Only complete lunatics would get married on Christmas Eve.
The church was old, very old for North America, and was decked out with more poinsettias and evergreen boughs than I’d ever seen collected in one place. Candles were the primary source of light for the event and the main source of raw fear for the Sexton. I admit, this old stone church near Picton affected me by chilling my feet and warming my heart.
The Groom and I had just left the vestry where we had played a couple rounds of Rummy with a deck of cards I’d used in all five marriages in which I’d been Best Man. The cards and the rings were in my right jacket pocket. During my second tour of duty as BM, these cards made their mark. The elastic around them had broken and a handful of them came out of my pocket at the time I was producing the rings. Normally this would be mildly humorous, but the cards were from a strip bar in Quebec to which I had been on a weekend romp with some buddies in high school. The images weren’t obscene per se but definitely not haute decor for a Methodist wedding in London, Ontario.
I stole a glance at my watch as we stood at the front and realized that we’d been standing there too long. Typically they don’t haul the Groom and BM out for display unless the Bride is primed and ready to roll. I looked up at Jonathan to see if he was cracking. He had the I’m-glad-I-didn’t-have-bran-this-morning look. You’d think someone six-five would be cooler than that. An unfair comment really. You see, I’m a disgusting five-nine. My older and younger brothers are six-two and six-three respectively. Bastards. I’m built like a tank mind you. It was the only way I survived my childhood.
So what the frig was the Bride up to? The priest looked ticked and had the how-did-I-get-talked-into-this look. She had to hurry us out of here to set up for the Christmas Eve service.
Some signal was made. The string quartet began with Handel’s Fireworks Music and the priest smiled. It struck me that I’d never heard this piece performed by a string quartet nor as a processional.
The first wedding in which I was BM was for my younger brother. He had the fun of being eighteen with a pregnant bride. The shotgun had been ready to blow his head off. My utter driver of a father conscripted The Anglican church to bless the marriage. The Bride had appeared wearing a stunning flowing gown in a tasteful off-white.
This Christmas Eve, the Bride was being non-traditional. She slinked down the aisle in a black velvet gown that clung to her like a very close friend. I had seen Deborah a number of times over the years and had never been truly affected by her in a sexual way. I suppressed a gasp. As per tradition, Jonathan had not been allowed to see the dress until now. I stole a glance up at him and his lower lip twitched. Once Deborah reached the rail, she smiled slyly at him. As we turned to face the preacher, Jon was shaking. If he fell over, I would kill him.
In my experience, the only other time a bride had been truly lascivious in appearance was at a Unitarian gig on a beach in British Columbia. The Bride then in fact wore a bikini and a sarong. Both she and my younger brother (Yes, it was his second; the shotgun never properly went off.) were in excellent physical shape and had granola pouring out of their ears. My brother wore a T-shirt and shorts that caused a couple of the guests to go ga-ga. Beautiful wedding, stunning scenery in that part of the world, but I couldn’t wait to get back to my favourite pub in Toronto. Just didn’t feel safe in B.C.
I never understood his desire to marry once, let alone twice. I’m the professional bachelor of the family. I’ve had my share of tempestuous relationships, and even lived with someone for a while. But the whole notion of forever with one person just gave me the willies. At thirty-eight I felt secure in my bachelor-hood.
“I would like to request,” said the preacher, “that you take a moment to ensure that all electronic devices have been shut off, this includes flash units, assuming anyone’s still using them. Let’s keep the bustle of the outside world away from this service on this holy night.”
Amen, I thought to myself. All the convenience of personal communications had gotten worse over the years and here, on the last Christmas Eve of the century, I prayed for simplification of this needlessly complex world.
The preacher, now that I noticed, was a rather striking blonde and wore her hair in a ponytail over one shoulder. This struck me as odd; was she expecting to lose track of her hair during the service? I disciplined myself as hitting on the preacher at a wedding struck me as suicide made in heaven.
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this Congregation, to join together Jonathan and Deborah in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted by God in the time of our innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church. This holy Estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and the first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee; and is commended in holy Scripture to be honourable among all: and therefore is not by any to be entered upon, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God; duly considering the causes for which Matrimony was ordained.
“Matrimony was ordained for the hallowing of the union betwixt man and woman; and for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that one ought to have of the other, in both prosperity and adversity.
“Into which holy estate these two persons present come now to be joined. Therefore if any one can show any just cause, why they may not lawfully be joined together, speak now, or else hereafter for ever be at peace.”
I was shocked to hear the Book of Common Prayer being used, even if this passage had been rendered gender neutral. Not surprisingly, the bit about raising kids had been removed. The opening prayer was not the shortest I had ever heard but the preacher, the Very Reverend Cynthia Donald, (a truly ducky name) had a glib seriousness about her that intrigued me.
The one Roman Catholic priest I’d met had been a windbag. My best friend at that time had fallen in love with an Italian woman with immense beauty and strongly held RC religious views, excluding those issues involving premarital sex, contraception and abortion. He nearly went mad during the six week marriage prep course and the conversion to Roman Catholicism. During the actual service, I thought I was going to drool on myself from boredom.
I was amazed at how much day-dreaming I’d been doing during this Christmas Eve wedding.
We prepared for the readings by shuffling ourselves around — Jonathan and Deborah sat in chairs near the lectern while the Best Woman sat beside me in the first row of pews. As Jonathan turned to sit, it seemed as if he had either just eaten pure garlic or seen something upsetting. He became white as a sheet and I was glad he was sitting down.
The first reading was the Song of Solomon, which I’ve always enjoyed hearing. The sister of the bride had a lovely reading voice.
“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine … Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue … And the roof of thy mouth like the best wine for my beloved, that goeth down sweetly, causing the lips of those that are asleep to speak.”
It was the most human and lyrical bit of the Bible I could recall. I don’t know how it got past the retentiveness of the last couple thousand years of translations.
Romans, as read by a very nervous younger brother of the Groom offered us: “Let love be without pretense. Hate what is evil, hold to what is good. Love one another with fraternal charity, anticipating one another with honour.”
The problem with evil, I thought, is that hating it is not simple. Evil takes on strange shapes and wears odd clothes. I then wondered what I’d been drinking to have a thought like that.
The Reverend Ms Donald, moved to the lectern and delivered the gospel. “And on the third day a marriage took place at Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Now Jesus too was invited to the marriage, and also his disciples. And the wine having run short, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘What wouldst thou have me do, woman? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the attendants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’
“Now six stone water-jars were placed there, after the Jewish manner of purification, each holding two or three measures. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them to the brim. And Jesus said to them, ‘Draw out now, and take to the chief steward.’ And they took it to him.
“Now when the chief steward had tasted the water after it had become wine, not knowing whence it was (though the attendants who had drawn the water knew), the chief steward called the bridegroom, and said to him, ‘Every man at first sets forth the good wine, and when they have drunk freely, then that which is poorer. But thou hast kept the good wine until now.’
This first of his signs Jesus worked at Cana of Galilee.”
I always liked that story, although I always figured it really was accidental that the first miracle was at a wedding. I never got the impression that, in the Bible, marriage was as important as political power. Regardless, I would love to have tasted that wine.
Why Jon and Deborah picked Jerusalem as the hymn was beyond me. Frightfully British, and very odd. Odder with a string quartet and no organ. Oddest because we sang every verse. Even the one with the “Satanic mills,” a line of poetry that really hit home the point that William Blake was utterly bonzo.
After the hymn, the preacher rose to do her homily. This was always interesting. Of the ones I recall, the RC priest talked about babies incessantly and the Methodist managed to bring in a reference to hell as it pertained to adultery or “inappropriate social contact.”
“The miracle at Cana of Galilee, was in fact trivial compared to Christ’s other miracles, like Lazarus and the fishes and the loaves. But it was subtle. Imagine if Jonathan and Deborah received a jar of wine that had been converted from water by Christ himself. Tonight being Christmas Eve, we are concerned with miracles of a subtler sort. We are thinking about a birth, miraculous one, and a marriage. All marriages are miraculous. It takes formidable courage to stand in front of your family, friends and God and declare your undying love for one another. It takes even more courage to make it work. Now — and this may sound sacrilegious — had Jesus guaranteed that the couple in Galilee would have a marriage that lasted and would be happy for ever … well, that would be a big miracle.”
I decided that was the most extraordinary thing I’d ever heard a preacher say. And I’d been an Anglican server until I was twenty-seven.
“I don’t mean to be cynical, but I have seen a lot of marriages undergo extreme stress. I don’t know if it was ever easy for marriages, but the last twenty years have been brutal on marriages and the family structure.” She paused and drew a breath. “I don’t do Christmas Eve weddings.”
There was a laugh from the congregation.
“But when I saw Deborah and Jonathan in my office for the first time, they oozed being in love. I was nearly revolted. Of all the people I knew who have married, these two needed to be married. I contemplated just grabbing a couple of people off the street for witnesses and getting it all done right there. When Deborah said that she wanted to have the service on Christmas Eve I couldn’t believe the word ‘yes’ slipped out of my mouth. So here we are, just like the Guests at Cana, participants in a miracle. I hope that all of you feel Christ’s love in this place and time as I do.
“Miracles happen all the time. It takes work on our part to see them and nurture them. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost.”
Striking. Not just her, but the homily. The Best Woman’s lower lip was wobbling. I hoped she wasn’t planning on crying. I don’t think I have ever gotten along with the Best Woman in any of the five weddings I have been Best Man. For starts, they all disapproved of what I did for stags. Most of them involved massive amounts of drinking and questionable activities with women depending on the tastes and preferences of the Groom. No one ever was badly injured at any of my stags. My mother did ask me to go easy on my younger brother the second time he married. This was because she had to nurse him to health for two days after I took him out for his first wedding.
The Bride and Groom made their solemn vows and I managed to produce the ring without incident. I’ve always had this urge to have the ring attached to a huge length of multicoloured handkerchiefs and spend a minute or two pulling them out. Maybe next time.
“Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder.”
They kissed and I led the congregation in a round of applause. Despite having just got married and been kissed by a beauty in black velvet, Jon’s eyes were darting about the church as if he were looking for something. Or someone. Strange. He said his vows in a solid voice, so I didn’t think it was the result of a lack of resolve. Now I was curious.
It was during the signing of the registry, that I saw a little old lady, cute as the proverbial button, gesturing to me from the transept. She had an urgency about her and I worried that she was ill or something. So I slipped away while the Best Woman signed.
“Can I help you?”
“There’s a very unhappy young woman here tonight.”
“Not the Bride I hope,” I said with my gosh-what-a-looney smile.
The old lady struck the floor with her cane. “No, no, young man, someone else. You must watch out for her.”
I figured that she was a very old woman because at my age I did not feel much like a “young man.”
“Ah. Um. Who is she?”
“Watch for purple,” she said and she patted my hand with one of hers and boy it was cold.
I heard the Best Woman clear her throat. I looked over my shoulder and she had a truly hostile look. I turned back to ask one more question, but the little old lady was not to be seen. She must have moved off into the shadows. I returned to the wedding and we repositioned ourselves.
“Go in peace and serve the Lord.”
“Thanks be to God,” we said.
Handel’s Water Music began and we started our recessional. I positioned myself with the Best Woman’s arm in mine and the parade began. I always thought it odd that the Groom and BM got to sneak into the wedding early and then had to walk out in full display. Seemed somehow unbalanced.
I always looked at the folks in the congregation during the recessional. I was curious about how people were responding. Were they crying? Laughing? Smiling? Frowning? If I knew who wasn’t having a good time and needed cheering up, it made my job of BM easier at the party that always followed.
About five pews from the back, on the Bride’s side, the little old lady stood, staring anxiously at me. I nodded to her and smiled. Her eyes were a brilliant green, as if they had been painted on. She caught my gaze tighter than I could imagine. I was gripped by the look of concern she wore. Then she slowly moved her head, taking my eyes with her, and we both were looking at the floor of the vestibule. On each side were curtains that concealed the coats of the congregation and the choir’s gowns. The drapes were trying to hide a person as well. Just the toes of a pair of purple pumps were sticking out from under the curtain. I could discern the faintest of movements of the fabric due to the individual’s breathing.
The old lady silently mouthed the words: “Do something.”
I then had about thirty seconds to wonder why someone would be hiding behind a curtain at a wedding during the recessional. It wasn’t the time for practical jokes, nor was it likely anyone had had such a bad time they felt it important to hide.
I then remembered Jon’s face as his eyes had darted around the congregation. He had been looking for someone? Had that person made him nervous?
It was at this point I stopped thinking. I started to accelerate down the aisle. At first, I dragged the Best Woman with me, but then let her go. Just as Jon and Deborah reached the vestibule, the curtains parted and I was in the middle, between a well dressed woman in a purple evening gown and the Bride and Groom.
There was a knife raised in her right hand. My left hand darted out and grabbed her wrist. I was just starting to wonder what the heck to do next, when I realized she had another knife in her left hand. It was a stubby blade, looking like something you’d get from an outdoor adventure store. I tried to get my other hand to intercept, but she jammed the blade into my hip area. Right through my deck of cards. There was a warm feeling in my side as my hand finally grabbed her wrist and held it in place next to my deck of cards.
I worried about what the tuxedo rental place would say.
Finally I looked at her face. She was familiar. I wasn’t sure, but I thought Jon had dated her at one point. She started to growl, her face contorted and looked as if she’d taken some kind of drug, or was really off her behaviour modification medication. She was unrelenting in her attempts to continue to stab me. Her strength was considerable and clearly adrenaline-boosted. With both hands engaged, there was little choice.
I head-butted her as hard as I could manage.
Since we were roughly the same height, it was a clean solid hit. She fell backward into the curtains like the proverbial sack of potatoes. I was left with a blade in my side, wanting to fall over, wondering what to do next.
The Very Reverend Cynthia Donald was there to rescue me. My vision was a blur from the head-butt.
“Jon. Deborah. I don’t know what’s happened here, but I’ll take these two to the hospital. You just carry on. I’ll call you at your parents home once we’re at the hospital.”
“Uh, OK,” said Jon, “Look, her name is Mary-Lee Corda and she’s supposed to be in a mental health care unit in Midland. How she got here is beyond me. I’m sorry.”
“Ah ha,” I thought as I recalled Jon dating a woman who developed severe depression and them breaking up over it. About four years ago.
The preacher then grabbed Mary-Lee, lifted her with ease and started to lead me out the door. “My car is close by. How are you?”
“Not too bad.”
“Leave the knife where it is.”
“My intentions exactly.”
We were out in the crisp air, our feet crunching along the snow covered gravel parking lot. My head was clearing with the cold air.
“Can you open the door?”
“Beep beep,” went the car’s alarm as she deactivated it.
She put Mary-Lee in the back. I wasn’t keen on bending and was thinking about how to get in the car.
“Are you going to be OK?”
“You get in first. I’ve got an idea.”
Ms Donald sat in her car, and I entered the car carefully so that I was practically lying on her. I barely got the door closed. That was the painful part. I then put my head in her lap.
“Sorry about this …”
“Don’t be; I haven’t had anyone down there in a long time.”
I gasped and then laughed.
“Sorry,” she said, “I couldn’t resist.”
“Don’t be. Do you think I gave her a concussion?”
“Probably … you really nailed her a good one. How did you know she was there?”
Cynthia pulled her car out onto the country road. I hoped a hospital wasn’t far away. My hip felt kind of wet.
“Well, a little old lady warned me that there was someone in purple who was very unhappy at the wedding. And then she directed me to look at the curtains in the vestibule. That’s when I saw the purple shoes and decided to lunge ahead.”
“Did the lady who warned you have a cane with an ivory dog’s head?”
Good grief, I didn’t know. Women remember different details than men. I closed my eyes, feeling the pull of the corners as Cynthia drove swiftly to the county hospital. I concentrated and tried to remember the old lady.
Cynthia took a corner very tightly. My eyes shot open. “Yes, she had a cane and it was ivory on the top, but I don’t know if it was a dog.”
In the back, Mary-Lee groaned.
“I have seen that woman, but I’ve never been able to catch her to speak with her. I have no idea how she gets to church and no one can tell me anything about her.”
“Spooky,” I said. “Oops.” The knife fell out of my wound, and the deck of cards, landing with a thunk. Obviously my body had rejected the knife. I applied as much pressure as I could on the wounded area. I could move more easily. “Look, let me get myself out of your lap.”
“Don’t bother,” she said.
So I didn’t. For a long time.