By Jodi Bryant
When Helen Macdonald posted a Christian charity envelope through the door of atheist Steve Lewis in their home town near Edinburgh, little did she know it would lead to the virtual strangers marrying and landing themselves in New Zealand locked out of their home country.
Not that they're complaining; as they gaze out at the stunning harbour view from the Onerahi "holiday home" they bought in 2013, the couple consider themselves lucky to have been in the country when lockdown struck one year ago.
"We love the UK. We miss the friends and family but also the city lifestyle in Edinburgh but I'd rather be sitting here in the warmth and freedom," smiles Helen.
Back home in their small village just outside of Edinburgh, the pair vaguely knew of each other with their yards almost backing onto one another's while married to their previous partners. Then after Helen's marriage ended, she had moved around the corner just two doors down from Steve and Trish.
"I had seen Trish around the village but our lives were different as I had kids and was a church-goer," says Helen, 71.
"I recognised Helen as the lady who used to jog by the window," laughs Steve, 70.
However, they didn't meet until some years later after Steve lost his wife of 36 years to leukemia and Helen took round a sympathy card.
"She knocked on the door to deliver a sympathy card and to say how sorry she was and it was special because so many people, they come around in the dead of the night and leave cards but keep their distance because it's human nature and they don't know what to say," reflects Steve.
It wasn't until eight months later in 2011 that they met again. Helen was delivering Christian charity envelopes and popped one through Steve's door. When she returned to collect it, he was out.
"People put money in them and you come back and collect them. Steve wasn't in when I came back to collect it and then I picked up him," she laughs.
Steve explains: "Since I wasn't at home, she left a new envelope with a post-it giving her number because she wanted to hear about the charity walk I'd done (for leukemia)."
"I'd also been a bereavement counsellor, so thought he might like to chat," says Helen.
Steve called Helen and the pair met for a lunch that lasted around five hours.
"We had lunch at a discreet hotel," remembers Helen. "It's a small village," she adds, laughing.
"It was a lovely first date," says Steve. "When Trish knew she wouldn't recover, she was very adamant in dusting myself off and getting on with life. And, in fact, to meet two women to have been madly in love with… We didn't have kids, not through choice, and to suddenly be a grandad, I've been pretty lucky."
At that point, Helen's daughter Jan was heading to New Zealand to live and Helen was planning to visit.
"I said my daughter was going out to New Zealand with my only grandchild and I was planning to retire the following year. Steve was also planning to retire and he cheekily said, 'Oh, you don't know I was born in New Zealand, you don't want somebody to show you around?'"
Steve, whose career involved 20 years in the air force and another 20 as a civil air traffic controller, had spent the first 3.5 years of his life in Auckland before his family moved back to Scotland but he had never returned.
The pair arrived in spring 2012 having shipped out a motorhome in which they toured the country for four months.
"It was a baptism of fire for both of us in many ways," says Steve. "We had known each other one and a bit years, but we loved every minute of it."
When their holiday ended, they sold the motorhome and decided to look for a holiday home close to Jan.
"We started looking around and we were selling the motorhome and one of the people who enquired lived nearby so we both went round and, while Steve and the guy went on the test run, I started chatting to the lady and she said she'd been a carer for a gentleman around the road who had just passed and his house was coming up for sale."
Several months later, having returned to the UK, and with Steve frequently checking, they spotted the house going up for auction and got Helen's daughter and partner to bid on their behalf. They were successful and Helen and Steve secured a cute little house just several doors along from Jan and, soon-to-be, two grandchildren. For the next six years, the couple spent six months in each country during summer, becoming engaged on Christmas Day 2013.
"We had been on a cruise and Helen had admired a ring that was really just costume jewellery," recalls Steve. "She went back to get it but I had already bought it. Then, on Christmas Day, I gave it to her as one of her presents and said, 'If you'll marry me, you can wear it on your left hand'. Things had been going very well and we just gel and were completely in love with each other, so I thought, 'what the heck'."
"We were at Jan's house at the time and she was Face Timing her dad. She said, 'Oh my God, Steve's just proposed to mum!' and he said, 'Stupid bugger!'" laughs Helen.
They married in St Stephen's Anglican church around the road in 2014 in what they describe as a "lovely little wedding".
"It was very informal and we just decided to invite all the folk we had met basically and then had them back at our little place. There was about three dozen, it was completely brill," describes Helen.
"Then in November 2019 we came out as usual with return tickets for May 2020 and we're still here," grins Steve.
"Initially our flights got cancelled so we applied for new flights for June and they got cancelled as well. By the time we got to November, we said well it's pointless going back now – it's going back to the cold so we might as well stay and the UK was a mess and New Zealand was just wonderful so it was a no-brainer," said Helen.
After the couple sold Steve's house in Scotland, they had been living together in Helen's which now sits empty across the globe. However, as well as Helen's son keeping an eye on it, they are able to keep things in check from their phones.
"Our insurance over there requires the temperature to be kept at a minimum of 13 degrees," explains Steve. "So, I control the heating from my phone and we can also tell if Helen's son has been in there."
Helen says Jan was delighted with their extended stay and it gave them their first taste of a New Zealand winter.
"You've got warm rain, it's nothing like a UK winter."
With their house only equipped for summer, they have now prepared it for their second New Zealand winter.
"The whole point of being in both places was visiting family and to tour around and we can't do that over there so it's pointless trying to get back," says Helen. "A girlfriend back home said they're actually frightened to go out it's so rampant."
Adds Steve: "Edinburgh is a huge social city and we used to go in two times a week and our friends said they haven't been in since March last year so we're not missing anything. So, we're not trapped - this is a joy."
When friends back home ask them to describe New Zealand, they say it is "geographically like Europe in a nutshell".
"It covers a huge range of styles of land but the biggest thing is the people are happy and relaxed on the whole. We find it very uncomplicated compared to home."
While Helen and Steve try not to post too much on social media in empathy of their loved ones' situation, instead, it gets a positive response.
"They actually want to know as they see it as a bit of brightness. Seeing it gives them hope."
Although the couple have suffered the losses of Helen's brother and Steve's best friend over the last year, they count their blessings to be on this side of the world and have made lots of friends, spending their days walking, cycling, swimming, travelling and being hands-on grandparents. Steve, still an atheist, also helps out at the church which Helen is a member of.
"We're basically blessed, we feel very lucky to be able to do what we are able to do. Thank you New Zealand and thank you mum and dad for my being born here," adds Steve.