In 1982, I started working instead of going straight to college (“university” in Australia). In 1985, I quit my job and used my savings to start my college degree. By half-way through 1986, I had run out of money and was back in a new job. At the same time, I was completing my second year of college part-time, making for a busy me. *sigh*
In 1986, via an international journal, I had already accumulated 3 or 4 penpals. I decided I wanted more. (Even then, apparently I didn’t understand the concept of “quiet enjoyment of life” very well.) This time, instead of responding to ads placed by other people, I placed my own short ad in the journal.
Unbeknownst to me, there was a change in Editor at the same time I submitted my ad. Something went wrong and my ad didn’t appear for a few months, and it ONLY appeared in the UK version of the journal, nowhere else in the world (the journal was printed in most major countries).
From my viewpoint, I didn’t know this until later when I received an apology from the journal. All I knew was that I received no mail at all for some months. Then, over the course of a few weeks, I received about 25 letters from English girls, aged between 17 and 25 (I was 22 at the time). Yikes! This wasn’t a dating service, it was a serious journal, and I hadn’t included a photo because this was the days of typewriter text not the Internet Age. Apparently the implied promise of a manly Australian appealed to the girls who saw the ad. I imagine that the movie, Crocodile Dundee, didn’t do me any harm either, even if it more closely resembled the lifestyle of my brother than me.
Bemused would be a good word to describe my reaction. I had a girlfriend at the time. I had no intention of looking for a date, especially with someone 12,000 miles away in an age where an overseas flight would cost me 6 months salary. Scared shitless was another reaction after reading some of the letters. How a 2-line ad can inspire ardent letters from some of my new ‘fans’ worried me more than a little. No-one had even had a chance to read a full sentence from me at that point.
Over time, I sorted through the letters and threw aways the ones I was too scared to respond to. For everyone else, I wrote and posted responses over the course of a few weeks. For no particular reason, my first reply went to someone called Danielle.
About half of the girls I wrote to wrote back to me again. This trimming of the exchanges continued for a few more cycles until I was left with 4 new penpals that I continued to exchange letters with over the next few years.
My girlfriend at the time was from Wales. She grew up in a small town called Llanelli, which I’m willing to bet almost no-one reading this post can pronounce correctly. Had my father not spent many years in the north of Wales and taught me about the “ll” in Welsh, I wouldn’t have been able to astound my girlfriend, Lyssa, with my correct pronunciation.
My girlfriend was 8 years older than me and I found her Welsh lilt enchanting, but the age difference was sometimes a struggle. Her male friends saw me as an oddity, not someone they too could befriend. She had independence for a lot longer than me and had the maturity that came with that. Still, we persisted.
Over time, I found myself enjoying my exchanges with my first new penpal, Danielle. We never talked about sex or meeting each other or a relationship. But there was a certain something, a je ne sais quoi that piqued my interest. Her intelligence was manifest. Her sense of humor was all over every page. Her warmth and the liveliness in her words belied the dreariness of her day-to-day life. She was an English rose that was trying hard to bud in a hardy and barren environment. Her spirit wanted an escape that her circumstances prevented.
By the time 1986 had become 1987 and that had become 1988, I was hooked. I had saved up more money, had quit my job again, and was back doing my final year of college. I had more time on my hands because my degree was an extension of the job I had already been doing for the past two years and the study was easy. I realized that I would have to meet this mysterious young lady in England. She had a job and ties. I was going to finish my degree in November 1988, had no specific plans for what to do after that, and wanted to get back to England anyway. As my ancestral home, it held more for me than Australia. Clearly in my mind before I had discussed it with her, I would be the one to take the long flight to meet.
The girlfriend. Ohh. Obviously, I couldn’t in good conscience pursue two women at once. She had to go. I might have handled it more sensitively but, in my defense, I wasn’t experienced with this part of relationships. Read my sorry tale here (and don’t tease me about the graph — I already get teased enough about it!)
Oops. What an interesting development. I was now single. I had a flight to England planned. My housemates were OK with me leaving my possessions behind. Everything was in place. Then they changed the date of my last exam. I had to pick: (a) Go to England to meet Danielle, who was quite possibly The One or (b) Miss my final exam.
It was easy: Go to England.
I explained my dilemma to the college staff and they were so amazed I’d be prepared to do this, they gave me a way out that they rarely offer: They allowed me to take the exam before everyone else. Their only request was that I promised not to say a thing about the questions to anyone else. Marvelous! Of course I accepted their terms!
In late November 1988, I left the heat of an early Australian summer for a frosty and cold England. I stepped out of Heathrow at 6:30am after flights totalling about 4,924 hours, during which I may have managed about 4 hours sleep. It didn’t matter to me. I was flying.
After a phone call to my Danielle to tell her I was a day earlier than she expected, she became enthusiastically impatient and decided to meet me at Birmingham New Street station and then return to her home from there. For those not from England, platform 4 is not exactly an auspicious place to meet anyone!
It didn’t matter. As soon as I saw here, I knew. My penpal became my gal. We were engaged a week later (to her parents’ horror). We married six months later. Four years after that, Amélie arrived and my life was changed forever; there was no going back.
It wasn’t all rosy happiness. And you all know that it’s over. But I don’t regret taking the chance and risking everything. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. A broken heart can heal. A missed opportunity is forever.