They say you always remember your first love – and it’s never too late to fall in love again. Meet the couple who just tied the knot in Antigua almost 60 years after they were first engaged.
By Gemma Handy
“Pure nosiness” was the impetus behind the short birthday message in the local newspaper to the ex-fiancée he’d left broken-hearted five decades earlier.
Rob had come across an old photograph of Gilly, with her blonde curls and refulgent, open smile, and wondered what had become of his former love.
Little did he envisage then that the casual overture would reignite an old spark, with both thrilling – and devastating – consequences.
Today, in their Jolly Harbour home, bright-eyed and giggling, Rob and Gilly – originally from the UK – regard each other with the unfeigned adoration of any pair of newlyweds.
The only difference is that their wedding day took place 57 years later than the nuptials they had initially planned for June 1965.
“We met in 1961, got engaged in 1963 – and in 1964 he dumped me,” Gilly imparts stoutly, with the measured cadence of one who’s related this tale before.
On cue, Rob snickers sheepishly.
It turns out, Gilly wasn’t his only girlfriend; Rob in fact had two – each allotted separate days of the week.
“I was 19 and in the Air Force,” he grins, by way of explanation.
When Rob’s other girlfriend found out about Gilly, he was given an ultimatum – her or me.
“In those days, there was no Facebook; you could just disappear. I took the easy option and married Sandra,” Rob says.
Left in the dark, Gilly turned up at their usual meeting place that week at a train station in England, excited to see her fiancé, only for him not to materialise.
“He didn’t get off the train as planned – and I heard nothing more for almost 50 years,” she says.
On August 11 2012, it was Gilly’s husband who spotted the ad in the paper, with the simple text, ‘happy birthday Gilly Davies from RF 1961’ accompanied by an email address.
“It was my husband who recognised the initials and asked if I was going to reply. I said, of course; I was intrigued,” Gilly recalls.
The pair eventually arranged to chat by phone and a 90-minute conversation ensued.
“I asked him if he realised he had broken my heart. He said yes,” Gilly says. “Then we chatted as if we had never been apart.”
“We met a few days later in Bristol and the coincidences unravelled,” Rob picks up. “We both drove a silver Audi, we both got married in 1965, we both had grandsons called Edward – who were both 15.
“We both had sons born in 1966 and daughters in 1968. We both had three grandchildren and both our daughters gave birth to their first child 10 days before their 29th birthday.
“It was as though our lives had run in parallel.”
Still, it wasn’t until they brushed hands that they “realised the chemistry was still there,” Gilly says.
“I asked him for a kiss and we hid our heads in the car boot so no one could see. It was like we were schoolchildren.”
After that, the pair met weekly in secret.
It wasn’t long before Gilly told Rob she was in love with him – for the second time.
“I was disappointed when he didn’t reply,” she says.
“We both had 50-year marriages,” Rob explains. “I had two homes – one in France and one in the UK. I didn’t want to just leave everything I had worked for my entire life.”
Christmas 2013 was spent with their respective families, with the pair arranging to meet up in early January.
“But when I arrived at the hotel carpark, he told me, don’t get out of the car, I have something to tell you. I can’t do this and leave everything. Then he drove off,” Gilly recounts.
The next morning Rob received a long email from Gilly.
“I had broken her heart twice – with a 50-year gap,” he says.
However, a sudden change of heart was to follow.
“I went for a walk that afternoon with my wife,” Rob continues. “Later, when she was cooking dinner, I told her, don’t bother doing that because I won’t be here. Then I grabbed my stuff and went.”
Gilly was elated but still had the painful task of breaking the news to her husband of 49 years.
“I waited for him to come home, prepared him his evening meal, told him I’m sorry but I’m leaving.
“Rob and I basically ran away,” she says.
Gilly breaks down recalling how she hurt her husband. There would be one more agonising separation from Rob a few weeks later before the pair finally left their respective spouses for good, with divorces following later.
“There’s no book on how to leave a partner,” Rob says. “We don’t feel proud of this; we left a trail of devastation behind us.”
The biggest casualty of the decision was Rob’s relationship with his children who no longer communicate with him.
“Not everyone will agree with what we did,” Gilly concedes. “We tried to do it as sensitively as possible. We just want to be happy – and you only have one life.”
In keeping with that ethos, the couple have spent the last eight years extensively travelling the globe, spending a few months at a time in their favourite places, which include Antigua.
“Antiguan people are amazing,” Gilly enthuses. “We have travelled all around the Caribbean but we love Antigua the best. The beaches are fantastic, and Jolly Harbour is like a little village with a great social life.”
Earlier this month, the couple finally tied the knot on Jolly Beach.
“Both of our first weddings were very traditional church weddings, so this was a big departure – a dream wedding really,” Rob beams.
“Everyone said – and still does, everywhere we go – that we look so in love,” Gilly adds.
The reception took place at the couple’s home with the wedding party later going to local restaurant Sea Dreams for live music.
“We wanted to dance to our favourite band, a reggae band called The Survivors. We had made the band aware that our song was ‘Perfect’ by Ed Sheeran, so they learned it and it was our first dance. It made the day even more special,” Gilly says.
Asked what they might have done differently with the benefit of hindsight, both answer simultaneously and resolutely – “nothing”.
“People tell us we are inspirational – that word is used a lot – both about us being together and about our travels,” Gilly, 75, says.
So much so that some dub them the ‘senagers’ – a portmanteau of ‘seniors’ and ‘teenagers’.
“These days, we are voluntarily homeless,” Rob, 77, grins. “All we own is a car and six suitcases of possessions between us.
“My advice to anyone else would be, don’t leave it too late. Whatever it is you want to do, don’t leave it too late.”
*Some names have been changed to protect families