In early 1996 I was choosing a university, to start in the Autumn. I can remember two main motivators – getting as far away from home as possible, and getting somewhere that was good, but not full of the posh wankers that I imagined populated the quads of Oxbridge. In retrospect these are poor reasons to choose a university, but they led me to Bath, where the most wonderful thing happened.
I met Kate.
It was on the first day, the very first day! I was being unimpressed at the forced jokey, zany, wackiness of a lecturer and muttered something about it, half to myself, half to the girl on my right. I don’t recall who was sat to my left – my universe had become, to quote Terry Pratchett, divided into two sections – one part containing me and her, and one part containing everything else.
We became friends, went to lectures and pubs together, but it was an extremely long month before we went on a date – even then it wasn’t as a couple, but as company for another student, who wanted to go out for dinner with a new girl but didn’t want to do it alone. We ate Alsacienne tartes flambeés, with Riesling. There was a spectacular dessert tart with bananas, chocolate and rum, which is set alight while you sprinkle sugar into the flames. Later that evening we decided to stop being friends, in the best possible way.
We then became one of those nauseating campus couples. I didn’t care then and I don’t care now. Our degree was a “sandwich” format, with two six-month work placements. We did both together – one in nearby Bristol, the other in considerably more remote Melbourne, Australia. If we can spend six months on the other side of the world, with nobody but each other to count on, I’m going to ask her to marry me, I told myself. And on 31 December 1999, by a beach bonfire on the Isle of Skye, I did.
Our shared taste for unfussiness and not wasting money meant we had a modest wedding at the registry office followed by a reception in a local restauraunt. It was hot, I had no prepared speech, but it was lovely. We were both 23 that year.
We’ve seen each other almost every day for the past 20 years, the longest and most difficult absences being those endless university holidays in the first year. Back then we’d write letters to each other – neither of us had a computer at “home”, and when we were issued with an email address when starting university, we wondered what on earth the point of that was. As soon as we moved out of halls and into a rented house, we hardly ever went back to our parents separately.
We were at a friend’s house for dinner recently and mentioned that this year we’d been together for 20 years. “You don’t act like you’ve been together for that long,” they replied. I’m not sure what that means. We still do couple things, like hold hands, or kiss each other. Why would you stop? It’s only ever when I sit and think about it that 20 years seems like a long time, but it never seems too long. A couple of years ago we passed the milestone where we’d spent more of our lives together than apart. I can’t imagine my life without Kate, and I can barely remember my life before her.
For a long time now we’ve been planning for the future. Some of these plans have come through, others haven’t. But we keep planning, and those plans are always based around us as a family and our shared goals. We have completely open finances, we know about each other’s career plans, job satisfaction and income. We’ve rehearsed job interviews and presentations and edited the others writing, from books to doctoral theses to resignation letters. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and can (usually) read each other’s moods pretty well. We have a robust shared culture of in-jokes, mockery and honest criticism without fear of petty reprisal.
If this sounds like a description of a well-assimilated professional team in the workplace, then there’s probably a reason for that. Our marriage is based on teamwork.
I can remember just enough about the contents of my degree course to realise two things: that it is all now hopelessly obsolete, and that Jeremy Paxman pronounces most biochemical terms incorrectly on University Challenge. But if I hadn’t chosen that course, in that year, at that university, I wouldn’t have met Kate. And without her, I’m nothing.
I love you, Dr. Mrs. T. Here’s to the next 20 years.