“Honestly, Dan, it’s not an interrogation.” Eva was lecturing me again. “You don’t need to be nervous.”
I wasn’t nervous. I was fed up. I was quite committed to Eva—we’d been living together for four years, ever since uni—and we’d agreed, one drunken night, that marriage was the next big step. Spending an afternoon being interviewed about our intentions just seemed a big waste of time.
“It’s called a Clearness Committee,” Eva told me, “but it’s more a friendly chat—to check we know what we’re doing. Like you might have with a vicar.”
Eva’s parents were Quakers. So was she—sort of. She grew up going to Sunday meeting and doing whatever Quaker children do, though she never joined. I thought she might want a Quaker wedding to please her parents, but when I suggested that, she looked solemn: “I wouldn’t do it for them—or not just. I like the way Quakers do it—no priest, no giving away—just two of us standing up to tell the world we love each other.”
Put like that, it sounded good—and cheap, which mattered, as we were saving for a house. I balked at the “no alcohol” rule, but Eva promised that once the “bring and share” reception was done, we’d take our friends off to our favorite bar for a meal, a dance, some cocktails, and champagne.
So it was no big deal. I reckoned the wedding was more for Eva than me, for all our talk of equality. I didn’t even mind if it was more for her parents, since my dad buggered off when I was small and Mum had recently remarried and gone to live in Spain. “So long as you’re happy,” she’d say, which is the nice way of saying, “I couldn’t care less.”
Eva’s family were good people. They went on a bit about peace and human rights but would share a bottle of wine and never try to convert me. I even went to their Quaker meeting once when we stayed over; it’s as good a place as any to nurse a Sunday morning hangover, being mostly silent. It wasn’t too hard to mime attention when someone got up and spoke.
But this interview—I didn’t like the idea. Eva told me a few things about the clerk—Terry, her name was—that made me think it would be one tough afternoon. Apparently she was “very active in the peace movement”; had been in prison twice (which is a big plus for Quakers); and was heavily into theology, specializing in pastoral care. I did ask Eva if we could meet Terry and the rest of the committee at our local pub instead of our tiny flat, but she told me Terry didn’t drink—not even coffee—“and she’s vegan, by the way, so we’d better get herbal tea and some of those okay ginger biscuits.”
It was going to be a long afternoon.
You may think Eva’s one of those managing women who wants everything done her way, but she’s not like that at all. If I’d said I wanted a registry office wedding or to elope or just go on living together, she’d have been fine and put her preferences on hold. But I thought—still think—weddings are a woman’s thing and ought to be done the way she likes.
We cleaned the flat more energetically than we had in weeks. I stowed my collection of comics under the bed because I reckoned Swamp Thing and Deadpool wouldn’t be Terry’s preferred reading, and I didn’t want her rabbiting on about superheroes or the dangers of violence on screen. Eva threw a lacy bedspread over an erotic Japanese print of which we’re both quite fond. It shows two men together and some nights we’d argue about which one we fancied most, but we didn’t want to involve the Clearness Committee in that conversation. We made sure there were a few serious books on view: a tome by Hilary Mantel; a book by George Monbiot that Eva’s parents had given us; and a guide to the Rijksmuseum, which we wandered around the one day in Amsterdam when we weren’t high. We might not have finished the books, but between us we’d read enough to feel their presence wasn’t a complete fake.
And we waited.
Sarah came first, a mostly silent Scot who looked as nervous as we were, then Douglas, who was what Eva called a “weighty Friend,” though he was small and wiry. We struggled through sporadic chat about the weather, which flowers might be on the table at the next Quaker meeting, and an article in that morning’s Guardian that Eva had glanced at, but I hadn’t seen.
Terry was late. She texted—something about a committee overrunning, a bike puncture, and having to catch a bus. Of course she didn’t have a car—she was an eco-warrior on top of everything else. So Eva and I sat side by side, and Eva joined Sarah and Douglas in telling me not to be nervous in a way that showed me she was anxious, too.
At last the doorbell rang. Eva flew downstairs to the shared entrance hall, and we all stood, awkwardly, in our tiny living room. Eva ushered Terry in, and that’s when I got my first surprise. I’d heard a lot about Terry, but there was one thing no one had bothered to mention. Terry was gorgeous—not in the plain-living, plain-dressing, socks-with-sandals Quaker way either. Her hair was naturally black, so far as I could tell, but streaked with shimmers of red, silver, and blue. A fine, black line had been drawn round her eyes, and there were tiny blue and silver stars at each side of her face and above her cheekbones. Her lips were painted silvery blue. Although the black trousers and severe white shirt she wore might have looked plain on someone else, her shirt shimmered silver and was drawn tight across her breasts. Beside her Eva was small, brown, and mouse-like, though I’d never thought Eva small before.
As Eva bustled around with herbal tea and biscuits, Terry sat in the tall, upright chair we’d left for her and leaned forward. I had to force my eyes away from her cleavage. And although her words—“It’s good to meet you, Dan”—were innocuous. I felt a shiver go down my spine at the rich tone of voice that seemed to promise some new intimacy.
Once the tea and biscuits were laid out, we spent a few minutes in silence. This is what Quakers do, so I wasn’t surprised or embarrassed. But I couldn’t stop checking on Terry, who sat, hands lightly linked, gazing toward the light of the window as though she could see a world none of the rest of us could reach.
The first questions were obvious ones to which I’d prepared answers. Why did we want to be married in a Quaker meeting? How long had we been together? Did we realize that a Quaker wedding was a religious ceremony, and how might we explain it to family and friends who weren’t Quakers? Then Terry leaned forward.
“It’s not like living together, you know. What do you think the difference is?”
I was stumped. I hesitated and then tried, “Well, we’re used to living together and get on so well, it seemed about time to get married.”
“So why not stay living together—or have a civil partnership?”
I knew Quakers were a bit different from some other religious types, but I hadn’t expected that. It was as though she thought it might be better for us to keep “living in sin,” as my grandparents might have said. But Sarah and Douglas nodded approval of the question.
Eva responded. “It’s making a declaration to one another, in front of the meeting as well as family and friends. We want to make a public statement.”
I nodded encouragingly, although I didn’t really care about the public bit.
Then Terry looked at me, her eyelids shimmering silver, and waited for my response. Did I say that Quakers are good at being silent, and it’s not always a comfortable thing?
I was forced into honesty.
“It’s what Eva wants,” I said, “and if it’s what Eva wants, that’s fine by me.”
Eva squeezed my hand. I couldn’t tell if it was agreement or warning. Terry just stayed silent, waiting for more.
“I like Quakers,” I said. “They’re good people. And I like the idea of us marrying each other rather than having someone do it for us.”
Terry nodded. I’ve passed, I thought.
But then came another question. “How about God?” Terry asked and explained further. “People understand God differently today. You don’t have to be Christian or sign up to any fixed set of beliefs. But do you feel led to make this big commitment to one another, with divine help, for the rest of your lives? And what do you think that might mean?”
I was about to nod and say yes; I did feel led and was keen to make a big commitment, but then I looked at Eva. A deep blush had spread across her neck and cheeks and she was shaking slightly. So I said nothing—just laid my arm round Eva’s shoulders and pulled her close.
As I whispered into Eva’s ear, Terry looked away. “It’s all right,” I said. “Just tell them what you think—whatever it is,” and Eva began to cry in earnest.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I want to get married in meeting, but I can’t see beyond that. I love Dan—I really do—but I don’t know why it would be different.” She added, in a quieter voice, “I’m not sure it’s the right thing to do.”
That’s when I saw why people respected Terry. Sarah and Douglas looked as if they would rather be in some quiet Quaker committee meeting, working for something easy like world peace, but Terry leaned forward, took both of Eva’s hands and said, “There’s no need to worry. This is a Clearness Committee, not a wedding. It’s about finding clarity and that doesn’t come straight away. It’s good that you and Dan want more time to think. It shows you know how big this decision is.”
And Terry smiled.
I wished Terry was smiling at me and holding my hands—and as she saw my uncertainty, she loosed one of Eva’s hands and held my hand, too. We sat there, the three of us, for some while.
Then, “Do you want more time to think?” Terry asked, and Eva nodded.
After that we talked some more about the weather, and Terry’s last arrest, and where to get the best vegan biscuits.
When the committee left, Eva threw herself into my arms. I held her close.
We stayed together for another six months, then split on friendly terms. Last week I went to Eva’s wedding—in a Catholic church with a nuptial mass. Her parents sat in the front row, looking pleased. Terry wasn’t there—perhaps she was busy saving the planet.
I didn’t go back to the Quakers but started to read up on religions: Islam, Buddhism, Judaism—even Christianity. I don’t know yet where I fit. But I have found a new partner. Greg may not be the One, but we’re happy. He was fine when I told him I like women, too, though he doesn’t get on with Eva. He says she’s “too intense,” and these days I agree. Greg and I may not be set for happily ever after, but we have acquired a dog—a springer/collie cross—who should keep us together for a good few years. And that’s enough for me.