- Publish Date
- Friday, 25 September 2015, 3:57PM
They met aged four on their first day of preschool and first kissed at 15. Forty years on, Helen and Ross McGinn - who have three children - are still together, proving that love can last a lifetime...
My husband's first words to me were: 'Stop following me.' I remember them quite clearly, although he doesn't. Something must have drawn me to him that day, and made me pursue him obviously enough for him to object.
The other thing I associate with that very first meeting with Ross is the strong smell of old tyre rubber. One whiff, and I'm back there, to a sun-dappled playground in rural Hampshire, where our planets collided. I can still see his brown hair, blue eyes and even picture the stripes on his royal blue and black jumper, which I considered very smart indeed, and decided to follow him.
But what makes the clarity of these memories all the more unusual is that they are nearly 40 years old. Ross and I met in 1976, when we were aged four.
His family had just moved to the village, and I'd asked to become a member of the crew of his spaceship, made of old car tyres in the school playground. We flew into space to defend the galaxy, and were back in time for the afternoon bell. As first dates go, it's quite a memorable one.
Ross and I have known each other our whole lives. I'm his first proper girlfriend, and he my first proper boyfriend. I struggle to remember a time when he wasn't there, somewhere in my life. When I tell people how we met, it's always a conversation opener. 'What you've never been with anyone else? What, ever?'
No we haven't, and what's more, we're back living in that same village where we met with our children, George, 11, Xander, seven, and six-year-old Alice. Two attend a primary school just ten minutes from where their parents scuffed around as infants. They've cut their knees on the same pavements. Got the same grass stains on their socks. Some may call it unadventurous, I call it very lucky indeed.
When we reminisce, our stories are the same. Anything can set us off, and after a 39-year relationship, we have quite a trove of material to draw from. Recently, as we were helping the children with their spellings we remembered what probably counts as our first argument.
We were in class, aged about five. Ross and I had a 'discussion' over the spelling of the word 'world'. I remember the yellow plastic woven mat on which we were standing when we had it. 'It's w-o-r-d,' he said, confidently.
'No, it isn't,' I said, spelling the word out slowly, knowing I had this one in the bag.
The exchange went on for some time until finally the teacher overheard us and confirmed that I was, in fact, right. Little did I know that I'd be able to gently remind him of that early victory given the opportunity for years to come, much to his annoyance. Even today, we remain pedantically competitive over spelling.
He came to my fifth birthday party. As was the way back then, birthday parties were simple affairs. Games in the garden - sleeping lions, musical statues, pass the parcel - followed by 'unstructured play' better known as kids running around the garden like lunatics after eating their bodyweight in party rings and iced gems, jelly and ice cream.
It was sunny (wasn't it always back then?) and I wore my favourite dress, multi-coloured stripes with green ribbon around the hem.
He arrived with a book under his arm, clutching a Paddington Bear, and proceeded to sit under a tree at the far end of the garden, reading the book.
My mother asked him if he wanted to join in, but he said he was quite happy reading, thank you. To this day, she maintains the book was upside-down. He insists it wasn't.
My milestones throughout the Seventies all have Ross in them.
There was the 1977 Silver Jubilee, when we shared a carnival float. We sat in toy vintage cars on the float and he wore a flat cap, while I was still in that beloved multi-coloured, striped dress.
By this time, we'd grown out of our spaceship. We were friends by way of school and our families, but not particularly interested in each other. He was, after all, a boy. I was all about my best friends and ponies.
A few years later, I moved to another nearby town after my parents divorced and we didn't see very much of each other at all for a while.
But as we entered our teenage years, our paths began to cross again at the occasional local disco. Not that we spoke much, but I remember exactly how he looked.
He was, by then, tall with a floppy fringe and cheekbones you could cut cheese with. I thought he was arty and achingly cool. After a few awkward conversations here and there, a plan was hatched, when we were 15, for a group of us to go for pizza in the local town, at a restaurant where one of his friends was a waiter.
Together with my friend Claire, we spent hours getting ready, trying on each other's clothes, doing our (very long) hair and experimenting - badly - with some blue eyeliner.
When we arrived, Ross and his two friends were already at the table and the seat next to him was free.
But, for once, I was completely stuck for something to say.
I hovered awkwardly next to the table, and after what seemed like an age, he spoke first.
'How was your tennis tournament?' he said, from below that fringe. I'd been playing for our school team that day - he'd obviously done his homework.
As it turned out, we'd lost but I couldn't have been happier. He asked me to take a seat next to him. And this time, he didn't even bring a book.
A week later, we arranged to meet in the fields between our houses, and we went for a walk.
That was the scene of our first kiss. It was May 1988 and we've been together ever since.
Strangely, as we parted as 18-year-olds - me to Exeter University, and him to Kingston - there was never any doubt that we would stay together, which I can see now was ambitious.
We saw each other at least once a month, either meeting back in our home village or as we travelled to visit each other.
We wrote an awful lot of letters, spoke on the phone pretty much every other day (no mean feat, given this was before the age of mobile phones) and always looked forward to that next visit.
It did mean that I was usually the one making tea for the broken-hearted late on a Saturday night after the student bar closed, but that was fine by me.
And at least the hangovers weren't as bad as they might have been.
After graduation, we moved to London - but not in together. Ross was sharing a flat with his brother, while I moved into a shared flat with a bunch of girlfriends, which was enormous fun.
We were insistent that, despite being an established couple for many years, we would live as most of our friends did. Looking back, it was a wise move, and one I am sure helped keep us together throughout these potentially hazardous years.
I realise this sounds ridiculous, but Ross's proposal, aged 27, was completely out of the blue. 'Oh, you must have known!' most people say, but I'd never taken for granted that it would happen.
When he did pop the question, in a car park in Kent on the way to lunch with friends, he seemed as surprised as I was when the words came out of his mouth.
The lunch went by in a haze of happy tears and hastily bought champagne. I was supposed to be on a flight to Bordeaux that night (I worked as a supermarket wine buyer at the time), but delayed it until early the next morning so that we could celebrate with more friends and family that night.
The wedding itself was surprisingly easy to arrange, given that our two families lived in the same village and shared many of the same friends.
We were married about six months later. He'd have done it sooner but I insisted on having a few more months to find a dress and lose a few pounds.
It was held in a marquee next to the village cricket field and we decided to spend two-thirds of our budget on music and booze.
It was then - and only then - that we decided to live together. As husband and wife. We'd shared an entire life together, suddenly finding a whole raft of 'firsts' made married life a terrific adventure.
Our 'first' joint bread board, our first electricity bill - with our names at the top - they were worth waiting for.
And I guess it's only when people ask me how we met that, on learning we've known each other for pretty much all our lives and have been together since our teens, I'm reminded it's actually rather unusual.
And if I'm honest, slightly freakish; I'm always quick to let people know that we did, in fact, leave the village for more than a decade, when we lived in London. Otherwise it sounds like we just don't get out much!
Growing up with the person I married has its consequences.
Sometimes, when the children come into our room in the morning, it takes me a second to remember that, yes, they are all ours and, yes, we are - apparently - grown-ups now. There is still a part of me that feels like we are still children.
We share a lot of history, too. He was there throughout my dodgy, puffball skirt, fashion years. I know he used to wear red shoes and a neck scarf (I swear it was a good look at the time, but it looks hilarious now).
In fact, I remember us looking at our parents' photo albums together years ago, thinking we would never look that old.
And now, we're the age they were then. We still feel like kids ourselves though, much of the time.
But there is a deeper, more poignant reason for my gratitude for our shared history. It matters an awful lot to me that Ross knew my little brother, Tim, so well.
He was murdered in 2002, when he was only 26, by a couple of teenagers who were trying to steal his car from outside his house in Battersea. It was a horrendous time and for a long while afterwards, I felt as if in an altered state. Ross was amazing, not just to me but for my whole family, especially my mum.
And now, talking about and remembering the lovely (and often very funny) memories about Tim is something we do often and easily.
I know that Tim absolutely adored his brother-in-law, even if he did nick all the leftover booze from our wedding and drink it with his friends in a nearby barn until the early hours.
Maybe that's down to our history, our situation - and of course every couple has a different story. But it's just how it worked out for us.
Who knows how life would have turned out if we hadn't met so young? I'm just very glad that we did.
Sometimes, I watch the children playing with their friends and I wonder if they, like us, have already met their future husband or wife.
I realise what we have is incredibly unusual, and I feel very fortunate.
That's not to say it's always a bed of roses. Like any couple with children, our life is often hectic.
And the 'who's the most tired' discussion never ends well.
Rather more importantly, I love that we can have a heated discussion about things. I don't mean leaving dirty socks on the floor - that's non-negotiable - I mean proper, shouty-if-needs-be discussions about stuff, from politics to what constitutes a perfect Bolognese sauce (absolutely no place for mushrooms, in my view).
We are very different people, who disagree on as many things as we agree on, including what constitutes funny. He's more Monty Python, I'm more You've Been Framed.
But I love him. And I love being married to the spaceship driver. In fact, I can't imagine it any other way.
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