Belfast Telegraph

It must be love - what really makes a relationship work?


Ray and Heidi McAlpin with their children Freddie and Scarlett
Ray and Heidi McAlpin with their children Freddie and Scarlett
Ray and Heidi McAlpin with kids Freddie and Scarlett
Author Tony Macaulay with his wife Lesley
Author Tony Macaulay with his wife Lesley

On Valentine's Day, we ask two happily married writers how they found 'The One' and what's the secret of long-lasting happiness.

Heidi McAlpin: ‘The both of us treat it as just another ordinary day in paradise’

I didn't meet my husband Ray until I was in my 30s, by which time I suppose you could say I knew what I was after. We met at the Fatboy Slim concert at Botanic Gardens in 2002. He wasn't meant to be there but his mates forced him to go. I saw a tall, good-looking guy with a red Hoxton fin slither through the crowd, like Jaws dipped in ketchup. We got chatting and I brought out my go-to conversation piece when I'm on the pull - football. Nothing says 'she's a keeper' like knowing the off-side rule.

I pretty much knew he was 'the one' from the off. He wasn't a game-player and we just seemed to click. On our first proper date, at Spuds on Bradbury Place, I told him I wanted to do a lot more travelling and if he wasn't up for that then we had a problem. Luckily for me, he was and a couple of years later we both took off for eight months of travelling around Europe and on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Nothing brings a couple together like seven days crammed into a dingy train cabin traversing the Russian wilderness with no one else for company but a large Russian stewardess overseeing the samovar and a Swiss student on a gap year. Which is probably why we had such a memorable time and, amazingly, rarely argued. Though, in fairness, this was probably due to the fact that we were living a work and child-free existence of pure self-indulgent bliss. For the uninitiated, arguments properly kick in when the children arrive.

Aside from the travel bug, the other thing I really liked about Ray quite early on was his attitude towards money. The dreaded lucre has long been an unwelcome third party in relationships. If you and your partner don't agree on when to spend and when to save, a trip to the ATM can bring giddy romance to a shuddering halt.

It might sound boring to many, but we definitely share this characteristic and that brings me a heartwarming sense of security for us and our children -Scarlett (11) and Freddie (seven).

One of the times when our, how shall I put it, thriftiness, works in perfect harmony is Valentine's Day. We don't buy each other cards or gifts. And we don't go out for a meal … the thought of devouring our plats du jour while all around are googly-eyed makes my stomach lurch, not heart leap. We treat Valentine's as just another ordinary day in paradise.

Another reason to give Cupid a miss is the fact that Ray's birthday is on February 13, which adds to the welcome dilution of what I like to call Valloween. Yes, I'll get the kids to draw a card for their dad and I might even fork out on a pressie (again from the kids). But we'll not be spending the evening together, never mind out, and we're both fine with that.

After a decade of marriage, two kids and a new pup, the stress of celebrating a 'special' day is something I am happy to avoid. So I say ditch the birthdays (after 16, except with ages ending in zero) and burst the helium heart-shaped balloons. Love is something that should be with you every day. Yes, even those days when you're arguing over the kids.

That said, Happy Valentine's Day, Ray. And in the words of Fatboy Slim, we've come a long way, baby. That'll save me a soppy card.

Tony Macaulay: ‘It’s about patience and commitment as much as passion and romance’

ifirst learned about love by watching too much TV. As a child in the late Sixties I discovered the ideal romantic relationship on The High Chaparral. Big John Cannon was married to Victoria and through all the trials and tribulations on their cattle ranch in Arizona it was obvious that this husband and wife adored each other. He was tough and dependable and she was strong and beautiful. Perhaps it was the convincing acting, or maybe I was easily convinced, or possibly it was the fact that each episode of The High Chaparral was repeated three times a year for the next 20 years, but to me Big John and Victoria represented the perfect couple in love.

But then I switched television channels and I noticed a different kind of love on Mr & Mrs. When I watched this gameshow, real life middle-aged couples, like Mr & Mrs Stubbs from Accrington, were able to answer questions about their spouse, such as their favourite food or holiday destination or their worst habit or most embarrassing incident. These couples knew each other inside out. Mr & Mrs Stubbs seemed less romantic than Big John and Victoria, but they seemed to love each other in a more ordinary way.

As I grew up I started to pay more attention to the real relationships around me. My grandparents behaved like the fiery couple in Til Death Us Do Part, although my granny was closer to Alf Garnett than my granda. My parents often reminded me of Mr & Mrs Stubbs from Accrington, with their deep and seemingly unremarkable connection. But occasionally, when my father and mother danced at a wedding reception or kissed at a dinner dance or if they went for a walk on the beach on holiday, I caught a sweet glimpse of Big John and Victoria romance in my own parents.

My most memorable Valentine's Day was in my sixth form year at Belfast Royal Academy. After a recent triumph on the school stage as Riff in West Side Story I received no less than 14, yes 14, Valentine's Day cards from admiring first formers. My school bag was stuffed with pink envelopes and exuded an overpowering aroma of Charlie perfume.

I'm not sure if my feelings that day had much to do about love, but I certainly fancied myself a lot. Or perhaps I was just afraid of not being loved and it took 14 Valentine's Day Cards to mask my insecurity.

The following year, when I was 18 years old I met Lesley (my wife to be) in Lecture Theatre 17 at the New University of Ulster in Coleraine. By this stage I knew it all and I was too rational to believe in love at first sight. But that first time I met Lesley I found in my heart a desire to be with her forever. It wasn't rationale or logical. It was a feeling that remains a part of me to this day.

In our years together I have learned that love is as much about commitment, patience and forgiveness as it is about passion, sweetness and romance. I'm more hopeless at being romantic than good at being a hopeless romantic. I'm sure Lesley would prefer me to be a bit more Big John Cannon and a little less Mr Stubbs from Accrington!

My most romantic act was in Paris on our 30th wedding anniversary. I gave Lesley a surprise gift of a beautifully written and bound story of our life together.

I hope this little book will be passed down the generations long after we are gone.

Even if the book is lost, I know our love will last forever.

When I was young I believed that love was a gift. As I grew up I believed that love was important. But now that I'm older I believe that in the end, love is all that really matters. As Big John might say:

Roses are red,

Violets are blue.

I'll be your Big John,

If you're my Victoria too.

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