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Londonderry factory girl meets US marine - the love story that had to wait nearly 50 years

Avril worked in a shirt factory in Londonderry, Bob was a US Marine. They fell in love at first sight, but then he called off their wedding. Half a century later they finally wed.

By Stephanie Bell

It is a story which proves that true love never dies and shows that dreams really can come true – even if it means waiting nearly 50 years. It may have taken a lifetime for Londonderry factory girl Avril Trenklet (formerly Hegarty) to be reunited with her first and only real love, US marine Bob Fanuce, but the couple, now in their 70s, say it was worth every minute of their 47 year wait.

Avril and Bob first met in 1959 when they were both just 20. Bob was stationed at the American Naval Base in Derry.

They fell in love and were due to be married but life – and a case of cold feet – got in the way.

A heartbroken Avril moved to America in search of Bob but ended up making a life of her own, marrying twice and having two sons.

In another state, the man she describes as her "only true love" also settled down, married and had three daughters.

As the years passed and they got on with their lives, the couple never stopped loving each other and Avril says she always knew in her heart that one day they would be together again.

It happened three years ago when Bob tracked her down through the internet.

On that first meeting, the decades fell away for both of them as the love they felt back in Derry in the 1960s came rushing back as if they had never been apart.

They have since married, following a romantic Christmas Day proposal on a beach in their home state of Florida and Avril says they have not been separated for a single hour since.

“I look at him like I am that 20-year-old again and he looks at me like he is also 20 again,” she says.

“We are two 71-year-olds in love and not afraid to show it.

“I never gave up hope and neither did Bob.

“We are inseparable and we do show each other every second of every day how much we love each other.

“I held on to that love all these years and Bob did too. We never ever stopped loving each other.

“When you are this happy you have joy around you and it spreads to other people.”

Their heartwarming romantic story has now been captured in a new book by a Derry author and last month Avril and Bob enjoyed a nostalgic trip back to the city where they first met for the launch of the novel The First Time I Said Goodbye.

It was written by Claire Allan (37), who also works as a journlist on a newspaper in her home city. One day at work she first came across the story.

Claire says: “The best thing about being a journalist is that you never know what is going to land on your desk.

“In July 2011 an email popped into my inbox from a local woman, who had long before moved to the United States, to say she had a love story to tell me.

“Intrigued I agreed to meet her in a local hotel lobby on a beautiful sunny day and with a broad smile she said ‘Hello’ and then introduced me to her companion — the object of her affection.

“What struck me most about this couple was not just their story but more the obvious love they had for each other — and for romance itself. I found their story refused to leave me and indeed I was delighted when they agreed to stay in touch.

“In fact, I was so drawn to their story and to the stories of numerous GI brides who left Derry over the decades that I had to start writing — and once I started digging deeper into my city's history, and indeed my own family history (my mother grew up in a home very much like Avril's) the book took on a whole new meaning.

“My books are all fiction but this is a first for me, as it is based on their true story.”

The novel, Claire's seventh, was released last month and has already received a number of high profile reviews — with readers declaring it to be Claire's best book to date. At its centre is Avril and Bob's romantic story.

Avril grew up in the Fountain area of Derry and worked in Welch Margetson's shirt factory.

It was the late 50s and there was great excitement among the young women of the city about the handsome US marines based there, even though they had a reputation for ‘loving and leaving’ local girls.

Avril felt from the moment she met Bob that their romance was different and very special.

She says as their eyes met across a crowded room (quite literally), there was an instant connection.

Avril recalls: “I was on a date at a dance at the marines' base with another marine and I wasn't really enjoying myself. Bob was sitting at the bar and our eyes met and we smiled at each other.

“He asked someone if they knew who I was and was told I was with another marine.

“Two days later my sister-in-law, who was a cleaner in the bar, asked me to pick her up from work and when I arrived, Bob was there and again our eyes met and we smiled.

“He asked me out and that was it. Right away I knew he was the one for me and that I would love him for life and it was the same for him. We were inseparable for the next 10 months.”

When Bob's time in Derry was up and he had to return to the States, the couple made wedding plans.

Bob sent Avril money to pay for her passport and buy a wedding dress so that she could join him in America where they would be married.

Because her family couldn't afford to travel to America for her wedding she posed for photographs in her dress in Derry so that she could leave something of her big day with them.

It was sadly to be the only time she wore it.

As an excited Avril counted the days until she was due to leave for her new life in America with her new love, she could never have believed that her dream was about to be shattered when out of the blue she received a Dear John letter from the man she loved.

She says her world stopped.

She recalls: “In his letter he said that he had got nervous about marrying me and that he hoped that he hadn't hurt me too much.

“He said he would always love me and he was sorry. He said he would be in touch. He never did get in touch and I waited and waited on his letters.

“I was devastated. I stopped eating and I just gave up. Then I thought if I went to America and saw him, everything would be the same as it was.”

Avril got a job as a nanny in America and 15 months later left Derry hoping to find Bob.

On arrival she immediately started to search for him and very quickly found a phone number for his parents' house.

She spoke to his mum, who promised to pass on her message and tell Bob she was in the States, but sadly she never heard from him.

“I knew then I had to make a life for myself and I got married to a young officer in the air force and we had two sons.

“Bob had married nine months after he left Derry.

“He was always in my heart. I had one picture of him which I carried with me everywhere.”

Bob was also thinking of Avril and shortly after she married and had her first son, he tracked her down and asked to see her.

It was a heart-wrenching moment for Avril, who was still deeply in love with him but felt that her responsibility was to her husband and new baby.

She says: “He said he knew he had broken my heart and he told me he would never love anyone the way he had loved me.

“It felt like we had never been apart even then, but I was married and had a young son and I couldn't leave my child or his father.”

It was 30 years before she would hear from Bob again and Avril says that in all that time her love for him stayed strong.

“I put my dream of Bob aside and kept it safe in my heart and every now and then I would take it out and remember,” she says.

Then three years ago — out of the blue — Avril, who was widowed, got an email from Bob, who had settled in Florida, where ironically for many years she and her family had spent their winters.

The couple met and haven't left each other's side since.

A few months after they were reunited they were enjoying what was a traditional Christmas breakfast for Avril with her children on the beach in Florida, when Bob surprised her with a romantic proposal.

He had arranged for a plane to fly by with the banner ‘Avril I love you, will you marry me? Bob’.

Avril never doubted that the day would come.

She says: “The patience, faith and hope paid off. I knew in my heart that no matter how long it would be, our hearts would lead us back to each other.

“We married a year and a half ago in a beautiful old sugar mill plantation in Florida with just me and Bob and a Justice of the Peace and it was perfect.

“I always knew our love was different and very strong and I am delighted that Claire has used it for her new book.”

And Avril adds: “I just hope it gives everyone encouragement.

“I think our story shows that you shouldn't give up hope, it doesn't matter how long it takes.”

A story that has to be told

Avril and Bob's love story was the inspiration for Derry writer Claire Allan's latest book.

Claire, who is married to Neil and has two children Joseph (9) and Cara (4), says Avril and Bob's story kept coming into her head as she sat down to write her seventh novel last year.

She adds: “I didn't want to simply re-tell their story. That is unique to them, but I wanted to tell something inspired by those times and by the Derry women who left these shores to find love with their GIs — of the relationships which worked and which didn't.

“I had never written anything set in the past before so I wanted to make sure all those details were spot on.”

She also, of course, had to speak with Avril and Bob — who she remained in contact with — to ask their permission to use elements of their story.

“I was delighted when they agreed — and even more so when Avril helped me fill in many blanks about Derry of old,” says Claire.

What followed was a few months when Claire pestered her family for more authentic details of Derry in the 50s and 60s and ended with a book which, Claire says, Derry is as much a character in as anything else.

“I cannot express how much I loved writing this story — how I loved losing myself in old Derry. I loved writing about the community bonds, the way people watched out for each other, the glamour of the old City Hotel, the factories and the tearooms, the gowns, the clothes bought on ‘tick' from the Chada Brothers. It was so inspiring.”

The result is The First Time I Said Goodbye, the name itself hinting at the emotion which lies within the pages.

“It's not merely a love story. It's a story about loss, father and daughter relationships, about reinventing yourself, finding yourself and never giving up hope,” Claire said.

The First Time I Said Goodbye, a Poolbeg Trade paperback, £12.99

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