Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

Eight lives, four real-life love stories, but how did they know when they met... the one?

Young love — Brian and Melanie on their wedding day
Paul Johnston and Lesley Young
Sheila and Tony Vance pic for valentines feature

When they knew this time it was forever ...

‘When I told Brian about my scars he wasn’t fazed’

Administrator Melanie Higgins (23) lives in Enniskillen with her husband Brian, a customer service representative, and their children William (2) and Leo (2 months). She says:

On April 9, 1988, my mum left my sister Amanda and me in the car while she nipped into a shop to get a pint of milk. No one knows why, but for some reason, the car burst into flames.

A man called Oliver Quinn was passing and managed to pull me out of the car, but he couldn't save Amanda. I have no memory of the fire as I was only two years old at the time.

I suffered burns on my hands, arms and all of my face. I lost my hair and my hands had to be reconstructed leaving me with very small fingers.

I have always looked different to other people. I went to an all girls school and it was all about how you looked and who you fancied back then.

In my teens I thought I probably would find someone to be with, but I reckoned that it wouldn't be until I was about 30.

It was my friend who told Brian to text me. Those were the days when things like texting and MSN Messenger had just come out so everyone was messaging everyone else. After Brian texted me for a while we moved on to MSN, then we talked on the phone.

Everyone knows everyone in Enniskillen so Brian had heard of me and my scars even though we had never met.

I remember when I told him about them he said he knew already. He wasn't fazed by them in the slightest.

It was five months before we actually got around to meeting. We met after school and went for a dander round the town.

And on that walk we managed to meet just about everyone we both knew and they all asked us if we were going out. It got to the point where it was easier to tell everyone ‘Yes’, and then we decided that we should go out after all.

We got engaged when I was 18. At that time people are making a lot of decisions about life, getting jobs and going away to university. I had thought about going away to university but I wasn't ready to leave then.

We weren't worried about being too young — we had grown up together and we knew we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. We could have waited but it would have been waiting for other people to be ok with it, not for us.

So one day we went to a lovely scenic part of rural Fermanagh where there was no one else around and Brian got down on one knee and asked me to marry him. Now we're married with two boys and I couldn't be happier.

Brian has constantly challenged how I feel about myself. If I ever say something negative about how I look then he immediately turns it around to something positive.

He's given me a lot of confidence that I never thought I would have.”

‘Our romance really did get off to a flying start’

Lance Corporal Paul Johnston (24) serves with the Royal Irish Regiment. He lives in Co Down with girlfriend Lesley Young (27). He says:

Lesley comes from the same town, Portavogie, where I spent quite a few of my family holidays. We both knew of each other, especially because her best friend went out with my best friend, but we had never actually met because I was often away with the Army.

Every year our battalion is given a gift of shamrock on St Patrick's Day which is flown out to wherever we happen to be posted at the time.

Last year, I brought the shamrock down to Belfast City Airport and had my photo taken with the cabin crew who would be flying it out to Shropshire, where we were based at the time.

Lesley was one of the cabin crew on the shoot. Although I knew who she was, she had never seen me before.

Still, I thought she might know me because there were a lot of smiles from the Flybe girls — but I later found out they were checking out my rear end!

Because everyone was busy getting photos taken I didn't have a chance to chat to Lesley at all at the airport. In fact, I was actually walking out of the building with the girl who was in charge of the shoot when her phone rang — and it turned out to be Lesley asking my name.

As soon as she found out I was there, she laughed and rang off.

I had never seen Lesley when I’d been on nights out in Belfast before but that night we ended up in the same bar. And as soon as she saw me she ran over to me — she was so fast she was actually out of breath by the time she got to me.

For the next week I was up visiting family near where she lives.

Every night on the way home I would call in to see Lesley. We're not even sure who asked who out first — it was probably me — but a week later we went out on our first proper date and we've been together ever since. We moved in together in September.

At the moment I'm posted in Northern Ireland, so seeing each other isn't a problem. Hopefully, if I get posted back to England it will be just as easy because Lesley still works as cabin crew so she goes to England a lot and I'll be able to take advantage of the cheap flights home.”

‘It was her beautiful painting I fell for first’

Kenny Boyd (42) works as an environment consultant and gallery manager and lives in Belfast with his partner, the highly acclaimed artist, Nicola Russell (45). He says:

About five years ago my brother and I were walking down the street in Holywood in Co Down when a painting in an art gallery caught my eye. It was a re-imagining of Belfast as a cultural centre with the City Hall turned into an art gallery. The painting blew me away so I went into the gallery to see if the artist, Nicola, was available to chat.

Nicola's mum was looking after the gallery at the time and wouldn't let me see her as she was busy painting. I persisted, though, until she came to talk to us and I was struck by how lovely she was. I was asking so many questions about the painting that Nicola thought I was a prospective buyer.

After we left the gallery my brother and I went for a coffee. I kept talking about Nicola so he suggested I should ask her out and I dropped her an email.

At the time I was living in London and, as it happened, Nicola happened to be over there not long after we first met. Our first date was at the Oxo Tower, but for a while Nicola thought it a business meeting instead of a date.

We continued seeing each other and then in 2007 Nicola was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was still living in England at the time and when she phoned me to tell me, I broke down.

My first thought is that I should have been with her when the doctor gave her the news.

I moved back to Belfast to be with Nicola while she underwent treatment.

She had a mastectomy, breast reconstruction, and chemo and radiotherapy.

When Nicola was diagnosed I had been training for a swim from Rathlin Island to Ballycastle to raise money for people affected by climate change in Bangladesh.

But when we got Nicola's diagnosis I thought I should give up the project and concentrate on her. But she wouldn't let me.

Even after she was diagnosed and undergoing treatment she would come out on the boat beside me while I was training to cheer me on. One lovely memory is how one day when we were up at Skerries seals came to swim around me and the boat while I swam.

I try to do romantic little things for Nicola.

For example, she created a glorious picture of a pink peony and before it was sold I had a print made. While she was in theatre having a mastectomy I hung it opposite her bed in her hospital so she could see something nice when she opened her eyes.

I think it's those personal touches that really make a relationship and show you love someone.”

‘Tony does everything for me now‘

Sheila (49) and Tony Vance (50), an aircraft fitter, live in Newtownabbey. They have two daughters, Jennifer (25) and Claire (23). Sheila says:

Tony and I met when we were at Rathcoole Secondary School and started going out on February 26, 1976 when we were both in 5th year. We got married in 1982 and on April 10 we'll celebrate our 28th wedding anniversary.

In 1998 I started having back pain and trouble walking. I went to the doctor and they started treating me for inflamed nerve endings at the base of my spine, but there wasn't much improvement.

The next time I went to the doctor I brought Tony with me and he told the doctor how at times I couldn't control my legs and how my balance was affected.

The doctor then sent me for a lumbar puncture. I was diagnosed with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis in March 1998. Up until I became ill I’d always worked part-time. For a while I was a dinner lady, which I loved. But as my illness progressed I had to give all up. Because my condition is progressive each episode I have leaves me worse off than before. I can't walk without a frame and I have a scooter for when I go out. I spend most of the day at home because it's hard for me to get about. I sleep a lot, too, because of my medication.

Tony does everything for me now. He gets me up in the morning and helps me dress and when he comes home he makes the dinner and does the cleaning.

Tony and I are still very much in love and I think I'm lucky. I know other women who have MS and their husbands have left them because it's such a hard disease to live with.

Tony is very good to me, but we do miss the little things. We used to love going out dancing. I would get dressed up in heels and the latest fashions and we would hit the tiles.

A couple of years ago my daughter, Claire, suggested we go to a New Year's bash at her hockey club. It was terrible. As Tony put it, it was like dangling a carrot on a stick in front of a donkey. Normally I would have been right in the middle of the dance floor but I couldn't join in any more. Tony got really upset by it, too.

It's the little things that are hard for us, though. We can't hold hands when we go for a walk now because I need to have a walking aid. We can't curl up and watch TV together any more, either, as I have to sit in a recliner.

Tony shows he loves me every day though. He doesn't need to make me a special meal for Valentine’s day or any thing like that because he makes them for me everyday. I know it's hard for him but after all this time we're still madly in love.”

Reports by Kerry McKittrick

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