How I found my first love on Facebook 30 years later
Just one click and Frances Burscough was reunited with the teenager she fell for all that time ago.
The meteoric rise of networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook has been blamed for a lot of things in recent years from the breakdown of society and war-mongering to the deterioration of our language.
In fact, it's often depicted as a place where evil lurks in every corner.
But for every negative story that you read in the news, I'm guessing there are thousands of positive, happy, life-affirming occurrences that never get heard.
This has certainly been my experience during the few years since I first logged on and plugged myself in to the World Wide Web in all its technological glory.
And I have a story of my own which I will happily tell to anyone who complains about the detrimental effect of the instant-access age ...
Thirty-one years ago, when I was 16 years old and had just finished my ‘O' Level exams, I was lucky enough to go on an educational cruise with my school, on board the teaching ship the SS Uganda.
This was like a floating field trip, complete with dormitories and teachers, where teenagers of all different backgrounds from around the UK came together to find out a bit more about the world outside their own and to mix and learn from each other's cultures.
Mine couldn't have been more sheltered, as a Catholic girl from an all-girls convent school, run by strict and antiquated nuns.
I'd rarely even spoken to any boys before, let alone anyone outside my own ethnicity, but soon things were about to change.
On the first evening of the trip, as we were setting sail from Southampton, there was a disco arranged to welcome us all on board and to enable us to meet our new holiday companions. So my classmates and I all excitedly crowded around the tiny mirror in the dorm, perfecting our roll-on lip-gloss pouts and sharing a pair of curling tongs to get our Farrah-Fawcett style ‘flicks’ in order.
I decided to put on my most trendy outfit for the event (first impressions and all that) which was a garish pink and purple Hawaiian shirt with pink culottes and jelly shoes (embarrassing now, but it was fashionable at the time) and finished with a quick spray of Charlie Girl perfume.
Everyone said I looked great, so I didn't let on that inside I was a bag of nerves, thanks to a funny feeling in my tummy that something incredibly exciting was about to happen.
As we walked into the huge common room, with its disco lights flashing in time to Donna Summer's I Feel Love, I immediately noticed this one boy standing at the opposite side of the dance floor, looking in my direction.
Before long, we had plucked up the courage to edge towards each other and begin a conversation and from that moment we were both utterly and instantly besotted. Quite literally, it was love at first sight. His name was Hab and he was an Asian Muslim boy who'd been born and brought up in London and spoke with a comical, characterful Cockney accent despite having parents and family who communicated mainly in Urdu.
I'd never spoken to or even met anyone who wasn't a Catholic and certainly would never have imagined I would fall for someone of such a different ethnic background to my own, but as soon as our eyes met all our differences disappeared and we just wanted to be together.
From that night until the last, we spent as much time together as we possibly could.
Every morning before breakfast we'd meet on the top deck, holding each other tightly as we watched the next distant island grow closer and closer on the horizon until we sailed gracefully into its harbour. Gibraltar, Madeira, Tenerife, Lanzarote and finally La Coruna in Spain ... we shared them all together and with every new port of call we became more connected and attached.
Even then I realised that my first ever romance was going to be the most romantic experience of my life. How could anything ever compare with this?
But, of course, it had to end and two weeks later, after so many exotic places, and lots of romantic stolen kisses, (behind the back of Mother Superior and the ship's strict pursers) we arrived back on terra firma and sadly, tearfully, went our separate ways.
Neither of our sets of parents were happy or approved of our relationship. But we wouldn't be told, and for a year we kept in touch, through thick and thin, each saving up all our pocket money to ring each other.
I’d use the corner pay phone once a week (where, in a nod to the initials of my name Frances Anne Burscough, I'd carved “HAB4FAB” on the door ) and we’d plan our imaginary future together.
In between calls I would write him naive but heart-wrenchingly sincere love letters and he would send me cassette tapes of love songs and together, though apart, we built a bond that I've never had before or never known since.
We even managed to meet up again twice, secretly, without our parent's knowledge.
I took full advantage of a school trip to the National Gallery in London — which was supposed to be a full day's research to prepare a history of an A-Level art project — but I sneaked away after half an hour and met Hab on the steps outside. (Stopping on the way at the Gallery shop to get lots of information on all the paintings I hadn't seen!). I probably would have been expelled if I'd not made it back to Euston Station in time that evening and my cover was blown, but I did, crying all the way from the utter emotion of it all.
“Why, what's the matter, Frances?” my teacher asked.
“It's all that exquisite art ... it has moved me to tears!” I lied.
Another time, while his dad was away on business, Hab borrowed the family car and drove the 300 miles up the motorway to meet me for two stolen hours in Preston's Avenham Park, before having to dash back home to London before his dad reappeared.
But then one day, out of the blue, Hab phoned me and said he was being sent to live in Karachi in Pakistan. His parents were worried about how Western he'd become (with a white English Catholic girlfriend, no less) and wanted him to learn about their native country, so he was going to work for his dad's firm and had no idea when, if ever, he'd be back. We were both heartbroken.
Sadly and yet inevitably, after some months, due partly to very poor international phone connections and a terrible postal system, partly due to a lot of negative pressure from home, we drifted further and further apart until our relationship finally ended.
Months became years, years became decades, life moved on; but I never forgot my first love. And he never forgot me either.
How do I know? Because we finally traced each other again this year, for the first time in 30 years.
After so many thoughts, wishes, prayers, tears, letters, secret trysts, miles of train journeys, piles of 50p pieces, and crackly long-distant phone calls, all it took was one click on the Facebook search engine and there he was, pictured on a fabulous sunset balcony in Dubai, dressed in a suave business suit, slightly greying around the temples, like a handsome Arab Sheikh.
And yet he was still just as I knew him; instantly recognisable; that boy I'd loved and lost three decades years ago and had never, ever forgotten.
“Can it be true? Is it really you?” we both typed together, from opposite ends of the globe but connected again in an instant.
And so, just like that, we began to share all those countless experiences
and changes that had come about in the past three decades.
After we had lost touch he eventually agreed, much to his parents’ delight, to a traditional marriage arranged according to Pakistani custom with the daughter of one of his dad's friends from the homeland.
Despite the fact that this life-changing decision had been virtually made for him, they went on to have a good, loyal and amicable relationship and two children were born as a result, one boy and one girl.
He now lives in Dubai, his kids are grown up, and he's a hugely successful international consultant working for a global firm with which he's travelled the length and breadth of the globe.
He'd even once worked on a short contract in Belfast, a few years ago. If only I'd have known.
“Please, I've got to see you!” he wrote. “Can I come over and visit you in Belfast? I'll be on the next plane if you say yes!”
“No! don't be so ‘Jaldi-jaldi” I replied, jokingly, using one of the many Urdu phrases (meaning impatient) that he'd taught me so many years ago. I
In all honesty I needed time to take this all in. It was just so incredible.
So after a few weeks of nostalgia, memories, shared secrets, laughter and tears about how our individual lives had worked out, we finally met up again last weekend in London.
He flew in from Dubai, I took the train down from my family home in Preston, and we met on the steps of the National Gallery where we'd last seen each other 30 years ago, almost to the day.
He swung me round in his arms and we hugged like we'd never been apart, exactly like we had done every morning on the bow of the ship on that long hot summer of 1980.
They had been some of the happiest days I could ever recall and now, incredibly, I felt exactly the same feeling. Secure, content, loved, complete again.
So many relationships I'd tried, tested, failed and yet never once in all those years had I felt the feeling I had now surging through my heart with my first ever love.
This was fate showing us what might have been.
Eventually, tearfully, after hours of reminiscing, we had to face the truth.
As much as we yearn for it, we can't be together, or resume where we last left off. Too many hearts would be broken as a result and neither of us want that. That would shatter our bond and probably tear us apart in the process.
And yet so many questions remain.
What if ...? If only ...? What might have happened had things been different ...?
Could our relationship have withstood all those problems and prejudices at the start ...? Would we still have been together, still blissfully in love after all these years if we had weathered the storm and defied our families wishes ...?
That is something neither of us will ever know.
But there is one thing I do know for certain. My first ever love will also be my last .
Red-carpet celebs can have yo-yo romances but real life isn’t the same
Helen Carson on finding love, losing love and true romance ...
Call me Mrs Sceptical but I’ll just mention one starry couple and you’ll get my opinion on reuniting with an old love... Jude Law and Sienna Miller.
Don’t get me wrong I do have a romantic bone in my body. I fantasise about candlelit meals a deux and bunches of expensive red roses arriving unexpectedly at the office for me, complete with some little message of ‘lurve’ from a secret admirer as much as the next woman. But when it comes to rekindling an old flame, my opinion is that light went out ages ago... for a reason.
Sure celebrities do it all the time — Pink and Carey Hunt married in 2006, split up in 2008 and did that on-off thing for a while afterwards. Leonardo DiCaprio and Bar Refaeli danced round each other for five years for goodness’ sake, as did Owen Wilson and Kate Hudson (far right).
But a red-carpet lifestyle is more suited to a yo-yo love life than working in a call centre or manning a till at Tesco.
Catching up with the one that got away decades after they slipped through your grip is a lovely idea; rediscovering that person who you thought as a teen was your soulmate and realising they actually are is the stuff of fairytales... but for me the reality is that such tales belong in chick-lit books which women devour and drool over in their millions. And the reason we love these books so much? Precisely because they are works of fiction rather than some autobiographical yarn where the dewey-eyed heroine finally gets her man.
Seriously, there really are plenty more fish in the sea.