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Planning a "Quiet" Wedding

Richard Gordon's book Doctor in Love (1957) deals with the early stages of Dr Gordon's career - first as a junior resident pathologist at a general hospital and later as an assistant to a general practitioner - and his courtship and subsequent marriage to Nichola Barrington, also a doctor by profession.

The present extract gives us some idea of the customs connected with engagements and marriages.

Nikki and I, like several million others, decided on a "quiet" wedding. But there is as little chance of planning a quiet wedding as planning a quiet battle: too many people are involved, all with conflicting interests. To the bride, the event seems mainly an excuse for the uninhibited buying of clothes; to the groom, the most complicated way of starting a holiday yet devised. The bride's friends see it as a social outing with attractive emotional trimmings, and the bridegroom's as the chance of a free booze-up.

The relatives are delighted at the opportunity to put on their best hats and see how old all the others are looking, and to the parents it comes as a hurricane in the placid waters of middle-age.

It is a shock to any young man, when he realizes that his fiancee has parents. I had always seen Nikki as a single star out glittering in the firmament, and it was strange to think that she belonged to a family like everyone else. But my first duty as a betrothed man was to meet them; and this was arranged for teatime the following Saturday on the polite excuse of my coming to ask her father's permission to propose. [...]

The Barringtons lived in a pleasant white house by the river, and as I stopped in the short drive the door was flung open by a pink-faced young man of about eighteen with whipcord trousers, a check sports jacket, and a pipe the size of some small wind instrument.

"Richard, this is Robin, my young brother," Nikki said as we got out of the car.

He gave me the look of deep suspicion reserved by men for chaps likely to go off with their sisters.

"Fancy anyone wanting to marry Nikki."

"Robin, don't be a beast!"

"I thought you'd marry Bill Wharton."


Noticing that I looked surprised, he added, "Oh, Bill Wharton was an old friend of Nikki's. Didn't you know?"

"Robin! Really!"

"Anyway, how do you do," he said shaking hands powerfully. [...]

The Barringtons' sitting-room looked like the third act of a domestic comedy when the curtain had just gone up. To the right, a slim dark woman who might have passed as Nikki's elder sister was sitting behind a tea-tray. Centre, his back to the fireplace and hands deep in his jacket pockets, stood Commander* Barrington. [...]

* (Commander - a naval officer (immediately below captain).)

Symmetrically on the left was an older woman in a yellow dress that seemed to be composed mainly of fringes, whom I took to be Aunt Jane. [...]

"Mummy, this is Richard."

"So you're really going to marry. Nikki!" exclaimed Mrs Barrington at once.

"Shush, shush, Connie!" whispered the Commander loudly. "We're not supposed to know about it yet."

"Oh! Of course."

I was introduced all round. Then there was silence, broken only by Robin blowing loudly through his pipe. But the Commander, clearly the man for any crisis, said heartily, "How about a spot of tea?"

"Milk or lemon?" said Mrs Barrington with great relief. [...]

The brilliant national ruse of discussing the weather allowed us all to exchange stereotyped phrases while wondering what the devil to talk about next, then the Commander and I maintained a thoughtful conversation on fishing before realizing that neither knew anything whatever about the subject.

I made an unfortunate noise drinking my tea and dropped a cake plate on the poodle, but the occasion wasn't nearly as bad as I had feared. [...]

"I expect," said Nikki with a meaning look as the cups were being stacked, "that you and Daddy want to have a word together?"

"A word?" The Commander sounded as if nothing had been farther from his mind. "Yes, of course. By all means. Anything you like. Perhaps you'd like to step into my cubbyhole, Richard?"

I followed him to a small room on the other side of the house, which was filled with books and decorated with pictures and models of ships. The terrifying moment had come at last. The scene was so familiar from comic drawings that now I didn't know how to perform it. Did I stand to attention and ask for the honour of the hand of his daughter? Or did I just make some sort of joke about adding Nikki to my income-tax? Either approach would only make me look foolish. [...]

I caught his eye. I suddenly realized that he was as nervous as I was.

"How about a gin?" he suggested.

"What a good idea, sir."

"I was afraid you were a teetotaller."

"Teetotaller? What on earth gave you that impression?" "Nikki said you were sober in your habits."

"Good Lord! I hope she isn't too blinded by love." "Wasn't that meal absolutely ghastly?" he said, taking a bottle and two glasses from a cupboard. "Talk about torture by teacups."

I made some polite remark.

"The trouble is, women will insist on doing things that way. I hate tea usually. Never eat it. I generally have a cup alone in the potting-shed.* Water?"

* (potting-shed - those who keep indoor plants, have a shed for pots in the garden.)

"Thank you."

"And didn't you think we were about the dreariest family in creation?"

This remark was not what I had expected.

"But I thought that was what you were thinking about me."

"You! You looked frightfully composed and superior." "If I may say so, sir, that's just what struck me about you."

"Good God! I've been sweating blood at the thought of this afternoon for a week."

We both laughed. [...]

We discussed golf for twenty minutes over a couple more gins, then the Commander stood up and said, "I suppose we'd better go back to the ladies."

I re-entered the sitting-room feeling much better than when I had left it.

"Sorry we've been so long, Connie," Nikki's father said jovially. "But we seemed to find a lot of things to discuss." [...]

"What did Father say?" whispered Nikki, beside me on the sofa.

"Say? What about?"

"About us, of course."

"Good Lord, Nikki! As a matter of fact I completely forgot to ask him."

None of the family raised the subject again, and in a few minutes we were all discussing where Nikki and I were going for our honeymoon.

"This is my father," I said, introducing Nikki.

"My dear Sally! How delighted I am to see you at last." "Not Sally, Father. I think you're -"

"But how perfectly stupid of me. How are you, Cynthia?" "Nikki, Father, Nikki. And here comes my mother. Mother, this is Nikki."

It was the return fixture the following week. Nikki went through it more comfortably than I did. Within ten minutes she was sitting close to my mother by the fire, cosily discussing the technical details of wedding-dresses.

"But I must show you these, Nikki." My mother suddenly produced a large leather-bound scrap-book from her bureau. I viewed this with intense alarm. I had for years suspected its existence in the house, like some unpleasant family ghost, but I had hoped that it would never be materialized in my presence.

"Not that, Mother!" I cried.

"Why ever not, Richard? Nikki will be terribly interested. The first ones aren't very good," she explained, opening the pages. "That was taken when he was three months. Wasn't he sweet, with his little frilly nightie?"

Nikki gave a delighted gurgle. "And this one was when he was two, down on the beach with nothing on at all. And this one -"

"Mother, I'm sure Nikki really isn't at all interested..." "But I am, Richard, tremendously. And I don't think you've changed a bit. Especially when you've forgotten to get your hair cut."

"Didn't he have lovely curls? Here's the one of him down at Frinton* in his little sailor suit..."

* (Frinton - a seaside resort in Essex.)

I had to sit for twenty minutes while my future wife followed me from infant nudity to my academic gown and rabbit's fur hood,* holding my qualifying diploma and sharing a corner of a Greek temple with a palm in a brass pot. I felt this gave her a bitterly unfair advantage in our marriage before it had started.

* (Academic gown and rabbit's fur hood - academic gown and hood are worn for university ceremonies; originally the hood was edged with ermine, now rabbit fur is usually used.)

"If we have any children," I said, as we started to drive back towards London, "I'm going to take dozens and dozens of photographs of them and put them in the bank. It's a better way of keeping them in their place than a slipper or a child psychiatrist."

"But I thought they were lovely, darling, particularly when you were an oyster in The Walrus and the Carpenter."* I groaned.

* (The Walrus and the Carpenter - the poem in Chapter IV, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carrol.)

"Nikki," I said, "If you still want to marry me after that, shall we have the wedding on February the first?"

"In two months' time? But why particularly the first?"

"It'll be a nice easy date for me to remember for anniversaries."

"Of course, darling."

"We'll put it in The Times* on Monday," I said.

* ("Whom The Times hath joined together..." - reference to the final words in the wedding service ("Whom God hath joined together...").)

"Whom The Times hath joined together let no man put asunder,"* said Dr Farquarson, as I proudly showed him the page.

* (The Times - a conservative English daily newspaper, originally called The Daily Universal Register, founded in 1785.)

"We'd have been top of the column, too," I said, "if some blasted Honourable hadn't been allowed to jump the queue as usual. Son of a Socialist peer into the bargain, I should not be surprised."

"Well, it looks very fine. You know, it's an odd thing, but I hardly glance at the Engagements column* myself now. I did when I was a young fellow like you. Then my attention shifted to the Births, and now I suppose I look at the Deaths for my morning's satisfaction. Surprising how you can tell a man's age from the way he opens his newspaper, isn't it? But it'll make your friends sit up over their breakfast all right."

* (Engagements column - a special section in a newspaper in which engagements are announced; the colloquial term "hatches, catches, matches, and dispatches" means the columns with the announcements of births, engagements, weddfngs, and deaths.)

He had hardly finished speaking when the telephone rang. It was Grimsdyke.

"My dear fellow!" he said in alarm. "You'll have a hell of a job getting out of it now."

"But I don't want to get out of it."

"What? You mean - you actually want to go through with it and marry the girl?"

"Of course I do. I'd do so tomorrow if it was considered decent."

"But what on earth for?"

"Well, for one thing I'll be able to get out of my digs. Also, I love her."

"But are you crazy, old lad? You must be! Marriage is a much too serious business to be decided by the emotions. And have you ever actually been to a wedding? Just think of yourself in some beastly reception-rooms off the Brompton Road, with not enough to drink and all the aunts in their best mink tippets and everyone making frightful speeches about going down life's path together and all your troubles being little ones. There'll probably be beastly little boys in pink silk suits, too," he said with added horror. "No, no, old lad. Think again. Get a job on a ship and stay out of the country for a couple of years. Remember there's always that useful little escape paragraph underneath saying the fixture will not now take place."

"I hope the reception won't be too terrible," I told him. "Because you're going to have a leading part in it."


"I want you to be best man, Grim, if you will."

"My dear chap, I'd lose the ring and get the telegrams all mixed up."

"Look," I suggested. "Nikki's coming out here tonight. If you're free, drive up from Town and we'll all have dinner together." [...]

The doorbell rang loudly.

"Nikki," I said, "this is Gaston Grimsdyke, known to one and all as Grim. Grim, this is Nikki."

I had never seen Grimsdyke put out before. [...] But Nikki seemed to throw him off his psychological balance. [...] He was flummoxed to find a neat little blonde beside me on the doorstep.

"But, my dear Richard..." he said, rapidly recovering his poise. "My dear Richard, my heartiest congratulations. Lots of long life and happiness to you both, and so on." Taking Nikki's hand he bowed low and kissed her knuckles loudly.

"My dear fellow, I do congratulate you."

"Well, Grim," I said proudly, as nothing flatters a man more than impressing his philandering friends with his fiancee. "I hope you approve of the bride?"

"Approve? Good heavens, yes, my dear fellow!" [...] "You'll be my best man, then?" I asked, as we stood by our two cars outside the pub.

"My dear old lad, how could I refuse with such a charming girl as Nikki coming to the wedding?"

He slipped his arm round her waist and squeezed her tightly.

"Now in view of my official position in the proceedings, may I kiss the bride?" He did so making quite a noise over it.

"And you are charming, Nikki, my dear," he told her, patting her cheek. "Much too good for old Richard. As an old friend of the family I shall now also claim the privilege of kissing you good night."

"Here, steady on!" I said. [...]

Grimsdyke looked round in surprise.

"But it is all right, old man. The best man's allowed to kiss the bride before the wedding."

"But not too long before. Or too long after," I added firmly.

We exchanged glances. [...] Grimsdyke suddenly realized that he was not behaving like a doctor and a gentleman and Nikki said tactfully, "Perhaps we'd all better be getting along."

"Of course." Grimsdyke put out his hand. "Sorry, old lad. Understandable enthusiasm." [...]

We drove in silence for a while, agreeably breaking the Highway Code* by holding hands on the steering wheel.

* (Highway Code - Traffic Laws.)

"That's the best man fixed, anyway," I said. "We've told the parents, bought the ring, put it in The Times, and fixed my holiday for the honeymoon. What else is there to do until they call the banns?"

"To start with," said Nikki, "we must really look for somewhere to live."

(Doctor in Love by Richard Gordon)

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