It’s a question people often ask to married couples – ‘so how did you two get engaged?’ or something along those lines.
When I’m confronted with this enquiry, my heart sinks a little. It’s not that I don’t like the story – I love it. It’s just that those listening often don’t feel the same way. Many women have been thoroughly offended by my response, staring back at me as though I were a monster. On one occasion I was actually punched by a young lady who felt I had done an injustice to her sex.
For Irina and me though, it is one of our funnest and most precious memories.
It was a Saturday morning in autumn and it was raining outside. Irina had not long previously moved to Guernsey, and at that particular moment was quite upset about a number of things – one of them being that she was unable to find a job.
‘Do it now,’ said a little urging voice somewhere deep in my head or in my heart. Now? It certainly didn’t seem like a good time. In fact I felt it would have been hard to find a worse time to ask her the question on which our destinies were hinged.
The evening before had seemed like the perfect opportunity – a romantic fire on the beach under a clear starry sky. I had the ring on me, and I was poised and ready. But the same voice had said, ‘no, not yet’.
OK I thought, I’m going for it. Then a fairly absurd thought popped into my head. Down the road from where Irina was living was a small supermarket. We didn’t have much in the way of money at the time, so it was a hobby of ours to regularly check out the ‘reduced shelf’ (that bit in the chilled section full of random discounted stuff nearly past it’s sell-by-date) and see if we could scoop up a bargain or two.
‘Do you fancy popping down to the Co-op,’ I said out of the blue – ‘see if there’s anything on the reduced shelf?’ She looked at me as though I were mad, with her what kind of question is that? face. Doesn’t he care about what I’ve been talking about?
I managed to persuade her that I had seen some exceptional offer there on my way over, and that she wouldn’t be disappointed. We entered the supermarket and walked down to the far corner and stopped at the reduced shelf. My heart started to beat really fast. I bent down to rummage around – there wasn’t much there, except a few yogurts and some cheese. I tried to pretend that I was excited to find a good deal on some fine dairy products. She was still looking at me as though I were insane. She was not happy.
I stood, and turned to face her. My palms were sweating. Am I really going to do this here? I thought to myself. ‘Yes’ the quiet voice replied. Something was doing somersaults in my stomach.
You must bear something in mind. I hope Irina will not mind me sharing with you, that at the time she was not particularly keen on marrying anyone, ever. She’d made that clear to me on a number of occasions. So I thought the chance of her saying ‘yes’ was pretty small. I was preparing myself for the blow.
‘This is for you,’ I said. I stepped close to her, and handed her a tiny, unusual looking package. I had sewn the ring up in a handwritten Russian receipt. I had carted the 110 year old antique around Kyrgyzstan for 2 months prior, and at the time it seemed like a good disguise to prevent anyone pinching it. It had been on quite a journey – at one point I left it behind in a remote village in the mountains.
‘What is it?’ she said.
She tore the paper and pulled out the delicate gold band with diamonds and rubies set in it. My mum had given it me, who had inherited it from her granny. ‘You got me a ring?’ She said, looking puzzled.
The reduced shelf was not only loved by us, but was normally inhabited by a small crowd of people grappling with one another to secure ready meals and legs of lamb. At that moment, an elderly lady began to squeeze her plump body between us to get hold of mango and passionfruit yoghurt. The timing or her hankering for discount dairy wasn’t ideal.
When she had scurried off, I did my best to compose myself and ignore the bizarreness of the situation, and dived in. ‘Would you like to marry me?’
There was a pause.
‘Why?’ she asked.
It wasn’t the answer I was going for, but it wasn’t a no, so I was encouraged. I preceded to describe my intentions and feelings with as much eloquence and gentle persuasion as I could muster.
‘So, will you marry me?’ I asked again.
She looked thoughtful. ‘OK’ she replied.
I couldn’t believe it. I’d never felt so lucky.
Be free to do things differently
When people take offence to this story, and wonder at how I would dare ask a woman for her hand in marriage at a reduced shelf in a shabby supermarket, I try to explain something to them. I attempt to show them that this was not the easy option!
There’s so much pressure for people to propose to their partner in flamboyant and extravagant ways. By doing it such an unimpressive way, I was missing out on all the opportunities for people to say something like, ‘oh wow, I can’t believe he took you to New York’, or ‘you must be the first person ever to get engaged on the back of an elephant!’
For many months, even years before we were engaged, I had dreamt of how I would take Irina to a small fishing village she had visited in Croatia as a child, and ask her there. Tales of my thoughtfulness and adventurous spirit would have spread throughout the land like wildfire. But when it came to it, I realised that it wouldn’t have meant much to her. She’s utterly down to earth and genuine, and loves to find beauty in the everyday. The way it ended up happening reminds us that our relationship is supposed to be fun and exciting even in the monotony of a low-end, grotty supermarket.
I thought I’d share that story with you, to remind you and me that’s it’s OK to do things differently to others. Follow your gut instincts – sometimes the best way to go about something is in a way that other people wouldn’t even entertain, a way you might not expect. If we throw off the pressure to look impressive all of the time, and give up being consumed by what others think or say about us, life takes on a whole new level of meaning.