It was the summer of 1959 and I had just turned eighteen. Life was tough and my family weren’t wealthy. My siblings and I didn’t have the means to be going out on the weekends to the cinema or the local hang out for milkshakes like a lot of others our age. But friends were free and my parents were social people, so there was a constant stream of friends and family popping in for a cup of tea and a chat.
One of those people was Leonard Johnson. He was a big man, with a booming laugh and rosy cheeks. Leonard was one of my favourite visitors. Not only because of his jovial personality and his ability to spin a good yarn, but the fact he usually brought his son Richie with him to visit.
Richie was two and a half years older than me but we’d always been friends. When we were younger, while our parents whittled away hours telling stories about the old days, Richie and I would play in the backyard or down by the creek catching yabbies or climbing trees.
He was funny and sweet, and being around him had always been fun and easy. Although I hadn’t seen him for a while, I didn’t doubt we were still friends. He’d just grown up and gotten a job and wasn’t always free when his father came calling. By the time I turned eighteen I hadn’t seen him for over a year, but that summer when I answered the door to see Leonard with Richie in tow, my breath caught in my throat.
How was it possible for the scrawny boy I knew to have transformed into the handsome man that stood before me? He had a mop of jet black hair that shone in the sun and a strong jaw stubbled with dark flecks, almost enough to consider it a beard. If it weren’t for his familiar, silly grin, I might not have believed it was Richie at all.
The skinny kid I used to run under the sprinkler with was now tanned and muscular and my eyes almost refused to blink, should I miss a second of his presence. How had this happened? How had he changed so much yet I was still the same gangly teen I’d always been? My family once likened me to a newborn foal with my long limbs, knobbly knees and awkward stance. But by the way Richie stared at me with his jaw slack and his eyes as unblinking as mine, I wondered if he could see changes in me that I couldn’t.
We strolled, unspeaking, out into the garden and sat under the shade of an old lemon tree. Finally, he turned to me, weaving a strand of my waist length hair between his fingers before letting it slip through his grasp.
“I like you with your hair down,” he whispered into the breeze and I wondered if I’d heard him correctly. “And the colour has always suited you Winnie. Like fire. The same as your personality.”
“Hey!” I acted insulted and took a playful swipe at him. But he grabbed my hand, mid-air, and held it in his. The sizzle of his fingers against my skin, imprinted into my memory. We sat like that. I stared into his chestnut eyes while they searched mine, then darted back and forth across my face as though seeing each and every freckle for the very first time. My skin burned under his gaze but I couldn’t bring myself to look away.
He sat close, our legs almost touching, but I buzzed with awareness as though he was pressed against me. I realised at that moment, that this must be what love felt like and I closed my eyes, just in time for his lips to capture mine in our first kiss. My head spun and my stomach flipped, all the things my sisters had told me would happen when I found someone I loved.
We began to date even though my parents felt I was too young for affairs of the heart. Especially ones as serious as ours. We spoke about getting married almost from the start. Richie never got down on one knee or wrote a romantic speech or planned some elaborate proposal. It was always just, ‘when we get married,’ like it was a given. There was no question to ask, it was just so.
But in the first year of our courtship he got called up for national service. He left for a three-month stint in the army and I was heartbroken. Before long my first love letter arrived. I wrote back immediately and within a few days another arrived. We talked about how much we missed each other and how it seemed the entire world was conspiring to keep us apart, especially the government and their ridiculous demands that allowed them to tear us apart like they had. Richie could come home for the odd weekend here and there, during which time we would cling to each other.
It was during one of these visits, with Richie’s 21st birthday rapidly approaching, we decided to make the birthday party a combined engagement. So we did. Both our families and friends attended and gave us their blessing. Richie’s father was overjoyed, he’d always had a soft spot for me and thought of me as a daughter.
When Richie’s time in the army was done, we planned our wedding. We were married in the church across the road in the summer of 1962, almost exactly three years after we’d started dating.
We had children and when Richie’s father passed away in 1970, we bought his family home. We wanted to raise our own five children in the place Richie grew up. Our children ran in the same garden and hid in the same trees, they had the same bedrooms and felt the same love Richie and I had growing up. Our children are grown now and we have grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Until recently my daughter and her children still lived in that huge old bluestone house, opposite the little church where we said our vowels, buried our parents, christened our babies and watched them when they got married and took photos in front of the same stained-glass windows we did.