A former housewife and mum-of-four has found an unlikely new roommate in the form of a convicted drug smuggler who served 14 years in a Thai prison.
Victoria Oak, 62, started writing to “soul mate” Andy Hawke, 63, after her daughter Sam met him at Bang Kwang prison in Thailand while she was travelling.
Sam, now 35, started writing letters to Andy after meeting him and encouraged her mum to do the same from her home in Putney, south west London.
Opening up to a new friend, Victoria started penning letters to Andy – but she had no idea where it would lead.
After 28 years of marriage, Victoria felt “trapped” but kept her feelings to herself. However, when she wrote to Andy, she started sharing her thoughts with him. For seven years, the pair exchanged letters in which Victoria could express her feelings.
Victoria said: “From the time I was 40, my husband and I started to grow apart. I think I just felt very alone. It was a hard time.
“Andy’s letters gave me solace from the hardship I was going through.
“It’s so rare to get things in the mail anymore and it was amazing to receive a handwritten letter sent by Air Mail. It became a real friendship and we talked about everything.”
Although Andy never instructed her on what to do about her marriage, she said it helped to talk to someone honestly about how she was feeling, describing her friendship with him as “escapism.”
Andy was caged in Thailand in 1999 after smuggling drugs into the country and sentenced to 40 years behind bars.
Victoria said: “He struggled so much, his partner had passed away and he just fell into a deep depression.
“I think in many ways, he was taken advantage of. He was asked to take heroin to Copenhagen over the Thai border. I think he was in such a dark place he would have said yes to anything. He just didn’t want to carry on anymore.”
Andy’s story moved Victoria so much that in May 2012, six years after first writing to Andy, she completed the Camino de Santiago trail to the Cathedral of Santiago in Spain, praying for his early release along the way.
Two weeks into the pilgrimage, Andy was finally pardoned and Sam called her mum to tell her the good news.
“I was over the moon. I couldn’t believe he was finally free and my prayers had been answered,” Victoria recalled.
“I felt like we were on the right path and after completing the trek I found the courage to ask my husband for a divorce.”
When Andy was finally released in March 2013 after 14 years in prison, Victoria invited Andy to stay with her in Putney while he found his feet. He stayed for 18 months before moving to Wales.
“It was a tough adjustment for him, going from Thai prison to being back in the UK,” she said.
Together, the pair decided to tell their story in Victoria’s book, Sentenced.
She said: “We’d stay up writing together and reading the chapters over. The more we learnt about each other’s lives before our sentences, the more we bonded.
“But after 18 months, I think we’d had enough of each other.”
The pair decided to part ways and Andy moved to Wales, but they still remain close and share an unbreakable bond.
“He really is one of my best friends. I really love him,” said Victoria.
“We’ve remained so close. I think our lives have become intertwined and we will always have a bond after writing those letters during the darkest times of our life.”
The pair still text and speak at least once a week and have enormous respect for each other.
Speaking about the woman who changed his life, Andy said: “What woman, middle-aged and middle class, would write to an old con in a South-East Asian prison for seven years and then on his release offer to share her home with him until he got back on his feet?
“Only when I actually met this extraordinary ‘Putney housewife’ did I come to realise how much she meant to me.”
After a long five-year editing process, Victoria, now a full-time author, has published Sentenced and wants others to take solace from its message.
“I just hope that other people who feel trapped in their lives find solace in the book and realise that we don’t have to stick with the lives we are given,” she said.