It was the end of the 1950’s. I was seventeen, in the Upper Sixth of the Grammar School. A gangly, spotty lad, and something of a lone wolf. Not much use on the football field and even less on the cricket pitch. Books were my escape, birdwatching my hobby.
Ours was a mixed school, but I was invisible to the girls and so I decided to let them be invisible to me. There were occasional exchanges of course, but on the whole nobody would have noticed if I hadn’t been there. Sometimes, that came in useful and I’d skip a particularly boring class so I could hide in the library, which was quiet and peaceful and I could lose myself in other worlds.
It was on such a day, when I was trying to think of something sagacious to write in my essay, that I became aware of a girl sitting a few feet away from me, at the next table. A sudden shaft of sunlight shone right onto her, a spotlight that lit up her head, and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, a shiver ran down my spine, and my whole body was covered in goose bumps. Her hair looked aflame, and her face aglow. The rest of the room faded away in a mist and I could only stare at the vision before me. Did my jaw drop? Did I gasp? Did I whoop for joy? I don’t know. All I knew was, I was in love.
Did she feel me looking at her? Perhaps, because she raised her eyes from her book and looked straight into mine. She smiled, and the smile wasn’t just on her lips but also in her eyes. Then she went back to her reading. I floated back to the present, and dropped my eyes in embarrassment. Until the bell went for break, I didn’t dare look up again. When I did, she had gone.
It was a week before I saw that wonderful halo of golden hair again, and this time, to my surprise and pleasure, I realized that she took the same bus home as I did. My fevered brain invented excuses to speak to her, scripted long, involved conversations, devised exciting scenarios for interaction. Eventually, it was she who spoke to me, on the crowded bus: “Mind if I sit here?” All my clever responses dried up in my parched mouth and I could only nod and mumble an indistinct, “Sure.” She was sitting beside me! Her sleeve was actually touching mine! And then she turned those eyes like headlights on me, smiled that wonderful smile, and asked, “Are you any good at Latin?”
My opportunity, and I seized it with both hands. “Carpe diem!” I replied and she looked blank. So I cleared my throat and told her I was doing A-Level Latin and wasn’t too bad at it.
“Could you help me?” she asked. “I don’t understand the gerund.”
She was in the Lower Sixth, so fortunately for me that meant I was a year ahead of her and yes, I was able to explain both the gerund and the gerundive, topics which had not figured in any of my imaginary conversations, but in fact led to a perfectly normal, almost relaxed chat. Next time we were on the same bus, she made a beeline for me and sat down with a Cheshire cat grin on her face.
“Thank you for helping me,” she said. “I got full marks for my Latin homework, and did OK in the test, too.”
I would have been chagrined had she not received full marks, but didn’t say so. Instead, I smiled back at her and noticed a dimple in the corner of her mouth that came and went as she spoke. All my prepared smart comments vanished from my mind. How was I going to impress her?
“Any time,” I shrugged, “just ask, and … well, er, just ask.”
In the following weeks, I occasionally saw her around school, in a corridor or at the other end of the hall, once or twice in the library, but never had any chance to speak to her there. However, she made a habit of sitting next to me on the bus once a week, and for the fifteen minute bus ride, I coached her in Latin.
One day, after thanking me yet again for helping her improve her grades, she invited me to tea. I was over the moon! Sunday afternoon, high tea at 5 pm, at her home. Her mother greeted me kindly, her father looked at me as if inspecting an unidentified object left on the doorstep, and her little brother just stared at me with an inscrutable expression that made me feel very uncomfortable.
At about a quarter to six, her father looked at his watch and said, “Well, if you’re going to Evensong, you’d better be on your way.”
Evensong? I wasn’t a churchgoer, and in fact prided myself on my agnosticism. We certainly hadn’t discussed any plans other than having tea. I looked at my gorgeous angel, and she beamed her disarming smile.
“Come on, then,” she urged me, “don’t want to be late.”
And thus I found myself walking beside her up to the lychgate of the parish church. Was I ready for conversion? Would I find my salvation here? Was I destined … ?
But a couple of yards short of the lychgate she stopped and turned to me.
“Thank you for coming with me. I hope you enjoyed your tea. I know you don’t attend church, so you can go now. Bye!”
And before I could say a word, she had flown those few yards and vanished through the gate. I stood stock still for a long moment in disbelief. Then my paralysis melted and I followed her tracks. I looked through the lychgate, and what I saw broke my heart.
On the church steps, about to pass through the main door, was the girl I had been dreaming about for weeks, clinging to the arm of a young man wearing a ‘varsity scarf. As I watched, she put her face up to his and he kissed her on the lips. She gave him her most beautiful smile, and he hugged her. Then, holding hands, they went into the church.
Through the years life has been pretty good to me, though there have been some rough passages as well as smooth sailing. I met and fell in love successively with a range of young women, married one of them, and then, realizing our error, we divorced. I had settled into my bachelor retirement and hoped for a few years of quiet pleasure pursuing my genuine interests rather than those that brought in an income, when a chance phone call turned my world completely upside down.
An old friend of my youth whose path had continued to cross mine at intermittent intervals rang to tell me he had run into an old schoolfriend whilst visiting family who still lived in our old home town.
“And guess what, he lives next door to somebody who used to know you!”
“Who might that be?”
Of course, you have guessed the name he then spoke, a name that I had locked away in a never-to-be-opened compartment of my heart, and had never dared to mention in over 60 years.
“Oh.” That was all I could say. “Oh, really?”
“She remembers you very well … hold on, I have her e-mail address here … “
Instantly I was seventeen again, suffering the agony of having my heart broken for the first time.
I wrote down the e-mail address but it took me a week to pluck up the courage to re-open a wound I had thought long scarred over. She replied the next day, suggesting a video call. I hesitated. I could see what Time had done to me – but could I stand the shock of seeing what the decades had done to her? Well, I decided, confront your demons: maybe this is the way to heal that pain that I have been repressing all these years. I made the call.
The face that appeared on my screen stopped my heart. Those eyes, that smile, just as bright and warm as I remembered them – no, even brighter and warmer, with a glow that only maturity can give. The golden hair was now silver, but all I saw was the sixteen-year-old whose radiance had enthralled me sixty years before. I was in love again.
What did we say to one another? Strangely, I don’t recall any of that first conversation. But there were many more, and although we were now in different parts of the country we talked and shared our experiences as if we were in the same room and had never been apart. She was widowed, with grown-up, middle-aged children living far away. I was alone, childless, a retired teacher of Classics, still birdwatching, reading and playing chess on my computer. In our regular video chats we created our own world of comfort and common interests, shared and discussed all kinds of topics, and found that even where our views diverged, we could differ without arguing.
Finally, after about a year of video chats, we decided to arrange a meeting. I would travel to her place, and we would see whether we were as compatible in the flesh as we were on the screen. Did we have a future together? I was feverish with excitement, planning my long weekend, envisaging scenarios, packing and unpacking then packing again, until finally it was the day of departure.
I was on the doorstep of my house, about to turn the key in the lock, when my phone rang.
A voice I didn’t recognise spoke, asking if I was Mr D. I affirmed that I was indeed he, assuming this was yet another nuisance cold call, but then the speaker identified himself and my blood ran cold.
“I’m really sorry to have to break the news to you like this, but I need to tell you that my mother had a stroke and died this morning. She had written your name and phone number on her calendar for today, so I thought …”
I didn’t hear the rest of what he had to say. I stood there for a long, long moment with the phone in one hand and my suitcase in the other, as my mind replayed a scene from long ago.
A golden-haired girl walking away from me, hand-in-hand with a young man wearing a ‘varsity scarf, into a church.