“Though lovers be lost, love shall not; And death shall have no dominion.”
― Dylan Thomas
“Peter, what are you staring at? For goodness sake, pay attention lad, otherwise you will have no chance in the upcoming mock exams. Now, continue the line….’The fair breeze blew,…..”
I felt that horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. You know, the one that makes you feel as though you must dash to the toilet. I hadn’t been listening to ‘Granny Smith’, as we nicknamed her. She was our English Literature teacher. She was small, and wrinkled like a walnut. I don’t know how old she was, but certainly over a hundred, or so it seemed at the time. She was very strict, humourless and seemed to enjoy embarrassing pupils during lesson. I hated her. But no, on second thoughts, I didn’t hate her. She was too much like my own Gran for me to hate her. Secretly, I had a soft spot for Granny Smith, but would never let on to my mates of course.
I hadn’t been listening. On the same row, three desks across, was Barbara. I had not been paying attention, just looking at Barbara. Her long blonde hair, tied into a ponytail that she pulled over her right shoulder, twiddling with the ends when she was concentrating hard. I loved the little freckles on her smooth cheeks, the way she pouted at difficult questions, with full moist lips.
It was the early 1970s. The girls wore short skirts, showing off their milk white legs up to their thighs. Barbara’s were muscular but shapely, betraying her athletic ability. Her small breasts were forming and I was lost in a dream, longing to be able to see them, caress them and, kiss her beautiful red lips.
But these imaginary pleasures were shattered by Granny Smith. She wore the black schoolteacher’s gown, that many of our more senior teachers did in those days, which made her appear even more fearful.
“Well, I’m waiting”, she cried in frustration.
What was all of this “fair breeze” stuff about? I had no idea.
I just dropped my head and replied, “sorry Miss”.
With a heavy sigh, she turned to the class and continued with the explanation of the work. The ironic part of this anecdote from my schooldays is that all my life I have never forgotten the meaning of alliteration, nor those lines from the Rime of The Ancient Mariner. Probably, even without realising it, Granny Smith had taught me what she had wanted to.
As soon as the bell went, I trudged out of the classroom, feeling a bit sorry for myself. I guess it was due to looking down in the dumps that a friendly voice said, “don’t let her get to you Peter. She is like that with everyone, but has a good heart. She just wants us to take something away from these lessons and learn something, rather than end up serving in a supermarket.”
“I suppose you’re right”, I replied, looking up to see it was Barbara who was speaking to me.
“In any case, what were you staring at?”, she asked.
“Nothing”, I said. “Well that’s not strictly true, but if I tell you, you will only laugh at me.”
“Of course I won’t. I have three brothers and, believe me, there is nothing that would surprise me.” She looked so open and friendly that I decided to open up and tell her.
We went over to the edge of the playground and sat on the wall, well away from the hordes of other kids. I looked at her directly into those blue eyes, and blurted it out.
“I love you, Barbara”
She almost laughed, and even I thought it sounded totally corny. She checked herself in time, puckered her lips slightly, and said that we hardly knew each other.
“I know. It sounds ridiculous to me too, but I love you more than anything or anyone I have ever met. You are so…..so….so….perfect”
Now she did laugh, but I wasn’t offended. She laughed in a humble way, at my suggestion that she was perfect.
She passed it off by saying that she wished her Mum and Dad thought she was perfect. I noticed a slight squint in her eyes and a turn of her mouth that betrayed an unspoken sadness. She noticed my observation and without being asked the question, told me that she has to go away. Her parents think that she is not doing well enough at a mixed grammar school and will be sending her to boarding school after the summer holidays.
We saw each other every day through the holidays. I was besotted. We played tennis, held hands as we took long walks along the canal, lay in the long grass and talked, sometimes kissed. A kiss was as far as Barbara was prepared to go. I would have gone further. I wanted to hold her, devour her, have every piece of her, but my love for her meant that I respected her hesitation. We were fifteen years old.
One day I was walking down the stairs at home, when I heard my mother and father talking.
“He’ll soon get over it. Didn’t we get over our first crush soon enough?”
“I’m not so sure. This is not like Peter. He has always been so carefree. He seems to really care for her. It’ll break his heart when she disappears from his life”
I ran into the room. “Barbara will never disappear from me,” I screamed. “I will marry her and always be with her, and you will never be able to stop me.”
I was so upset that I called to see Barbara. Her father answered the door.
“Barbara is in her room, preparing for the new school curriculum. She has a lot of work to do to catch up. She will not be out today.” Her father looked very serious and almost aggressive. It was clear that he didn’t like me, or me being with his daughter.
It was to be 19 years before I saw Barbara again.
I tried everything I could to contact Barbara, all to no avail. I even broke into the school secretary’s office late one evening after everyone had gone home, to see if I could find some information about which boarding school she had been sent to. Her parents sent me away with a flea in my ear whenever I approached them. My parents just gave me love and sympathy, but no help to find her. They assumed I would just, “get over it”.
My school grades deteriorated. I failed all but one of my O levels. My relationship with my parents also became strained. My feeling had been that when I really needed their help, it wasn’t forthcoming. I could not trust them again. I needed to look after myself.
I took a job at 16, labouring for a plumber. The pay was small, but it kept me occupied. Dave, the plumber, was a big gentle Teddy Bear of a guy. He liked me and gradually gave me small plumbing jobs, especially in situations where his big hairy hands were too clumsy to work in confined spaces. One day he said to me, “Peter, you have a natural way about you for this work. How would you like to sign on as my apprentice? The pay won’t be much, but you can go to college and learn the trade properly. Once your City and Guilds is completed, I will set you on as a plumber. By then I will be ready to slowly wind down and retire.”
I did the apprenticeship, took the job and by the time I was twnty-five Dave retired, leaving me to run his little plumbing business. I worked hard, built the business, and within five years had a company of thirty people. By then, most of my friends were married and bringing up children. My parents had been wrong. I never did get over Barbara. There were girls, some even lasted a month or two, but every time I ended up feeling that they could never compare with the schoolgirl with the blonde ponytail. I may have been only fourteen, but my love was as real and as strong as it had been all those years ago.
I knew that I would never marry, never have children and never feel that beautiful pain of pure love ever again. I had been unlucky in life. I had met my true love far too soon.
Call it an obsession. Call it indulgence. Even call it perversion. Either way, I could never stop going over those six short weeks with Barbara. Six! Only six. I learned to break the six weeks down into 42 days, trying to remember each day as a separate memory. After all, 42 is far more than six. I found that I could break this down further, 1008 hours, although every hour was not spent with my beloved, it was as if that was the case. The nights would be spent dreaming and were as real as the daytime, when we had been together. But even a thousand was not enough for me. Each hour broke down into thousands of individual moments. The way she tied her ponytail, her squint when she was sad, her beautiful smile, which parted her lips slightly, just wide enough to show her even white teeth. I learned, over the years, to cherish every one of those millions of moments, like a bowl of sugar, where I could pick up a few crystals between the fingers of my mind, and cherish every one of them.
I knew there could never be a replacement for my lost love.
I needed to be at the bank early, as soon as they opened, in order to make a nine thirty appointment with my accountant. I parked in the multi storey, just a few minutes’ walk from the bank. It was drizzling of rain, one of those dark November mornings that sap your energy and prepare you for the long months of winter. I was looking at the floor as I hurried towards the bank, careful not to step into one of the many dirty puddles. A car came by too close, splashing water onto my trouser leg. I looked up and waved my fist in frustration.
In an instant, the car was forgotten, the rain was forgotten, and the bank was forgotten. Walking towards me was a shape, a form, a figure, an unmistakable figure. For a split second I thought I must be hallucinating. Then she looked up. It was Barbara.
I tried to control myself.
“Barbara”, I said. “Is it really you?”
“Peter, how nice to bump into you. How are you?”
“I’m fine. Busy as usual. I have a plumbing business. And you?”
“Yes, thanks. I have just dropped my boys off at school.”
It hit me like a sledge hammer. She was married with children. Within seconds I had to process this in order not to start spluttering nonsense. Of course she would be married. What else could I have expected? In order to get over my shock, I quickly switched to small talk.
“So, you are living here in Nuneaton?”, I asked.
“Yes, I have been here for four months.”
There came an awkward silence between us. There was so much to say, at least from my side. I suddenly became aware of our surroundings and realised that we were slowly getting wet.
Barbara must have had similar thoughts. “Do you have time for a coffee?” she asked. “I have nothing planned until I pick Ted and Arthur up at three o’clock”
“Er..yes. I’m free all morning too”, I lied, immediately dismissing all thoughts of banks or accountants.
We sat for two hours in a nearby cafe. Barbara told of her life at boarding school, her two horses, which took up most of her spare time. She told me about her two twin boys, Ted and Arthur. They were both six years old and identical in all ways except personality. I listened to it all with envy, jealousy. I couldn’t help thinking, they should have been my children too, but I was very careful, even afraid, not to say something that would spoil the moment.
“What does your husband do?” I asked, still trying to appear normal.
“He was an architect. He had his own company. He was very successful.”
“You must be very happy, Barbara. I am so pleased for you.”
Then I saw that squint in her eyes and the tell-tale turn of her mouth that betrayed some hidden sorrow, just as it had all those years earlier. Then a tear spontaneously sprang out of her eye, coursing down her cheek and before she could catch it, dropping onto her white blouse. My heart leapt.
At the same moment I realised what she had said. How could I be so lacking in basic empathy. She had said “was”, past tense. I wanted to crawl away and hide.
“I moved here, back to my parents, as I am now alone,” she stammered. “Roger died in a water skiing accident last June. He hit a log floating just below the surface, and broke his neck. He died on the way to the hospital.”
“Oh God, how awful, and for the boys, without a father. I’m so sorry for not realising….”, I stammered.
She cut me off, between sobs. “It’s OK, you didn’t realise. I’m OK, really. Roger and I weren’t very close if the truth be known. I never did love him like I loved….well it doesn’t matter.”
“Would you like to meet for coffee some other time?”, I tentatively asked, after plucking up courage.
“Yes, I would like that, but don’t you have a family or girlfriend?”
“No, I never did find the right person. I married my work instead.”
We were each thirty-four years old on that day when we met in the rain. After meeting for coffee a few more times, we began to date. We went to the cinema, on long walks along the canal. We even lay in the long grass and kissed. Nearly twenty years, a husband, two children, had changed nothing for me. This second time around I was more prepared. I savoured every minute, every second, adding more grains of sugar to my mental sugar bowl.
It was almost a year before Barbara asked me to meet her with the boys. She had to be sure about me, and was not prepared to let her boys have a string of uncles as they grew up. We met for a walk in early October. Her relief when she saw how I interacted with Ted and Arthur was plain for all to see. They liked me and I quickly grew to love them.
The evening that I was invited to Barbara’s parents’ home for dinner saw me in a state of panic for the whole day. All I remembered was that they hated me, and I had certainly harboured my fair share of hate for them. They had stolen a piece of my life. They had banished me to a life without the person I loved. But how could I be angry at them? They had also created the very person that I loved. They had made my wonderful torment possible.
I pressed the same doorbell that I had pressed in anger 20 years earlier. The same person came to answer the door. But it wasn’t the same person. It was a stooped, grey haired old gentleman, with sad eyes and shaky hands.
“Hello Peter”, he said. “It’s been a long time”.
I could see in his manner that I was very welcome. The aggression was all gone. There was only kindness and frailty in his eyes.
“Can I ask a favour of you, before we have dinner?”
“Yes, of course”, I replied, wondering what was coming.
“I would like to talk to you privately in my study, before we call Barbara and the children down.”
We entered a large dark, bookcase decorated room, with a heavy leather desk at one end and three small armchairs and a coffee table at the other. This had clearly been used for business meetings during his working life. In one of the chairs sat a beautiful old lady, with blue eyes and blonde hair. Without introduction, I knew this was Barbara’s mother, and momentarily marveled at how Barbara would appear in thirty or so years’ time.
It was in this room that I learned how these two elderly people had done what they thought was the best for their daughter, now only to realise that it was the biggest mistake of their lives. Barbara had suffered at boarding school, had cried, screamed, played truancy, everything she could in order to get back to me. In order to control her, they had informed her that a few weeks after she went to boarding school, I had hooked up with another girl from school. They had attempted to show her how fickle teenage love really was.
Mrs Aintree began to cry. “How can you ever forgive us?”, she said. “We only wanted the best for our daughter. Then she ended up marrying Roger, just to spite us. She never loved him. She only ever loved you, and now you are here we must tell you. I….we are so very sorry. We should never have taken away your love”
I held her hand and told her that everything was ok.
“You didn’t ever take away my love”, I whispered. “My love was always in me. You couldn’t have ever damaged it.”
“The person of my love was lost to me, but now she is found. All is well, and trying to do what you think best for your children is nothing to apologise for.”
We were to marry. Emma came along soon after, as a little sister for Ted and Arthur.
We love to sit watching their mother riding across the field, with her long blonde ponytail blowing in the wind.