Love flowered a second time for Maureen and Jim, but instead of a honeymoon after they married, they spent the money on making their street blooming lovely
An idea to transform a terrace has brought a splash of colour to Phil Coulter's old street and brightened Maureen and Jim's newly-wed lives. By Lisa Smyth
When he lost his beloved wife of four decades, Jim Nelis never thought he would find love again. Slipping into depression, his family became concerned about him and convinced him to try and enjoy a night out.
He could never have imagined, however, that when he agreed finally to get out of the house to placate his relatives that he would meet Maureen.
The couple bonded over their mutual interests in music and horticulture and love quickly blossomed, with 84-year-old Jim and 66-year-old Maureen tying the knot in Londonderry at the beginning of the year.
However, an idea to brighten up their street with flowers instead of spending the money on a honeymoon has blossomed into something neither of them could have foreseen.
"I never dreamed that I would meet anyone like Maureen," said Jim, who has two grown-up daughters and a son.
"I was married to Kathleen for 40 years and I nursed her for 25 of them.
"It started off when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and then she had all different types of problems, like osteoporosis, things which meant I had to look after her.
"I had to lift her up the stairs, I had to get her wheelchair up the stairs as well, I had to get her in and out of bed; it was a full-time job."
During his role as a carer, Jim found himself more and more isolated from the outside world.
He was eventually forced to leave his job as a maintenance worker with the now-defunct Western Education and Library Board as Kathleen's health declined, and trips out of the house were few and far between.
"There was no way I could keep working, I had to give it up altogether," said Jim.
"Kathleen was completely housebound and couldn't do anything herself.
"If we went out of the house it was for Kathleen to go to the doctor or for me to go to the doctor.
"Going to the supermarket to get the groceries was about as far as I would ever go.
"I didn't mind though; we were very, very close and I knew that if it was the other way around that Kathleen would look after me."
Losing his wife after dedicating so many years to caring for her was a devastating blow to Jim and when she passed away, he resigned himself to spending the rest of his life alone.
"It was very severe for Kathleen at the end and at my age I never thought I would meet anyone else," he said.
He took solace in his garden, tending to his flowers, lawn and shrubs, rarely venturing out and becoming more downhearted as time went on.
With his family becoming increasingly worried about Jim, his brother Joe convinced him to try a night out at the Iona Inn, just outside Londonderry city centre, to enjoy some live music there.
It was there that he met Maureen, a friend of Joe's, also on a night out, and the pair hit it off immediately.
With music and gardening in common, they also discovered they had both been recently widowed - something that brought them even closer together.
Jim said he knew early on that he wanted to take Maureen on a date, but it took some time before he plucked up the courage to ask her out.
He wanted to find a moment when they would both be alone, but Maureen was always surrounded by friends.
"I don't drive so Maureen would give me a lift," he explained.
"I felt like we both got on well and I thought we should go out and that it should be me that should ask.
"I wanted to ask her if she would like to go for dinner.
"But her friend was always in the car so I had to ask when she was there, and luckily Maureen said yes.
"We went to the City Hotel and then on to the Iona."
It wasn't long before Jim decided to propose.
"Maureen was lovely and I enjoyed every moment with her," he said.
"I had known her about six months when I thought about proposing so I put the question to her nice and gently.
"We got on so well and I said to her that we wanted to be together so we shouldn't waste any more time."
Jim joked: "Maureen pretended to be shocked, like women do, and then she said, 'yes'."
Of course, Maureen has a different recollection of the event: "I knew a proposal was coming, Jim had been making all the right noises, but I was still surprised when he asked me."
Like Jim, Maureen had been recently bereaved when they met, having lost her husband of 23-years, Bill Mellon, a musician, to cancer.
Also like Jim, Maureen had nursed her spouse though his illness.
She was bereft at his passing and believes that she and Jim were guided to one another.
"Bill was unwell for about two and a half years but I never really thought about what would happen afterwards," she said.
"However, I often think that Kathleen steered Jim to me, and Bill steered me towards Jim.
"We feel very lucky to have found each other and that Kathleen and Bill would have approved."
Having accepted Jim's proposal, they set about making arrangements for their big day.
The date, January 16, 2018 was chosen, with a subsequent honeymoon in Florence, Italy.
"We had both been to Italy in the past, although Maureen more often than me, and I was looking forward to her showing me around," said Jim.
However, before their private wedding ceremony at St Columba's Church, Long Tower, they made the decision to allocate the budget for their honeymoon to something very different.
Maureen continued: "We just suddenly stopped and asked ourselves why would we spend so much money seeing something beautiful when we could create something beautiful at home and get to enjoy it so much longer."
And that is how the idea to revamp Abercorn Terrace came about.
The street, situated close to Craigavon Bridge, was already famous due to its links with musician Phil Coulter.
A popular tourist spot in the city, Maureen and Jim have transformed the area and boosted its appeal to residents and visitors alike. "When we were getting married, Jim moved in here, which is actually the house where Phil Coulter grew up and which I bought 30 years ago," explained Maureen, a retired image consultant and courier for the Water Service.
"I had always loved gardening but I have been limited in what I could do because the back yard is like a postage stamp.
"Jim brought a lot of his planters here and we started off putting them outside our house and then outside some of our neighbours' houses and it really grew from there.
"We decided we would try and do something all along Abercorn Terrace, Abercorn Place and Harding Street, so we went and spoke to all our neighbours and asked if we could do something with the flowers and everyone came on board.
"We've ended up with 97 containers, filling windows, the streets and the steps and the response we've had has been amazing.
"We did a lot of planting in the postage stamp backyard and then moved it all out into the streets.
"All our neighbours have really got involved, they take care of the containers we can't reach and it really has encouraged everyone to get out and get involved in the community.
"We didn't really know a lot of our neighbours that well but it has brought everyone together and we are learning more about each other, without it being too in your face.
"Everyone has been very grateful and we've had tonnes of cards from people saying, 'thank you'.
"It has taken a lot of work for us, what with the planting and painting the containers, I have two weeks of ironing up the stairs!
"There are days where by the time I have done all the work, all the planting and dead-heading the flowers, the day is done.
"Then there are all the tourists who come to the street as well; it's a real talking point and I spend a lot of time talking to them.
"Some people have even compared it to the Spanish Steps (in Rome), which is lovely.
"It's all been worth it, most of the hard work is done now, and it's really just maintenance."
The spectacle created by Jim and Maureen is so impressive that it won first place in the residential category of the City Centre Initiative Annual Floral Competition.
They are also keeping their fingers crossed that their devotion to transforming the streets surrounding their home will help Derry clinch a much coveted Britain in Bloom award. Their efforts have gone viral on social media and reached as far as San Francisco.
"It's a real boost for the city," said Maureen. "We're so pleased that we made the decision and it doesn't seem like a waste at all," said Jim.
"We could have spent all our money on a honeymoon and yes, we would have seen some beautiful sights, but this way we get to enjoy something beautiful every day."