Chapter 21 First Date
I became a student. No-one doubted my academic abilities. I continued to work hard and conscientiously and it was no surprise to my family and their circle when I obtained a place on the course I had chosen. In the meantime, my father had obtained promotion and my family had moved right out of the area of East Molesey. College was good for me. My horizons grew wider. I gained in confidence. Memories faded. However, I remained shy and inhibited in my relations with the female sex.
I have certain practical difficulties in the town of my adoption. Having been away at boarding school for five long years, my only retained acquaintances are back in Molesey. And the only opportunity to make new friends comes at relatively infrequent periods during vacations, mainly through an active youth club at the church my parents now attend. As a new member of the club, I get my share of attention, a flurry of unattached young females scenting a quarry. It soon becomes clear to them that I’m not interested. As an athlete, debater, committee member I am competent, logical, a little staid; too lacking in the fire of rebellion, perhaps, but favoured by the club leadership and adults with whom I work and mingle. I am not unfriendly with my peers. I seem to have good relationships with all; special relationships with none.
One summer Sunday evening, a dozen or so of us teenagers have wandered in the local woods, then whiled away the hours over coffee in the club leader’s home, sprawled round the fireside, playing with his young children and dogs. Eventually he kicks us out, goodnaturedly, and we disperse in knots of two or three towards our homes. I wander through the balmy twilight with a couple of the girls as far as the hulking silhouette of the oversized Victorian chapel, when one of them suddenly stops and turning, says,
“Hang on a second, I want to spend a penny.”
“Me too,” choruses the younger girl in some hilarity and both their voices peel out into the echoing street, attracting the attention of three youths who have been propping up a lamp-post opposite, idly eyeing the local talent. A spate of wolf-whistles rends the air and the three of them advance across the road towards the girls, offering obscene suggestions in loud and vulgar voices. Both girls cease laughing and break into an undignified retreat behind the chapel, locking themselves in the dilapidated cloakroom outhouse that is attached to the deserted schoolroom.
The youths follow, testing the toilet door, banging on it and threatening to wait until the girls come out. They have been drinking, the threats are to dignity and decency rather than to life and limb. An unpleasant pawing, enforced kisses, groping assaults are possible. The girls are now shrieking at the boys to go away; this only inflames their interest.
I am afraid, but I’ve followed at a decent distance to see what will happen. I see the impasse. I have to do something, but what? I screw up my courage and go up to the youths. In as confidant voice as I can muster, I tell them:
“Let the girls alone. This is private property.”
They turn and stare at me, then fall apart in ribald laughter.
“Who are you then, the landlord?”
“Mind your own business, mate.”
“Scram, get lost or you’ll end up hurt yourself, little boy!”
I am nineteen, nearly twenty. This last comment hurts.
“I said, leave the girls alone. They don’t want your attention.” My voice is losing its confidence.
“Are you telling us what to do, mate?”
Their voices grow menacing.
“Yes, I’m asking you to go away.” My voice trails away in rank misery.
A knee is raised to trip my shin, an arm pushes at my back and I sprawl on the ground on all fours.
“Now go away yourself, or you’ll get hurt a lot worse than that.”
I stagger to my feet and dig in obstinately:
“No, I’m staying with the girls until it’s safe.”
“Hark at Sir Galahad here,” says the tallest youth with extreme sarcasm, “Ron, show him we mean business.”
A fist thumps me in the stomach, winding me. Then someone kicks an ankle. I keep my arms down by my side, allowing my body to become a punchbag.
“Fight, you little sod, stop wetting your pants and fight, or run away.”
Words are coming out of me now, seemingly unrelated to my situation.
“Sorry, “ I say apologising as if I’m in the wrong, “thank you,” when another blow thuds half-heartedly into my rib-cage.
“The boy’s an idiot,” exhales one of the foul smelling louts, “he’s mental.”
A few more desultory jabs are thrown but the youths are getting bored with the non-contest. A couple more derisory remarks and they turn their back on me, retracing their steps back to the roadway in the shadow of the chapel. I follow, sheepishly, at a distance, to see them off the premises. Every few yards one of them turns around and threatens to re-engage me, then saunters onwards spitting contempt.
I stand at the wrought-iron gateway and watch them swagger up the deserted street. I cannot swear that they will not spring out from some dark alleyway, but I’ve done my best.
The girls’ voices are calling from the beleaguered toilet.
“What is happening, have they gone yet?”
The bolt is levered back, the girls troop out looking chastened.
“Thanks.” They are too embarrassed to embroider their feelings further. “Thanks, I don’t know what we’d have done if you hadn’t been there.”
A few weeks later I pluck up courage to ask the younger and prettier of the girls out. I plan the evening meticulously, best seats in the cinema, flowers, a meal afterwards. An unnecessary speech that is too earnest and sentimental by half. The poor girl is dreadfully embarrassed. She wanted some spontaneous fun, had looked forward to the date, she had never been so spoiled. She might have flirted with me if I had been light and sensitive or even bantering and silly, but she is reduced to choking silence. When I get her to her parents’ gate, I say, somewhat optimistically, it’s true:
“Will you come out with me again?”
The girl thinks for a long time. She doesn’t want to hurt my feelings, she owes me that.
“I’m not sure, David. I think perhaps we’d better not. The gap between our ages is too great.” Well, all of three years, actually. “I’m not ready for a serious relationship yet, you need someone more of your own age.”
She places her hand gently on my forearm, resting on the gate.
“I’m sorry, David. I don’t want to spoil this evening. And thank you for a wonderful night out, and all the gifts.”
She blows me a kiss and shuts the door before I can say anything more. My pride is hurt. It is funny, really, I had become attracted by her looks - looking back I think she vaguely resembled certain features of the mythical ‘Topsy’ - and then when it is torn away from me, I don’t actually feel anything. Only a sort of relief, I can relax, I don’t have to be so anxious, worry that I will do things wrong. I had; it is behind me.