“Reader, I did marry her. To someone else, as it happens, but I’d like to think I let her go graciously.”
We always said that if we reached a certain age without finding anyone to go out with, we’d marry each other.
We’re hazy on what the cut-off age was – hilariously, I think it was 40, while she says it was even younger – but we both remember the pact. It was the kind of plan you hatch when you’re 14 and attending an all-girls’ school, where boys are a mythical species glimpsed only occasionally through a fog of Lynx Africa.
So we decided we’d marry each other and live out our days in platonic bliss, wearing our matching glitter denim jackets and snort-laughing at our own stupidity.
Since we forged our friendship in the early weeks of secondary school, Sarah and I have seen each other at our maddest, gladdest and messiest. We’ve coached each other through nearly two decades of unfolding life events and evolving worries. I trust her to tell me the truth, to invest emotionally in my most banal dilemmas, and to understand every emotion wrapped up in a single emoji. She’s the person who talks me down every time I think I want to get a fringe.
And reader, I did marry her. To someone else, as it happens, but I’d like to think I let her go graciously.
Sarah first asked me to be her wedding celebrant when she’d only been dating Tom for a few months, during one of those hyper-hypothetical chats you have; you know the ones, where you’re careful to say “if” not “when”, and sheepishly temper each sentence with “…not that I’m even thinking about it.”
Hypothetically, she said, if she ever got married, she wanted me to do the ceremony. She’d feel calmer if she could see me, rather than a stranger, standing next to her husband-to-be at the altar. Hypothetically, I said, sure! I’d been equally supportive when she said she wanted to make glitter lampshades for a living. I never thought she really meant it.
In fact I’d virtually forgotten about the request when she called three years later to tell me she’d gotten engaged, to the man who made her the happiest I’d seen her since we were 12.
We screamed, I cried, Pinterest boards were assembled – but it wasn’t until dinner a week later, when she casually asked how I was feeling about my big clerical debut, that it dawned on me she’d been serious. They really wanted me to marry them. Or ‘do a Joey Tribbiani’, as more than one person has termed it.
I said yes immediately. Thirty seconds later, I began panicking. For one thing, I’m as scared of public speaking as the next normal person. And I was worried that their families wouldn’t approve. I pictured a sea of tight-lipped aunties, wondering when the real vicar was going to arrive. I was worried Tom and Sarah might regret it, too; that it wouldn’t feel like a proper wedding to them, more like a playground game.
I worried about the million different ways in which I might wreck the happiest day of their lives. What if I caught norovirus, or accidentally swore in the middle of the vows? What if I did a Ross Geller instead, and said the wrong name? Can a friendship recover from a ruined wedding?
Most of all, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to hold it together. I’ve wept noisily at the weddings of people I’ve only met three times; how the hell was I going to perform Sarah’s nuptials without dissolving into a salty puddle? It would be my emotional Everest.
But I also knew that if I could pull it off, it would probably be the proudest moment of my life. And besides, if anybody else took the job now, I’d be furious.
“Are you SURE you want to do it?” she texted me, about once a week for the next 13 months.
“100%,” I’d reply.
I do, I do, I do.
As the three of us began working on the ceremony script together, I realised how nice it was to play a role in a wedding that went so far beyond the ornamental. I’ve been a bridesmaid three times and always thrown myself into proceedings with gusto, but this was different. As a writer it’s not often that your professional skills come in useful to your loved ones – I can’t diagnose dodgy moles, or get people a discount on new speakers – so there was a thrill to be able to do this for them, and do it well. Maybe even better than our rap about tectonic plate movement from year nine geography.
Wedding celebrants in the UK aren’t legally authorised (this is true of the professionals, as well as amateurs like me), so Tom and Sarah did the official paperwork with their families at a registry office the day before the wedding. This meant we had the freedom to make their big ceremony bespoke. And by ‘bespoke’, I mean we slipped in a Bridget Jones reference, and two lines lifted verbatim from the Elephant Love Medley in Moulin Rouge.
I crowdsourced comments from family and friends, and included specific details on their life together, and everything that makes them a brilliant couple. Their vows (and we made sure they really were vows, not just nebulous riffs on being each other’s soulmate) included promises to support each other, adventure together, and never leave their porridge bowls in the sink.
Once we started to unpick the traditions and rituals, Tom and Sarah realised which parts truly mattered to them. They could choose the elements they liked, ditch those they didn’t, and swap around the conventional running order (we finished with the big kiss, ‘like in films’). I, meanwhile, could relax in the knowledge that whatever happened, even if I accidentally set somebody’s fascinator on fire, they’d still end up married. Which was all that mattered.
As the big day loomed closer, we played a kind of emotional chicken. “It’s not too late to back out!” she’d assure me. “It’s not too late to book a professional!” I’d trill back. But before we knew it, there was a month to go and nobody had backed out. Then a week to go, as the three of us giggled and fudged our way through a rehearsal in my living room. Then a day to go, as I listened to her aisle music on a loop in an attempt to emotionally immunise myself.
And then, finally, there were just 10 minutes to go, as I stood next to Tom at the front of the barn, 100 expectant eyes turned towards us, and gave myself RuPaul’s immortal pep talk: Good luck, and don’t fuck it up.
I needn’t have worried. When two people are so clearly besotted with each other, you could perform a ceremony ropier than Rowan Atkinson in Four Weddings and a Funeral and not ruin anything at all. And as I watched Tom’s face the moment Sarah appeared at the end of the aisle, I realised my job wasn’t really to ‘perform’ anything – it was just to cheer her on, like I always had, and do the same for him.
They were marrying each other, and I was just the narrator.
Although as a narrator, you need to be audible. I’d promised myself that if I held the tears in until the final line (“And now, through no power whatsoever vested in me, I pronounce you…”), I could cry as much as I wanted afterwards. As a result, all the photos of their triumphant Hollywood kiss have me in the background, gurning snottily into my sleeve. They were tears of joy, mixed with love and pride, mingled with relief. I’d given Sarah and Tom the one-of-a-kind ceremony they wanted, and they’d given me the greatest adrenaline rush of my life. Plus a bread maker, which was very nice of them.
And most importantly, it felt every inch a ‘proper’ wedding. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, if she asked me. Though I’m pretty confident she won’t.
Officiating your best friend’s wedding? Here’s my best advice
- There are lots of free ceremony scripts online, which make a great starting point. But don’t stick to them too slavishly – if a line doesn’t feel natural or relevant to the couple, change it. The personal details will always be the best part.
- Remember there is no ‘should’ or ‘must’. The fantastic thing about a DIY ceremony is being allowed to challenge convention, so don’t feel led by other people’s opinions.
- Be sure to rehearse the ceremony out loud, plenty of times. It’s surprising how lines that sound great in your head can suddenly sound ridiculous (or rude) when you read them aloud.
- There is a very fine line between ‘just enough champagne’ and ‘too much champagne’ before the ceremony. Tread this line with caution. (There is no such thing as too much afterwards).
- Have a back-up plan, just in case. It’s nice to know there are friends standing by who could take the script and carry on, if you completely go to pieces. Which you won’t.
- You’re not there to win an Oscar, so don’t get too hung up on looking ‘professional’. Laughter and emotion will only make things more memorable in the end.
- But whatever you do, don’t forget tissues.
This feature was originally published in November 2018
Professional wedding photographs: courtesy of Megan Elle Photography
All other images courtesy of author