The parish priest was adamant. If I continued to insist on getting married on AFL Grand Final day, and I was a minute late for the ceremony, he would not wait for me. I got the message. A high noon wedding, but with no guns.
We’d had lots of chat with the priest leading up to the wedding, as I was a Catholic about to marry a Protestant. Of course, my intended had agreed to Catholic instruction. A series of informative debates with the RAAF base padre, a Jesuit, about what was expected in a mixed marriage, hadn’t put any pressure on the approaching event. I’d get regular updates from my parish priest on progress being made towards a possible conversion to The Faith.
I also knew that my beloved’s agnostic ideas would not be changed, even though he’d found the company of the Jesuit fascinating. In his long hooded habit, with pipe and tobacco fitting snugly into his hood, the Jesuit could have been a stand-in for St Francis Xavier.
The wedding day, September 18, 1958, dawned cold and bleak. I went to early mass with my mother; and possibly for the last time, pure and sinless. I was going to practise birth control for the first time, this very night.
The preparations progressed smoothly downstairs. Mum, Dad and their many friends, especially the Coyle family, had the festive food under way. Mum had baked and decorated the two-tiered wedding cake, but had expressed concern about the borrowed RAAF ceremonial sword being pulled out clean from the cake when the bridegroom cut the bottom tier. If the sword was sticky, Mum would be mortified.
In good time I arrived at the church on a wind-blown, not quite spring, September day. Grand Final day. I was lucky anyone came. It was also Air Force Week, so I was doubly lucky to have three uniformed officers in the wedding party to form a guard of honour.
My father was nervous and pale. I patted him on the shoulder for comfort. With my bridesmaids in place, my veil pulled down over my eyes and my long train stretching behind me, we all started up the aisle.
The organ pealed forth. Straight away I knew something was up. My jazz pianist friend Graham Coyle told me afterwards he’d got bored up in the organ loft by himself. He lit a cigarette, and the match he’d flipped away after lighting it had lodged between two keys on the keyboard. With the opening chord of the Wedding March, two notes became stuck and refused to budge. It sounded as if there were bagpipes attached to the organ.
Disconcerted, the chief bridesmaid became disoriented and marched onto my bridal train in her red high-heeled shoes, pulling me to a complete halt.
“Get off, you fool,” I hissed at her.
“What? What?” she said, mystified.
Clutching my father’s arm for support I gestured with my wedding bouquet towards her feet. She glanced down, and with an audible expletive she shuffled backwards off my train, colliding with the second bridesmaid.
We eventually made it to the front of the church with the organ droning on. Father was patiently smiling at the congregation from in front of the altar. We all looked at him expectantly.
“I don’t quite know how we are going to manage this,” Father said. “There isn’t much room in the vestry, but you are all welcome to squeeze in there, if you can.”
Father motioned us to follow him, as he led us away from the altar. In Melbourne in 1958, mixed marriages were not allowed to be conducted in front of the altar. We were lucky that the rules had been relaxed. We didn’t have to squeeze behind the altar, as was the case not so long before. Even so, Dr Mannix was still alive in 1958.
It was dark in the vestry. No one could see a thing. I’m not sure what went on. A deal of muttering and jostling went on in the background. I could only just see where to sign my maiden name on the wedding certificate. My new husband was highly amused. I can’t remember our vows, or indeed if there were any. I do remember Father’s little sermon.
“You know, don’t you,” Father said, “that if you have made any other agreements apart from your marriage vows, or any conditions, not in keeping with the Church’s rulings, then your marriage is null and void.”
I think that was the gist of it. Hmmm! I thought.
“When you go out of the church,” Father continued, “seeing that the day is so blustery, you should go out the side entrance, where you’ll find more shelter from the wind. But hurry up, I’m running late now.”
“But that door’s locked, Father,” I said.
“Well, you can open it on the way out; just unbolt it—I’ll lock up,” Father said.
The three RAAF officers, all Protestants, were laughing; all of us were just standing there in front of the altar, and none of them genuflecting. The rest of the congregation were filing out through the front doors. I took my husband’s arm, hardly feeling married at all, with the organ grinding away upstairs, still bagpiping through the Wedding March. I steered the wedding party to the side door and the best man grappled with the long bolt.
“Crikey,” he said, as the bolt came away in his hand.
He stood there with the long bolt upright like a weapon, the door still closed, and looked about him. The boys in blue gathered around and dismantled the rest of the latching mechanism, stacked it in a corner, and opened the big wooden door to find that we’d come out on the wrong side for the photographer. As we rearranged ourselves I found that I still didn’t feel married.
The rest of the day continued in the same vein. My husband made a show of wiping the ceremonial sword with his handkerchief, nearly giving my mother a heart attack. My father made me play a piano accordion duet with him, much to my chagrin. The photographer captured everything.
But he wasn’t there the next morning, when we were conducted as slowly as possible into the dining room for breakfast.
“Follow me, Mrs Peck,” the Hotel Windsor waitress said. “Over here, Mrs Peck. I’ve got a lovely table for you by the window, Mrs Peck. Just wait until I fix your chair, Mrs Peck. I’ll get you a fresh napkin, Mrs Peck. Oh, you’ve knocked your knife on the floor, Mrs Peck. Wait, Mrs Peck, I’ll get you a clean one, Mrs Peck. Would you like a nice strong cup of tea, Mrs Peck? Or would you prefer coffee, Mrs Peck?”
“A coffee would be fine,” I managed.
Marilyn Peck’s poetry has appeared frequently in Quadrant over recent years.