Jo Walker and Pete Cuskelly
Jo Walker and Pete Cuskelly

Valentine's Day joke turns to love

SIX years ago, as a joke, English girl Jo Walker sent an Aussie bloke she had never met a Valentine's Day card. Now she is preparing to marry him.

This is a cross-continent love story that culminates with the gregarious young woman tying the knot with Wheatvale State School principal Pete Cuskelly on December 30.

But as with most romantic tales, their story starts long before the white wedding they have planned in a little village called Preston Candover, south- west of London.

“I was on holiday in Thailand about six years ago and I met this Australian girl called Melissa Kidd, who was on her honeymoon,” Ms Walker said.

“We got on really well and she and her husband used to joke about how well I would get on with her brother Pete.

“I just laughed and then they convinced me to send him a Valentine's Day card, which I did.

“They just thought it was hysterically funny.”

Ms Walker said the card continued to be the source of great humour.

“I emailed Melissa a few years later when I was travelling to Australia and she invited me to come stay and said they'd show me around,” she explained.

“Everywhere we went they told people about the Valentine's Day card joke.”

The young Brit admitted she became a little embarrassed by the attention. “I played along with it though. When I meet Melissa's parents I even gave them a card saying thanks and, as a joke, wrote ‘from your future daughter-in-law'.”

The line would prove more fortuitous than she could ever have anticipated.

“Then Melissa told me she had arranged for us to go and stay with Pete so I could finally meet him,” Ms Walker said.

“I was horrified. It was awful.

“I begged her not to go. I even rang my mum in England and told her. She suggested I pretend I was ill.”

As fate would have it she went through with the trip, travelling to a little country school inland from Bundaberg to meet the recipient of that sweetheart joke.

Seven hours later she was smitten. “We spent an afternoon and an evening talking and then I left the country.”

She flew to Thailand with a friend as part of a pre-arranged travel schedule, but the chance encounter with the handsome teacher played on her mind.

In the end she abandoned her travel plans, returning to Australia to spend a fortnight with Pete at the one-teacher school where he worked at Abercorn, near Monto on the North Burnett.

“I needed to see if it was just ‘a nice evening'.” But it wasn't without reservations.

Aside from the fact there was nowhere to stay except with him (Abercorn's official population is 20 and that doesn't include a motel), she wasn't sure it was a sane idea.

“I was really nervous when I went back,” she said.

“If my sister or anyone else had said they were doing something as crazy after just meeting a guy for seven hours, I would have told them they were mad.”

Two weeks told her something else – she had met someone incredible.

Rather than simply being some Australian bloke she once played a practical joke on, Pete Cuskelly was charming.

But meeting him threw her world into disarray.

She had planned to return from her travels and move to New York, where the company she worked for as an administrator was opening an office.

Back home in the United Kingdom she weighed up the merits of an Australian boyfriend.

“Then Pete flew over, and I know my parents loved him for that,” Ms Walker said.

“He came for 10 days and meet everyone and it was so sweet of him.

“When I decided to move to Australia I kept telling myself the worst thing that could happen was it doesn't work out.

“Then I'll just go home.”

Yet there was never a chance her Warwick born and bred school teacher wouldn't make it work.

“Moving here was so different, but strangely enough I had always had a dream of living in the country and having a farm,” Ms Walker said.

“Well we haven't got to the farm bit, but I have spent more than two years living in the country.”

Even so, she said, initially Abercorn felt a world away from her family and life in the city of Basingstoke with its population of 150,000.

“When Pete said ‘Come and see my school', I walked in and there was one classroom and 15 kids.

“I had to ask him: ‘Where is the rest of it?'”

When the young couple transferred to Wheatvale two years ago, she grew used to having cattle over the back fence and wide open spaces at her back door.

“Today I can't ever imagine living in the city again.”

She has also grown used to the Australian weather.

The couple leave Warwick this weekend destined for Basingstoke, where they will be joined by several Australian family and friends for their wedding.

“My mum said it was four degrees today so things are warming up,” she joked.

“I always wanted a white wedding. It is the next most romantic thing after Pete proposing in Paris last Christmas.”

Despite the cold conditions and a forecast for snow, the bride will be wearing a strapless wedding dress. “No one gets married over there in winter, so there was no such thing as winter wedding dresses,” she explained.

But her concession to the weather will be bright pink gumboots and a warm fur.

“The little flower girls will be in full-length fake fur coats, but I think I'll just have to freeze for a bit.”

And, contrary to wedding custom, it won't be confetti and rice being tossed around at the ceremony.

“We're actually putting out sand and grit on the paths around the church so we don't have to stand in the snow,” she said.

Her parents have even told the local television news crew about the wintry nuptials.

“Mum thought if it does snow the more help we have getting the 15km to the church the better. I think she is hoping the news crew might organise a bulldozer if the weather really gets bad.”

The Australian groom-to-be is doing his part to promote his homeland by wearing a pair of RM Williams crocodile print boots.

But attire aside, Jo Walker knows that what she and Pete have goes beyond plans for December 30. It's about love and their future.

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