'The marriage itself is a blank' - Reina James
(Sid James` Daughter)
From The Guardian
Saturday, 10 April, 1965. I'm a bride. But not a princess bride in a cloud of veil lace, more like a baby-pink silk balloon with fat legs poking out at one end and a fat face at the other. My hair is so stiff you could bang me on a gong, my shoes are baby-pink satin, warping and creaking under the weight and as for the dress, the camouflaging dress: we could have held the wedding in it.
I'd made the announcement on a Sunday visit home. My mother was drinking Guinness and I was leaning on the Aga with a mug of tea. I think the conversation started:
"Oh, Christ ... "
My mum had never toed the line. Before the blues really set in and she lost her way, she'd been a bold girl, a dancer, a round-the-world traveller, drawn to the unorthodox and always on the side of the underdog. Even so, I was only 17 and the times they might have been a'changing somewhere, but not in Surrey they weren't, not just yet. She couldn't tell me to leave, I'd already done that, but she might yell and chuck things or marry me off in secret or even make me give the baby up for adoption. She probably ran down the list and added tying me to a tree and beating me until I apologised but, true-to-form, she took the audacious way out and said we'd have a proper do. Perhaps she'd always planned a wedding for me and, for all she knew, this was going to be her only chance. Or perhaps it pleased her to cock a snook at protocol again, or perhaps she felt guilty about her role in my predicament and wanted to go some way to making amends. I can't be sure because we never spoke about her feelings, or mine, then or after; until now I'd never even considered the impact my brusque little bombshell might have had on her that morning.
She didn't hang around. In a matter of days, I was booked in with a posh dressmaker and an even posher obstetrician who grinned over my raised knees and said - he really did - "Good child-bearing hips, my girl." A hotel was arranged for the function and everything else taken care of without a word to us, the groom and me. We were led to the scaffold, dazed, compliant and, in my case, nauseous.
On the day of the wedding, I remember staring into a mirror while my hair was scraped back from my face and silk roses were pinned into the curls. There were friends with me, laughing, At what? At the preposterous frock? At fate?
The marriage itself is a blank: the drive to the registry office, who was there, how I felt ... I can't actually have forgotten, but the memory is inaccessible. I find that very odd, given that the ceremony was no more disturbing than the months before and after but there it is, filed too deeply to retrieve.
The reception is more vivid: the thick-carpety air in the function room, the venison and poached salmon on the long buffet table, kind grown-ups, no admonishments and my beloved English teacher in his tweeds. Although Famous Dad and I hadn't seen each other much since his separation from my mother when I was three, he was there, with his third and final family, taking a gallant chance on being seen with me and the bump under the pink clanger. Number one stepfather, very sadly, wasn't invited, but number two and my mother got drunk as skunks. They had good cause for once.
Late in the afternoon, the party crowded together by the door to kiss us goodbye with boozy tears and red-veined faces close-up, one after the other, kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss. Were there speeches? I don't know. Was I happy? I don't think I'd have understood the question. Our honeymoon was a night upstairs at the hotel. We had tea and sandwiches on a tray and watched Dr Who. And that's all I remember. Except that my son was kicking when we cut the cake.
We started our married life in an old mansion block near East Putney station, west London. My mother paid a decorator to do it up and I chose the colours: dark green wallpaper and custard yellow lino in the small kitchen, bright yellow curtains and a midnight blue carpet in the balconied sitting-room. A deep, three-shelf bookcase in the bedroom was home to the baby clothes. I sat there every day, folding and unfolding the vests and cardigans and new-bread squishy nappies, dozens of them, piled in stacks. I had cleaning things under the sink and a budget. The cupboards were properly full of food and I experimented with meals, even trying to boil a pig's head because the nice butcher told me it was economical. I put it in the pot, covered it with water, looked at it, took it out again and threw it away, feeling like Crippen. Eighteen now and nearly six months pregnant. Definitely a woman - a real married woman!
What was I before this? In 1959, 12 and nearly grown, I was wearing makeup and jiving to Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis. At 15, I was a half-arsed beatnik in a baggy black jumper, pretending to understand Thelonious Monk. By 19, when my son was one, I'd be a hippy, long-haired, long-skirted, listening to Sergeant Pepper, reading the Mersey poets, and being asked to leave Fortnum's because my feet were bare.
But at 17, the maverick-me had taken a break and I became one of the many thousands of pregnant girls for whom marriage was the only option. It never occurred to me to be brazen and co-habit and not a single soul suggested it as a possibility. In 1965, even though the great social commotion of the late 60s was on its way, much of the old order remained intact and the groom and I, well, we weren't quite wild enough to upset the neighbours.
And what would I have been doing if I hadn't been married? I'd already chickened out of doing A-levels after a term at college and had told my mother that, somehow or other, I was going to try to have a career in music. That's how we'd met, him and me. He was at a grammar school, I was at a co-ed nearby and we used to hang around with our friends at the Mi Pampa coffee bar in Swiss Cottage, singing and playing guitars. Then three of us became a band, The Backwater Three. We even had a business card: "Not Blackwater, Not Bilgewater, but BACKWATER." We must have thought it was funny at the time.
After I'd shopped and cooked and cleaned, how did I spend those days waiting to give birth? I borrowed poetry books from the library and copied out my favourites in longhand, then filed them in a ring binder. I created a cookery book like that too, my own and other people's recipes. And songs, other people's songs, piling up in exercise books with the chords in red over the lyrics. I was still a child, pretending to do school work.
"Please think carefully," I might say now, if I could sit with my 17-year-old self at that green-baize table, "because it's going to be tough, blundering about. You're going to hurt yourself and you'll hurt other people, and there'll be years of it before you learn enough to stop."
But I wouldn't have believed a word. To see the marriage as a purposeful walk away from one life into another would be absurd. At the same time, getting pregnant and getting married wasn't something that happened to me; I must have made choices, even though I wasn't aware of them then. Perhaps I had a fantasy that marriage, despite my age, would give me the stability I'd yearned for, a proper home, a safe haven under my control. But we were too precocious and vulnerable for that, and far too young - babes in the wood, babes with a baby.
If I hadn't been pregnant, I wouldn't have married my son's father. We would have drifted apart like any other 17-year-old couple. In the end, the marriage and the baby only postponed the inevitable separation. Did I learn anything from my mistakes? I don't think so - not then, not for a long time. There's no shortcut to understanding.
Tuesday, 2 July 1991. It's my wedding day and I'm wearing a white silk shirt and white silk trousers and stupid bunion-pinching stilettos that come off as soon as we're back in the car park. My hair's been shoved up at the last minute, there are bowls of fish balls and bottles of champagne perching on ice in the bath. I've made a cake so huge, so layered with cream and strawberries that we've had to take all the shelves out of the fridge to fit it in. We go to the register office in my very old brown car, with a bouquet of garden flowers and a homemade tape of music for the ceremony. My son is a witness. "Good on you, Mum," he says. Good on us all, I say. We came through.
• Reina James's second novel, The Old Joke, is published by Portobello at £12.99. To order a copy for £11.99 with free UK p&p go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846