It’s January 2012 and Mum and I are sipping hot coffee and talking, fast, fitting in all the thoughts which have passed since we last saw each other. I side-glance her boyfriend, Lawrence, who is shuffling his feet below the table next to us and fiddling, trying to contain his nervous energy. In a few moments, he’ll ask Mum to go for a walk and she’ll put up a bit of a fight – she’s come to see me, she doesn’t want to go for a walk without me, she says – before she reluctantly puts on her coat. She shoots me a look, screwing up her nose and subtly rolling her eyes, as she steps out into cold Covent Garden. She doesn’t know what Lawrence is planning, but I do.
My mum, Denise, had met Lawrence on a much sunnier day six years previously. Both were single, both in their fifties. Both had lived, and left, long-term relationships and marriages – full of joy and some heartache – relatively recently. Mum had been divorced from my dad since I was eight and, living as a two-man team, we’d grown impossibly close. Divorces can be notoriously messy and this one was no different. My dad had an affair and Mum was left determined but, naturally, a little bereft. We spent a long time, when I was a child, figuring out life together. We made our own fun. When there was little money to play with, she taught me rock ’n’ roll dancing on our private living-room “stage” (carpet). We had a phase of playing sumo wrestling, we slid down bannisters, painted nails, cried, comforted, dreamed of going to London and Paris, right to the top of the Eiffel Tower, and created intricate mood boards of how we’d decorate the paperless walls one day.
As a result, our relationship was very protective (it still is). And, as many people will know, it can feel uneasy or unnatural to see your parent with someone else. We’d been a team of two – and I was happy with that – so when she found new relationships, I was anxious. I was wary of the men who loved her – much, I suspect, as she has been of the people who have loved me. Sometimes I was right to be, as was she; I made an effort to get on with her boyfriends, but some didn’t deserve it, and she was left hurt again. It made me angry. When she said, in 2006, that she was done with it all, that she didn’t want a relationship and she’d definitely never get married again, part of me was relieved. I wanted to shield her from anything that might sting.
So, when she announced, as we sat together chatting in the conservatory at home, in July 2006, that she was going on a blind date, I was only cautiously happy. “Who is he?” I asked. He was a friend of a friend, she said, and they were meeting at said friend’s barbecue. I asked her if she wanted me to do her make-up and she refused. “Nope,” she said. “I’m not wearing any. He can take it or leave it.”
I am filled with pride when they hold hands and take selfies on the beach. It makes me gooey when I catch them giggling together in the kitchen
I waited up like a nervous parent that night and, when they both rolled in at 1am, giggling, I hid at the top of the stairs and texted my friends, gobsmacked. “She’s brought him home! To the house! Mum’s having a one-night stand! WHAT THE FUCK?!” He didn’t stay (to my relief), but he kissed her at the door half an hour later, at which point I ran down the stairs to dissect the date. She couldn’t stop smiling, especially when, a few minutes later, he sent her a message saying he liked her. “Oh, God,” she said. “He put three kisses! I’m only putting one kiss back. I don’t want to look too keen, do I?”
It took him three weeks to fall in love with her. I was cautious – I didn’t want to give her away again – but I was impressed by him. He made an effort with me, spoke to me kindly and even awkwardly hugged me when he said goodbye. I couldn’t ignore how deliriously happy the two of them seemed. Lawrence was gentle and he cared – about his family (four daughters and one son, whom he spoke about with nothing but pride), about whether Mum was OK, whether I was OK, about details. He was meticulously tidy and funny in a warm, “dad” way. He was interested in everything –photography, magazines, recently drawing, and journalling. His tattoo-covered arms and southern accent seemed intriguingly at odds with his soft middle. We bonded over books and reading, and, later, music. He didn’t seem like any other man mum and I had known.
I didn’t know Lawrence was planning to propose until that morning, six years after they’d met, when he silently opened a ring box, beaming from ear to ear, as we made a cup of tea before heading into London. Minutes after he asked my mum to be his wife as they sat at Seven Dials in Covent Garden, she rang me and squealed, “I’M ENGAGED!” before racing back to the coffee shop to flash her new antique ring. Now, it’s five years later and, although circumstances meant they couldn’t marry straight away, they’re talking about their wedding again. Mum and I have talked about themes (she loves the 1920s and Art Deco; she wants Marvin Gaye’s How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You as their first dance) and we've started thinking about those mood boards again, but this time for them, not for us. Over the years, their relationship has grown stronger and stronger, and I am filled with pride when they hold hands and take selfies on the beach, and talk about how cute they look when they assess the snaps later. It makes me gooey when I catch them giggling together in the kitchen.
And, for the first time, I feel like we – the three of us, as well as my lovely stepsisters and stepbrother – are a unit. Lawrence is a fusspot and an over-thinker, and I will never agree with his politics (during the EU referendum he gave me one of his Beatles records as a peace-offering following a particularly heated discussion). But he is kind and loving, and he is there. He stuck around. And he says he wants to do that, for me and Mum, for the rest of his life. He loves my mum, he loves me and we love him right back – I couldn’t ask for more in a stepdad. So, when they walk down the aisle, whenever that is in the next few years, I will be whooping and cheering behind them. Marriage might feel old-fashioned at times but, ultimately, it’s about family. I’m so happy to have mine.