…Something borrowed, something blue

“Soar with wit. Conquer with dignity. Handle with care.”

Criss Jami

 

Imagine the scene. Wedding guests waiting to be seated. The traditional top table for the main players has 3 empty chairs, so the bride rearranges the place settings. There is an anxious hush across the grand galleried dining hall as the bride’s 2 brothers and future sister-in-law, guided by a silent gesture move swiftly to take the seats next to the bride’s parents.

The atmosphere warms slightly and a collective sigh of relief is palpably apparent on that chilly, but bright mid-January morning. The missing persons are suddenly not so obviously absent.

This is the story of my first wedding day on January 19th 1991. The man I was supposed to be exchanging vows with at Wolverhampton Register Office at 11 that morning had made a quite dramatic decision, without forewarning and chosen not to participate on the day of his nuptial celebration.

There is no chapter in the Book of Life to advise or prepare for being the bride left at the altar.

Jilted is the language of misogyny, much like ‘spinster’.  Words that conjure up the wronged, feeble female.  She never has a happy ending that wretched woman, she becomes a cobwebbed Miss Havisham locked in the attic forever, still in her wedding dress. The Dickensian epitome of a lonely, humiliated and pitiful soul lost forever.

That was never going to be me. I didn’t have a contingency plan for a no-show groom, I just carried on as if we had taken the vows. My sense of commitment to the 60 plus guests who were there, who had got up early, dressed in pastels, smart suits and pretty hats and travelled from afar was that of another well-versed Barnham-esque cliché ‘the show must go on’.

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And it did.  Cinders did go to the ball. I wore the ivory taffeta silk dress that Mum had persuaded me to buy months earlier and having been persuaded to be traditional for the occasion I was determined to keep it on – despite Dad’s advice that the best thing I could do at 12.15 when the registrar shook his head and locked the ceremonial doors, was to offer the guests a sympathetic sherry then shuffle off home, remove the now redundant ceremonial frock and slip back into my more familiar comfy track suit.

It may sound surprising, but that day 28 years ago counts as one of my most memorable.  Amongst family and friends we have laughed at the comic moments that emerged from a room full of people who spent most of a 12 hour stint locked in a faux wedding celebration party, with one of the key players missing and the ‘wronged’ party seemingly suffering no ill -effect, in fact quite the opposite; enjoying the occasion and making a valiant effort to ensure everyone would remember the day too!

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Over the years I have chosen not to dwell on the man who chose to stay away.  Suffice to say there was no warning of his intention to go AWOL. In fact, I kept the short note he left at my house the day before he departed for the traditional ‘groom’s night at the hotel’ – a scribbled: ‘I’ve got the ring.  See you tomorrow’. I framed that note and gave it a prominent place on the wall at home. I told friends it would be remembered as one of the greatest works of fiction in a lifetime. I had been in a relationship with this man for almost 2 years and we had been virtually living together in my house for at least 6 months before the wedding date. We had met and worked at Wolverhampton Council – entirely different jobs, him on the first floor, me on the third and we shared the same friends. I was 30 years old and he just a couple of years older, so there were no questions raised about our commitment to each other prior to the wedding or whether we had ‘thought things through’ – the usual salutary advice you might expect for teenagers falling head-over-heels in love for the first time. I did discover more about the man weeks after the wedding day, he did have a shady and dishonest background – nothing too sinister – but he had lied to me and amongst the many untruths spun to friends in the aftermath, I was soon able to dispel the wearisome yarn ‘I just freaked out that morning’ when I was able to give a more honest character reference for the man – who fortuitously as it transpired – I did not marry on January 19th 1991.

From the moment the doors of the register office closed, when there was no word or an inkling of a clue as to why he had not arrived, it was at that very moment he was gone from my life – forever. I had no desire to check on his welfare or to ask the millions of questions everyone present were forever probing. ‘Why?’  I did not give him the opportunity a week later when he returned – in proverbial fashion as it appeared at the time – to face the music. I did not respond to his letters or phone calls. Many of my friends and colleagues were baying for his blood, more urging me to demand an explanation, a showdown. Our sharing the same place of work seemed to set the scene for what many had hoped to be a re-enactment of Gunfight at the OK Corral.

I let the revenge seekers down badly. I had no interest whatsoever in listening to any mealy-mouthed response from this latter day Lord Lucan masquerading as the poor misunderstood and angst-ridden wedding day bolter.

Love commands respect. For truth. For compassion and generosity of spirit. He had shown himself bereft of any of these basic traits of decent human behaviour. To this day I believe his cowardly betrayal of my trust was the ultimate egocentric misogyny and there has never been any evidence to suggest almost 30 years later that I might at some stage have relented and given him a chance to tell ‘his side of the story’. The man proved to be a pathological liar. I wasn’t about to afford him another audience. I managed to track down his father and stepmother in the intervening weeks after the day itself. They had no idea of any planned wedding (despite the man himself having promised that he had passed the invitations to them by hand a few weeks earlier). I felt pity on his father, who was genuinely devastated with my news and expressed with a good deal of certainty that this was my ‘lucky escape’.

Once we had established he wasn’t going to be there I recall instructing my guests to make their way to the hotel for the reception. Dad had a panicky, puzzled look but went along with my request after Mum gestured that he should follow my lead.

‘Are you absolutely sure you want to do this?’ Dad implored as we got into a friend’s car to drive to the hotel ‘we can stop it all here, pay the bill and go home?’  I am sure that was what Dad wanted to do, unsurprisingly.  Instead his bolshie, undeterred and belligerent daughter hitched up her taffeta petticoats and in real Scarlett O’Hara style, dismissed his suggestion with a flourished hand: ‘Let’s go Dad.  There’s food waiting to be eaten at the hotel and I’m sure everyone is very hungry!’

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This was a very difficult day for my parents without a doubt. They did look lost and bewildered and I could feel their combined burning sense of – not shame but certainly injustice – and they were in unfamiliar territory in both physically and metaphorically.

Mum later wrote me a beautiful letter once they had returned home. It was her words that made me cry – I had not shed a tear on the wedding day or in the immediate days afterwards, but Mum was amazingly gifted at heartfelt and crafted letter writing. She always managed to stir emotion without resorting to syrupy slush. Completely honest about how she and Dad had experienced the ‘hardest day of our married lives’ and how lost they had felt, not knowing quite what to do next and whilst wanting to take the lead ‘to protect you from it all Alyson’, she went onto write how I had given them one of their ‘proudest moments’ as I had chosen to keep going to make the day very special for everyone who had been ‘privileged to attend’.

I had the chance to reflect with Mum and Dad months later. We never have an idea of how we might react in times of crisis, in an emergency, in times of stress and anxiety. It is at these moments we draw from the strength of our inner-self and the reference points that have marked our route from childhood into the adults we can only imagine our parents would hope we might grow to become. The intangible security that forms part of our make-up, fashioned by our family, the role models who shape us. This is where we find the resource to retain a self-belief, a confidence and the battle-scarred resilience that affords us the luxury of knowing that whenever or whatever in our lives goes awry, that intangible, but nevertheless very much present, safety net is there to catch us when we fall.

The irony of my position on that day was in stark contrast to that of my beleaguered and missing groom. Whereas I felt confident and supported by all of those around me who threw an invisible cloak of protective love and support, a group of wonderful people full of wit and wisdom, he was foundering in a sea of murky misanthropy and never likely to recover any self-respect or a level of understanding which might have excused his actions on that day.

A misguided bystander called me a few days later to express sympathy.  ‘I cannot imagine how humiliated you must feel’ this person said in hushed tones. I responded half-jokingly but more likely with a greater dose of causticity ‘I do not feel in the least bit humiliated. After all I kept my side of the bargain. He did not!’ was my retort.

In addition to my family, I still share so many of the comic moments of the day with friends. Like Kate, my friend, the actor, who I despatched to go ahead to the hotel to forewarn the manager of the situation and to inform him that the party would continue as was the bride’s wishes. Gorgeous and kooky Kate was wearing striped baggy pantaloons – hardly traditional wedding attire neither navy blue with a fetching fastener, nor apricot chiffon with matching blush kitten heels, but in her own inimitable style she arrived at the hotel reception to meet a platoon of hotel staff on the rolled out strip of red carpet, silver platters aloft, schooners of sherry balanced in anticipation of the gaggle of guests they were expecting to arrive at any minute.

There was just a moment – a flicker in his stoic but increasingly clammy demeanour Kate told me with a naughty chuckle a few days later that the hotel manager looked around in a mild panic after she had broken the news to him that he said: ‘please tell me this is not a Jeremy Beadle prank!’  (for those of us who remember the Saturday night TV programme that focussed on unwitting folk subjected to merciless trickery, this poor man was entitled to believe this jape was right up there in the hotel managers guide ‘How to Manage the Missing Bridegroom’ situation).

Or when as we sat at the top table, Mum and Dad and my brothers, attempting to maintain a dignified stance of family unity in the midst of flustered hotel staff, confused guests and awkward murmuring all around, Dad suddenly became agitated casting his eye over the room of people taking the cue to begin eating their starters.

‘For God’s sake somebody warn that table’ he said gesticulating wildly at the table to the front of us, ‘Mother is just about to tip that dish of ginger all over her melon!’

We all collapsed in giggles – we had memories going back years of Nana Lanning coughing incessantly through Christmas and New Year dinners – ‘it’s that bloody ginger’ she would say. It was always to blame, but then she never recognised the term ‘sprinkle sparingly’ hers was always a heavy hand.

Dad stepped up to make a brilliant speech. How does one ever prepare to be the father-of-the-bride on the day that traditional words are almost certainly going to be entirely inappropriate?

I can remember the pause as he stood. Dad possessed a charismatic presence and his years as a presenter, a journalist and gifted raconteur never failed him, but on this occasion he was momentarily quiet and reflective. He was looking to Mum for reassuring guidance. As my brother Philip later commented, our father for all his experience in television, in a lifetime of broadcasting, as a producer of great tales, of capturing memorable moments with whimsical throw-a-way lines, he always worked best with a director in the background – the nod of approval from the wings. It was the ever cool and never flustered Leona, who for this, the most unprecedented of events, absorbed the inner turmoil they must both have been feeling on that day.

With perfect timing Dad cast his eyes upward towards the gallery and addressed the guests with the opening line:  ‘It is at this moment I expect Cilla to appear and say ‘Surprise, Surprise!’ Cue laughter from the audience. He was brilliant and his charm and poise immediately relaxed the room. There was never going to be an emotional rant from my father. Never. Not in public anyway.  Just before he died just over 2 years ago, he cast his eye around all of us at his bedside and said: ‘Us Lannings we stick together don’t we?’. We do and never was this more apparent than on that day.  January 19th 1991.

As the day unfolded, many guests who had intended to stay for just a couple of hours found themselves caught up in this extraordinary event and were compelled to stay – partly I suspect from curiosity (what might happen next?)  partly support and loyalty for me.  My closest schoolfriend Jane had travelled from Essex with her husband Gary and their son Andrew (who would’ve been about 4 years old at the time) changed their plans and stayed until the end of the party – it must have been midnight – only to find when they arrived back in Romford around 3am that they had forgotten their door key and had to call at her Mum’s (who was looking after their younger son) at that unearthly hour (remember this was the days before mobile phones, so simple communication was always just that little more fraught!)

Guests arrived for the evening reception were met by two friends who parked themselves at the door to give them the full scenario (nowadays no doubt there would be a Facebook notification to warn those attending for the evening bash) but as the vol au vents and goujons appeared so did a whole new set of people wearing shiny dresses and carrying gifts that were quickly hidden in one of the hotel’s reception rooms ‘out of sight’ as they became very quickly deemed as objects that shouldn’t be on show.

Of those who came later, some chose not to stay – unsurprisingly they had not caught the mood of the day which was that of unorthodox celebration – the folk that joined in the fray were equally joyous and appreciative that they had contributed to an unforgettable day.

The venue – The Mount Hotel in Tettenhall, Wolverhampton played its part.  The staff were amazing and allowed the festivities to continue but sensitive to the mood of the day. At one point one of the catering staff came to me and whispered in my ear; ‘What would you like us to do with the cake madam?’

Ah the cake! It had been on a small table in the middle of the room, waiting to be cut in the traditional ceremonial fashion. I suggested they take it out into the kitchen, and we would deal with it later – only for a waitress to drape it with a cloth, the ‘recently demised’ cake (RIP) was then wheeled out of the room on very squeaky wheels. It made a big statement, but we all found it added to the general lunacy of the day and we laughed.  A lot.

A few days later when I was back at work the finance department from the hotel called me to say there was a little matter of an unpaid bill for the reception. I had already decided what my course of action was going to be as we all checked out of the hotel on the Sunday morning and Dad had wanted to settle the account – for everything.

I told him then to put the cheque book away. I was determined that the very last thing my absent groom was going to do was to pay for the party he rudely chose not to attend*.

When the band arrived for the evening’s entertainment, their set was hurriedly changed, suddenly ‘wedding songs I have known and loved’ were scrapped and Have I told you lately that I love you and You are the Sunshine of my life were off the playlist.  We had a lot of fun devising our own inappropriate songs they could have played (and I think the mood of the day along with a few increasingly tipsy guests would’ve enjoyed the dark humour of a raucous rendition of When will I see you again, Yesterday or perhaps even It should have been me).

My friend Jackie – a beautiful vocalist – stood up to sing the song we had agreed she would perform a long time beforehand; The best is yet to come. Its lyrics – prophecy of the finest form – although the opening line where did we go wrong? caused a slightly uncomfortable shuffle and strained grimace amongst all those still present.

In a strange twist of fate, one of the evening guests arrived and strode across to me on the dancefloor as I was undoubtedly swirling and twirling. He was one of the brave attendees who came to speak to me– not to offer sympathy or words of pity but greeted me with the words: ‘ah well at least West Ham won today!’

That man – who later became my husband – admitted later he was amazed by my response and told everyone in the pub the next day, that he was completely in awe that not only was I delighted that West Ham had beaten Leicester 1-0, ‘but she even knew that George Parris had scored the goal!’.  There are some things that transcend even a wedding day crisis!

There are many more stories of this momentous day and I have often been reminded by friends who were there that it was the best (non) wedding they had ever attended – and as odd as it may sound, I completely agree. I can honestly say I had a truly wonderful day.

The man who made that possible must have had time to reflect when others told him about the celebration we had all enjoyed (at his expense). I wonder if he ever thought to himself it might have been easier if he had just turned up….

As a footnote: I mentioned how Mum and Dad had been the king and queen of calm.  Their measured and dignified presence on a day of turbulent emotion was talked about with high admiration from friends, work colleagues, even the local press**.  My brother Philip – just 20 at the time – phoned me the day after the wedding and the conversation centred on how Dad had been ‘bloody marvellous’.

‘He really kept his cool didn’t he?’ The family were familiar with Dad’s often incendiary temperament when he felt wronged or cheated – it only took a West Ham lead at half-time to be squandered at 90 minutes for Dad to yell at the teleprinter on TV and declare he was going to have ‘an early night’ – that or a loss at Monopoly and the old 78 jazz records came out and were played horrendously loud to annoy us all….so to manage a whole day of restrained emotion, when he could have quite rightly felt aggrieved and seeking retribution for his abandoned daughter would’ve been completely understandable.

Just 48 hours later however I received another telephone call from my brother Russell.

‘We’re in deep trouble’ he said in an anxious and worrying tone.

‘Dad’s had his dinner. He’s had a few Fosters and he’s got the cheese knife in his hand. He’s waving it around like a mad man. He’s phoned Philip and he’s told us both that he’s got a few of his mates and we’re all coming back to Wolverhampton at the end of the week to sort this shyster out once and for all….’

*the hotel not only sent him the bill, they arranged a courier to hand deliver it to his desk such was the level of support I had from them and the woman in the accounts department who returned to her office on the Monday morning was horrified by the whole story. She promised me that in every way possible the hotel would ensure he would be held accountable. A worthy and very welcome show of unity and support of which I was immensely humbled and grateful. He did eventually cough up at which point I returned all his goods and chattels that had been at my house – via a third party – I didn’t do anything awful to his clothes as some had suggested I should have. As I have said before, I am not driven by revenge, only for justice with that comes a welcome closure.

**I managed to make the headlines in the Wolverhampton Express & Star and then in The Sun and had to smile at the fact that I was a page 13 lead story which boasted the headline: ‘Brave Bride has party while groom does a runner’.

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6 thoughts on “…Something borrowed, something blue

  1. Oh Alyson, so remember it all! Lovely to see some photos. I cannot remember exactly what your dad said during his speech only that it was just perfectly judged and I don’t believe there was not a single person in the room that did not shed a tear and admire how well you all coped with it all. Yes, we remember it as a great non wedding 🤣

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Boy do I remember that day! And I remember feeling proud to be your friend You handled your self like the true Alpha woman that you are! Well written and not difficult to get into!! Keep em comity!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Alyson, I remember you telling me this over dinner in the OPO and as I just read this I heard your voice reading it to me. You are truly awesome!! Love and respect x

    Liked by 1 person

  4. 28 years ago, so much has happened in that time. Lots of good times, some not so good. Happy memories of an old friend.

    Like

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