A text message the day before, signed in both names, gently confirms that H. and I are to go the the Castle museum entrance a few minutes before the ceremony.
It’s a grey morning but unusually mild for December. We walk over the bridge leading to the Norman keep, where for centuries, those convicted of crime were hanged. I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with Norwich Castle. For one thing, I find its sugar-cube shape on the hill dominating the city rather ugly. It lacks the charm of Durham Castle’s irregular edges, or the Gothic feel of Edinburgh Castle. There is something eerie about its bland squareness. I first set foot in it about ten years ago. I walked in, bought my ticket, caught a brief glimpse of a series of busts on display, and promptly and almost involuntarily dashed back out at full speed, overwhelmed with a totally unfathomable feeling of terror. I couldn’t account for my reaction, which seemed utterly irrational, so the following day, determined to act like an adult, I went back, bought another admittance ticket, and marched in. I saw the busts again and, as I drew closer, saw that some of the faces had twisted expressions. I read the signs and only then realised that they were the death masks of men who had been hanged. Men who had been murdered by legal means, by the laws of other men who thought their right to judge and punish was equal to that of God. Laws that respond to violence with more violence, to evil with more evil, and to despair with more despair.
But this morning, I am here not to visit a museum that keeps the memory of fear and suffering alive, but to attend a wedding. The Norwich marriage register office has recently moved many of its ceremonies from the beautiful building near St Giles to the Castle. We are shown into the waiting room and are welcomed by the sister of one of the grooms. With a broad smile, she introduces us to the other eight or so guests, although I protest I’ll never remember everybody’s name. It’s a small gathering but international. English, Polish, French and Italian, among others. The variety of accents all giggling with excitement at this happy occasion immediately dissolves my innate nervousness at social events and I mentally bite my thumb at all the Brexiteers out there.
Photos are snapped in various combinations of family plus friends, then more photos, in case some don’t come out well. Everything must be done to immortalise the day and, especially, crystallise its happiness.
After a few minutes, the door to the ceremony room is opened by a tall, elderly lady with a kindly face. H. and I give a little exclamation of pleasant surprise. She reciprocates our grins. “Did I marry you?” she asks. “I’m sorry, I can’t remember but when people look at me like that, it generally means I’ve married them.”
She squeezes my hand and hugs me with the tenderness of a dear old friend.
When the two grooms walk in, I am struck by how young they look. I know they are both in their middle years and yet today, there is a youthful glow about them.
They stand by the registrar’s table. Vows are exchanged. For ever. There is a slight crack in the voice, a moment when tears are kept in check. When an overwhelming burst of gratitude, relief and unbridled hope fills the room. Rings are slipped on fingers. Gold, like sunshine. Circular, like perfection. Like timelessness.
When the ceremony is over and names have been signed in the large book, the registrar comes up to H. and me, and tells us this castle has a special meaning for her. “When I was fourteen,” she says, “a friend and I came for a walk here one afternoon, to see if there were boys.” She gives a mischievous grin. “But we got followed by two American G.I.s – it was at the time they were stationed here – and got scared. So we walked up to two local boys and I said to one of them, ‘Can we stand with you until the two G.I.s go away?’ Well, I’ve been with him ever since. We’ve been married fifty-seven years.”
And now, over half a century later, she officiates at weddings in this very castle. “I love doing weddings,” she says, and her beaming smile makes it clear that she does, indeed.
It truly is a Good Day. Into this Norman castle, a building scarred by violence, fear and despair, these two beautiful humans who have just embarked on marriage are bringing love, kindness and hope. And all of us in that room help shine some light where darkness has lingered for centuries like a sticky cobweb. It’s time to infuse joy and love into these tear-soaked Caen stones. Little by little, one wedding, one promise to love and be kind at a time. One beam of light, then another, and then another, until the shadows have faded away.