During my first year as depute headteacher in a big primary school in Scotland, I noticed a girl in the infants department. There were three hundred or more children in that department of the school, so “noticing” might be a strange word to use, but I can think of no better word. I “noticed” this girl. She was five years old. Dark hair, quite ordinary-looking, yet something about her drew my attention. Let’s call her F.
During the next three years, I invariably noticed F whenever she was in sight, no matter how many other children were around her. She was growing, like all the other children, but there was nothing exceptional about her appearance.
Then when she was eight or nine years old, she found herself in my class, the class of children I taught all day, every day. I was very excited and interested to have her there. Her presence only, just her being there, lifted my spirits, made the burden of teaching lighter and brought me content. If I took the class for a walk into the countryside, she sometimes held my hand – a great delight for me. But plenty of other children’s’ hands were there that I held from time to time, nine year old children often like to hold their teacher’s hand.
F was very serene. We played a game to teach multiplication tables. It was somewhat competitive and needed a steady nerve. F was not a particularly bright pupil, but she often won that game simply because she never panicked. I found that a very attractive trait.
F’s parents were Jehovah’s Witnesses. I tried to get to know them, to understand whether F’s upbringing in this faith had had an obviously beneficial effect; but I could make nothing of the Witnesses’ dogma, seemed like nonsense to me.
It happened that a couple, call them B and J, who were friends of ours lived next door to F’s parents and were friendly to them. B found out somehow that I was very interested in F, and when I left that school at the end of the year, and then a year later left teaching altogether and moved away, B and J sometimes visited us where we were living in another part of the country. B took it upon herself to keep me updated as to F’s progress in school and in life generally. We visited B and J in Scotland once, and of course, I popped over to see F and her parents. F was about fifteen years old by that time – how attractive I found her! Just the same slim, quiet, serene girl, but with the bloom of puberty upon her.
Later, during one of B and J’s visits to us, while we were having lunch on the grass on a summer afternoon, B told me quietly that F’s parents had separated. F and her mother had gone to live on the south coast of England. B gave me her address, and told me where she worked - an insurance agency I think it was. It so happened that one summer my work took me to that part of the country, and I got in touch with F to tell her I was there. I had already written to tell her about how I had felt about her when she was in my class – that I had thought her about the most wonderful person in the world (I think those were the exact words I used, and that was true). I sneaked down to the town where she worked early one morning and stood outside the office on the other side of the road, to tell the truth I wasn’t sure if I would recognise her after all these years. But there she was, fully grown but much the same, putting out the milk bottles on the step of the office front door. She didn’t see me, and I went back to work happy.
I arranged to visit her and her mother, and took them out in my car for a ride around the countryside. We stopped, got out and looked at the white figure of a man carved into the hillside hundreds or perhaps thousands of years ago. F was quiet and didn’t have much conversation, but while we were alone for a moment she did tell me that on receiving my letter telling her how I felt about her when she was a little girl, she went upstairs to her room, took out from her drawer the bamboo flute I had helped her make and taught her to play more than ten years ago, sat on her bed and wept.
Back at home, my wife (now my ex-wife) and I discussed the possibility of asking F to come and stay with us for a few days, and as my wife was agreeable (she had met F once or twice years before) I wrote and invited her. F made the long bus journey to our house at the other end of the country. She came with me while I worked, and we took a trip into the Lake District and climbed up a well-known mountain. It was a great pleasure for me. I took her to visit my friend David the potter, a clever, articulate man and fellow of a Cambridge University college, who generously said to her, "Any friend of Malcolm's is a friend of mine."
The evening before she left, we stood outside our front door in the dark and held each other. That was the closest we got to each other. Somehow, the conditions just hadn’t seemed right for more intimate contact. I felt some scruples because she was still a keen Jehovah’s Witness, and I felt that if we had sex together it might make her feel very awkward in the company of her fellow Witnesses, so I had never pressed her. After she left, I sent her a picture of the mountain we had climbed, but I never heard back from her. Later, B told me that she had married a fellow JW. I still have the geode of amethyst she gave me, on the windowsill in front of me.
I now regret not having pushed for sex with her, which I am certain she would have consented to; and I wonder if I was mistaken in attributing to her that degree of innocence. I may have felt, unconsciously, that she and I were not really suited for a life partnership. But I have never forgotten her and often wonder how she is faring in her life. I shall never see her again.
If you, readers, want to tell me whether you think this was a missed opportunity or an escape from disaster, I shall be glad to read your opinions, and I shall take them lightly.
P.S. I have to confess to acute disappointment and tears while remembering this story in order to write it here. Perhaps the greatest disappointment of my life next to the deaths of my children, that circumstances, or my own hesitation, prevented me from consummating this love. It is not surprising I have some heart problems, since I have so often not followed the dictates of my heart.