The moment I knew: ‘I scanned the bus terminal. And there he was, waiting for me’

A bus, a train, a plane – in her early 20s, Debra Oswald made a romcom style dash from Canberra to Sydney to cement her relationship with a man she loved

In 1980, securing reliable transport out of Canberra on a Friday afternoon could be risky. Even riskier was declaring love to a person who might not love you back.

I’d been navigating an intense but ill-defined long-distance friendship with a guy – me in Canberra doing my honours year in English, him at uni in Sydney. I was pretty sure I was in love, but he wasn’t so sure. He had another sort-of girlfriend. He needed time to think. (It sounds feeble and naive but come on, I was 20, he was 21 – all of us were floundering then.) The young man suggested I come to Sydney once I submitted my thesis. We would see where things stood.

In my teens, I was never the girl boys fell in love with. I was always the confidante, the friend. I figured my best strategy was to present an unquestionably strong on-paper application for the position of ‘girlfriend’, so that I would at least score the romance equivalent of an interview. (Shrewd realism or festering low self-esteem? You be the judge.)

I handed in my thesis and left him a message – I’d be on the Friday evening train. Canberra taxi drivers used to amuse themselves by playing chicken with the rail schedule and typical of my dodgy luck, I missed the last train to Sydney. “Take me to the bus station!” I bleated. Then more bad luck: every bus seat was sold out.

I could have seen this as a sign my romantic hopes were doomed, given up and retreated to my student hovel. But for no reason, hauling myself to Sydney that evening seemed an urgent, last-ditch, once-only chance.

“Now, please taxi driver, take me to the airport!” I instructed the increasingly wealthy cabby, then blew my precious student dollars on a stand-by ticket with a slim chance for a seat on the last flight out of Canberra.

A heterosexual couple aged in their 60s pose happily for a photo.
‘I’m not sure I would have stuck with the uncertain and sometimes bruising career as a writer through many years without his adamantine support’: Debra Oswald with Richard Glover in 2019. Photograph: Supplied

At the airport payphone, I fed my remaining stack of 20-cent pieces to leave a message on the young man’s answering machine. “I may not get on a plane. If I do, I’ll be at the airport coach terminal in Oxford Street at 9am.”

In romcoms, the climax always involves the muddled lovers running towards each other in a crowded transport hub, the moment punctuated by a bout of pashing and an uncomplicated happy life thereafter. I’m never convinced by that. I don’t believe in The One. But I do believe it’s possible to connect with a pretty-much-right-for-you person at the right moment in your lives. That Friday, having spent all my money and squandered most of my dignity to grab that chance, my unguarded heart was thumping as I scanned the bus terminal.

And there he was, waiting for me. We fell back on to the black vinyl chairs for a breathless pash. That was the moment I knew for sure that he was sure.

It turns out the clunky, flustered trip to Sydney was the beginning of my great piece of luck. I’ve now had four passionate and hilarious decades with that young man. I’m not sure I would have stuck with the uncertain and sometimes bruising career as a writer through many years without his adamantine support. And ever since that desperate day, I’ve been a big fan of air travel.

  • Is There Something Wrong With That Lady? written by and starring Debra Oswald is showing at Ensemble Theatre, Sydney from 18 September to 14 October

  • Do you have a romantic realisation you would like to share? Email with “The moment I knew” in the subject line, and a brief description of your story, to be considered for future columns.

Debra Oswald

The GuardianTramp

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