I’m a slow mover. By that I mean, I can be quite slow about doing something, and can then suddenly burst into a frenzy of activity and do loads of things. Don’t ask me why that is, but it’s as true today as yesterday.

I waited 29 years before having my first girlfriend. Years of frustration, anger, pain, hurt,
humiliation, self loathing and pity were put on hold in that first relationship. It lasted nine weeks, but it was like tasting forbidden fruit – and I wanted more. My first girlfriend was a work colleague, but my second was someone I met having replied to an ad. That lasted a little less, but again I knew there was no going back into my shell now – I did not want to isolate myself from the normal world. Sure, I was working in a newspaper office with hundreds of others, and knew many people, but my social life was non-existent.

As 1984 dawned I swore I would change my life and my attitude: no more would I ostracise myself. So I moved out of home and stayed with a work colleague while I weighed my options. A few months later I started viewing properties, and by April had put down a deposit on my present home. I was strapped for cash at the time, paying heavy bridging costs while the house was being built, but the new me wanted to meet girls.

But there was one problem: as a night worker I had just a few nights in which to socialise. So I did a kind of mad thing – I placed an advertisement in the Evening Echo:

Male, 28, seeks female for friendship and social outings.

And then I sat back and waited for an avalanche of replies. And waited. When I finally went to check there was only one small envelope to collect. Apart from a name, Patricia McKeown, address and phone number there was precious little information, but later I rang the number, only to hear a heavily Northern accented woman at the other end telling me her daughter was away for the weekend and to ring back two nights later. In the meantime, I knew a guy at work who lived in the same estate as Trish, so I asked him about the family and learned a couple of details. I called Trish’s number, and this time a clearly apologectic mother said she was sorry but Trish had gone off somewhere else but she’d get her to ring when she got back.

I was working that Sunday night, so when the phone rang I mechanically answered, assuming it was one of our reporters at the other end, to find a girl’s voice on the line asking for me. When I said who I was, she responded, “I believe you’re looking for me!!”

We agreed to meet the following Tuesday, June 12, at 7.30pm. I offered to call to her house, and was just walking up her driveway when she dashed out the front door to meet me. And here’s the unvarnished truth for those who don’t know: Trish had only replied as a laugh, and never intended to post the letter, but her mum grabbed it from her and later popped it in the letterbox. Which is how we were both a little disappointed when we first met. If I was a little disappointed she didn’t look like a Hollywood starlet, Trish was even more shocked when she spotted me, which was why she ensured I never made it to her front door.

Initially, I started off with a bit of chit chat on the way to the bus stop, afraid that if I paused for breath I’d lapse into my usual shyness and silence, something I was very determined would not happen. Trish was even more alarmed at the way I looked and even more so when she discovered I not only didn’t have a car, but neither smoked nor drank. What got the conversation onto a more natural level was finding we had both been in the US in 1979, she in New York and myself in New Orleans.

We made our way to the Mutton Lane Inn off Patrick Street in Cork because it was a quieter bar and I thought we might have a better opportunity to talk without distraction. I was somewhat taken aback when she asked for a pint. A woman drinking a pint seemed an abomination in my eyes, but I kept my mouth shut. Wise move, Tom.

I thought we got on ok, had a few things in common. She was honest enough to tell me she had been engaged up to recently, but he had broken it off a few weeks before and she was over it. I admired her honesty. I told her about myself and how I had burned my face. The hours just flew by, and I can honestly say she was great company. We missed the bus home so I hailed a taxi, and while it drove us to Trish’s place I had two thoughts in my mind – how could I ask her out again, and would she ask me in for coffee because I didn’t have enough money to take me home! Fortunately, she did ask me in and we arranged to meet the following weekend.

As I waited outside the appointed place for our second meeting I was completely unaware that Trish had been contemplating not turning up. What stopped her was the realisation that she wouldn’t like to be stood up and that I would be hurt. So with no great expectation she arrived, and the night – well, it went amazingly well. What I had hoped would be just a friendship turned into a relationship as we danced the night away. We were very, very open about each other, and I was able to open up to Trish in a way I had never been able to express to anyone else. I loved her laugh, her smile, the way I lit up inside when in her company. I felt unbelievably strong, positive and so unlike my normal self. She was becoming as fond of me as I her, and I knew my scars meant nothing to her. In her words and deeds I knew they were not a problem to her – she loved being with me. I couldn’t believe what was happening.

In the weeks that followed we went to the cinema, on long walks, to concerts, rang the bells of Shandon, danced, and got to know each other so much better. There were no secrets between us. I was exhilarated and wanted the world to know here was not just a facially disfigured and ‘damaged’ (in my eyes) man, but a guy who was at last starting to believe in himself and fighting back at the negative image I had of myself.

A couple of weeks after our first meeting, she had to meet her ex-fiance to close their joint building society account and she told me he wanted to restart their relationship. He was a very good looking guy (I saw him across the street), but she told him she had met someone else and was going to marry him!! That last part she didn’t tell me until later.

A few weeks later Trish had to move to a small town for work, but I wrote long letters every day, and made a trip down to see her – thanks mum! We still have all those letters, and as
Trish said recently after she reread them, it was remarkable how insecure I was. That was a side of me that would take some time to heal.

Five and a half weeks after that first encounter I got down on one knee and proposed to Trish in her kitchen. She said yes, which wasn’t a surprise because she knew I was going to ask. One of my great fears about marriage was that perhaps, because I had lived a very difficult and self-imposed isolated life, that I might rush into marriage with the first person I met whom I liked. Yes, I did want to marry, but no more so than most people. I was just concerned that as I had very little experience in relationships that I might rush and find myself in a bad marriage. And yet there I was after a mere 5.5 weeks engaged to Trish.

We didn’t hang around. We told my parents the following night, and when dad sent my mum off to buy champagne, he turned to Trish and asked, “Are ye really getting married?”. Yes, you could say people were stunned.

I met Trish’s 10 brothers and sisters over those early months, and all seemed especially welcoming. I even met her friends. Trish never bothered to warn them that I was ‘different’. Her attitude when I asked later was that she loved me and that was that.

Ten months after our first meeting we married on March 22, 1985, and we’re still together. I said on radio some time back that Trish was my rock, and I meant it. She showed enormous faith in me which was a lot more than I showed in myself. She gave me the courage not to be afraid of going out into the world again, to have faith in people. I stopped noticing people staring at me, became more confident and outgoing. All those years of beating myself up because of my scars, the anguish, name calling, etc – all that faded into the background. Most of all she made me happy. She remains my closest friend and advisor, a constant support in life.

I loved being with her back then and still do 29 years later.