Forty-four years ago on a Friday (16 February, 1973), Jennifer, my wife-to-be appeared on my doorstep.
No, she wasn’t selling anything.
I was serving in the Royal Navy then and rented a room in a Gosport three-bedroom house owned by John Bevan, a civilian who worked at the Alverstoke Institute of Naval Medicine’s Royal Naval Physiological Laboratory (RNPL). At the time, he gained fame for the ‘deepest dive’. In March 1970 young laboratory scientists John Bevan and Peter Sharphouse made experimental dives in a pressure chamber, which proved that a man could survive in the sea for 10 hours at a depth equivalent to 1,535 ft. This was 300ft below what was believed to be the maximum at the time, described by American colleagues as ‘a hyperbaric moon landing’.
John’s girlfriend Brenda was a university friend of Jennifer’s. Before this weekend, Jennifer told Brenda she was at a loose end and Brenda invited her to stay at John’s house – there was room. Jennifer was teaching in Oxford.
The weekend arrived. In the lounge I’d been watching Rene Cutforth’s documentary about Czechoslovakia; I was doing research for a novel I planned to write some time in the future.
John was out when the doorbell rang and I answered it.
Standing on the doorstep were Brenda, who I knew, and Jennifer.
I was vaguely aware that my purple jumper had a hole in its shoulder seam. As we chatted, it transpired that we had a great deal in common. Jen had taken her degree in Newcastle upon Tyne University, and had digs in Whitley Bay. Those rooms were at the top end of Oxford Street – which happened to be the same street of my family home. We were not destined to meet then; I was usually at sea, or living in the south, in Hampshire. We discovered that we were both adopted. We liked similar books, movies and music, though both of us thereafter broadened our appreciation from each other’s interests. Surprisingly, she didn’t mind my sense of humour and puns! Oh, and the holey seam was eventually mended; true love will conquer all, it seams.
My heart wasn’t my own afterwards, either.
We got engaged six months later and were married a year to the day after first meeting on that doorstep.
Dedication in Mission: Prague (to be re-issued soon)
‘To Jennifer with love. Holey jumpers, this brings back memories of love at first sight, Rene Cutforth, Ma Vlast and all.’