Personal Column: Love after loss

The actress Maureen Lipman is dating again, three years after becoming a widow. Marilyn Macqueen, 54, knows all about the pleasures and the pitfalls

I met my husband in a local pub when I was 22. He was in the Navy at the time. It was pretty close to love at first sight - a definite ping, my first serious relationship.

We lived together for a year and then got married. He left the Navy because he didn't think it was right for a family man to be away. He worked for the Ministry of Defence in Plymouth and then in the Lake District as a testing and commissioning engineer for submarines. I was well educated and had been to college in Swansea but I preferred to be a wife and mum rather than a career woman.

John was only 43 when we discovered he had skin cancer. When I would get upset he would say how we had had 23 years together and were very lucky. He knew there was no cure and accepted it, but he did chemo for me and the kids. Sam was 18 and Dan 17 when he died, three years after diagnosis. At the time I couldn't conceive of being with anyone else. We were so totally great together and would never have split. He was such a lovely man.

A good marriage means a greater willingness to chance another relationship, and I am a very tactile and loving person. I like holding hands, shows of affection, kissing and cuddling. Life can feel so empty without someone to share it with and I know that John loved me and would want me to be happy.

But, at first, romance was the last thing on my mind. I kept myself busy, and had to keep strong for the children. Then, about a year later I was playing tennis with my son when someone approached me on the court and asked me out. I wasn't looking at all and it was something of a surprise. I was incredibly flattered. He was six years older than I was and a manager in a shipping company.

It was very strange, dating, but what was more strange was the excitement. I hadn't realised that part of me had been dead. John was ill for so long and, because his character went, I lost him well before he died. I didn't feel guilty at all. While you're alive you have to live in the land of the living and I am lucky that my children first and foremost want me to be happy.

Our first date was a picnic lunch. Suddenly it was about me and not about holding things together for everyone else. We were quite compatible; he was flattering and charming. I was swept along.

Physically it was very different. Twenty years with one person means the idea of getting intimate with someone else is almost unthinkable. And then you've emerged the other end of those years a different person with a different body. It's not as though everything is in the same place after all that time! You grow in with your lifetime partner until it's like being with yourself. Suddenly you have no idea what another person will see. It's not like when you're young and feel like you're doing the bloke a favour. You don't quite have that sense of being a goddess that you once did.

But I thought to myself, "this is now, and different doesn't necessarily mean bad". It was a fluid relationship. We'd see each other, then not. I needed comfort, attention and fun, but I wasn't ready for anything fuller. When we did try living together it didn't last, it didn't feel right. For some reason he felt like my father. He was safe and strong during that period for me. I could lean on and rely on him.

The children left home; I was on my own and I became restless. I sold up and moved to Cirencester, then again to a little village in Somerset, but I am only renting. I'm a bit of a gypsy in a way. I found it hard to meet people though. It's not like when you're 18 and can congregate in the pub or disco. Most people my age are tucked away and busy inside the family unit. So, after chatting with my kids I decided to give it a go with a dating agency.

I was terrified at first and then thought, "go for it" and signed up. I described myself as a bright, smart, attractive, fun-loving lady looking for a man who responds well to TLC. Loves family values, loyalty, integrity, mischief and daring, spontaneity, honesty and hugs - and shopping, of course! It was a reasonably accurate description even if, naturally, I emphasised my good points. On the other hand some of my correspondents have been a bit more economical with the truth.

I went out with one bloke who had said he only smoked the occasional cigarette - I am a total non-smoker. I found myself cornered in a pub while he smoked about 30 on the trot. The tears were rolling down my cheeks, and it wasn't with joy! Another claimed to be a poet and thought he made himself more interesting by making himself glum and trying to look deep. There is no bigger turn-off than affectation.

It's dreadful to say it but sometimes you meet men that you're embarrassed to be seen with. That makes me feel very guilty, but we all have individual taste. I once arranged to see someone at a local event. He was the kind of person who is so boring that your brain screams while you try to talk to them. You feel so bad about it, but you can't help it. I was with my friends and he stuck to us like glue, it was excruciating.

Then there was the guy I met for a lunchtime drink. We arranged to meet that evening for dinner but he obviously stayed in the pub all afternoon because he was too drunk to stand up. I had to escort him home. It wasn't very dignified and we didn't make much progress after that.

I met about 12 people last year and there were a few frogs, but everyone is interesting in their own way. I write as a hobby - short stories and poetry - and it's all grist to the mill. I use the dating website match.com and I am chatting online to a few men at the moment. I have a gut instinct and if I don't like a guy's choice of words I write back and say thanks but no thanks. Sometimes they are too formal or lack a spark in their personality. I get the odd dodgy email, which brings on a panic and I worry that I might get pestered. But they seem to get the message quite quickly and lay off.

I have learnt to sparkle in email and to present myself as a character and personality so people will respond. It's fun and stimulating and I've made some lovely friends, but I would like to be in a long-term relationship eventually. I miss the warmth and trust that marriage brings. It's harder to find a match when you're older because you are formed as a person, but anything is possible! It is our attitude to life, to good times and bad, that is so important, not what you do or don't have.

I do know there is a greater force out there, guiding all our fates. Whatever will be will be. In the meantime, so long as I don't delude myself that I can ever replace the irreplaceable, I can enjoy the buzz I get from light-hearted contact with good-hearted human beings.

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