Sport 26: Autumn 2001
Christine Johnston — The Impostor Bride
I was nervous before the wedding though I had nothing to do except say, ‘I do.’
‘A bride is supposed to be nervous,’ said Enid, my stepmother, referring to sex presumably. I didn't anticipate any problems in that regard.
Brides don't have much to do but they have to be bridal—something which didn't come naturally to me. I was a scientist, a postgraduate student, more at home in a lab coat. Besides, I felt uneasy wearing my mother's wedding dress and veil. By impersonating Hilda I achieved a temporary beauty, but I felt like an impostor.
My father gave me away. ‘Who gives this woman in matrimony?’ asked Mr Broome. It amused me because I didn't feel like someone who was being given away. It seemed to me that I was giving away my father. I withdrew my arm and glided away from him. He was a man who sweated heavily and my bare forearm was sticky. I moved into the circle of coolness around Hank who suffered from poor circulation.
Since childhood I had gone to St Martin's with Enid and my father. The tessellations of the stained glass were imprinted on my eye and on my memory. The words inscribed on brass plaques were painfully familiar, as were Enid's floral arrangements. She insisted that no two were ever the same, but it was clearly the same will at work on dahlia, iris or gladiolus.
Familiarity brought no comfort. What I knew mocked me because I was pretending. I was the bride—a lacy, silken creature. I had had my hair done—teased and sprayed so that it had the same texture as the net veil. The strategy was to render me other than what I was and I had gone along with that. Had I not initiated this charade? I have seen photographs of Asian brides, painted and weighed down with bridal finery, sitting with downcast eyes. I was just such a bride, page 187 although obliged by Western tradition to make eye contact and smile. By the end of the day my face would be aching.
I had been showered with gifts, burdened with the gratitude for them. This weight fell solely upon me. No one expected Hank to know who had given what, or even to care. Enid insisted that I should make a list and thank everyone in person as well as in writing later—specifying the gift and saying how beautiful it was or how useful it was proving. The presents were in a particular way given to me, as the person who would make up the bed with the crisp new sheets, wield the Electrolux, serve food on the stainless-steel dishes. My personal taste ran to hand-thrown wine goblets and coffee pots, which my friends in Auckland might have given, had they been invited, but Timaru was not quite up with the times.
Enid had mustered a crowd to represent the younger generation. Although not my friends, their function was to reassure everyone that I was not friendless. Mostly young locals I had disliked at primary school, they became boisterously drunk.
The food was awful, even by the standards of the day. Speeches were made and telegrams read. All the jokes were at Hank's expense, which he tolerated good-naturedly, apparently unperturbed by the anti-American sentiment. (I suspected he was stoned.) He would turn to me from time to time with a raised eyebrow as if to ask, ‘What do I do now?’ I had no idea, but Enid had all the answers. As the daughter of a minister she knew the etiquette of weddings and funerals intimately.
There was some dancing, but as Hank couldn't dance, I refrained. Enid prompted us to retire and change into going-away clothes before bidding our guests goodbye.
I could only speculate about Enid's and my father's U-turn on the wedding. At first they had opposed it implacably. (I thought they wanted to prevent me achieving adult status by marrying Hank. Their opposition seemed to validate my decision which was an act of rebellion.) Had they sensed that there was something fraudulent about the whole affair? Then they changed their minds, accepted that the marriage would take place and Enid went into top gear to organise it. page 188 Had they concluded that I was marrying Hank out of compassion?
In my own defence I should say that I had intended marrying with the minimum of fuss in a civil ceremony miles away in Auckland. St Martin's wasn't my idea at all, but Enid had insisted upon it and I decided not to argue further. Compliance became a strategy and keeping up appearances was as much in my interest as it was in theirs. But I didn't dream up the notion of wearing Hilda's wedding dress. I didn't even know of its existence until Enid produced it, reporting that my father had suggested I wear it.
The idea struck me as bizarre, but the dress seduced me when I tried it on. Simple, elegant and figure-hugging in the 1940s style, it transformed me. It might have looked old-fashioned in the intervening years, but seemed stylish in the 1970s. Why not wear it? It saved me the bother of finding something else. The whole business was a sham in any case.
My mother had drowned in the bay when I was a baby. I was told she just swam too far out. All my life I have tried to imagine her making that final swim, stroking purposefully, mistakenly. Wearing a black swimming costume and a bathing cap to save her hair, completely absorbed in her swimming, concentrating on each stroke, aspiring to some kind of perfection.
Over the years I reconstructed Hilda from a modest collection of objects. (My father said little, but bore his grief mutely like an animal.) There were a few photographs which I studied for so long and with such intensity it was a wonder my gaze did not burn them up. Her clothes still hung in a narrow oak wardrobe in a back room and the detritus of her life—bags, buttons, beads, buckles and earrings—survived in the bottom of a trunk. A black fur coat, rather worn at the cuffs, was very dead, but the fox stole with the shining eyes, inert paws and a tail could be petted back to life. There were dancing shoes with marcasite buckles and a solitary pigskin glove.
Enid didn't quite know what to do with my mother's things and so I was permitted to play dress-ups with them. A silk blouse with pearl buttons could be worn as a dress, and I experimented with other unlikely combinations of cardigans, petticoats, silk scarves and page 189 brassières. So you see, there was an established tradition of me dressing up in my mother's clothes.
When the time came for me to take off the wedding dress, I treated it with respect for I had developed a feeling of tenderness for it. I asked Hank to unbutton me though I knew that he would have difficulty. We had withdrawn from the dreary hotel to my parents' home to change. He fumbled with the loops and gave up, leaving the task to me. The dress fell in a pool at my feet and I stepped out of it. As I hung it in the wardrobe I saw that he was lighting up a joint. His friends rolled them for him in batches and he always had his pockets full. He looked at me through the swirling smoke. I was naked except for white shoes and the white lacy briefs I'd purchased especially so they wouldn't show.
‘Goddamn,’ he sighed, ‘I feel a long way from California.’ He looked tired.
Hank had stepped on a booby trap in Vietnam and suffered spectacular injuries. He had come here for a holiday and wanted to stay. When I first met him, he was looking for someone to marry.
Sitting in a director's chair, the extent of his disabilities wasn't apparent. Sally and Rob, the couple who had discovered him, sat at his feet. They and their circle had elevated Hank to a cult figure and he seemed to be enjoying that role. With his John Lennon glasses and his straw hat he might have been some sort of American celebrity. Sally introduced me.
‘Watch out,’ said Rob, ‘Hank is looking for someone to marry.’ He and Sally laughed at the idea that Hank might marry me. They didn't want him to marry anyone because they were in love with him themselves.
‘Will you marry me?’ asked Hank, holding out his good hand, his left.
I laughed at his directness. ‘I might,’ I said.
Standing in my old bedroom in my bridal knickers, I rake my fingers through my hair and pull out the clips.page 190
‘I've shat in my nest,’ I'm thinking. ‘I'll go away and never come back. We should have married in Auckland, where it might have seemed like a lark. Not here in my home town, not in church.’
‘Having second thoughts?’ asks my husband.
Looking at Hank, a man I don't particularly like, I think about the metal pins they used to hold him together. He is as damaged an individual as it's possible to find. I sit down on my childhood bed and wrap the eiderdown around my shoulders. Through the slit of the door I can see the wedding dress hanging in the wardrobe, catching the light. I want to take it with me, to keep it. I go to the window, hugging the eiderdown, and look out to sea.
I picture my mother, Hilda, stroking boldly through the waters of Caroline Bay. Her face is calmly set to the task. She is passing the point of no return.