Stephen Deal was working as a writer and director for a small touring theatre company in February 1991. One morning, he bumped into Polly Burn, who had been invited to join an improvisation class in Hammersmith, west London, that he was attending. “I was working as a nursery nurse, but I had an interest in acting,” she says.
Polly was nervous about meeting Stephen, as she knew he had written for the BBC. “My first impression was that he was really rude,” she laughs. “But I soon realised that was his sense of humour.” He says she was quick-witted and attractive. “The more I got to know her, the more I liked her.”
Stephen was using a wheelchair when they met, due to a rare form of muscular dystrophy. “He was so smart and talented. The wheelchair didn’t matter,” says Polly. After the course, they met every few weeks at a Methodist church in London for a theatre group. It was clear they liked each other, but Polly had no intention of falling in love.
She had arranged to move to Romania that summer, for a 12-month placement at an orphanage. “You can hardly say: ‘Don’t go, my need is greater than theirs,’” jokes Stephen. “I just promised I’d write while she was away.” Whenever a letter arrived, Polly would sit and “decode” it with the girls she worked with. “He was flirty and so funny. We fell in love by correspondence,” she says.
On one occasion, Stephen sent a Dundee cake in a tin all the way to Bucharest. “You can’t go wrong with a bit of fruit cake,” he says. Eventually, Polly was keen to find out if there was more to their relationship. “A friend told me the greatest gift is to tell someone you love them. So I managed to phone him up and tell him. It was definitely reciprocated.”
They continued their long-distance love until the summer of 1992, when Polly returned home. “It is 1,300 miles to Romania, the same as the number of pounds my phone bill was. But it was worth every penny,” says Stephen.
Three days after she got back, he asked her to marry him, and they moved into his home in Wimbledon. “He told me that he could either live with me or without me, and he didn’t want to live without me.” Although they were in love, it was difficult to cope with the judgments of other people. “There wasn’t the same awareness about disability as there is now. Some people were shocked that I was marrying someone in a wheelchair and would make rude comments,” says Polly.
They got married in September 1993 and moved to Sutton in south London. The couple spent their time touring the UK with the theatre companies they worked for. “He was in a manual chair then and we wanted to see as much as possible,” says Polly. “We went on lots of holidays.” After seven years, they moved to nearby Carshalton to bring up their sons, who were born in 2000 and 2004.
Stephen says Polly motivates him to live life fully. “She is always on my side and always fights for me.” Although living with his condition can be incredibly difficult, the couple consider themselves lucky to have found the love they have. “He is the bravest person I’ve ever met. There are so many times that I would have given up, but he never complains. I love the very bones of him.”
In the past two years, Stephen’s condition has deteriorated and they have been shielding throughout the pandemic. “I’ve been using a ventilator since before they became trendy,” he says. “Recently, I lost the ability to swallow and speak, so I now use a Stephen Hawking-style machine.” Despite regular trips to hospital, they have managed to have fun in lockdown. “Going through this together means you don’t worry about the small stuff,” says Polly. “We always laugh and we’re so lucky to have each other.”