Tomorrow is our fifth wedding anniversary, and I have been thinking about phases.
We are eighteen. It’s my first move away from home. I am happy here, in a way I haven’t been for a while. We’re sat in someone’s living room on a Sunday afternoon. He’s playing chess, and tries to teach me the rules. I’m terrible, though he doesn’t say so. He’s too kind, and that – more than the dark-blue eyes and the dimples and that magnificent woolly jumper – is what makes me look at him twice. Then we’re eating a buffet dinner squashed in a corner – classic Mormon singles behaviour – and someone says ‘so Rachel, tell me everything about yourself’. I say ‘everything? Well, I was born in March 1985…’ And his ears prick up, I can feel it without looking at him. Because he assumed I was older, and actually (I find out later) we’re the same age. I think to myself – probably not in so many words – my dear self, GRAB THIS WHILE YOU CAN.
We’re not-dating for an awfully long time, and then we are. It’s confusing and heart-hurting and absolutely perfect. And then he leaves for South Africa. And we look like this.
I still can’t play chess.
We are twenty-one, and he has come back through the arrivals gate at Heathrow, tanned and skinny in a worn black suit, and back into my life as though nothing’s changed. Except everything has: I’ve finished my degree, read piles of books, moved away from home for good and found a career I think I can love. He has left Africa behind: two years of connecting with people in corrugated iron huts and walking miles in a shirt and tie under blazing suns. He has jumped off sand dunes in the Namibian desert and seen more beauty and more degradation than he could’ve imagined. We have two years of letters to show for it: casual letters, heartfelt letters, carefully non-committal letters. He’s kept all of them, and brings them back nine thousand miles in a shoe box.
And now here we are, and this is the real deal. We start talking about marriage. It isn’t the easiest thing to work out, and it’s confusing and heart-hurting and absolutely perfect. And we look like this.
I still love the days when he wears a suit.
We are twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five. We live in a little two-bedroomed flat in the sky, all whitewashed walls and cream carpets. My books are crammed in bookcases and his African print sits above our bed. We spend long Saturday mornings eating pancakes in bed and week-nights watching movies. We celebrate birthdays in London and anniversaries in Edinburgh, in Paris, in the Forest of Dean. He works late on university assignments and has dinner ready when I come home from work. We are busy, and often stressed. But the time we get to ourselves, oh, there’s nothing like it. We fit alongside each other like we’re two halves of a whole.
Marriage is hard work, and some days we get it wrong. It can be confusing and heart-hurting. Other times – more often – just perfect. And we look like this.
I still beg for pancakes on Saturday mornings.
We are twenty-six, and now there’s three of us. We are bowled over by what this tiny baby has brought with him. Most days I can barely see straight. He finishes university and starts work, and I stop (for now). He comes home in the evening to a toddler waiting by the gate, and me, with hair pointing in ten directions and mashed banana all over my clothes. I feel like everything I was has been dismantled and rebuilt from the ground up. I feel, more to the point, quite indecently wrinkly. There are days, weeks on end when I can’t remember being the girl who wrote one hundred and two letters for a boy under African sun. And then there are moments where I look across the room at him and I can see myself the way he still sees me. I can see the boy who tried to teach me chess in a blue jumper. I can see us rattling around in a little yellow car in Cape Town, and scoffing pain au chocolat on a Parisian street. I can see him this evening, reading a story to a little boy who got his eyes. I can see it all, all together, all of it at once.
We look like this, for now. Things are about to change again.
I can’t wait for what might come next.