Many years ago, a small, and if we're honest, slightly irritating ginger infant returned from school somewhat happier than usual. His mother was intrigued. 'You're in a good mood today', she said. 'I've found someone who laughs at my jokes!' I replied.
Life has gone in different directions since those scab-kneed days. I failed my A-levels, took a politics degree and became a folk musician. My friend Jamie got his life massively together and became a manager in a global company, taking a job in Mexico, but we stay firmly in touch.
And Mexico has been the making of him. He's found a stability and an anchor there that always seemed lacking before. A huge part of this is the lady he's just married, the wonderful Samanta. It's a great honour for me to have been invited as his best man. He knows as a musician that I'd have struggled to get across under my own steam, and helped with my flights, in exchange for me delivering the best man's speech in Spanish, a language I don't speak! Indeed, my memories of learning Spanish at school are largely of standing in the corridor, having been ejected for something that clearly wasn't as funny as I thought it was going to be.
After a long morning and afternoon of 'getting ready' (women getting ready, men drinking beer and coffee in the hotel bar, before putting a suit on), here's how it panned out at 6pm, in the gathering evening, at the Church of Santo Domingo, Oaxaca.
Without the scalpel sunlight to open up every corner of this great and terrible Saint strewn temple, we seem a trivial intrusion scuttling about on the floor, hardly of worth to the business of heaven, moving unseen in the cool vastness above us. A wedding party of some 200 souls is swallowed in one gulp by the darkening space, and we rattle nervously about, waiting for the priest to draw us to order. I've spent all week having quasi-religious experiences in the day-to-day world of Mexico, and now here at last is a real one.
The service begins. A mixture of Spanish and Latin, I have no chance to follow, and each symbolic marker reached is a surprise. Suddenly, everyone makes the sign of the cross. I join in belatedly by signalling a boundary four, and immediately feel childish for this act of disrespect. As an atheist, I decide the best thing I can do is not join in the observations, but be a watcher, quiet and still. I want to be a stone column, witness unnoticed. Verses demand call and response, and from behind me I hear strong broken tuneless voices coming from ladies who know that it is better to sing your heart than worry about what others may think.
Formalities having been covered, the ceremony changes focus to Jamie and Sam. There's a pause, a taking of breath, as the cannons of God are precisely retargeted at them. Growing up as I did in a non-religious environment, my rare encounters with God were always with the ever so cuddly Church of England. I have never seen a member of the Catholic clergy give it Hellfire before.
This priest clearly decides he's going to go for it. At the start, it's like he's not really aware of the bride and groom. Slowly though, he's drawn to them, stalking them, fixing them. How can they come here, to this place, and ask this of Him? Whilst the meanings may literally have been lost to me, there is no mistaking the powerful gestures, the pointed eye contact, the machine gun oratory. The words turn solid in the air. They are dancing devils and the corporeal wages of temptation. Here you stand naked before the furious tribunal, carrying your worldly deeds in each damp hand. It is the test of love. Kneeling at this raging mouth of the Lord, the couple together weather the storm. As the priest turns to address the altar, I see a wink and a smile pass between them. They've passed the test, even if it may not quite have been the same test the priest thought it was.
It is the acts of humanity that keep us anchored in this storm. In the middle of the tempest, a small girl runs out from the pews to straighten Sam's train, before running back grinning, job done. The priest's radio mike fails, and a man in a strikingly scruffy t-shirt runs out with a spare battery. Each moment, a precious chance to reassert that bond with the world you can touch and taste. Perhaps some like to let go and swim in this world of God's word. I doubt I'll ever be one of them.
Now there are the symbolic moments. Different to the ones I know, but similar in role. A long necklace is draped over both bride and groom. Jamie's mother, Julie, provides a box of special coins to be transferred. I don't really understand the specific meaning of either of these acts, but recognise the feeding of the basic human need for symbolism. At an otherwise indeterminate point, applause suddenly breaks out, and handshakes are offered from every quarter. I take this to mean that they are married, and wholeheartedly join in.
It's time for wafers, for those who want, and many do, queuing back down the long aisle. Some take them gently, and walk back lost in meaning. Some are confident, one large man walks back grinning and licking his lips.
Then the cork fires from the bottle and we pour out into the square, to be hit flush in the face by a wave of sheer drunken madness.
In the square, now darkened by the treacle of night, is a giant whirling cloth globe with the names 'Jamie' and 'Samanta' on it, around which their likenesses dance madly in the form of huge puppets, stiff torsoed with whirling arms that lift off like governors on a mighty thrashing engine. A numberless band, with so many brass and wood instruments fires the boilers of the party, drum section thunderous, music like a machine on the edge of disintegration. Men I've never met embrace me and pour me mezcal from rough glass jugs into strange bamboo like vessels with string necklaces. Colourful lanterns are handed out to all. The procession will not be contained in this square for much longer. Adding dark surrealism to an already incredible sight, one side of the square is students come to protest the wedding, silently holding pictures of the 43 missing students. To them, the church as apparatus of the state is fair game.
The procession sets off down the colonial Spanish streets of this tight shouldered city. Colours and sound, puppets lead the way, roads are blocked and tourists pour out of bars to ogle at and photograph this magnificent ancient Oaxacan tradition, almost certainly unaware that the groom is a lad from a council estate in Macclesfield. He's in there, dancing his new wife down the streets, broadest grin you've ever seen on his face, 6 empty mezcal vessels clattering round his neck. Blocked roads add their great chorus of car horns to the parade, and the sound rises off us, a thermal of joyfulness. I race ahead of the procession, eager to see it with the eyes of an outsider, and ducking back into a doorway it comes tumbling past me, a green and blue creature of the fathoms, scales peeling off and reforming, tentacles lashing out then melting away into the gutters. A morphing body of elation and expression.
Eventually, this exuberant reptilian peacock stumbles and falls, exhausted and spent, and disperses, leaving no skeleton. We see our happy couple whisked away in a vintage open top Jaguar, complete with drinks cabinet. It's on to the reception.
In the car to the reception, we take stock. Our little cluster of English folk overwhelmed and overawed by what we've seen and done. We talk, but we're emptying our heads for another course of this sense banquet.
It doesn't disappoint. A wide courtyard, uplit trees growing into the blank sky, tables scattered throughout, set and frozen in time, as if they've waited here a thousand years for us to break through and discover them. There's a nine piece band playing on a stage in one corner, and the whole setup is built around a transparent lit dance floor.
It soon fills, and I quickly find myself approaching my formal involvement in the day. I have to make the best man's speech in Spanish. I'm grateful to Jamie's friend, Nacho, who has spent the last two days sitting with me, going through it word by word, helping me make some sort of sense. I'm shaking as I step up, and have to overcome a dodgy radio mike as I stumble my way through. Fortunately for me, I get applause and cheers in the right places, and my one joke seems to get a decent laugh, so I must be making some sort of sense. Then my involvement is over and I can go back to the comfortable edges of the day.
Food comes and goes, it's all superb. Each table has a drinks waiter and we want for nothing. The dance floor is really filling up. There in the middle of it is a lady I've been talking to. She's in the heart of it, beautiful but alone, moving like liquid. She looks like a perfect question mark. I'm caught in the eternal Englishman's conundrum. Should I risk looking like an idiot and go for it, or just be English and sit in the corner wishing I was cool? What chance do I possibly have on the dance floor, grave of so many a white-boy? Here in Latin America, people are born dancers and know not the meaning of dance floor fear, whilst I grew up banned from the school maypole after inadvertently taking my ribbon on a grand tour of boy scout knot-tying.
New Tom decides he's not going to die wondering, and to Hell with being laughed at. I stride onto the dance floor. How bad can it be? At least it's packed, so my unique household appliance style of dancing shouldn't be noticed by too many people. Five steps behind me, a nine foot robot, covered in flashing LED pads and lasers also strides onto the dance floor, scanning for a suitable target to open his account with an easy dance-off victory. The spotlight falls on me and the floor opens up.
'I thought you did very well' Says Jamie's mum afterwards, 'The way you really went for it, particularly with your arms'. It can't get worse, anyway.
'I need two mates' shouts Jamie, and grabs me and Piggy from the table of shame. Why? Well it transpires we are to wear yellow and blue jumpsuits and join the band on stage as their backing dancers. The first two jumpsuits are much too small, so they search for a larger one. I also have to wear a wig. I feel like a fat ginger Bananaman as I hit the stage. The many anonymous agents of Facebook move in to capture our humiliation.
I'm starting to feel like I deserve a bit of luck after all this. Turns out, that as well as the bride throwing the bouquet over her head, in Mexico, the groom removes a garter from his bride's leg, and throws that over his shoulder for the men folk to fight over. Suddenly, I have the advantage. Mexicans are small, and my gangly long arms, so cruelly exposed in my robot dance-off, are now to my advantage. I catch it easily, and am then faced with the question; 'Now what?' Apparently this means I'm next to be married. Well, I'm single so there's not much likelihood of that. Maybe I'll eat it on a cracker.
The party flows into the small hours, like a hurricane growing in strength over a hot ocean. A man is carried out, totally KOd on mezcal. Ten minutes later he walks back in. Half an hour later he's carried out again. Twenty minutes after this he walks back in again. At 2.30am, the Mariachi band arrives and we have a change in tempo. Jamie and Sam dance while the band forms an arc round them. It's a beautiful moment of acoustic music in a traditional setting. Jamie later teaches me the dance, with me learning the woman's role. After everything I've been through on the dance floor this evening, this is not a big deal.
Sometime around 5, eyes droop and lapels sag. Jamie looks red and hot and dishevelled, although the grin is still as wide as ever. Sam, somewhat disconcertingly, looks as radiant now as she did 16hrs ago. We thin and disperse. There are so many people to hug and thank. I'm sure I hugged some of them three or four times. Nothing matters any more. We're all friends in the Mexican morning. My best friend is safely married and we can all go home now.
These are precious days in our lives, and need to be enjoyed. Moments and chances pass that you won't see again. I'm glad I went on the dance floor even if I dance like a washing machine. I'm proud of my speech, even if it didn't make much sense. Most of all, I'm pleased for Jamie and Sam, for whom this was just the start.