Spectator – Carla Carlisle

On the Friday before Christmas, a limousine longer than the Norwich to London train pulled into the farm car park. The four men who got out did not look like lottery winners or rock stars. They didn’t even look festive, just contented, in a bankerish, lawyerish way. They had booked a table for four in the restaurant, but when I saw the limo, I realised it was a special occasion and raced ahead to ask Tony, shop manager and flower artist, to come up with something special fast. The Viburnum x bodnantense had been frosted the night before, but it had to do. With a little warning, we could have done better.

To tell the truth, limousines aren’t really a country thing, especially in winter with all the mud from the sugar-beet lorries, potholes and pheasant roadkill. You’d have thought a Cadillac had pulled up at Cold Comfort Farm, as one by one all the shop, kitchen and restaurant staff sneaked out to have a look at the sleek machine, longer than a combine, lower than a plough.

That the limousine roused more interest than the table of four might or might not say something about just how sophsticated we are these days here on the prairies of East Anglia. Because the limousine quartet was our first ‘civil ceremony’ lunch: groom and groom and two witnesses. I’m not one of those patrons who regularly swans around meeting and greeting, but I rise to occasions. When I went over to say hello, I was told that the happy couple had been together for 37 years.

Relationships that endure for nearly four decades touch something in me. I treasure a heart shaped ruby brooch left to me by my mother-in-law, given to her on her ruby anniversary, first presented to her mother-in-law on her ruby anniversary. I haven’t quite reached half a ruby, but I’ve been here long enough to have a pretty good idea of the commitment, love, tolerance and work required to reach those milestones. I felt relieved that these two people sitting in the restaurant would now be able to visit one another in intensive care, benefit from pensions and insurance policies, and live their lives a little freer of institutional prejudice.

I edited Leviticus out of my belief system long ago, along with ‘Intelligent Design’, the notion that the universe could only have been designed by an intelligent being. But, although I’m the granddaughter and wife of dedicated Darwinists, I’m not a strict and pure Darwinist. In fact, I think of myself as a Puffinist. For one thing, puffins marry for life.

Although no puffin can tell the difference between other puffins no telltale laugh, no adorable flutter of wing, no unforgettable feathery face they have a passionate loyalty to place. Their heart is where their burrow is. Most of the year, they have a loner’s temperament, floating about in solitary seascape. Then, come spring, Puffinville becomes like Sex and the City: brief encounters with no strings attached. Finally, bored and tired, they come down to earth (literally) to the grassy slopes dotted with puffin burrows. Within hours, the puffin couple is reunited in the same burrow they occupied the year before. This fidelity to place, so powerful yet so practical, produces baby puffins and marriages that last till death does them part.

Puffins seem to find this way of life unremarkable and comforting. There is much to be said for the comfort of the burrow. I reckon that by removing the legal limbo, civil ceremonies will affirm the ordinariness and privilege of commitment, provide the comfort of difficult, ordinary happiness.

This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on January 19, 2006.