My reflection told me all was well. My make-up was near perfect. My skin glowed, my eyes were dark, my lips glossily defined.
A step back from the full-length mirror showed a crisp and pretty two-piece outfit, set off by a waist-cinching belt and heels that were just the right height for elegance and comfort.
The whole ensemble was set off by fingerless white lace gloves (it was 1987 and I’d just seen the film Desperately Seeking Susan) and a straw boater, perched jauntily on my hair.
I felt beautiful. As beautiful as any woman should feel and look on her wedding day.
The register office was booked for 10am — an hour hence — and the food and drink for the after-party was laid out downstairs. I took one last long look at myself. All that was missing, I thought, was love.
The kind of love that, for most couples, is an essential part of beginning a marriage. I didn’t love the man I was about to marry. I was fond of him, yes, but that was it — and I knew he felt the same way.
‘My engagement to Bob, the father of my son, and my on/off boyfriend for seven years, had been short. Barely three weeks. Just enough time for the banns to be posted.’ Deborah Dooley and Bob on their wedding day in 1987
My friend appeared in the doorway, holding a bouquet of wild flowers. They were so pretty I wanted to cry. She laid a hand on my arm.
‘You don’t have to do this,’ she said gently.
I swallowed hard and blinked, telling myself not to ruin my make-up. I took a deep breath and lifted my chin, looking my friend in the eye. ‘Yes I do,’ I said. ‘It’s the right thing to do.’
She nodded and as if to confirm what I had just said, the sound of childish laughter drifted up the stairs. My five-year-old son was clearly enjoying breakfast with his dad.
Hurrying downstairs, I was just in time to wipe a smear of jam from my son’s face and straighten my soon-to-be-husband’s tie. The smell of beer on his breath told me that he had already sampled the barrel on the side.
Clearly I wasn’t the only one struggling with nerves. I smiled and he smiled back, a little sheepishly. I leaned in and kissed him on the cheek.
‘In many ways, Bob was a good dad. He clearly loved his son and didn’t shirk responsibility, financially or otherwise. But he was unreliable and I felt the weight of single motherhood keenly.’ Above, the couple on holiday in Lamorna, Cornwall, in 2005
‘We can make this work,’ I whispered. And almost immediately a tiny voice inside my head replied: ‘Can we?’
Half an hour later, we were standing in the register office, watched by smiling friends and family — and was it my imagination or did the registrar give me a stern look as he recited the importance of the vows we were making?
My engagement to Bob, the father of my son, and my on/off boyfriend for seven years, had been short. Barely three weeks. Just enough time for the banns to be posted. Once the decision had been made, both of us wanted to get on with it. To get it over with.
The wedding was hardly the grand affair of my dreams either: a quick register office ceremony, then 30 friends back to our house for a buffet and champagne.
It hardly sounds romantic, does it? And the proposal was even less so.
‘More than once I considered packing it in. But there was always a glance, a glimmer of something that made me take a deep breath and keep trying. And not just for the sake of the children.’ Pictured, the pair in their kitchen
‘Don’t you think we might as well get married?’ I’d declared. I’d had a long day — worrying about how I was going to maintain three jobs while managing school pick-ups and drop-offs. Bob and I weren’t living together, and he’d popped over to see our boy, like he often did.
He glanced up from the paper he was reading. He thought for a minute.
‘I suppose it’d be a good idea,’ he said. He thought for another minute. ‘And if you moved in with me, we’d both save money,’ he said.
And that was it — we were engaged.
Everything was done with near grim determination and more than once I wept over the lack of joy in the run up to what should have been one of the happiest days of my life. Every now and again Bob and I would glance at each other and our child buffeted by a lack of stability, and reassure each other that we were doing the right thing.
At the post-wedding party, held at the house we now officially shared, I smiled determinedly and brightly. Bob tackled his own doubts by getting drunk.
If only, as I helped my new husband to bed that night and listened to him snoring, I had known this was the start of a wonderful life together. Thirty years of a love that developed into a passionate, life-affirming warmth. The kind that makes you glad to come home to the hug that is waiting.
Unsurprisingly, this has changed my perception of relationships. To anyone who might be having doubts, I’d say: ‘Don’t give up too easily. Talk, listen, be patient. Be receptive to the fact love can grow.’
In spite of — or perhaps because of — my rather unorthodox upbringing, I craved romance from an early age. Adopted by my maternal grandparents after my mother’s death when I was a baby, I envied the more conventional households of my friends.
I’d known Bob — and, if I’m honest, rather worshipped his cool good looks from afar — for several years, when we began our on-off relationship. He was eight years older than me, the brother of a school friend and the first time I set eyes on him, at 16, my knees actually went weak.
A few months into seeing each other, when I was 21, I discovered I was pregnant. I don’t know which of us was more horrified. Having established that neither of us wanted to marry — and that I couldn’t contemplate termination, we settled into an uneasy co-parenting arrangement.
In our rather stormy six-year association, we had never made a clear commitment to each other. We weren’t a couple and were free to date other people — although we did spend the odd night together now and then.
I had a small amount of savings. Both my grandparents had died and the family home was sold, furnishing me with funds enough to buy my own tiny cottage.
Single motherhood in the Eighties still involved a certain amount of stigma. It hardly seems credible now that hospital staff told me that in order to avoid embarrassing the consultant, I must call myself ‘Mrs’.
In many ways, Bob was a good dad. He clearly loved his son and didn’t shirk responsibility, financially or otherwise. But he was unreliable and I felt the weight of single motherhood keenly.
‘In February 2016, three months after his 65th birthday, I was woken one night by a sharp cry. By the time paramedics arrived to take over from my desperate attempts at CPR, it was too late.’ Above, Deborah Dooley today
I enjoyed being a mum. But as I heard other mothers in the park urging their offspring to hurry ‘because Daddy would be home soon,’ I’d wish I could have what they had.
Family members on both sides offered their take on our situation. These included telling me to find someone else, to make Bob marry me, and to run away with our child and live abroad.
Everyone loved Bob — he was endlessly charismatic — but some were vocal in their opinions of what they perceived as his fecklessness. As our son grew into a little boy, I began to accept that the only closeness we would have was because of our shared child.
When I became involved with someone else, Bob seemed happy to look after our son while I went off for a romantic weekend.
In return, I certainly never felt any jealousy over a year-long relationship he had with a girlfriend.
Then one day when I was 28, we found ourselves between relationships and a feeling of ‘What next?’ seemed to come over us. We got on, we had an adorable little boy — getting married seemed the logical and sensible thing to do.
I sold my cottage quickly and four days before the wedding, we moved in with Bob. It was good to know I’d soon have money in the bank and I could cut down on my hours. Bob was a talented carpenter/joiner and earned well. But it felt strange sharing a room — and a bed — full-time with someone I didn’t think I really knew. And he clearly felt the same.
‘I’m not good in the mornings,’ he snarled one day when I asked him why he always left his breakfast dishes on the floor. I bit back a furious comment. That evening, watching Bob play football in the garden with our clearly delighted son, I reminded myself of the benefits of our new arrangement.
As luck would have it, two nights before the wedding and a few months after I’d broken up with the aforementioned chap, I ran into him in a wine bar. He grabbed my arm.
‘Don’t do this,’ he said. I was shaken. ‘What?’
‘I heard you’re marrying Bob,’ he said. And then, ‘You’re making a mistake. Don’t.’
The words ‘are you offering, then?’ trembled on my tongue. And as I wrenched my arm away and marched back to my friends, I wondered tipsily if I was just looking for some stability. Any port in a storm.
The first ten years of our marriage were anything but plain sailing. We had two more children, another boy and a girl. We rowed, we made up, we sulked, we argued about who should do what.
More than once I considered packing it in. But there was always a glance, a glimmer of something that made me take a deep breath and keep trying. And not just for the sake of the children.
In 1996, two weeks after a move from our Surrey semi to rural Devon, the children and I sat in the front room of our new house, by the log fire, eating fish and chips off still-to-be-unpacked boxes. Bob had been finishing up a job in Surrey and was due to arrive that evening.
Things had been tense in our phone calls. He wasn’t keen on the move — he didn’t want to leave old friends. I thought it would be better for the kids. I’d accused him of being selfish.
The front door creaked open.‘He’s here!’ shrieked the children.
For a couple of minutes they leapt all over him and then he shook them off gently. ‘I need to give Mummy a hug,’ he said.
My heart turned over as he knelt down beside the cushion I was sitting on. I didn’t realise how much I’d missed him. Had he always been that handsome?
‘I know it’s been crap for you. But from now on, it’s going to be better,’ he said. As he spoke, his arms went around me. It was, I thought, the best feeling in the world.
If I could put my finger on the point that we actually fell in love, that would be it.
Life in the country was tough at times. The challenges of renovating a draughty old house with not much money were relentless. But through it all, our love grew. My career as a freelance writer blossomed. The house had a workshop and with both of us working from home we could share childcare and spend more time together.
The children would sometimes remark on our inability to stop touching each other. Whenever we parted, we always kissed on the mouth. Like the lovers we had become. Life was good.
Almost 20 years later, we began excitedly discussing plans for retirement. The children had left home and we talked about downsizing, even buying a boat to live on.
Bob made me laugh constantly, he still seemed young — he was slim and good looking. It never occurred to me we didn’t have years and years left together. In February 2016, three months after his 65th birthday, I was woken one night by a sharp cry. By the time paramedics arrived to take over from my desperate attempts at CPR, it was too late.
‘Everybody likes him,’ I told one, as they made a last-ditch attempt to shock the errant heart into a working rhythm.
The hospital doctor’s words, ‘Pupils fixed and dilated,’ put a seal on the inevitable. I stroked Bob’s thick hair back from his forehead, my fingers tracing the familiar lines.
‘He’s so handsome,’ I said. I kissed him on the mouth, wondering vaguely if I could have done more to revive him.
The next few days remain a blur. But I remember scooping up his clothes from where he let them fall that last evening and carefully arranging them next to me in bed. Hugging them, inhaling the woody smell. Thinking of the sweet love we’d made only the night before he died.
And standing by his grave at the natural burial ground. The February wind was bitter enough to make my mascara run as I squinted at the eulogy I’d written. The children clustered around me, supporting me. My voice was wobbly but I made it through.
‘Once we’d got going on the love thing, we went from strength to strength. Like the Eric Clapton song, “Let it grow, plant your love and let it grow”.’ I finished.
Then that song was played and the cardboard coffin was lowered into the ground.
And I tried to feel gratitude that I’d loved and been loved in this wonderful, all-consuming way. But all I could feel was pain at its loss.
Now that time has done the thing people say it will, I can see I was lucky to have had what we had. But I can’t help feeling cheated of those years ahead. That time that might have been the best yet.
I will always miss Bob and on some level I will always grieve for him. The gap left by the absence of the funny clever handsome man who always had my back remains.
He was the love of my life.
Deborah is writing a novel called I’ll Never Dance Again.