I first fell in love when I was 10 years and 11 months old. She was 10 something, too.
It was 1967. Early June. A day trip to Brownsea Island. There was me, my Mum, and my best mate Ian Sinclair.
Ian was from Glasgow. Lord knows what his family was doing living in suburban Bournemouth on the genteel South Coast of England – Costa Geriatrica they call it – but he was incredibly exotic and attractive, with his rough Glaswegian accent, short, nuggety frame, tousled brown curls, and impish good looks. I think every girl in school was mad about him, not to mention a few older girls who had already gone ahead to big school, but with whom we shared the local bus service and cafes. Ian was, naturally, going out with the prettiest girl in school, Helen.
I was going out with the next prettiest, her twin sister Julie. Both girls were exceptionally attractive, awesomely tall, slender, played a demon game of netball, and were kindness personified. But whereas at nearly eleven Helen and Ian were already a little more “advanced” than might have been quite proper with their affections, neither Julie and I really had a clue what we were doing, apart from snatching the occasional mis-managed kiss and giggling inanely. She used to draw a lot of cartoon horses heads, too, and delighted in drawing them kissing each other, which was, she explained, a cipher for our affections, and much easier than both of us trying to surreptitiously watch the more skilled Ian and Helen and work out what we were doing wrong.
At the time, this compromise satisfied my emotional requirements from a girlfriend entirely, and we were great friends. But then, one fateful day, on Brownsea Island, Ian and I rounded a corner, having left my mother reading the early edition of the Bournemouth Evening Echo on the sun-kissed grassy lawns, and walked into Erin. Erin was the same height as me. Her lustrous hair, cut into a fringe behind which a pony tail tumbled and bounded around her shoulders (think Olivia Newton-John in the early scenes of Grease, but with light brown hair) shone – literally shone – and her face seemed almost to have a halo around it.
She wore a simple summer dress, and across the bridge of her upturned nose lay a spray of tiny freckles. Above that, a pair of laughing, humourous brown eyes twinkled challengingly.
I swear I stopped stone dead. Transfixed. She was, without question, the most beautiful creature I had ever clapped eyes on. Despite her holding my gaze, and swinging her body invitingly from side to side, I simply couldn’t speak. Ian laughed: “This is my best friend, Steve. I’m going over there, you talk.” And with that, he left. Wise beyond his years, to a fault, was our Ian.
In retrospect, she did all the work. She asked where I was from, explained she was from a village nearby, told me her life history, (which basically consisted of which school subjects she liked), and generally tried to put me at my ease.
She was smiling constantly, as if in possession of a secret I did not share. Before long she had enough of talking, and her innately wild spirit took over.
She insisted we wander the more isolated part of the island, and soon enough, hand in hand, that is what we did. She was not my first kiss. But she was the first that happened spontaneously. Sneaky games of spin the bottle didn’t count, even if I had been introduced to the joys of kissing “properly” by Rick’s big sister Anna, who when the bottle slowly ground to a halt in front of me took me into the hall and proceeded to inculcate in me a joy of necking that stood me in good stead in years to come. With a rather tired and world-weary air, the 13 year old took me under her wing, almost as a social service. It was great. But my goodness, it was not as great as kissing Erin.
Our lips met, without warning, and it was perfect. It wasn’t forced, or scary. I felt a rush of emotions that were mainly composed of testosterone and adrenalin, and it was altogether wonderful. When I pulled back, she stood there with her arms around my waist, and leaned back, gauging, I think, the reaction in my face. Obviously satisfied, she kissed me again.
We walked a bit, mostly in silence, punctuated by laughter. She told me what she liked about me. At that moment, nothing was wrong, or could be wrong.
Then we ran. Ran as if the wild winds of the world were snapping at our heels. We ran for what seemed like hours, but it can only have been only a few minutes, maybe thirty, running with complete abandon, but always hand in hand. Our hands were clasped as if to let go would be to bring the world to an abrupt end. We ran through tree branches and bushes and down tracks and up hills and over the endless fields of purple heather and nothing could stop us; at that moment, I think I could have gladly run forever and never needed to breathe.
Until, of course, we ran into Ian, just before we reached the lawn, and the ferry that would take us and the Triumph Herald back to the mainland, and the inevitable goodbye, and the hilarity in Ian’s face punctured the moment, and Erin kissed me briefly just once more, and wrote down her phone number, and I went home. Somewhere a peacock cried its lamentation to the skies.
As I left, she got smaller and smaller, but it looked like she didn’t take her eyes off the ferry, until we had bumped off the other end, and turned left along the Sandbanks sand-dunes, and she was hidden from view.
And when Mum asked us in the car what we were talking about, she told me in no uncertain terms that I was too young to be getting a bus to another village to see a girl the same age, and goodness me, what would her mother think, for Heaven’s sake, and no, I couldn’t ring, and give me that piece of paper, and that, emphatically and finally, was that.
I’ve had a thing for freckles ever since. And girls called Erin. I never even got to say sorry. She must have thought I didn’t care.