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And you'll be at the railway station…

When I turned 27 (still single), my youngest sister Judith gave me a birthday card which read on the front: "Don't worry - one day your ship will come in.." Inside, the message continued "… and you'll be at the railway station." Around that time Judy and her older sister decided that if ever I did get married, they would club together to buy me a coffin as a wedding gift.

Three years later, unbeknown to me, my closest friends decided, "This is the last time we pray for a wife for John." There was obviously something about me that did not inspire confidence in my family or friends. Perhaps it was not entirely unsurprising.

In my life to that time, I had had only four relationships that went beyond casual dating. In three cases I had asked the young lady concerned to marry me; fortunately for all concerned they had had the wisdom to say no. The first time, I was only 19, whereas she was four years older. I was only recently moved away from home to work in another town. She was considerably more worldly wise, having been the victim of a bigamous marriage, and had been sent to the care of a loving uncle and aunt in this small central North Island town to lick her wounds. When I told my parents of my hopes, they were aghast. It would not be the last time. But the excitement of the relationship was not sufficient to overcome the winter cold there, especially after she concluded there really was no future between us, and I moved to much warmer climes in Townsville, North Queensland.

Several years later, an emotional roller-coaster ride in Sydney with Judy B__, the daughter of a Kings Cross fruit and vege barrow vendor, left me so unsettled, that I enlisted with Volunteer Service Abroad, and spent the first two years of the 1970s running the government radio station in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). Yet again my parents were aghast; twice actually. Firstly, at the possibility that Judy B and I might actually marry, and then at my throwing away a good career to go and live among the "natives" in a Third World country.

Shortly after my return to New Zealand, I became a committed Christian, to some extent through a friendship with Lesley M__, to whom I had been introduced after arriving back. Lesley was a young widow, whose husband had suddenly dropped dead about six months previously, and we struck up a close friendship, which in my case developed into stronger feelings. But she also could see that it was not right for either of us; so here I was now 30, to all intents and purposes at my last gasp.

My prospects were not helped by my financial situation. Eight months after my conversion, I joined the staff of Radio Rhema, an organisation attempting to start a Christian radio station in New Zealand. At that time, the government had shut down almost every private radio station in the country, with the exception of Radio Hauraki, which had originally gained its licence in 1966 after taking to the high seas in a pirate ship off the coast of Auckland. Public support would have made shutting that station down political suicide, but the government made it clear there would be no more. In the face of this, few people gave the raggle-taggle hopefuls at Radio Rhema a ghost of a chance; in fact most (including in the church at large) were utterly derisory. For a third time (or fourth, depending on how you count it), my parents were aghast. My father, in fact, was so concerned that he hired a private detective to learn more about this cult that had seduced his son!

Radio Rhema is now one of the largest private radio networks in New Zealand, but that's another story. It also now pays wages to its staff, whereas in the 1970s staff were expected to "live by faith", which meant trusting God to provide for their needs. I got a small weekly allowance from Rhema - about $5 a week - and the rest came either in donated goods and clothing, or by way of support from friends, church and others who dared to believe that such an outrageous venture might succeed. I should also say that, in time, my parents became not only reconciled to my 180 degree career swings, but quite proud of what their crazy son had achieved.

So here I was, 30 years old, with no financial prospects to entice any young lady of consequence, and no-one on the horizon anyway. I tried hard to reconcile myself to the position that perhaps God wanted me to stay single so I could be more effective in ministry for Him. But it wasn't really working. I ached so much for that someone special that on several occasions I woke in the deep middle of the night crying out "where are you?" and looking blindly round for someone who wasn't there.

It was one July Wednesday evening that I attended, as usual, a mid-week Bible study meeting at the small suburban Baptist church where I been converted. From a girlfriend-seeker's point of view, this church provided absolutely no prospects. There were only three single females over the age of 18, none of them were my type in the slightest, and the feeling was mutual on their part. Why I remained there when a popular large church in the central city reputedly had 17 eligible young women crying out for husbands, remains one of life's mysteries.

The subject for discussion that evening was relationships (particularly married), with a visiting husband and wife team of marriage counsellors. They had asked along an assistant from the Scripture Union bookshop, who had also accompanied them on a previous weekend seminar, bringing with her a display of books on marriage and relationships. I can't remember his words, but our pastor managed to excite the attention of the SU assistant, who told him in fairly direct terms that when it came to older singles, he didn't know what he was talking about.

My first and immediate reaction was, "that would be a challenging person to get to know." At the end of the meeting, we chatted briefly, and I learned she was a relatively recent arrival in Christchurch, but I forgot to ask more than her first name, Helen. What was I to do? You have to appreciate that despite my "advancing" years, I found it difficult to take the first step in asking someone out for a date, or even how to take the next step beyond "hello". (Actually, I was clueless. I had little discernment, lost my heart too quickly, and generally stumbled around with little direction. No wonder my friends and family thought I was a near-hopeless case.) This might seem a bit odd, as by this time I had been a newspaper, radio and TV journalist for some 16 years, had interviewed VIPs to the highest level, and frequently had to work in front of large crowds in order to do my job. But that was what I did, not who I was. The two ran on quite parallel tracks.

Something prompted me to do two things I never had before. I knew our pastor was a very methodical man, and was likely to have a record of Helen's full name. He was somewhat surprised at my telephone request the next day, but his filing cabinet produced the name, Helen Carr. That was the easy part. Plucking up courage for the next step was a lot harder. I didn't think to do the obvious and just go and say, "Hi, would you like to come for a cup of coffee?" In my desperation to find an excuse, I seized on a sports night that the church's youth group was to have the following Saturday at the YMCA. I thought being part of a larger group might make her more disposed to come.

Armed with this flimsiest of calling cards, I diffidently headed into the Scripture Union bookshop. While she had a lull in serving customers, I reintroduced myself, and we talked for a short while (goodness knows what about), until I plucked up enough courage to ask her out for the Saturday night. She evaded the question, but again unlike my usual self I stood my ground. Helen later confided that she was not a fan of sports, and the prospect of attending a night of this kind was about on a par with having a tooth pulled. She hoped I would just go away, but eventually and reluctantly agreed to the date. Not picking up on her diffidence, I was elated.

The evening was a disaster, close to being a case of "hate at first sight".

Helen loathed being dragged around the various sporting activities on offer and found little to entertain her. In an effort to impress, I performed some acrobatics on a trampoline but neglected to remove my spectacles. In one of the somersaults, my spectacles flew off and landed on the floor, smashing one of the lenses. With me somewhat humiliated, we made our way to the table tennis tables, one activity Helen did enjoy. To make the contest even, as I could not now wear my spectacles, she agreed to put hers up too. It was not long into the game that the thought came to her: "If he can see as little as I can, he won't notice if I put my glasses back on." She did, I didn't, and she won.

When it came to leaving, we had a dilemma. Helen did not drive, and I could not see. Fortunately, the prescription in Helen's spectacles was similar to mine, except that the relative strengths of the left and right eyes were reversed. This was solved by me wearing her spectacles upside down. On the way home, I took her to a nearby coffee lounge for supper, so we could chat in more comfort than the noise of the YMCA had allowed. I discovered that Helen had been sponsored from England by Scripture Union to work in their New Zealand shops. She had spent her initial year in Hamilton, before transferring to Christchurch.

Information sharing apart, though, the coffee stop was a disaster. I came away thinking that Helen was the epitome of Christian women's lib, and she came away convinced I was a self-opinionated slob. The only thing we had in common was a firm belief that there was no future in the relationship.

I was surprised, therefore, to receive a phone call a week or so later from Helen, asking if I could help mend her flatmate's bicycle. The bike had developed a problem with the rear wheel, and Helen had attempted to fix it. Unfortunately, this was her first encounter with the New Zealand phenomenon of back-pedal brakes, and she was left with a bike in pieces and no idea how to reassemble it. Being familiar with this contrivance, I was able to put things back together, and as a thankyou Helen invited me to stay for dinner.

Opportunism also played a part a short time later. Helen needed an early-morning lift to Lyttelton to catch the inter-island ferry to Wellington, and I was one of the few people she knew with a car. So out of pure self-interest, she called on me again. By this time, we had started to correct the misapprehensions of our first date, and while we were still tentative, we began to find we could actually enjoy each other's company. So on her return from Wellington, I asked Helen to a movie, "The Battle of Britain". On her doorstep, after taking her home, we shared our first kiss. It was just a quick thankyou, meaning no more than that to Helen, but it left me in a turmoil. How could one quick kiss turn my world around? What did it mean to her? Did it say more than I realised?

I was still churning this over when a few days later Helen turned to me again for help, this time to move her belongings to a new flat. Nothing seemed particularly different in her attitude towards me, so I had to assume the kiss meant nothing in particular to her.

At the time we met, I had begun writing a series of articles for a national magazine on what it was like to be an "old" single Christian, and I asked Helen to collaborate with me on the next in the series. As a consequence, we shared at a deep level the difficulties and frustrations we had each experienced, along with our dreams for the future; so over the next few months we spent a lot of time together and rapidly became close friends. Having progressed well beyond the first-date disaster, we discovered we had a great deal in common. We began to realise that in theory we would make a good couple. For some years, I had also been a member of an interdenominational music team, the Unity Singers, which toured various churches teaching on music and worship. As Helen had a beautiful singing voice, and a real heart towards God, it was a natural step to invite her to join also.

As we approached Christmas, I was rapidly falling head over heels in love with this lovely young woman with a pixie face and a captivating laugh. However, while we were close friends, her deep affections were not engaged in the same way as mine. Matters came to an unwelcome and unexpected head a few days after Christmas. The Unity Singers were booked to lead the music at a three-day conference at Lincoln University - on this occasion Helen could not take part because of work commitments. On my way to the conference, I stopped at the bookshop to sneak a goodbye kiss. (Hey, we were kissing friends by now!)

When she first arrived in New Zealand, while working in Hamilton Helen had gone out with another man by the name of John. He had warned her at the time, though, that things would not be serious between them as he was soon moving to Canada. So it came as a shock (to both of us) when John telephoned Helen from Canada while I was with her in the shop, and asked when she was going to join him. She flippantly replied, "When you send the money!"

I didn't wait to hear any more. I fled the shop in a daze, and could barely keep myself together to drive to Lincoln. By the time I got there, I was a complete wreck emotionally, and felt I would have to withdraw from the music team. Some prayer and wise counsel from the team leader helped me recover sufficiently to continue, but I did not know how I was going to cope when Helen came out to the next day's evening session.

At the conclusion of that session, we found a quiet corner in an upstairs gallery. Helen assured me she had been as stunned at the other John's phone call as I was, and if I had stuck around instead of blindly rushing off I would have discovered that she had no real interest in going. That was only small consolation, as neither did she have strong feelings towards me. While she enjoyed my friendship, and we had a lot going for us, her heart was not engaged. With that I had to be content. It was not all that I would liked to have heard, but it was better than I feared.

Helen worked in the bookshop on Friday nights, which was late-night closing for shops in the central city. We had developed the habit of having dinner together at a local café during her brief meal break, and several weeks later we were as usual in the Coffee Pot, our favourite spot ("5 veg with every meal" - it was a good value meal!)

Out of the blue, she suddenly announced: "I love you!"

I was gobsmacked. There was no warning, no leading up to it, no nothing. Just a bald statement. It took me some time to register properly what she had just said. And then it hit. SHE JUST SAID THAT SHE LOVED ME! She smiled and nodded her head in confirmation that I had heard correctly.

I spent the rest of the meal in a daze, and as we walked snuggled closely together back to the bookshop, we stopped every couple of windows and cuddled some more. It was agony to have to part at such a critical moment, but she had the rest of the evening's work to do, and I had one of the longest 2-and-a-half hour waits of my life before her knock-off time.

When I called for her at the end of the evening, we adjourned to Helen's flat, where she explained that she had been worried at her lack of feelings towards me. She could see that to all intents and purposes we made a good match, but she simply did not love me. So one day she had said to God: "If you want me to marry John, you will have to give me the love, because I don't have it." A few days later she was suddenly overwhelmed by feelings of love towards me, and that was that. When I asked if she would marry me, she had no hesitation in saying yes.

We were married six months later. I don't know whether I was disappointed or relieved that there was no coffin in sight.

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(c) Copyright John McNeil, all rights reserved. Apart from the purposes of fair review, this work may not be reproduced in whole or in part in any form, physical or electronic, without the express permission in writing of the author. He may be contacted at jandhmcneil<a>paradise.net.nz