25 MARCH 2003
MY PARENTS' LOVE AFFAIR COMES FULL CIRCLE
Christa D'Souza has had a cynical view of weddings since her parents split up in 1974. Last month they remarried, forcing their daughter to reconsider.
Does it matter if one's parents are married or not? Of course it doesn't. Not now, anyway. Fifty years ago, 40 years even, it would have mattered very much, but these days, when the likelihood of one's child getting bullied in the playground for being illegitimate is zero, when hardly any professional couples share the same surname, when the children's section in every public library contains such titles as I Have Two Mums, I Have Two Dads, I Don't Have a Dad and so forth, how can it matter in the slightest?
Or at least, that was my view until last month, when my parents, after 38 years of estrangement, for the last 29 of which they have been divorced, decided to get married to each other all over again.
Improbable as it seemed, I found myself in a register office opposite Norbiton station, in a fluorescent-lit room filled with empty chairs and plastic flower arrangements, watching my mother, who is 58, and my father, 73, exchanging vows, fumbling around for rings and being pronounced man and wife.
Perhaps the children of broken homes are a little bit cynical, but I have always felt wary of marriage. Sure, it was a little bloody when my dad first left, back in 1963, because I was always so totally besotted by him. But I soon got over it - children are far more resilient than grown-ups give them credit for - and by the time I hit my teens, I almost wore their divorce like a badge.
This was particularly true at boarding school, where everybody else's lives seemed so relentlessly Enid Blyton-ish. That sounds glib, but as far as I can remember, a certain glibness about marriage was vaguely encouraged in our single-parent, distinctly alternative household. Walking down the aisle in a big white dress was the last thing my human rights activist mother ever wanted for my sister or me.
Marriage wasn't necessarily for keeps, she used to tell us, it was simply a rite of passage, something you went through before you did something else. My father, meanwhile, a City businessman, but just as alternative in his own way, always told us both that we were perfectly free to marry whomever we wanted to, whenever we wanted to; that he would pay for everything, but that we'd have to find somebody else to give us away.
The impetus for either of us to tie the knot was never very strong. No wonder my sister, who has two children, and lives with a man who is not their father, never did it. And no wonder that when I was married - in the mid-Eighties, to an adorable American who now lives in Miami with his Brazilian boyfriend - I regarded it all as a bit of a joke.
Occasionally, the father of my two children and I will permit ourselves to fantasise. Wouldn't it be nice, we sometimes say, to have a small, discreet service in the local country church, put a bow round the golden retriever's neck and maybe even get our boys christened at the same time? And then we start thinking about the reality of it all.
How, even though we are just as emotionally, financially and perhaps even legally linked to each other as any married couple, we would lose that illusory but all-important get-out clause that both of us, after eight years together, believe we need in order to keep us on our toes.
I have friends who say that they needed to get married in order to affirm their love for each other publicly; in order, as one girlfriend puts it, "to belong". Another tells me that it was precisely the lack of taboo attached to "living in sin" today that galvanised her and her longtime boyfriend to marry.
"It would have been much easier to carry on as we were," she says, "but we both somehow felt a need for some tradition, some rules in a world where pretty much anything goes. As we were exchanging vows, I knew we were doing the right thing."
Which is all well and good, but to me, the idea of having to declare that I will honour and obey Nick, that I would be called "Mrs", makes me feel slightly queasy. And strangely disloyal, too. Like the vertigo sufferer who cannot help moving closer to the edge of a cliff, I'm sure that if I knew I wasn't allowed to have an affair by law, I'd be hell-bent on looking for one.
Then we think of how many relatives we'd need to put up. We think, too, of the paperwork we'd each have to go through in order to divorce our respective spouses (for, like me, Nick is still technically married to someone else) and weariness washes over us and we don't talk about it for another year.
These are all pretty lame excuses, when I think of the hoops my parents had to go through before they could marry the first time. My father, Stanley, who was born in Bombay, the son of a senior civil servant in the Indian government, came to this country in 1957, when he was 26.
A self-described drifter, he was staying with his elder brother, a military attache at the Indian High Commission, when he first caught sight of my mother, Frances, as she walked her dog, Tawny, up Highgate Hill.
They fell in love at first sight, and my father knew right then that they had to get married. But because it was the Fifties, because he was quite shy and Indian (let's not forget that inter-racial relationships in those days were a far bigger deal than they are now), and because my mother was only - I can hardly believe it now - 13, they couldn't do very much about it.
Instead, they made lots of tennis dates - even though neither of them could play - and my dad would come over to my mum's house for tea, under the pretence of visiting her parents, who knew his brother, Eustace.
As time went by, my grandfather, a solicitor, became more and more suspicious of this elegant, rather unconventional Indian who had come into their lives. The awkwardness of the situation was somewhat compounded by the fact that my grandmother, who had always been rather competitive towards my mother, had also secretly fallen in love with my dad.
When it became clear to my grandfather that my parents were in love, he threatened to make my mother a ward of court. My father realised that he had to act fast. During a screening of A Star is Born at the Everyman cinema in Hampstead, he proposed, pulling a wad of cash out of his pocket to prove he could support her.
My mother, then 16, accepted immediately, so now all they needed to do was elope somewhere. My father toyed briefly with the idea of Liberia (one of the few places in the world where you could marry an underage girl without parental consent) but eventually decided on Toronto, where, if he fulfilled a month's residency, the pair of them could legally be married.
On the day my mother left home to join him, she wrote a long letter of explanation to her parents, calculating that if she posted it before she got to the airport, she would be married before it arrived. To cover herself for the next few days, she told her parents that she would be staying with a girlfriend, and also, because they needed at least one ally, let her elder sister Pauline in on their plan. But even she wasn't told the true destination: she believed they were going to Singapore.
When my mum arrived at the BOAC counter at Heathrow, they told her that all the flights to Canada had been grounded because of fog. In a panic that she wouldn't get to Canada before her parents found out, she boarded an overnight train to Prestwick and flew out the following morning.
The flight, she recalls, was pretty murderous. Not only did they have to stop for re-fuelling in Goose Bay, but she had a terrible case of the dry heaves - because she was pregnant with me.
My mother arrived 24 hours later than scheduled and recalls being desperately relieved to see my father waiting for her, but nearly falling over with the cold. They rescheduled the marriage for the Tuesday morning; perhaps because of her condition, she cannot remember anything, except that it took place at Toronto City Hall.
By this time, of course, all hell had broken loose at home. There had been a minor train crash outside London and my grandparents, concerned that my mother might have been involved, decided to call the friend she was supposed to be staying with. Auntie Pauline, bless her heart, had torn the number out of the phone book but, by Sunday evening, the truth had to be broken to them. My grandfather, who went white at the news, immediately called up a lawyer colleague in Singapore in a vain effort to stop the marriage.
Meanwhile, my parents had flown to New York: my father being the ultra-cautious person he is had decided they should get married there, too, just in case. So off they went, my mother clutching her stomach, to get their Wasserman tests to prove that neither had VD, and then on to the Empire State Building to do it all over again.
The third marriage ceremony took place in London, after my grandparents realised that the only way to recover from this dreadful social embarrassment - and they had no idea, at this point, that my mother was pregnant - was to give their blessing publicly and hold another wedding for all their friends.
My parents still wince at the memory of it. My mother wore what looked like a blue flowerpot on her head and carried a drooping bunch of flowers tied up with a piece of nylon ribbon, both gifts from her mother. My father was so nervous that he mixed up the words at the ceremony - "I ply my trout" etc - and all that my five months' pregnant mother wanted to do was go back to my father's Frognal Lane flat and crawl into bed.
In fact, when they got home, Dad, having become tipsy with nerves, ended up collapsing on the bed, while Mum pottered around a bit, cleaned up after Sally, the delicate-stomached Afghan hound she had bought my father as a wedding present, and then banged her head so hard on the Ascot heater that she started bleeding. It wasn't perhaps the most auspicious beginning to married life but, against all odds, and flouting every possible convention, they had finally done it.
That they split up five years later has always been the most devastating thing that ever happened to my father. He never fully recovered from the break-up, becoming a virtual recluse after they divorced in 1974. He still calls my mother the love of his life, still genuinely regards her as the most beautiful woman who ever walked the planet, describing that first moment he caught sight of her almost as a religious epiphany.
Maybe he loved her too much, maybe my mother was too young to handle it, maybe they were just profoundly unsuited to each other, as many couples who are fantastically attracted often are. Whatever the case, when they did it the fourth time round, there was a feeling that a circle had been completed. That's the way I like to look at it, anyway.
Not that they did it for romantic reasons. They did it because my father is not a healthy man, and they knew that if they married, my mother wouldn't be landed with inheritance tax when he went. For someone as fastidiously responsible and generous as my father, this was terribly important.
They have no plans to live together - right now, he's in hospital, anyway, having suffered yet another heart attack - no plans to do anything different in fact, so, in a way, things haven't really changed. And yet, they have. I am almost positive, for example, even though he would never admit it, that my father likes being able to call my mother his wife, rather than his ex-wife.
I know he feels he can depend on her more: the other day, he called her up with a mad plan that she should spend one night a week in a hotel near his flat, so that she could keep an eye on him.
My mother's attitude, even though she claims she found the ceremony itself pretty meaningless, has definitely changed, too. Not just because she now feels "more part of the human race - a normal, middle-aged, fat married lady", as she wrote in an email to me a couple of days ago, but also because "I now feel much more responsible for your dad. He is now my husband (and signs himself as such in faxes to me) and I must look after him, come what may."
I find I am ludicrously happy that they are man and wife again. After all those years of pooh-poohing the institution and feeling rather sophisticated and louche as the child of divorced parents, I suddenly find myself brimming with pride that, at the age of 42, I have parents who are married to each other.
A little while ago, my father came out of hospital after a quadruple bypass. He was not well enough to look after himself so, instead of going home to his little flat in Kingston, my mother forced him to go to her cottage in Oxford for a couple of weeks to recuperate.
It was hard for both of them - my dad is not the tidiest person in the world; my mum, bless her, was not really put on this Earth to look after sick people, and they are both so very used to living on their own. But at the same time, when my sister and I came to visit for a weekend and I got into bed that evening, the realisation that the four of us were sleeping under the same roof for the first time in about 30 years made me feel pathetically safe and secure.
Whether this means that I will one day reconsider the idea of marrying again, I don't know. Only my children would swing it for me. Until now, marriage hasn't been an issue, but my five-year-old, who has never questioned our intensely 21st-century, intensely Islington public library set-up - Daddy and Mummy are married, but not to each other; his two eldest brothers have the same daddy but a different mummy; his gay godfather is Mummy's husband - is showing signs of twitchiness. Only the other day, his nanny told me that he had had a slight panic attack before going to bed because he had got it into his mind that he had two mummies, not one.
Who knows whether we'll ever go for it. But if we do, one thing's for sure. My dad has promised that, if he's ever well enough again, he will be happy to give me away.