How we met: ‘It felt like chatting with an old friend rather than meeting for the first time’

When Steve was introduced to an early online messaging system called Internet Relay Chat in 1994, he was excited to meet like-minded people. “I was living in Essex and working for a telecommunications company, so unlike many I had access to the internet and computers,” he says. “I joined an early online group for Kate Bush fans and we splintered off into another group for fans of a New York singer called Happy Rhodes.” He says the communication tool was “very slow” by today’s standards. “It showed every letter someone typed,” he laughs.

In the US, in Connecticut, Lisa was introduced to the same messaging program by one of her friends. “I was doing a neurobiology PhD at the time,” she says. “I was living alone and working in a lab by myself a lot. She gave me a disc which meant I could talk to people all over the world, so I had to try it out.”

She soon stumbled on a group called Ecto, which she assumed was biology-related. “It turned out to be the Happy Rhodes group, and it was named after one of her songs. I didn’t know anything about the music but Steve was online, so I asked him about it.” He offered to send her a cassette, but she was too nervous to give out “real world” information. “I disappeared for a while and then came back to the group and we started chatting again.” Eventually she felt comfortable enough to share her address and he sent the cassette. “I thought it was really nice so I sent him a cassette of Miriam Makeba, which was music very close to my heart as I’d listened to her growing up.” Steve was touched by the gesture. “I’d sent out lots of tapes to others who joined the group but this was the only time anyone sent something back,” he says. “That was the start of a more personal connection.”

They soon began chatting online every day, often for hours at a time. “I would get up before work so we could talk,” says Lisa. “I liked the way he wrote and he seemed very thoughtful. It felt like we were sitting in a coffee shop. I was excited to meet someone on my wavelength.” They spoke about their lives, with Lisa confiding in Steve about her mental health challenges and bipolar diagnosis. “We were very honest and open,” says Steve.

In the summer, he visited Chicago to see some friends and phoned Lisa from his hotel. “I was surprised to hear his British accent because I’d been reading all his messages in my voice,” she laughs. By the autumn, they felt there was something romantic between them. “We wanted to meet up to confirm what we already knew,” says Steve. That December, he travelled to Connecticut to see her. “It felt like reuniting with an old friend rather than meeting for the first time,” he says. They took a trip to Westchester, New York, where they discovered a shared love of food and cooking. “It was great that we were compatible in the kitchen, too,” he says.

‘She challenges me to do new things’ … Steve and Lisa on the London to Cambridge bike ride, July 2019

While Lisa finished her PhD, they had a long-distance relationship, visiting each other’s country every 10 weeks. “While Lisa was staying with me for the first time, I arranged lunch at a nearby restaurant where she could meet my parents. They were not aware until much later just how deep our feelings were for each other, but they were interested in meeting this woman that I’d got to know in such an unusual fashion.” This early meeting made Lisa feel “very welcome” and she had no hesitation about moving to the UK at the end of 1996. “She came over with a fiancee visa and we married straight away,” says Steve.

In 2003, Steve was made redundant from his job at a telecoms company, but found another IT role at the University of Cambridge, close to where they still live. Lisa worked in various roles, including scientific research, before finding a technician job she enjoyed. In the early 2000s, her mental health declined and she suffered a breakdown. “Steve was a wonderful support during that time. I had a long period in therapy and he sacrificed a lot for me,” she says.

Lisa has been much better for the past few years, but loves how much her partner continues to support her. “He really looks after me – I know I can tell him how I’m feeling and he always makes things easier,” she says. Steve appreciates Lisa’s lively personality. “She challenges me to be more sociable and adventurous and to try new things,” he says. “She’s so creative, vivacious and interesting, and always full of life.”


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