He fancied my friend, she fancied someone else so palmed him off on me. Met by letter from Africa to Cambodia, blind date, love at first date though not at first sight. Long distance relationship for over a year, got married when we hardly knew each other, adopted a baby 3 years later, 18th anniversary approaching. Still best friends.
|At our wedding with Emma, the friend who introduced us!|
In late 1994 I was approaching the half-way point of a two year stint as a volunteer in Cambodia, running the health component of a community development programme in rural Prey Veng province. Far away in Africa there was a huge refugee crisis after the Rwandan war and Emma, another midwife who had been my lodger in Nottingham (and about whom I wrote in my previous blog) volunteered to go to Goma in Zaire (now The Democratic Republic of Congo), on a CORD/Tearfund relief team. Emma had already lived in Africa for a year so was a perfect candidate. Emma and I wrote letters to each other - in neither situation did we have access to TV so writing letters to friends and family was the default evening entertainment. Invariably Emma's letters were full of team gossip - many of her team in Zaire were CORD veterans with whom I had worked on previous assignments in Thailand and Iraq - and I lapped it up, being far away from anything resembling a social life. So when she wrote in great detail about an amazing guy on her team I naturally assumed she saw him as potential boyfriend material! Only at the end of the letter did I realise she was trying to match-make on MY behalf. There was another folded piece of paper in the envelope, typed rather than hand-written. Intrigued, I read the enclosed letter from Emma's team logistician, describing how he had recently built a refugee camp for the first time and cracking several corny jokes (why oh why didn't I heed the warnings then....?!) He more or less acknowledged that Emma was trying to set us up and that he was only writing the letter to get her off his back.
That was my challenge! I wrote back, equally tongue-in-cheek, asking all sorts of personal questions, and we were soon exchanging regular letters. Some time later I went back to the UK for a month's leave. I travelled with Jenny, an Australian volunteer in Cambodia who need some R&R and who I had invited to join me in the UK. Jenny and I travelled to Nottingham to stay at my house and to reconnect with Emma who had by then returned back to her job as a UK midwife. The phone rang one evening.... and it was Stephen, the logistician from Zaire, who wanted to talk to me. I didn't get it. I was sure he just wanted to speak to Emma but no, he kept calling back! After several phone calls lasting many hours we decided to meet up in London on a semi-blind date. Stephen and I had said about as much as there was to say without meeting in person and the phonecalls were getting frustrating.
My parents lived in London so a few days later I travelled south to stay with them and attend my Granny's 90th birthday party. Mum was a bit dubious about me meeting someone I didn't know so tasked me with some shopping as a focus for the day, in case it all went pear-shaped: I was to come home with purple candles and cream napkins for Granny's birthday party table. Stephen and I had seen photos of each other (neither of us much liked the look of each other!) but had never met in person. So on Thursday 19th January 1995 we met at Covent Garden Tube Station, at the corner by a lampost!
|Only a random pic downloaded from Google so don't try to find us!|
We stood by the railings (now removed) at Oxford Circus Station for what seemed like hours, trying to reconcile our feelings for each other with the prospect of a year apart. I was not looking for a relationship and certainly didn't want to enter into a long-distance one. Neither of us wanted something superficial so we talked about the big issues there and then: marriage, children, divorce, faith. Quite something for a first date! We returned to our homes desperate to see each other again yet reluctant to put ourselves through unnecessary heartache.
The following week we hired a small removals van and drove to the North of Scotland with all of my Granny's possessions in the back. And Jenny in the front. Poor Jenny! She had come for a holiday and got landed with the role of gooseberry in a growingly intense relationship. Jenny baled out at Edinburgh, she'd had enough of our steamy glances in the mirror. The journey was snowy and we barely made it. Steve was subjected to the whole Scottish family en masse as we celebrated Granny's birthday all over again. Despite our better judgments we couldn't help ourselves: we were in love!
Returning to Cambodia three weeks later was so hard, as was the following year. Before Skype or E mail were available we had to make do with passionate letters, though they often took weeks to arrive. We made infrequent and very expensive long-distance phonecalls. Steve worked as a practice nurse in London and earned enough to come and visit me after 6 months. We went on holiday to Thailand together and he proposed on Krabi beach.
|Not a bad spot for a romantic proposal|
|At our wedding with our friends from CORD and Tearfund - all people we had worked with overseas|
The turning point came when Emma announced she was getting married and could I come back for her wedding? I got special permission from CORD to take a week's leave and flew back to the UK. Over a long conversation with Mum, the story came pouring out. She couldn't believe I hadn't said yes and I realised that what I had yearned for was my parent's approval, not realising they had already given it! I suddenly felt free to make the decision Stephen had wanted and placed an immediate long-distance call to Tanzania. This time it was my turn to ask the question - and his turn to hesitate. He said he'd think about it! Thankfully by the end of the call he'd done all the thinking he needed to and we found ourselves engaged by telephone. However, there was still another agonising 6 months apart before we could be together in the UK and we we married only 10 weeks after our return, planning a wedding across 3 continents and leaving most of the arrangements to our parents. I bought my own engagement ring in Cambodia (and our wedding rings) as I needed something tangible to represent our relationship and jewelry is much cheaper there than the UK! I ordered wedding invitations from a handicrafts project and bought Cambodian silk for my wedding dress and the bridal party outfits. My sister was a theatre costumier and we designed the dress by post as I sent back cuttings from wedding magazines that everyone was mailing to me!
|Mum hand-finishing our wedding invitations - two elephants tying the knot!|
|Cutting the cake - more elephants!|
|The craziest Hen party - Boulonge for the night for £1 each! There was a mad singing waiter with a rose between his teeth and my Mum ate mussels for the first time. We got home at 3am!|
Back in the UK I had two hen parties: nineteen of us went to Boulogne for dinner then I took Emma and the bridesmaids for afternoon tea at Brown's hotel in Piccadilly. Stephen held a murder mystery party for the Stag-do with half of the guests in drag. Finally the day dawned. Over three hundred guests at Christ Church Sevenoaks, tea and cake in the church hall then nearly two hundred guests to a marquee in my parent's Oast House garden. People travelled from all over the world - my bridesmaids from Afghanistan and India, Stephen's best friend from Norway. Many guests made a weekend of it so we came back on Sunday for round two! My father made a classic faux-pas in the wedding speech, congratulating Steve for having so much experience under his belt! Two days later we left for a two week honeymoon in a borrowed cottage near Inverness and that part of the world has always held a special place in our hearts.
|Glen Garry - honeymoon paradise|