I was woken by the sound of the alarm – an unfamiliar noise – coming from my wife’s new phone. The day oozed in slowly through the gap in the hotel room curtains, backlighting the slumbering six foot figure next to me. Nine a.m. on one of the saddest kinds of mornings, the mornings where you have to check out. I stayed almost motionless for as long as I could, taking in the stillness of everything and then the things that weren’t quite as still – the rise and fall of her breathing, the occasional thud of feet in the hallway beyond the door. This was the nearly peaceful moment before the lights are flicked on and the shower splutters into action, before clothes are crammed into suitcases, before the scratching sound of a suitcase being zipped up, like a guiro.
It was my wedding anniversary.
Eight years ago we had woken up in a different hotel in this city, unmarried for the last time. We’d had breakfast in the hotel, unmarried for the last time, and walked through the Lanes to the train station to pick up my friend Laura, one of our two witnesses that day. I think we may have had a pair of cheese straws from the café on Kensington Gardens which has closed down and been replaced by another café looking much the same, but without the memories attached. The rooftop bar where we bought pitchers of cocktails later that day and toasted our low-key, reckless marriage had also closed down, but some memories are too strong for that kind of thing to be important. Besides, you can’t expect everything to stay the same for eight years.
Next to me, she could tell that I was awake – the kind of proper wakefulness where the cogs are whirring and cannot be slowed again until a different bedtime. She can always tell, without opening her eyes – a sixth sense, perhaps. I don’t know whether she has spent eight years memorising me like a favourite poem or whether she has always known. We like to think that we are the same in so many ways but this isn’t one of them; we are very different in terms of what we notice and don’t. Next to me, a single eyelid opened and a suspicious eye greeted me first, then the world.
“You’ve gone ping, haven’t you?”
Going ping, that reference to the moment when I am properly awake, like toast shooting out of the slot or a timer going off, like a starting pistol firing. Once it’s happened, it’s happened and the metaphorical toothpaste will never go back in the tube again however hard you try. In the last eight years, one thing we’ve learned is that trying – in this respect at least – is pointless. She instead warms up like a radiator, comes to life gradually like a modern lightbulb. One thing I’ve learned over the last eight years is that it’s a process you cannot accelerate (she, of course, knew that already).
“I’m afraid so.”
“Do you want to have first shower?”
This was not a question, not even an invitation, but a subtly worded command. I’ve picked up those nuances over the last eight years. First shower, that wooden spoon we fight over every morning. The loser misses out on the final fifteen minutes in bed, stretched out to the very edges and hogging the warmth of two people, collected over hours of sleep, precious in those final moments before it dissipates and real life intrudes. Most mornings I win that battle, although I lose the war when she returns from the shower and slips back under the duvet, determined to have the last word. The last word is very important when you’re stubborn, and both of us never expected to meet somebody as stubborn as us. It took us nowhere near eight years to figure out that we had both met our match.
Standing in the shower, having lost just this once, I found myself thinking about how things change. Going ping. First shower. Second shower. A whole vocabulary that didn’t exist when we first got together, an array of concepts we didn’t have, or didn’t have words to express. And those are just the ones at the start of the morning, for every moment of every day there are dozens more. The in-jokes, the pet names, the codewords. The expressions, or phrases, or tones of voice that say change the subject, or stop being like this, that say you please me greatly or I am proud of you. The hundreds and hundreds of little things like this, things I will never tell you or couldn’t explain, that all add up to something else, something I might sum up as we’re in this together, you and I. How did we accumulate all of this? Is it the padding round our marriage, or is it the fabric of our marriage? I stood there in the dim light, under the steady patter of the shower, and I wasn’t sure if I knew, or whether it mattered.
You’ve gone ping. First shower or second shower. Nice cup of tea before bed? These are the rituals and the language of our world. And here’s the other thing about it – my marriage is my world, but it’s not the whole world or even the real world. It’s better than the real world, a beautiful bubble I live in for as much time as I can that protects me from how cruel and arbitrary the outside world can be. It’s a place with its own rules and its own language where we are king and queen and can do what we like, or do nothing, be idle or productive, grown-up or silly. Normally we are idle and silly but it’s our idle and silly, and I wouldn’t expect anyone else to understand.
In our bubble, provided we start the day together and end it together, side by side, drinking our tea, one bedside light out after the other, it’s as if it doesn’t matter how awful the period in between can be, or how much everything else can bend us out of shape. Every night it is all fixed, and we begin again. I don’t think we’ve ever had a significant argument, certainly nothing profound enough that it couldn’t be fixed before bedtime. Did I know all of that eight years ago? No, not in the slightest.
Eight years ago those rules and that language didn’t exist. We had lived together for two months, but we just knew that we wanted to spend eight years making it up as we went along, and then another eight years, and another eight years after that, for as long as we could and as long as our beautiful bubble would last. Looking back I know that it would have seemed like a gamble to anyone; we knew so little about each other, but somehow we knew this was our best chance to be happy. If I wasn’t so mistrustful of the notion, I might even have described it as a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Eight years on, my wife and I went for breakfast at a café opposite the town hall where it all began. We sat on the banquette side by side, looking out on things together. We like to share an experience rather than sit across from each other, another thing we’ve learned that we didn’t know before we got married. When we go to parties, we often mingle separately. “I don’t want to sit with him, we get to talk to each other all the time”, my wife will say to friends at dinner and I’ll smile because if she hadn’t said it I would have said much the same. I don’t even pretend to be offended, which is unlike me. Then at the end of the evening, when the tea is made and the bedside lights are on, we compare notes and have twice as much to talk about, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Eight years on I have grey hair that wasn’t there back then. I have put on weight and lost weight, and acquired a collection of prescriptions and better glasses and different clothes. Eight years ago, it was all slogan t-shirts and big baggy jeans and a grade two all over, now it is muted striped tops and trousers that fit. I smell nice. I can behave in polite company, if I must. I look like the grown up I never really thought I’d become.
At breakfast, I found myself thinking about whether I am the man she married, and whether it matters if I’m not. If I had known it would turn out like this, I wouldn’t have changed anything and I wonder if she would say the same. I can be maddening. I’m grumpy and petulant. I sulk. I always think I’m dying. (“The doctor says I’m not dying. He always says that.” “He’s been right so far.”) I obsess about the smallest things. And yet if you ask me about her, if I talk about my marriage, you would never know that the rest of my life can be so marred by gloom and neurosis. She has saved me from so many things, and sometimes I assume that she knows that I’m grateful. But it’s okay, because I know I saved her too.
When we’d finished eating, we walked across to the station, a trip we’d made eight years ago as singletons for the last time. We made our train in time and settled down on opposite sides of a table, our Sunday papers of choice spread out between us. She loves the Sunday papers, I only read them to make me cross. If something makes me especially cross, I try to read it out to her and she tries to stop me. Did she know that eight years ago when we got married? Is it something she would change about me if she could? I wondered if I could change it if I wanted to, or whether I’d ever want to. Then I wondered whether we have spent the last eight years discovering who we are or becoming who we are and then it became too difficult, so I looked out the window and watched the drabness going by.
The train took ages, going via Southampton, sidling along the perimeter of the country as if it was apologising for something. The landscape was grey and the train went through station after station of towns I never even knew existed. Nobody got off, and nobody got on. When the view got boring, which didn’t take long, I took to looking over at my wife. There’s an art to this – you have to look just long enough without getting caught, and that takes judgment. If you get caught, there are inevitable questions: “What?” “What’s wrong?” “Why are you looking at me?” “Stop it, it’s distracting.” But if you time it just right, you can see everything.
To my wife, this would be a journey just like any other. We just played with our phones, and read the papers, she’d think. We didn’t really talk. It was boring, and the train took ages. But I know better, because I looked across at her and I saw the woman I met, the woman I married and the woman I’m married to now, all in one. She was looking down at her phone, playing a game, and her brows were knitted. Her hands were a blur, fingers across the screen, moving things and pressing things and her clever, clever face took everything in. Before she came along I was with a woman who stared blankly into space all the time – at home, at restaurants, at walls, at books, at me. My wife is not a woman like that. And I thought to myself: You please me greatly. I am proud of you. We’re in this together, you and I.