Tuesday, 20 May 2014

How I met the love of my life!

The short version
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!
The long version
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!
He came round the corner and I still wasn't sure I liked the look of him. Had had deep set eyes and a goatee beard.  He didn't look like the sort of guy that could be trusted - too many hidden depths!  He had similarly unflattering thoughts about me - I was wearing a borrowed puffa jacket (it was January and my clothes were in storage) and was facing into the wind so the jacket was even more puffed out.  He thought I looked like a bouncer! It all started to seem like a very bad idea and I quickly announced that I couldn't be long as I had shopping to do.  However, to avoid a wasted journey, we went to a nearby cafe and carried on a conversation we had started on the phone a few days previously. One cup of coffee led to another and then to lunch, followed by a piano recital at St. James' Church Piccadilly (on the sly Stephen had consulted the 'whats on?' in Time Out but led me to believe this was entirely spontaneous!)  He took me to the Candle Shop in Covent Garden for purple candles and to John Lewis for cream napkins -  I should have realised that logisticians are experts at sourcing things.  Walking back up Oxford Street towards the tube station, I took Stephen's arm and asked him 'What shall we tell Emma about our blind date?' to which he replied 'I'll tell her I like you very much'. 'I like you very much too' was my lame retort!

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
 I said I'd think about it, which he convinced himself was a 'no'.  It wasn't a no, but I was aware we had spent so little time together and wanted to make such a big decision at home in the UK where I could seek the counsel of friends and family.  After this things between us cooled and Stephen returned to Africa, this time to Tanzania, working again with CORD in Rwandan refugee camps. Though employed there as a logistician he was a brilliant A&E nurse with a law degree- a useful person to have around in a crisis. He threw himself into his work and his role in the team and told everyone he was over me! Meanwhile, back in Cambodia, I was distraught.  It wasn't how I wanted things to be and I agonised over my foolishness and lack of trust in my feelings and in Stephen.  I felt so far away and alone.

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!

My sister Esther, with the toile (Calico mock-up) of my wedding dress in her workshop.  At the time she was making theatre costumes for the English National Opera and Ballet companies and several west-end shows so she fitted in making all our wedding outfits between costumes for The Lion King, Starlight Express and Pirates of Penzance!
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

Next month we celebrate our 18th wedding anniversary.  In those years we have lived in Reading, Albania and Kent, survived various surgeries and setbacks, adopted a beautiful baby girl from China, worked in a variety of roles in and out of the NHS, Higher Education and the Private Sector and are still best friends.  It certainly hasn't all been plain sailing but we remain convinced it was worth the risk!  Maybe our story shows that looks aren't everything, some things are better when you have to wait, you don't need to live together before you get married despite popular culture, and that some people are just made for each other.  It's exciting to think what new challenges the future may hold!


  1. Told in true Joy style - engaging! x

  2. Helen Treacy I think I've got something in my eye
    11 hours ago · Unlike · 1

    Sharon Manship What a romantic story! It gives me hope x
    11 hours ago · Unlike · 1

    Joy Kemp there is always hope
    11 hours ago · Like · 1

    Anita Willemse What a great story! It would make a beautiful movie (will she/won't she - say yes). 😊
    10 hours ago · Unlike · 1

    Pearl J Ianson AMAZING!! xxx
    9 hours ago · Unlike · 1

    Helen Tidy You didn't mention the rose - wasn't there an embroidered cross continental rose?
    3 hours ago · Like

    Joy Kemp I don't think so Helen Tidy! However We still have your beautiful embroidered sampler hanging at the top of our stairs. I love it!
    3 hours ago · Like

    Helen Tidy I thought Stephen posted you a rose he'd embroidered?? I remember being well impressed - is my memory failing me again?!
    3 hours ago · Like

    Joy Kemp Steve has reminded me that he posted me an embroidered piano. Maybe there was a rose as well. Going to have to find those Cambodia diaries in the garage! X
    3 hours ago · Edited · Like

    Helen Tidy Please do ... I'm already half convinced my brain is corroding I don't recall the piano though. Sadly I haven't kept any letters so can't check x
    3 hours ago · Like

    Irene Smith romantic love story, some similarities to mine yet more exciting. x
    3 hours ago · Unlike · 1

    Jean Trollope What a romantic adventure. Jeremiah 29:v11 or what!?
    3 hours ago · Unlike · 1

    Sue Riddell Oh Joy! Made me cry so early in the morning! Thank you for sharing such a lovely romantic story. Here's to your next 18 years, at least xx
    3 hours ago · Unlike · 1

  3. Comments on the Hen Night Photo:
    Diana Batchelor Those are some proper 90s jackets...!
    21 hours ago · Unlike · 2

    Jean Trollope What a lovely memory! I remember it well (England was playing and your Mum let me watch the first half at the Oast House.) Then it was off to France and giggles galore! Do you remember the 'singing' waiter and the rose between his teeth? The best memory of all is that I gained a wonderful daughter in law and her lovely family. Thank you so much for the memory. 😊
    19 hours ago · Unlike · 1

    Emi Kay where are you? I can't recognise you.
    19 hours ago · Like

    Julia Brothwell I remember drawing pictures on the table cloth and it was my first (and only) time going through the Channel tunnel!
    19 hours ago · Unlike · 1

    Joy Kemp bottom right Emi Kay with longer hair!
    17 hours ago · Like · 1

    Alison Sutherland I was soooo pregnant!
    16 hours ago · Unlike · 1

    Deborah Betts How could we forget? A veritable caper! It was my first time driving to France, first time through the tunnel and first time to leave Jonathan.!
    15 hours ago · Unlike · 2


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