260 – The Marriage

And never tear us apart.

For some people the idea of domestic, wedded bliss is akin to swigging a jar of lava: marriage would sear away their soul, leaving them scarred shells weighed down with cold rock. To them marriage is a slow death and a painful one at that. It kills their spirit, which would otherwise romp around the country bedding luscious young lovelies, getting ridiculously drunk and collecting venereal diseases like they were Pokémon. You’ll never tie me down, they say, and they laugh as one by one their mates marry off and become boring, more concerned with Sainsbury’s Pedro Ximenez than Stella from the offie. Like latchkey kids they show up at their friends’ houses asking if Bob or Pete or Lewis can come out to play, but Bob, Pete and Lewis are all married now, with families of their own, and they’re too busy eating casserole and gateaux to come down Nando’s and chat up schoolgirls.

And their hair thins and their eyes grow crow’s feet, and where the schoolgirls once giggled in hopes the old pervs might buy them Bacardi Breezers, now they just laugh and tell them to piss off.

And they sit–these lads who grew old instead of growing up–listening to James CDs, waiting for Christmas so they might treat themselves to a Turkey & Stuffing Fray Bentos for one.

I’m painting a dismal picture here and it’s largely untrue; truth is, who gives a fuck what happens to these guys, who think if George Clooney can stay single, hell, why can’t? Like thumb-tacks pressed half-heartedly they drop off the map and every once in a while–when Christmas rolls around, perhaps–Bob, Pete and Lewis wonder what happened to Andy, their fourth, their square, the guy who swore blind he’d never marry and perhaps never did.

The thought’s fleeting–this tree isn’t going to trim itself–and they buy tinsel and crackers and sherry for Santa, forget all about Andy and get back to living.

In the 1980s, glued to the tube I watched some very conflicting depictions of wedded bliss. The prevailing one was the happy marriage–The Good Life, as it were–where things didn’t always run smoothly but they loved each other, the husband and wife, and their children, and their friends, and all the other inhabitants of this cosy sitcom cul de sac. The rougher things became, the tighter they bonded together–and that was reassuring in a way. Even in the most blessed of relationships arguments can break out and cruel words be said.

Elsewhere long-suffering partners suffered in silence, in TV marriages perpetually on the edge of crumbling. Butterflies and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin luxuriated in a very British kind of repression, in which a wife and a husband, unappreciated and dissatisfied with married life, harboured fantasies of liberation that conflicted with their sense of humdrum duty. In these sitcoms, rebelling against the happy families depicted elsewhere in TV land, domesticity was a prison: a pin trapping butterflies meant to fly free.

These opposing breeds of sitcom developed their own polar extremes. Family life gave birth to the hate-com stylings of Married . .  With Children, where the only thing holding Al and Peg Bundy’s marriage together was knowing nobody else would have them. At the other end of the scale Dear John showed the devastating bleakness left in the wake of a marriage that had dissolved through dissatisfaction. Though I didn’t understand the series’s concept until much later, as a child the opening titles in which the main character  discovers the titular letter seemed so maudlin, he might as well have been reading his own suicide note, looking for typos before committing the deed.

It was strange growing up with these images on TV as our nightly entertainment, and knowing my parents’ relationship, if not loveless, at least had hidden the love between them very well. They were never affectionate toward one another but they didn’t coexist in a cold climate either, trapping me in a No Man’s Land between them; instead their marriage was like a comfortable chair that neither one of them could be bothered to leave.

After my mate Paul’s parents split I worried constantly mine would divorce. It was difficult not to, when mum watched Shirley Valentine with such obvious longing while my dad sat in the chair opposite, ignorant, not reading the paper, not doing anything else, but sitting, simply because it was all he had left to do.

They’ve never seemed to enjoy spending time together. Today, my dad leaves mum ‘watching her crap’, as he puts it, to go down the pub on his own, and drink on his own, and return home on his own; meanwhile mum goes on day trips with wandering members of her old lady tribe, watching West End plays, touring the sights. I don’t honestly know what keeps them together, except that the world beyond the comfy chair is a world unknown to them, and frightening.

As much as I love them–and as little as this strange not-quite-loveless, not-quite-not marriage  impacted the way my sister and I were raised–I look at them and think, fervently: I don’t want my marriage to be like this.

And then I realise it’s too late to hope one way or another: I’ve already been married a year.

That’s a year I can’t take back, exchange, replace. In the future, when our own children ask what it was like to be newlyweds I can’t make up some fairy story about how easy it was–how it was, in fact, domestic bliss. This past year–over a year, now–has been difficult. It’s the kind of difficulty of which other people so much in love would say “I don’t know how they did it.”

And as difficult this year has been for us, we’ve been together–yet apart–for so long it’s sheer spite that drives us on–not hatred of each other but determination against a world that insists we should have given up long ago. You see it all the time in long distance relationships: couples who throw in the towel because they live more than an hour’s drive apart. “If only,” we say, so bitter, so spiteful; then we grit our teeth harder in preparation for worst times still to come.

When we first fell into coy romance, if we’d known eight years later we’d still be apart, we might have given up then, to find partners less perfect but closer to home.

Ah, but if we’d known then how we feel right now, we wouldn’t have changed a thing. We’ve still been separated for too long–the pain is just as painful, the struggle just as hard–but love, as they say, changes everything.

Internet relationships are ten a penny. Working through papers in the shadow of my looming interview has driven home just how eager many couples are to go through these trials, so soon after meeting one other–or without meeting at all. I regard their eagerness cynically; my wife and I have been through so much that they have not–good times and bad–and reached the beyond place where love isn’t treacle sweet but a blood bond. Couples talk about seeing each other at their worst and how they’ll love their partner all the same–this place is deeper: it’s accepting we will see each other so poorly in the future that one comforting the other while he/she pukes his guts out will seem like strolling through a park, tossing bread crusts to ducks.

It’s arrogant for me to be so presumptuous about other people’s relationships, I know, but these giddy young things still have all that ahead of them. My wife and I share history–and like much of history it’s bloody and brutal and a wonder we survived.

I love her more today than I ever thought possible; tomorrow I’ll look back at today and laugh at the love I thought I knew, that was only a fragment of what I was capable of feeling.

Finally together–not briefly, but forever–our lives will change but our love will stay the same, and grow. I look forward to arguments over bills and mortgages and other of life’s woes. I look forward to those frazzled late nights, when the morning shift looms and Campfire Jr. still won’t sleep. I look forward to being wrong and right in equal measure, and falling into her arms once our anger’s spent, apologising, hoping she’ll take me back. I’ll hope life’s easy while knowing it’s not, and with every tremor and rupture along the way, so long as we hold tight–together at last–I look forward to it all.

Marriage isn’t a comfy chair like many people believe, but one that’s barbed, sprung sharp, stuffed with thistles, nails and worse; it’ll scratch and you’ll bleed, and you’ll scab just to bleed again.

But you’ll never stand, not once. Though you’re cut, scarred, in pain, it won’t enter your mind, not ever.

The chair doesn’t matter; it’s who you’re sat next to that counts.

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