Engagements are the place where romantic dreams of eternal love and devotion become reality, where couples promise to be wonderful lovers and friends, to enjoy a lifetime of togetherness and fulfilment. When a man plans to propose, he brings his beloved to a tropical paradise or out for a candlelit dinner at a five star restaurant. When Clive – for that is what we will call him for the sake of this story – proposed to me, those many years ago, all those thoughts about a rose-coloured future flashed through my heart and then, in an instant, reality dawned.
Clive. Six feet seven inches tall, and every inch of that frame a lawyer. He was as unromantic as the day was long, with a huge inferiority complex about his personal life, if that is not a contradiction in terms for a lawyer. He had until that time been unlucky in love, and it showed. He saw me as his last chance for a married life, his step up in the world of the small English town in which we lived. Lawyers there were big fish in a small pond, and a wife was the prerequisite for advancement not only on the social ladder but on the road to partnership in the firm.
Until the late 1970s I, too, had been a late bloomer. But in my mid-twenties and having spent several years in college, I was about to realise the dream of carving out my own career. I was about to embark upon a new adventure that would take me far from home, into the unknown, and without much of a safety net. Could I be turned from my path by a promise of a future in a small urban town? As I faced stepping into the unknown, perhaps I, too, fleetingly saw marriage as a lifeline.
The Proposal, when it came, took me by complete surprise, hard though it is to believe that someone of Clive’s nature could have a sudden flash of emotional attachment and surprise anyone. In retrospect, I now put that flash down to pure panic.
We had spent the evening before my departure having dinner at a small restaurant. We discussed how very sensible we were not to make any future plans, as long-distance relationships rarely worked. We would wait and see, and if our attachment to each other proved to be a bond that time and distance could not sever, then we could re-think the whole situation upon my return in a year’s time. Yes, very sensible indeed. Was I therefore prepared for The Proposal the next morning when Clive came to drive me to the airport?
Uh, no. Ever the romantic, Clive simply stowed my suitcases in the trunk and in silence turned the car in the direction of the highway. We had only been driving a few minutes when he casually asked: “You know how sensible we were last night at dinner, when we discussed the future and making no commitments?”
Somewhat taken aback by this matter of fact question and with absolutely no inkling of what he was leading to, I replied simply, “Yes, I do remember.”
“Well,” said Clive, “would you like to change your mind?”
“All right,” I said. And that was it. The Proposal.
A flash of Michael Schumacher then suddenly gripped this staid individual as he became a driver possessed. The car screamed all around the roundabout, exiting not towards the airport but towards his mother’s home in completely the opposite direction. Luckily, during this frenetic drive on an early winter Sunday morning, there was little traffic and no police car to witness our break-neck dash away from our original destination. When we arrived at the house, Clive’s mother was jumping up and down at the window, beaming from ear to ear. Clive had told her that if I said no to his marriage proposal, he would drive straight to the airport; but if I said yes, we would come back home first to let her know.
Kisses all around. Beaming smiles. And then we remembered that planes don’t wait and had to make a low-flying dash to Heathrow Airport. I boarded the plane and headed off to pastures new, still not wholly believing what had happened in the preceding few hours. Had my unromantic Clive suddenly found a spark of emotion? Was that the end of the story? Did we live happily ever after?
Uh, no. A month later Clive came to visit me for Christmas. The initial euphoria of our rushed change-of-mind had diminished, and the reality of being a small-town lawyer’s wife, spending my days making preserves, organising teas with the Mayor’s wife for suitably noble charitable causes, rubbing shoulders at fetes and other social events with the wives of senior partners in the firm, all developed a slightly surrealistic air in my mind’s eye. It did have a certain charm about it. It smacked of respectability and stability, of safety, and of a ready-made, mapped-out future that would probably be beyond my control. But, if I could toe the line and be the perfect lawyer’s wife, would that be a life I could enjoy? It would be so very different to the path I had chosen for myself, a career in a foreign land, where the hostile and unfriendly natives were not to be trifled with. Yet, at times the life Clive offered did indeed seem quite attractive.
Two months later, I was able to return to England for a week’s vacation. This trip gave us an opportunity meet the Vicar and book the church, as well as to buy an engagement ring to officially cement our future union. I rather hoped that Clive would make up for his somewhat unromantic initial proposal, and while we doubtless would not have the palm trees, sea and sand, with an orchestra playing softly in the background – this was England in a dreary February, after all – I thought at least that Clive would arrange something a little special. Did it happen that way?
Uh, no. It was a Saturday afternoon. We parked the car in the town centre and made our way through the crowded shopping mall to the local jeweller. I had no idea what Clive had in mind for an engagement ring, but he was apparently prepared to leave the choice to me. However, that rather left open the question of exactly how much he wished to spend. When he said twenty pounds – which is about $40 – I thought I hadn’t heard him correctly. Even 30 years ago this wasn’t exactly extravagant.
“Twenty pounds?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied. “I thought ten pounds would suffice, but Mother said she doubted we’d find anything for that price.” After a pause, he added: “Just remember, whatever I spend on your ring will mean there is less to spend on bricks and mortar for a house.” Ever practical, that’s Clive.
For a fleeting instant I wondered what it would be like to wear a house brick on my third finger, but put the question out of my mind. We found the jeweller, found a ring even, though it cost Clive eight pounds more than he had budgeted. Back we went to the car. He put the tiny box in my hand and said, simply, “There you are.”
“Well, aren’t you going to put it on my finger?” I asked.
So, Clive removed the ring in all its sparkly splendour from the velvet-lined box, and slid it on to my third finger, while we sat in the multi-storey car park on a cold February afternoon with condensation dripping off the concrete walls and ceiling. As he placed the ring on my finger, Clive quoted the law to me, chapter and verse, about should the marriage not take place, the engagement ring would legally be his property and should be returned to him.
Well, you may be asking, do I still have the ring? Uh, no. After a great deal of soul-searching I realised that a life of social teas as the wife of a staid lawyer without a romantic bone in his body would not be in my future. Even though the church was booked, the dress ordered and my grandmother had made the three-tiered wedding cake, it was time to be brutally honest and admit that my heart beat to a different drum.
Clive went on to marry someone else and have a family and, years later, he is now a senior partner in the firm. I went on to a career that took me far from that old market town, to different challenges and to far-from-safe environments. I did, eventually, meet my lover, with all the violins playing and the palm trees swaying in my head.
Was the next proposal the same as the first? Uh, no... But that is a whole new story.
Was the next proposal the same as the first? Uh, no... But that is a whole new story.
After a career that took her to many parts of the world, Patricia Howard has found that Brian Henry's courses have been the catalyst for her to write about her experiences. She now lives in Burlington with her husband and menagerie of cats, dogs and tropical fish. Patricia read “The Proposal” at the reading night at CJ’s Café on Sept 16.
Note: For information about Brian Henry's writing workshops and courses, see here.