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The Present by Michael Donaghy

This post was meant to go up on Friday 24 July. It was mostly drafted, but then I ran out of time. Anyway, here it is.


When B asked me to marry him we’d been going out for a little over three months. It was September 1999, the eve of my 21st birthday, and we were alone in the darkness of my childhood garden. Darkness with just the two of us inside it. Deckchairs side-by-side. Portishead playing on the stereo. Inside the party carried drunkenly on.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘But I could never marry anyone.’ 

It was an ambiguous response. But we left the garden and went and found my seventeen-year-old brother to ask his permission. My ambivalence wasn’t towards B, or towards our commitment. It was entirely to do with marriage. I never dreamed of weddings. I never wanted to be married. I didn’t think that it was necessary. I still don’t. That moment of commitment — and all the succeeding moments in which we’ve chosen to be together — are enough for me.

Still, we always said we’d actually do it one day, mainly for pragmatic reasons. So nearly sixteen years, three children and a cat later, we’re getting married this morning.

And this is what I meant all those years ago when I said, yes but no: yes, yes, yes to a life with you. But, who knew I would ever find someone I could say yes to? Yes to those hours drinking coffee from your flask in physics lecture theatres that smelt of old wood & chalk dust. Yes to the hours of revision for our finals in the basement flat in Putney, meeting after the first two hours to eat breakfast together on the saggy sofa. Yes to the Saturdays we used to spend end to end on the sofa, feet touching in the middle, reading The Guardian. Yes to the flat and the mice and the hours of DIY and the time we were taking down the fake beams from the living room ceiling and you hit yourself on the head with a hammer. Yes to the days I spent pregnant with T watching you build shelves in the living room for my books. Yes to you doing that all over again when we moved, this time while I looked after our two children. Yes to the meetings and the plans and the lists. Yes to the time you texted me from the train to say what a beautiful misty morning it was and I texted you back to tell you I was pregnant. Yes to all the sick bugs, and laundry, and nights we’ve spent with an ill child lying between us, listening for each wheezing breath. Yes to tying up the legal loose-ends. Yes to today. Yes to small and simple, and to raising your own bridesmaid and page-boy ring-bearers. Yes to all the future holds.

To love is to risk. We long ago tied our little rafts together.

But, and here’s the ‘but’: only because it’s you.


So, three days before we left for California, we finally got married. T read The Owl & The Pussy-Cat for us with the utter poise and clarity that she brings to any public performance. She was mesmerising. My first choice for our second reading was Margaret Atwood’s Habitation which I love, but in the end we went for the Michael Donaghy poem The Present, which my mother-in-law read beautifully with minutes’ notice.

It rained all day. Heavy, unstoppable. We still paraded from the Register Office through town to River Cottage for lunch, but with umbrellas and rain coats. In the evening we’d invited friends and neighbours to our tiny house for drinks, counting on the garden which I’ve worked on all year to be the main event. Still it poured. We borrowed a gazebo, but it was really beyond even that. And still, still it was fine. Crowded but fine. Exhausting but fine. Married but fine. 


  1. Reading this again. (The first time was on my phone as I was getting out of the shower. It needed closer attention.) And it made me cry. So perfectly lovely. Real life is extraordinary. And how neat too—my regret about my wedding will always be that my children weren’t able to come.

  2. Oh, how perfect. As Kerry says, “perfectly lovely”. Amazing how far two little rafts go when they’re tied together…

  3. Congratulations! I completely understand that “yes but no” feeling and you’ve described it so beautifully!

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