Hero in a shoebox

I found the love of my life in the oddest place...

Published by: Sarah Veness
Published on: 8 December 2011

My colleague Susan beckoned me over to her desk. Ooh, she must have a rude joke or funny picture to show me! I headed straight over - but on her screen was an email from the charity Help for Heroes.
‘They're asking people to send Christmas presents to men and women serving in Afghanistan,' she explained. ‘Fancy doing it?'
I'd read stories of what life was like there for our soldiers - pretty miserable, especially around Christmas. ‘Sounds a great idea to spruce up the festive season for them,' I nodded.
Together, we decided to fill six shoeboxes - three for women, three for men. That lunch break, we headed into town and stocked up on some of the things it suggested in the list - smellies, tea bags, playing cards, puzzle books, supernoodles.
We even popped in some Santa hats. I imagined them sitting around in the dusty heat having a good giggle thanks to us.
That evening, I sat down to write the Christmas cards to go with half the presents. Susan was writing the rest.
We're proud of what you're doing. Keep up the good work and keep safe. Have a good Christmas. Love Kelly. At the last minute, I popped my email address under my name.
‘It'd be great if someone wrote back,' I told Susan, who'd done the same. ‘That way we'd know our boxes went to a good home.'
When I tucked into Christmas dinner a few weeks later, I couldn't help thinking about what kind of Christmas Day the soldiers were having in Afghanistan. Had our shoeboxes brightened up their festive period?
Then one day at the end of January, I was about to head out with Susan for lunch when I checked my email as I pulled on my coat. There was a message from someone called Damien. ‘Probably spam,' I muttered, as I opened it up.
As I started reading, my heart began to race. ‘Guess what?' I grinned across the desk to Susan. ‘I've got a reply from someone who got our shoeboxes.'
‘No way, really?' she said.
Thank you for your kind gesture. It was a really nice feeling to get something from back home. It's amazing to know how much support there is for us.
‘Aahh, that's lovely,' I smiled, a warm feeling washing over me. Excited, I wrote a short message back. It's nice to hear someone received my box. I hope it brought some cheer for you at Christmas.
I wasn't expecting to hear from Damien again but, a couple of days later, he wrote back. It really did, how are you? Well, it'd be rude not to reply, so we started to ping emails back and forth every couple of days.
Damien couldn't say much about what he was doing in Afghanistan, but he told me how lonely and frightening it could be. I worry more about my friends and family, he revealed. How much they're scared for me.
This man was risking his life every day, yet all he could think about was others. I couldn't have been as brave as him! But we did have lots of other things in common.
I can't believe you love Elvis, too, I typed. People always take the Mick out of me!
You can't beat the King.
Soon, I was logging on to my email account every hour - it's a wonder I got any work done!
In one email, Damien attached some photos. ‘Phwoar,' I said, calling Susan over for a look. Blonde, tanned, and handsome in his uniform, he was gorgeous!
‘The two of you seem to be getting close,' Susan teased.
‘We're just penpals,' I blushed.
But the truth was I loved seeing his name appear in my inbox. And I panicked whenever I heard on the news that a soldier had been killed in Afghanistan.
After four months of emailing, Damien's tour of duty was up and he came home to London. One evening, I was sitting watching EastEnders when my mobile rang.
‘Kelly,' said an unfamiliar voice. ‘It's Damien...' My heart skipped a beat. It was strange hearing Damien's voice when for months he'd just been a name on a screen.
But it wasn't awkward at all and we spoke every day. But even as my feelings grew, I felt more and more cautious. Where was all this leading? We'd never even met, but I got butterflies every time I got a call from him. I'd had disastrous relationships... Was I heading for another disaster by falling for a bloke I'd never seen?
Damien made sure we found out. ‘Right, I'm coming to see you this weekend,' he announced at the end of June.
‘Er, umm, okay,' I squeaked. I was so excited, but a mess, too.
‘Help me to find the perfect outfit,' I begged Susan. Together, we chose smart jeans, a new pretty top and blue cardigan. I even got my nails done!
‘God, what if this is a big mistake?' I groaned.
But it didn't stop me rushing to answer the door when he knocked at my parents' home in Banbury, Oxford, where I was staying.
There he was, just as wonderful as I had imagined...
Both of us smiled shyly as we walked to his car. ‘You look lovely,' he grinned - and I grinned back at him.
As cheesy as it sounds, meeting Damien was as comfortable as meeting an old friend. We pottered around Stratford-upon-Avon for the day and had lunch in a pub on the river.
At some point, he casually took my hand... and that's how we stayed. ‘I'm so glad we've finally met,' he smiled. Me, too!
Dropping me home, Damien reached over and kissed me. ‘Shall I come back again next weekend?' he asked.
‘That would be nice,' I grinned. After that, he came back every weekend.
‘I can't believe you found love just because of those shoeboxes,' Susan said, thrilled for me.
‘Me, neither,' I giggled.
One weekend in October, Damien came to stay. We'd planned a cosy night in. Good job too, as he looked like he was coming down with something.
‘You look sweaty,' I said, pulling on my pyjamas. ‘Don't you feel well?'
‘Errr... I'm fine,' he stammered. ‘I just want to ask you something.' Suddenly, he dropped to one knee.
‘What are you doing?' I croaked. He pulled a small box out of his pocket.
‘Kelly, will you marry me?' he said, nervously.
I'm not one to be lost for words, but I just stared, gobsmacked. ‘Yes,' I grinned. ‘Yes, of course.'
We're getting married on December 17, and our guests will be receiving Help for Heroes pins as a wedding favour.
In the new year, Damien will be heading back to Afghanistan, which will be difficult for both of us. We'll manage, though - I mean, that's where our love blossomed after all. Filling those shoeboxes helped me find my very own hero!

Kelly Pickering, 29, Banbury, Oxfordshire