The night before the wedding we’re in a cafe on the corner of Elgin Avenue for dinner. Caroline takes out a piece of folded-up paper and smooths it out on the tabletop. She isn’t going to make a speech at the wedding, but she has written one anyway. In a parallel universe, she tells me, this is what she would say.
‘I’m just going to read it for you instead,’ she says.
Outside the sky is black and clear, and you can see the actual universe in the sky, and the lighting in the cafe is warm like a bead of amber. We are sitting in a cafe, on planet Earth, on the night before our wedding day.
‘Thank you especially to Pol,’ Caroline says, ‘for allowing me to dote on him.’
She folds up the piece of paper and puts it in the pocket of her overcoat, which is hanging on the back of her chair. She puts her hands on the table and interlaces her fingers and smiles. I tell her that she should make the speech at the wedding. She shakes her head.
‘All those people,’ she says. The radio in the cafe is playing ‘Sailing’ by Rod Stewart.
‘Don’t forget to call the sandwiches guy,’ she says.
She leaves and goes back to her parents’ house in Queen’s Park where her wedding dress is hanging on the back of her childhood bedroom door. I tell her that I am going back to my mother’s house but instead I walk up to the Heath, to the men’s pond. I jump over the gate and I walk down the path, past the toilets and the locked door to the changing area, past the lifeguard’s hut. The water is as black as ink. I clamber down the banks and slip off my trousers and boxers and I climb down the ladder into the water. The skin of the water is covered in small insects.
On the banks is a bald man, watching me. I plunge my hands down into the water and then I plunge my head down into the water, trying not to think about breathing. It’s fucking cold. At the bottom of the pond there is a glimmer of light, which gets bigger and bigger as I swim towards it.
There is a church glowing with blue sunlight. Everyone is standing in the narthex. Light pours through the stained-glass windows, pink and blue. A boy wearing blue and a girl wearing pink, who I don’t recognise, are running down the side aisle and their small smart shoes are clack-clacking on the loose parts of the herringbone floor. It’s a Victorian church, neo-Gothic, but the decor is beige and pastel. There are twentieth-century Stations of the Cross hanging on the walls and twentieth-century stained-glass windows. My sister Caoimhe is there, and Father Edward. Caoimhe’s current boyfriend is there too. I can see Caroline’s parents huddled together in a corner, trying not to make eye contact with any of my relatives. There are a few other people I don’t know: Caroline’s colleagues from school. Caroline’s American cousin is there with her husband. Father Edward is still wearing his civilian clothes: a pair of canvas slacks and a sky-blue, short-sleeved shirt. The only person wearing a hat is Caroline’s American cousin. Caoimhe is wearing a tartan shirt and a pair of high-waisted jeans. Caoimhe sidles up to me and she nudges me.
‘Nice suit,’ she says.
‘Thanks,’ I say.
‘Where’s Mum?’ she says.
‘She went to the bathroom,’ I say.
‘Where’s Caroline?’ she says.
‘Morning sickness?’ she says.
I look at her.
‘She isn’t pregnant,’ I say.
And Caoimhe grins.
Now I’m standing at the front of the church, before the altar. The altar linen is rough to the touch from being laundered and ironed too many times. The surface of the altar mantle rustles inaudibly against the ridges of my fingertip. My mother used to launder and iron these cloths. Sometimes Caoimhe or our neighbour, Mrs Evans, would help her. They would stand at the ironing board in the living room on Quex Road, ironing. The next day I would see the same cloths that had been in our living room on the altar. A breeze from the half-open door at the side of the church moving them, slightly. The incongruity would make my head swim.
The congregation rises. I know that Caroline is here now. I don’t look back. Instead I pray silently. Please allow me the strength not to desire to convince her that she is shrewish, I pray. Please allow me the strength not to desire to convince her that she is shrewish.
Later on, years later, Caroline will say that I looked so nervous, that I didn’t even look her in the eye, and I will ask well what is the implication of that and she will just say:
‘No implication. You just didn’t look me in the eye.’
At the back of the church a baby is lowing. I can hear a low hum coming from inside the priest’s chest. The battery pack for his microphone, hidden inside his alb, humming. His eyes are locked on Caroline’s. She is trying to remember the words. I can feel everybody looking at us: her American cousin and her American cousin’s husband.
‘You remember,’ her American cousin kept saying, over and over, prodding her husband, when we had lunch with them last week. ‘You do remember.’
‘Allow him man,’ Caoimhe will say to me later, after she has been forced to sit next to him for hours at the wedding breakfast. She is scornful of the shy. ‘Simply allow.’
‘Since when do you talk like that?’ I will say.
‘Allow him,’ Caoimhe will say, again.
I should be taking all of this in. I should be listening to the words. I pinch the outside of my thigh through the pocket of my wedding trousers with my finger and my thumb.
‘I, Pol,’ says the priest.
‘I, Pol,’ I reply.
My mother thought that it was contrarian of my father to want to call me Polonius. She agreed only on the condition that they would abbreviate it to Pol. But from the day that I was born, my mother started calling me Polly. When she first met my mother, Caroline took to calling me Polly too: firstly to mimic my mother and later on out of habit. They were the only two people in the world who called me that.
I still don’t know why he wanted to name me Polonius. I think he maybe just thought that it would help him to feel sorry for me. He found it difficult to feel sorry for people.
He was teaching English at a gymnasium in Frankfurt and finishing his doctoral studies when I was born. He was a Shakespeare man, an Anglophile. When he first met my mother he assumed that she was English. They were already in love before she told him that she wasn’t. She was Irish and shy and spry and younger than he was by a good ten years. She was studying at the art school, the Städelschule. She was studying to be a painter.
I find it hard to separate my own memories of him from anecdotes about him. Like trying to separate the sight that you have out of one eye from the sight that you have out of the other. He was a pissed-off man, my mother would say, later. He had little round spectacles that he wore even when he was nude. He went swimming in the sea, nude, even when there were other people around, even when we were in Ireland.
‘Téann an fuacht tríom,’ my mother would say, shivering, wrapped up in my father’s duffel, sitting on the huge boulders that had been brought down to the shore from the quarries by men who were trying to stop the sea from eroding the beach. When he came out of the sea and walked up the beach towards us there was a blue hue to his bald scalp.
Sometimes when I see him now, standing at the foot of my bed, I see him like that: nude and bald and blue.
We moved to Bournemouth when I was five. He got a job teaching German at the Weymouth College of Education, which, the year he joined, became part of Bournemouth Poly. He hated it. He didn’t want to teach German. He wanted to teach English. He just wanted to live in England so badly.
Sometimes I can feel his voice. Like a physical feeling inside my brain. But I can’t hear it. An irreducible thing. Like an itch that exists an inch below the skin. Like the very last thing that you can hear in a hearing test.
The priest is telling the congregation what is going to happen next. He points to the paschal candle. He points to the tabernacle. He gestures with an open palm to the little red Formica table beneath the apse where the wedding registry book lies open: a green braided tassel, a fore-edge painting of the wedding at Cana.
I can see that Caroline has crib notes written on her palm in blue ink. I did try to convince her that she wouldn’t need to do that. It isn’t a test, I told her. I reassured her that the priest would tell us what to do. He would coach us through the ceremony. There was no need to try to memorise any of it.
We’d gone for the marriage preparation programme a few weeks before. We missed the deadline and so we had to do an emergency one. I was expecting it to be like a job interview: a cold room and a stern-looking priest. I was worried about how Caroline would respond. I was relieved when I saw that it was a nice, soft, middle-aged Polish lady who was teaching the course.
On the way out of the building, after the three-hour course, the Polish lady asked us what we would be having for the readings at the ceremony, and I realised then that we hadn’t discussed it. I was worried that the woman would take this as an indication that we were not taking the sacrament seriously enough, that her question was a final, secret stumbling block. Instead she just smiled and put her hand on my elbow and told us that a traditional choice would be the story of the wedding at Cana.
I didn’t say this to the Polish woman, but actually I wanted to include a reading from Bartholomew Playfere’s prophecies, from notebook nine, sometimes referred to as ‘The Nightingale Notebook’ because of the marginalia: the little scribbled drawings of a nightingale that you can find on verso 20 and recto 25. Later on – when the notebooks were rediscovered and rebound and donated to the British Library – the designers included a gold inlaid design, a drawing of a nightingale, on the front cover.
‘Please tell me that you’re joking,’ Caroline said, when I suggested it. She pulled a sassy expression. She always goes to sassy as a precursor to real irritation.
To my face she said that it was nerdy, but to her friends she boasted about my obsession with Bartholomew Playfere.
‘He reads this stuff for pleasure mind you,’ she would say. ‘For pleasure! Imagínate amigo.’
She liked the idea that I was a savant. A member of an invisible empire of the unschooled learned. It intrigued her that I had done nothing by the book, because her parents had done everything by the book. They were doctors.
‘Do you think that you love knowledge?’ she asked me once. ‘I don’t think that I ever knew anyone who really loves knowledge the way that you seem to.’
Sometimes, before we were married, she would come over to my mother’s house and I would find her in my bedroom leafing through the densely scribbled exercise books that were piled on my desk.
Anyway, we chose the wedding feast at Cana instead.
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