance upon you!”
The penetrating voice of the elderly deaf rambler is heard in resounding response, “And also up yours.”
The priest announces a hymn to mask the sound of shouting and recrimination that is increasing in volume like a chorus of Maenads. Ancient grudges and long-simmering resentments are given free reign among both guests and ramblers.
The organist pulls out all the stops and tears into a spirited interpretation of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, which seems to act as a rallying cry galvanising one and all into an eruption of fisticuffs. The joyous occasion descends into an almighty brawl, and as a pinata of confetti explodes over the heads of the congregation, the vicar murmurs, “The service is ended; go in peace.” but to no-one in particular.