The moment I knew: ‘The train station was where I first felt the magic’

Despite his chemistry with Alison, Paul Callaghan was reluctant to turn their friendship into something more – but a winter morning commute changed his mind

I am a love tragic. Have been since I was a teenager, when I would fall in love with any female that came close to talking to me at high school. The problem was no one was that interested in me. It wasn’t sex that I was after. I just wanted someone to like me.

But on the morning of the 24 December 1986, my life changed forever. I had no idea it was coming. I went to work looking forward to the highlight of the year, the Christmas Eve party. It began before lunch and transitioned to a bar at the Wentworth Hotel in Sydney. It was early afternoon and spirits were high.

Some colleagues were talking to two young women. I was captivated by one of them, Alison. She had the most amazing red hair. The gathering moved to a pub at Circular Quay. As we left, I gave her a line Patrick Swayze would have been proud of: “Come with me and I’ll show you a good time.” Later that night we had our first kiss against a cigarette machine at the Orient Hotel.

The next day, unbeknown to me, she told her family she’d met the person she was going to marry.

But it wasn’t an easy task for her to fulfil. Although I had always wanted to be loved, I was like an apple that had been dropped on the floor too many times. Too bruised to think I could be of any value to anyone. My poor self-esteem had led me to unknowingly build an emotional wall that wouldn’t let anybody through.

A man in a green short-sleeve shirt with skinny black tie and a woman in a puffy-sleeve blue dress at their engagement party in the 80s.
‘She told her family she’d met the person she was going to marry’: Paul and Alison at their engagement party in 1989. Photograph: Paul Callaghan

I loved Alison’s company and we saw each other almost every day after that first kiss, but I wasn’t prepared to convert a beautiful friendship into a romantic relationship. The spark that surrounded us whenever we were together was too special to risk.

So what changed? When did I realise I loved her? When did I allow the barricade around my heart to fall?

It was six months after that Christmas party. I had moved to the same suburb where Alison lived with her parents. A friend who had moved to the area needed a flatmate, and moving closer to her just felt right.

During those winter mornings, I would rise at 6.45am, have breakfast, and walk down the alley, past the dog that hated me, to meet her at Arncliffe train station, which was located between her unit and mine. Seeing Alison there was always the best part of my day; being with her was the ultimate practice of mindfulness. Without trying, we would luxuriate in the moment and not care what was happening outside our bubble.

One morning, as I descended the stairs to the platform, there she was in an off-white jacket with matching scarf, business skirt and Daisy Duck shoes. When I close my eyes, I can still see her there, smiling. No camera on earth can capture the beauty of that moment, but it will stay with me forever.

That day, the feeling that came over me was about more than how she looked. For the first time in my life, I felt I mattered, that I was special, that I was understood. And when I revisit that morning in my mind, feelings of lightness, hope and young love flood my soul with thankfulness.

The train station was where I first felt the magic. There were others – ferry trips to Manly, weekends out of Sydney, our first holiday to the Cook Islands. How beautiful she looked walking down the aisle on 6 January 1990; how my understanding of love grew with the birth of each of our three children.

Over 36 years there have been countless moments where our love has connected at a soul level. With Alison, I know I am blessed.

Paul Callaghan

The GuardianTramp

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