When Steve Bland returned from a trip to the shops last weekend, his little boy, Freddie, ran to greet him, waving a handwritten letter.
It read: ‘Dear Mummy, I really wish you could come back, but I realise that you can’t. Lots of love, Freddie.’
Seeing the letter, intended for radio presenter Rachael Bland, who died following a high-profile battle with breast cancer 18 months ago, was heart-rending for Steve; a reminder of what he and four-year-old Freddie have lost.
Yet it was also evidence of new hope. For the letter, in all its childish poignancy, was written with the help of Amy — whom Steve has been dating since late last year.
Steve Bland (right with four-year-old son Freddie) lost his wife Rachael Bland to breast cancer 18 months ago
The former BBC radio presenter Rachael (right with Steve and Freddie) was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer in 2016
‘They were talking about Rachael when Freddie said he’d like to write a letter to her, so Amy jotted down what he wanted to say,’ says Steve, 39. ‘I thought it was lovely that they’d been chatting about Rachael.
‘I imagine no one dreams of meeting a widower, it’s not an ideal situation, but Amy has handled it amazingly — Freddie adores her — and I’m very grateful for that.’
Steve met Amy, an advanced nurse practitioner whom he describes as a ‘wonder woman’, last November at a cancer conference in Manchester, where he gave a talk about his late wife who died, aged 40, from primary triple- negative breast cancer.
As is the modern way, they exchanged details of their Instagram accounts and, after linking up online, traded telephone numbers and kept in contact via text message.
It soon became clear there was a spark between them. In the run-up to Christmas, Amy visited Steve a couple of times at his home in Cheshire after Freddie had gone to bed.
Steve and Freddie spent Christmas in the Lake District with his parents, sister and her family. During this time he realised that he had strong feelings for Amy, whom he began to see more regularly at the start of the New Year.
However, it wasn’t until early February, by which time they both felt confident that their relationship had a future, that he introduced her to Freddie.
‘We took our time but, of course, my life revolves around Freddie so it’s difficult to get to know someone properly without involving them in his life, too,’ says Steve.
‘Going out in the evening is a military operation for a lone parent, organising babysitters, and my parents are a huge help, looking after Freddie when I go to London for work, but I don’t want to put upon them too much, so Amy would mostly come to us.’
Rachael (pictured) was a BBC Radio 5 Live broadcaster who also hosted the podcast You, Me And The Big C
Steve met his new partner Amy (pictured together), an advanced nurse practitioner, last November at a cancer conference in Manchester
Those close to Steve have known about Amy since the early days, but it was only this week that he shared news of their relationship on social media — where for two years fans had followed Rachael’s story, first through her blog and then via the BBC podcast You, Me And The Big C.
Steve took over from Rachael as a presenter, alongside Deborah James and Lauren Mahon, following her death.
While Amy, 36, does not relish the limelight and has asked Steve not to give her surname, or details of where she works, it was out of respect to her that he decided to go public.
He wrote: ‘Amy, thank you for taking on all that Freddie and I bring. We both think the world of you.’
Sitting in his living room in Knutsford, in his first interview since finding love again, Steve says: ‘Amy didn’t ask me to post something but she did say: ‘I’m looking forward to when we can be more open about us’ and I thought ‘It’s not fair on her for our relationship to be like a dirty secret’, that is never what I intended.
‘But I was conscious that I would post pictures of me with others, including [podcast co-hosts] Deborah and Lauren, but never Amy, who was becoming an increasingly big part of my life.’
Steve said that it wasn’t until early February, by which time they both felt confident that their relationship had a future, that he introduced Amy to Freddie (pictured together)
While Amy (pictured with Steve’s son Freddie), 36, does not relish the limelight, it was out of respect to her that Steve decided to go public
While wholeheartedly — and perfectly reasonably — believing he has no reason to feel coy about their relationship, Steve was aware that, given the high-profile nature of his wife’s cancer battle and how well-loved she was, some might rush to criticise.
And, inevitably, the odd ‘keyboard warrior’ has criticised him for ‘moving on too soon’.
However, he is too wise — a wisdom that perhaps comes from being widowed, with a young child, in your 30s — to react defensively to such comments.
Steve says: ‘Any negative comments are because people don’t understand — why would they? — how it feels to be in this situation and some are very quick to judge.
‘It wouldn’t be happening were Rachael here still but she isn’t and that’s the reality of the situation I’m faced with.
‘At 39, it would be pretty depressing if I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life by myself.
‘When I first started thinking about it I remember Googling: ‘How long are you supposed to wait before going on a date after being widowed?’
As if I was going to find some rulebook on it. Obviously I didn’t, which tells you two things: one, that there are no rules and, two, that no one talks about it.
Steve and Amy (pictured together) exchanged details of their Instagram accounts and kept in contact via text message
‘I think about Rachael daily and she will always be a big part of our lives but I know she would be happy with what I’m doing, how I’m doing it and what I’m trying to do by talking about it as well so there’s no guilt or conflicted feelings at all.
‘I think I could easily convince myself that there should be some conflict between my ongoing love for her and the fact I’m in a new relationship but there isn’t because I know what she wanted for me and what she wanted for Freddie.
‘And I know that my relationship with Amy feels good and right.’
Falling in love with a widower, whose wedding photograph takes pride of place on his living room shelf, and whose staircase walls are decorated with family shots featuring his late wife, is, of course, very different to being in a relationship with, say, a divorcee.
Freddie was not quite three when Rachael died and, while Steve doesn’t know if he has any clear memories of his mummy, he is canny enough to use the excuse of missing her if Steve ever tells him off — old photographs, together with a memoir she wrote for him, are important reminders.
But, just as Rachael and her co-hosts had always been open about every aspect of cancer, Steve is also keen to do his bit to put subjects, such as the complexities of dating after losing a spouse, into the public domain.
Steve, who described Amy (pictured with Steve) as a ‘wonder woman’, met the advanced nurse practitioner at a cancer conference where he was giving a talk about his late wife
‘I get lots of messages from people who have lost their partners and either want to start dating or already have, but don’t feel they can talk about it,’ says Steve.
‘That’s not right. We’re all on our own individual journeys and the decisions we make are our own, and no one else has the right to judge.
‘If me speaking about this helps even just one other widow or widower, that’s great.’
In fact Deborah and Lauren, who he is in touch with every day via a WhatsApp group, were among the first people he told about Amy.
Although nervous beforehand, given that they had been so close to Rachael in the months before she died, tragically young, at the family home on September 5, 2018, both were hugely supportive.
‘They said they were proud and really happy for me, which meant a lot,’ says Steve.
‘Rachael talked to them more than anybody about these things and said she wanted Freddie to have a mother figure in his life, so they were in no doubt that she would have been on board with it.
‘However, I know it was difficult for Rachael: I was only 38 when she died and she said I could meet someone else and be with them for 40 years and her worry was that — as we only had five or six years together — she would end up being a footnote in our lives.
‘The reality is not like that and I was able to reassure her that she will always be a massive part of our lives.
‘I think Rachael’s desire to see us happy totally superseded that feeling.’
However, Steve’s dread about telling Rachael’s co-warriors in raising awareness about the realities of life with cancer was nothing compared with how he felt about breaking the news to her darling mum.
Freddie’s maternal grandma, who also lost her husband to cancer in 2014, lives in Cardiff but regularly comes to stay for the weekend, and she and her grandson love each other dearly. Steve planned to tell her about Amy during her most recent visit, but kept putting it off.
‘It really weighed on my mind and I was driving her back to the railway station before I finally plucked up courage to say it,’ he says.
‘But she was so supportive and happy for me, she said: ‘I’d like to meet her.’ I think she wanted Amy to know she had her blessing.
‘I could tell it was difficult for Rachael’s mum — she can be a worrier and the main thing is she wants to stay part of Freddie’s and my life and she will, there’s no doubt about that.
But I was so chuffed by her reaction, and massively relieved.’ During her next visit, Steve plans to introduce Rachael’s mum to Amy, confident in the knowledge that she, too, wants her to remain an integral part of their lives.
Amy has already, briefly, met Steve’s parents and sister, Claire, who all live nearby, and, while acknowledging it must have been daunting, Steve says that, like any skilled nurse, Amy is ‘very good with people’.
While he hasn’t yet met her parents, he has been introduced to her brother and some of her friends who were very welcoming.
However, he admits that, if he were in their position, ‘a couple of alarm bells would ring that she had met someone with as much baggage as me’.
He adds: ‘I love that everything to do with Rachael and Freddie is part of my life, but I appreciate to someone who doesn’t know us it must look like a lot to take on.
‘It would be depressing to settle for a second-class version of life for the next 40 years and I’m not going to do that. I’ll focus as positively as possible on the future, with hope and optimism.’
To that end, he, Freddie and Amy have enjoyed a weekend away in a log cabin in the Lake District, as guests of the owner, a fan of the podcast.
They also went to Belfast during February half-term where Steve and Freddie — whose favourite pastime is watching Simple History videos on YouTube — had a wonderful time visiting the Titanic museum and telling Amy all about the exhibits.
Freddie is too young to question the nature of Steve’s relationship with Amy, who lives a 45-minute drive away. She doesn’t have children but she does have two kittens that he loves to play with.
‘If I called her my girlfriend, or whatever, he wouldn’t understand,’ says Steve, who removed his wedding ring, which he stores in a ‘safe place’ with Rachael’s engagement ring.
He did so, seven months after Rachael died, without ceremony and simply because he was ‘no longer married’. ‘Freddie sees us being affectionate towards each other though, and he absolutely adores her.’
While it is still early days for talk about moving in together, marriage or having more children, Steve would be open to all of these things in the future.
For now, he’s enjoying having ‘someone to do nothing with’ in the evenings and at weekends, something he says he hadn’t really appreciated but missed dreadfully after Rachael died.
He is, however, keen to stress that it has taken someone very special to fill that gaping hole.
‘Amy is beautiful, she’s kind, she’s very patient, really good fun and a straight talker — she will tell me if she’s not happy with something and we’re really honest with each other, which is important with some of the challenges we have,’ says Steve.
‘But the real clincher has been that she’s wonderful with Freddie. One of the things I’ve enjoyed the most about the past couple of months is seeing Freddie and Amy together, they get on so well.
‘She has young nieces so she’s used to kids of that age and has been magical with him.
‘Amy popped in on her way home from work the other night and, as I was putting Freddie, who is a very affectionate boy, to bed, he said: ‘Daddy, could you just go and get Amy, I want to tell her something.’
‘I shouted down for her and she came up and he said: ‘I just wanted to say: ‘I love you.’ ‘
It is hard to imagine how Steve, or indeed Rachael, could ask for more than that.