We are standing in line at Westminster Abbey, waiting to pay the admission fee. Up ahead, the cashier is housed behind glass in the entry vestibule, which is a small area with a cold, stone floor. It’s chilly and damp outside and much the same inside; when we finally slip past the door and inside, it’s like walking into a refrigerator made of rocks.
It’s £16 for an adult admission for me and my friend Beccy, and another £6 for each of the three children with us. In total, that’s £32 + £18, or £50.
But then I notice an alternative: The family rate for 2 adults and one child is £32, plus £6 for each additional child. Or, in our case, £44, in total. That saves us £6 in admission—roughly $10 US.
At the time of our trip (late winter of 2011) each US dollar is worth about half of every British pound. So a large Coke that should be $2.50 is five bucks, easy. It felt like I paid the equivalent of a day’s salary for lunch one day. In other words, considering the punishing exchange rate we’ve endured at shops and pubs across London this week, the family rate feels like a deal we somehow deserve.
I wrestle with the moral dilemma for a moment, breathing in that pure Christian air at the Abbey: Is it unsavory to pretend to be what we are not in that rarified place? The kind of family with two moms who love each other, spending school vacation with their three teens, seeing the sites in London? More than just friends… but a whole family? A unit?
A woman in line in front of us totes a canvas bag emblazoned in ink with, “WWJD?” Yeah — What would Jesus do?
I think back to the bible story of the loaves and fishes. How Jesus, after he crossed the Sea of Galilee—distraught over the death of John the Baptist at the hand of King Herod—nevertheless seized an opportunity at hand when he took a couple of loaves of bread and a few meager fish and multiplied them to feed thousands.
Jesus might not have been one for lying. But something in that story tells me that he had a keen understanding of opportunity, and the occasional need to stretch a buck.
I glance at Beccy, and suddenly the friend I’ve known for most of my adult life starts to take on a new interest for me. Maybe it was the way the gray London mist settled in her hair, forming in a kind of halo of curls around her face—I never noticed the flip of her hair before. Or maybe it was the she held the door ajar for those snaking behind us and carefully folded her umbrella up so as not to drip on the folks in line near us: Has she always been so thoughtful?
But I decided right there, right then: We needed to give this union a go.
It’s our turn at the counter. “How many?” the cashier asks, her voice muffled by the glass. “Family rate,” I say in response, in the same sure tone as a confident groom answers the minister.
She glanced up at us and paused, her hands poised over the cash register. “Where?” she asked. Impulsively I pulled Beccy close and gestured vaguely to the three teens behind us. They stood there, crammed together in that stone vestibule with a kind of embarrassed incredulity on their faces.
Well that surprised me. You’d think—growing up as they have—that they’d be used to occasional stares and challenges to our way of life.
The clerk gives us a bored look and shrugs. “£44,” she says. And the next thing I know, we’re inside, collecting our audio handsets that would guide us through this ancient Abbey, past the grave of Chaucer, and Dickens, and 17 monarchs who have ruled England for the past thousand years.
I could argue that Beccy—perhaps more than most people in my life—is indeed akin to family. She’s been by me for… what is it now? 24 years? And we’ve coached each other through breakups and babies and all the mud that life slings at you.
She’s hugged me when I’ve been hurting; she’s seen me drink too much and live to regret it; she’s baked me casseroles. We trade books to read and we read them on the beach, side by side in low-slung chairs.
She’s watched my children grow up alongside her own and she knows that my son’s favorite product in the whole world is duct tape and that my daughter won’t eat the beans in the chili.
I think of all this, and a thousand more inconsequential things that all together come together into something that defines a friendship rolling through decades. And I wonder: So if that’s not a partner… well, what is?
* * *
It’s inevitable that the blush of new love fades. And that’s something like what happened at the Abbey that day, too.
Because once inside, Beccy inexplicably became just, well, Beccy: just a friend, albeit a good friend. In fact, the kind of friend I’d do anything for: beg, steal, lie and cheat.
I flipped on the audio for the first stop, up ahead, on the self-guided Abbey tour, and I tried to ignore the fact that perhaps that’s exactly what I had just done.