It’s often said that love works in mysterious ways and I am probably living proof of that. When I tell people my story, they’re always amazed. Friends and family often say it is like a Hollywood romcom, but I’m not sure if that’s true. I think if this happened in a film, people would say it was too far-fetched. All I do know is that I’m grateful every day for what happened.
Everything began with a classified advert. It was in my local newspaper, The Ellenville Press, in New York, where I had lived all my life.
I’m a poet and prose writer and the ad was asking for submissions for a new literary magazine. It sounded perfect for me. I was 49 at the time and, having raised six children, had been writing professionally for three years. I’d earned a little bit of a name as a columnist on a local newspaper, and I was looking to do more. So I emailed the magazine, introducing myself and asking for details.
I didn’t think I’d receive an immediate answer and put it out of my mind, so I was surprised to receive a reply the next day, from a man called Phil. He said he’d never heard of the mag but had received three other messages like mine. He asked where I’d gotten his contact details – he was worried someone was using his address illegally.
It was such a polite message that I felt compelled to look into it. I contacted the newspaper about the advert and, when they investigated, it turned out they’d printed the email address incorrectly. It should have been email@example.com but instead, they published firstname.lastname@example.org, which is why the messages had landed in a stranger’s inbox. I wrote to Phil to tell him what had happened, and that was that. Or so I thought.
The next evening I was signed into my AOL account when I received an instant message. It was from Phil, just saying hi and thanking me for putting his mind at rest.
I was surprised. It may be different today because online messaging between strangers is relatively common. But this was 2001. The internet wasn’t new, but it certainly wasn’t ubiquitous in people’s lives.
The truth is, I’d never spoken to a stranger online and I wasn’t even sure if I should reply. But something made me think it was the right thing to do. I told him he was more than welcome, and then – because his email address referenced being an author – I asked if he was a writer.
He said he was an archaeology lecturer who had had various papers and articles published. We just fell into conversation from there, about work and writing mainly. We ended up messaging for only 20 minutes, but there was a connection.
At one point, he asked why I was up so late. It was 7pm. That’s when something clicked and I asked: ‘Oh gosh, where are you? I’m in the US.’ I waited a few seconds, then came the reply: ‘You’re a Yank?’ Phil was nearly 5,000km away in Yorkshire, UK. It was pretty funny. At the end, we signed off quite formally – nice talking, good luck and so forth. We said we’d say hello if we were ever online again at the same time but, I didn’t really imagine we would be.
All that evening though, I kept thinking about him and some of the things he’d said. I found myself smiling at them. The fact is, I had no idea who this person was – I didn’t even know his age or what he looked like – but he was on my mind.
So it was exhilarating when I woke up the next morning, switched on my computer and found I had an email from him. My email address was email@example.com – a reference to a poem I had written – and Phil started the message with ‘Hello Fishy’, which made me smile straight away.
He said he’d enjoyed talking to me and that he’d like to do it again. I was startled. I re-read it several times with a smile on my face. I wrote back saying chatting again would be nice. It was the start of an adventure, which I could never have imagined taking me where it did.
Things developed quickly from that initial email. Within a few nights we were instant messaging for five hours at a time. What didn’t we talk about! Politics, family, music, books, England, America, our hobbies, our passions, pets, past relationships – we covered it all. We had so much in common it was scary.
It was only after a few nights of talking that I realised I didn’t know how old he was. In my mind I felt he might be in his late 30s, but I suddenly realised, ‘Oh gosh, I could be talking to a man half my age – or twice my age!’
I asked him and he sort of hesitated. I said, ‘OK, let me ask this way: Do you remember the first time The Beatles came to the US?’ because we were both big fans. He did. He was 54.
We soon swapped pictures, but by that point, I didn’t care if he looked like Quasimodo. I was already falling in love. In any case, he was just as handsome as I’d imagined. And he liked my picture too. We sent lots to each other: grandchildren, photos of when we were younger, our homes, the areas we lived in and so on.
We didn’t talk much by phone. Transatlantic calls were expensive and neither of us had a webcam. But the first time he did phone me – literally for just a few minutes – we clicked again. I loved his voice. He had an English accent, which, to an American, is always a plus.
Matters continued apace over the next few months. At work, Phil would tell colleagues he was going home to have lunch with his American friend, and he’d message me while eating his sandwich. Because of the time difference, I’d just be waking up and we’d speak over my morning coffee. It was lovely going to bed knowing he would be there in the morning. Then, when it was my lunch time, Phil would just be arriving home from work and we’d talk more.
It progressed to sending each other little presents. He’d put an anklet or earrings in the post, and I’d send him candles or other knick-knacks. They were more than just gifts. Somehow they were symbols that there was a real person out there.
We even agreed to virtually spend New Year’s Eve with each other. We saw midnight strike in the UK and then carried on messaging until it passed in the US too. I had invites to go out, but I wanted to spend the evening with Phil.
It wasn’t all plain sailing, though. Once, his computer broke, and he went out the same night to buy a new one. Another time, I slipped two discs and was bed-ridden for weeks, so my daughter would type for me. As I got better, my son pushed my bed near the computer and Phil made the text very large, so I could read as I lay there, typing with one hand.
Then, four months into our friendship, Phil had a heart attack. I sat at my computer for three days, waiting to hear from him, but nothing. I was so worried. I didn’t know what had happened to him. But three days later, when he came around in the hospital, the first thing he did was ask for a telephone. I’ve never been happier to receive a phone call in my life.
Six months later, we started talking about meeting.
We’d kind of had the Big Talk. I’d asked him straight out one evening where he saw this going. I told him I thought I was falling for him but, well, it was ridiculous. We were in different hemispheres. But he told me that he felt the same way. The upshot was that we agreed we should at least meet in person. I’d always wanted to visit the UK anyway. He said if I booked the flights, he’d arrange and pay for everything else. So I did. We planned four weeks together with Phil taking me around the country – London, Wales and the West Country – for two weeks, and then spending the second fortnight at his home.
When I told my children I was going, they had mixed reactions. The younger ones tended to think it was a great adventure, but my oldest son was completely against it. He kept telling me, ‘This isn’t real, Mum’. But it felt pretty real to me.
The flight was, by coincidence, exactly a year to the day we’d first had that online conversation. People ask if I was nervous, but I wasn’t. I felt I knew this man completely. I was very excited.
He was there to meet me at Heathrow Airport, of course, and he was just as lovely as in his photos. He grabbed hold of me for a cuddle and said, ‘So you do exist, then’. That made me laugh.
It sounds soppy, but they were the best four weeks of my life. Phil was just the same in person as he was online: kind, witty, intelligent and genuine. By the time it was my leaving day, we’d already arranged for me to return later in the year.
It felt horrible to be away from him. I loved my home in New York but life felt incomplete without Phil. I wanted to share my days with him, and not just via a computer screen.
Over the next three years, I kept visiting. His working hours were less flexible than mine and he’s not a keen flyer, so all those early meet-ups were in the UK – although he’s been to the US since. I loved the place anyway.
One day, while I was staying with him, he proposed. It was simple. He asked if I’d move to the UK and marry him. I said yes before he finished the question.
By this time, my children and grandchildren all approved, and so did his. Some of them had met Phil, and others had spoken to him online. They realised what a genuine person he was, and that he made me happy.
We arranged my visa and moving date, and I made the trip across the Atlantic with my cat and three dogs. We married in a small ceremony in 2007. It’s been wonderful ever since.
Phil still lectures and has an article in the book, The Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture, out this summer, while I am now poetry editor for a literary magazine. Together we have also started an independent publishing house called Between These Shores.
Phil’s my best friend, and there’s not a day that goes by when I’m not grateful for the simple typo that brought us together.