Thai the Knot

This piece appeared in the October 2018 edition of Image Magazine. I distract myself by slowly dragging my right foot through the powdery white sand. I watch the grains sift through my toes but make sure that nothing disturbs the rose petals sprinkled around me. I adjust the buttonhole on my shirt, careful not to leave a clammy handprint on my white linen shirt. “I think I see movement,” says Dmitri. “Are you ready?” The sun is sinking into the late afternoon sky. The beach is empty now except for a couple of kids paddling about in the shallows at the far end of the cove. The canopy is fluttering slightly in the mildest of breezes – too mild to disturb the palm trees that lean in a protective arc over the whole beach. A few feet away, the smallest of waves collapse lazily onto the soft shore. Everything is just as I’d hoped it would be. Am I ready? I certainly am. I’ve been waiting for this moment for a while. Dmitri smiles and says, “Laura’s here.” My first marriage had ended more than six years before, but the leaden obligations of an Irish divorce meant I had five years to pick through the bones of past mistakes and commit to doing things differently the next time. If there was a next time. Thankfully, this was the next time. The first time around, we organised a conventional Irish wedding, where 130 guests were treated to a Catholic church floorshow followed by a sit-down feast in a stately country house. It was elegant, exorbitantly expensive and exhaustingly stressful. I was a groom and project manager, a veteran of Excel spreadsheets with a seemingly endless ‘to do’ list, an expert negotiator between demanding guests and a whole range of hotel front desks. My diplomatic skills were fully tested on the day, as I made sure the vegans got their meals; exchanged expressions of deep affection with relatives I hadn’t seen in years and wouldn’t see again until a family funeral; and made sure that my horribly drunk friend Mark had a bed to sleep in before the meal had even started. This time it would be different. We were going to manage the guest-to-stress ratio by eloping, just the two of us, to our own version of paradise. Laura had also been married before, and neither of us was keen on another big wedding. But we wanted to make it memorable, and beautiful: a registry office can be many things – efficient, distinguished, even noble in the pared-down essence of its purpose – but never beautiful. We wanted to get married on a beach, alone, with nothing to distract us from the promises we were making to each other. We would celebrate with family and friends when we got home. The Belmond Napasai is a resort hotel on its own little cove in north-western Koh Samui, the largest of the three-island archipelago in the Gulf of Thailand. Its collection of suites and villas sit in a mini-forest of cashew and coconut groves dashed with fragrant bougainvillea and hibiscus. It has a pool, its own private beach and a seductive atmosphere that promotes the dangerous illusion that this is the best – and only – way to be happy. It was an illusion that we easily surrendered to. Our wedding day was Saturday. We checked in on Friday and met Algen, our ultra-friendly and efficient wedding planner, with whom we’d exchanged emails for a few weeks. We had a quick meeting with our photographer Max, who assured a slightly camera-shy Laura that he’d be as stealthy as a snow leopard. We also met our celebrant Dmitri, a Brighton-born expat with a local’s tan and the reassuring, easy-going charm of someone who understood that, no matter how many weddings he performed, each was special, a highly individualised expression of a couple’s love for one another. I liked him instantly. We confirmed the meal (a family-style sharing menu of classic Thai dishes) and the reading (Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s ‘Gift from the Sea’). A whole email sub-thread had been devoted to the bouquet, which would be made up of green orchids and pink-and-white lotus flowers. And then there was the music - Etta James’ ‘At Last’ to start, Michelle Williams singing ‘Tightrope’ from ‘The Greatest Showman’ to conclude. And that was it. Everything was sorted. All that was left to do was to settle into our loungers and bask in the sweet art of doing nothing. We loafed until mid-afternoon on Saturday. Birds sang in the trees and dragonflies danced over the pool. We took a couple of kayaks out onto the water, which was the temperature of an unattended bath. We walked the length of the beach and imagined what it might be like to live here full time. We asked each other if we were nervous. No, I said. I’ve been waiting for this for a long time. Laura smiled. Me too. The wedding was at 5pm, so we started getting ready at around 3.30pm. My wedding outfit - a short-sleeved shirt and a pair of linen trousers held up by braces (the unanimous choice of an internet search for “tropical wedding outfits for men”) – had been pressed and readied by the time we got back to the room. Max arrived shortly thereafter, whereupon I absented myself, so Laura could finally put on the dress that she’d carefully kept concealed in a gown cover and carried from home. She got a lot of help from an enthusiastic Emirates flight crew who, once they heard the word ‘wedding,’ couldn’t do enough to make us comfortable, including giving the dress its own first-class compartment so that it wouldn’t get creased. I saw the dress for the first time just after 5pm, as Laura walked toward me on the beach, the sound of Etta James in the air and pools of happy tears in my eyes. By 5.20 we were married, tropical cocktails in hand, as a beaming Algen looked on and hotel manager Jeroen’s two children, Noah and Chloe, danced about throwing rose petals in the air. It was perfect. But we weren’t quite done. Before the meal – under the same canopy, reset with a romantic table for two and with heart-shaped firepits dug out in the sand around it – we literally sailed off into the sunset aboard the hotel’s private boat; just us, the pilot and Max, who made sure to capture the moment a couple of hundred times. In hindsight, not having our closest friends and family members there was a little bit of a pity. But only a little bit. They were sent a video of the proceedings – taken on my phone by Jeroen, who kindly volunteered about 10 minutes before the ceremony – within minutes of our saying, “I do.” The congratulatory texts buzzed and beeped throughout the meal, giving Laura and I the satisfaction of imagining that our nearest and dearest had still played a part in our moment, if only in two-dimensional, three-and-a-quarter-inch spirit. But the whole point of our ‘elopement’ was to escape the obligations of a typical wedding and focus on the only thing that truly mattered to us. It may sound cheesy, but until I met Laura I never imagined I would ever get married again, and now here I was committing my future to someone I couldn’t imagine living without. I’m grateful Laura feels the same way. After dinner, we walked, hand-in-hand, across the moonlit sand back to our room. Not only had I never been happier; I have never imagined actually being this happy.