I do, again: ‘There is nothing as deadly serious as a second marriage’

Dress from a charity shop, no cake and a midweek ceremony – but don’t think my second wedding is a joke

Zoe Williams and her fiance, Will Higham. Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Guardian

We arrived, my betrothed and I, at the register office to give notification of our marriage. It was the last possible moment we could have done it, because my divorce took so long to come through and his was so long ago that he’d lost the piece of paper. It was also the emergency walk-in morning, so everyone else needed an urgent death certificate, or was a too-old baby who’d missed the registration deadline. Tensions were high and everyone seemed on the point of tears, because they were bereaved, or they were seven weeks old.

I gave notice here the first time I got married, when the registrar was a Guardian reader and said merrily, “Well, I can’t see anyone coercing you!” I was hoping we didn’t see the same guy, though I’m sure they have a protocol for that, like waiters in restaurants when you go in with different dates on consecutive nights.

I never changed my name the first time, as my children already had their father’s surname and it never made me doubt my maternal status. The only other reason (I thought) was as a gesture of self-erasure in preparation for becoming Wife which – as you may well imagine – I do not agree with. But now there are three possible surnames in my family, the only one who shares mine is the dog, and I urgently want a merger. My betrothed is called Will Higham, which would make him William Higham Williams. It would be cool, needlessly baffling, like Ford Madox Ford.

“Will you be changing your name?” asked a lady of impossible gentleness.

“Yes, we’re both changing our name to Higham Williams,” I said.

“No, no, that was just something we said as a joke.”

“It wasn’t for me.”

“You’re not the one who’ll end up with the ridiculous name. Come back to me when you want to be called Zoe Madox Zoe.”

“I would be fine with that.”

I observe the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle with a profound fellow feeling

I’m getting married – you’ll have picked this up by now – for the second time. I have a son and a daughter, 10 and eight; Will has a daughter of 10 (though this is pure coincidence, not because we went on Soulmates with “single parent, preferably of 10-year-old” as a search term). There wasn’t an engagement as such: when we went to his mother’s vicar’s wedding two years ago, and his daughter said, “Will you two marry here?” I said, “Sure, if you like.” Then Will pointed out that would be absurd; this was a church. And I said, “Your mother would be pleased,” and he said, “We’re not doing it for other people.” And suddenly we were doing it.

The general view of a second wedding is that they’re a bit of a joke. Not a contemptible joke, more of a puzzled, “Why’s she getting married again? She must be one of those people who just enjoys getting married. Wait, they’re both divorced? They’ll be at it again in a couple of years, to two completely different people. It’s probably an excuse to dress their children up in novelty costumes.” A couple of close friends said, “Why do this twice?” as if I were eating another oyster when I already knew I was allergic. I couldn’t really explain without saying something soppy, like, “I want to die with this person, and when I look around for him just as I go, I want the woman in the hospice to say, ‘Your husband has stepped out for some air,’ not, ‘Your partner has gone to the vending machine.’” So instead I said, “Piss off.”

A hardcore of bystanders will infer from a previous marital breakdown that the person is flaky – for which see Germaine Greer’s not entirely disapproving comment about Meghan Markle: “I think she’ll bolt. She bolted before. She was out the door.” Logically, it makes sense – people who don’t stick at things won’t stick at things – but statistically it doesn’t, as second marriages are more likely to last than first ones.

I can explain this anomaly with a sometimes overlooked fact about divorce. It is hell. It’s never billed as hell, it’s billed as the emotional midpoint between being bereaved and changing your bank account. But it isn’t. It’s seven months face-down on the floor for a third of every day before you can even say the words, “I’m getting divorced.” So in fact, there is nothing as deadly serious as a second marriage. The death-wish rubric which is somewhere between an anachronism and a metaphor in a first marriage is now completely literal: you will definitely be parted by death, because you definitely will not be parted any other way.

As a result, I observe the marriage of Prince Harry and Markle with a profound fellow feeling that I have never before had for a sleb-come-princess, and doubt I will have again. She may have fame and finely turned ankles up the wazoo, but we’re sisters under the skin, in our quest for permanence, slightly sheepish, desperately sincere. You might presume that a second wedding is quite liberating, in that you can finally make authentic decisions and you don’t have to invite your relatives (or Theresa May, say). In fact, the main liberation – and this might be more me than the Waleses – is that you don’t have any money. Wedding inflation is society’s way of policing the institution, making sure that people do it only when they really mean it. Lovebirds can say what they like, but the proof comes when they put their money where their mouth is: spend 750 quid on a cake, or £65 on a garter. Second time around, those shackles are off: you don’t need invitations, you can send an email. People reply with amusing remarks (it is against the law to RSVP amusingly to an invitation printed on a card). You don’t need a strict head count because there ain’t nobody poaching any salmon. You don’t need a photographer because everyone has a phone, and you don’t need a DJ, because you already asked everyone what their favourite song was in what will go down in history as your solitary act of forward planning.

We chose a working men’s club as the venue, which I knew was nearly free, because I “hired” it (for free) for a hustings before the election in 2015. That didn’t work out so well, in the end, because we said everyone was welcome and 200-odd people couldn’t fit into it and had a mini-protest outside about democracy (Harriet Harman had to go and calm them down). Then we went in one afternoon to confirm and it looked different, without 200 protesters in front of it… less festive. Like a place that, once you were in, you weren’t necessarily allowed out. Inside, it was full of signs prohibiting weird things such as letting your children use the slot machines or starting fires. “Have we taken this budget thing too far?” asked the future Mr Williams.

We’re already getting married on a Wednesday afternoon because the council has a midweek special (“It’s fine,” said my stepsister, “I’ve always hated going to work on a Wednesday anyway.”), in a dress I bought in a charity shop, and a suit he inherited from an uncle of eerily similar dimensions.

“We could find somewhere nearer our house?” I suggested. Will said he’d already examined and rejected most places near our house the last time he got married.

The youngest wants to dress as a member of WICKED, which I think is the best idea I’ve heard

This came as a huge surprise to me. Obviously I knew that had happened, but I’d filed it in some different dimension, the 20th century or the moon. Nobody can mention the last time. It mars the gaiety, awakens the spectre of failure. Yet, inexorably, people are constantly reminded of the last time you got married, because you’re getting married again. A lot of sentences start, “Do you remember?”, then tail off into a shambolic silence.

I’m currently in a constant state of garrulous reminiscence, not just my own first wedding but every wedding I’ve been to; my dad’s second wedding where I think I was technically a bridesmaid but not sure (drunk); a slew of summer weddings, including my sister’s, when I was pregnant and looked cranky and ginormous in all the pictures, like a bad fairy godmother arriving with a curse; weddings I was late for; a wedding where we breakfasted on cows the bride had persuaded her father to slaughter from his own herd.

I always used to complain about something, usually the sense of captivity, that it is actually quite bizarre to find yourself in a social event with a minimum attendance of 12 hours. That’s another thing you don’t have do the second time: entice people to the middle of nowhere in order to trap them. But the point, I realise belatedly, is that you always remember them, quite discretely. None of these events have merged in the memory, the way Christmases do and you can tell them apart only by figuring out who was still alive and who yet to be born.

There’s something pagan and comical about the excess, the acres of time, the extravagance of dress, the big prose, but none of that is what holds each one apart from any other. It is a marital paradox, that in this conventional act, you carve your union into a memorable, distinctive entity.

I never realised how conventional I was until I found myself in an unconventional situation. I don’t want Will’s daughter to be a sort-of stepdaughter, I want her to be my actual stepdaughter, with paperwork and photos, and commemorative hair accessories. She and my son are only two weeks apart in age and have quite similar colouring, and people always say, “Twins?” and I invariably say, “Yes”, and Will says, “It’s a little bit more complicated than that”, but too late, because I’m already describing the football hold (a breastfeeding position for twins).

Last week, I was trawling my local high street looking for samosas that could somehow arrive hot even when there were 1,000 of them, thinking, “What were the chances? That I would get this old and feel so not-old?” My incredible good luck rushed towards me like a tide. The twins are old enough to be trusted with all the stuff that normally you’d have to distribute among your friends while agonising over the hierarchy. My stepdaughter is naturally eloquent; my son is naturally sardonic. Remarks will be heartbreakingly touching, and very short. The youngest wants to dress as a member of WICKED, the nefarious organisation that experiments on people in The Maze Runner, which I think is the best idea I’ve heard. It’s frankly incredible how many people are free on a Wednesday afternoon. And if I seem insouciant, it’s not because I’m not taking it seriously, or I feel some residual coating of shame at re-entering an institution I’ve already traduced once. It’s because in that great chasm between how things are and how they look, I should be gnarled by time and experience, but instead I feel more hopeful, more trusting and idealistic than I have ever been.

And soon, before summer has really begun, I’ll be Mrs William Higham Williams.

• Commenting on this piece? If you would like your comment to be considered for inclusion on Weekend magazine’s letters page in print, please email weekend@theguardian.com, including your name and address (not for publication).

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