"Dad. how did you ask my mother for a first date?”
I looked across the small self-laid patio at my daughter, Linda, sitting on the camping chair, regarding me with her mother’s deep brown eyes. At fourteen-years-old pushing fifteen, she was budding to emulate the beautiful bloom that was her mother.
I was not surprised by the nature of her question. Nor the timing. Her mother was away shopping while her two elder brothers were somewhere wandering field and woods as was their habit. Evenings were reserved for their girl chasing habit.
I had no doubt that, on the horizon of Linda’s mixed teenage emotions, boys were beginning to loom. Was it time for her mother and me to start worrying?
Just the previous week she had watched a video of ‘East of Eden’ and had asked me if I thought that Cal (James Dean) would marry Abra (Julie Harris). “Well, they did seem to be very good friends,” had been my weak reply
So, Linda’s recent curiosity about human relationships, especially man to woman, came as no surprise. Years earlier I’d told her of my reaction on seeing her mother, thirteen going on fourteen, for the first time.
My friend Ken, and I were cycling past the girls’ side of the school, boys being kept separate in those days. Through the railings, we saw girls playing netball. Ken pointed out one smaller girl, a black plait swinging down her back, as she took a shot at the hoop. “That’s Sam’s sister, Laura. Norman’s taken her to the cinema a couple of times.” Norman and Sam were two more of my close friends.
From that distance, I could only gasp and blurt out, “What! Baby-sitting, was he? She’s just a little kid.” This from me, a wiseacre, ancient fifteen-year-old.
Squeals of delighted laughter had been Linda’s reaction to that.
Somewhere over the ensuing years that ‘little kid’, after much teasing, plait pulling, bike bumping, grew into a female who began haunting my imagination.
Sam didn’t live far from me and I began seeking every opportunity to call on him. Once, I thought I’d found a way into her affections. In her final year at school, she asked me, because I’d gained an A in my final English language exams if |’d help with an essay she had to complete. Gladly I wrote it for her.
It was only given a B grading. Disappointed, I gained her gratitude but little else.
It could be said that I was less than confident in my chat-up skills. And then our little gang of youths, Norman, Ken and slightly younger Tommy, began meeting at Sam’s every Sunday afternoon, to sit circled on the living room floor playing cards.
Sam’s mother was a round-faced, rather plump, pleasant lady, quite happy with this arrangement, and she and his father often sat on the sofa enjoying watching our game or hearing our youthful patter. But I became a little unnerved as I realised, if Laura happened to appear in the room, mine weren’t the only eyes adoring her. Even Norman who had escorted her when she was younger was showing new interest with her maturity.
Linda butted into my tale at this point, leaning forward on her camp chair she asked agitatedly, “Come on, Dad. How did you manage to get that first date? Tell me, please!”
Hell, that day is so vivid in detail. From the age of eighteen, I had served two years of National Service in the RAF, which had separated me from my friends. I was twenty years of age as I neared the end of my time.
It was my final leave. It was Sunday, and I’d heard that apprenticeship over, Sam was now eligible for National Service. I went down and was shocked to find him dressed up in uniform. That was because, within the next twenty minutes, someone was giving him a lift to his camp in Yorkshire.
In the living room, Laura, her coal-black hair cut short, was sitting with her best friend Hazel, who I knew well because we had been in the same class in primary school. Here’s where the detail came in. I have no clue what Hazel wore, but Laura was in a pale lemon blouse with a fawn flared summer skirt.
During the ensuing conversation, with Laura’s mother present, Hazel made several references to her new boyfriend and how she was looking forward to her date with him at six o’clock that evening. That piece of apparently useless information became important.
What also became important was the song playing on the quietly turned down radio. It was Nat King Cole singing ‘When I Fall in Love,’ as I stared surreptitiously in Laura’s direction. That was the song that went on playing in my head long after the events of that day, and after I went back to serve the final months of my service.
Occasionally, it burst less than melodiously from my lips when we were in our barrack room and, I was the recipient of ungenerous often crude reviews from colleagues. “Put a sock in it, Jim. Or we will,” was one of the kinder references.
Sam’s lift arrived and Laura and Hazel were back in eager conversation.
It was my time to go. One regretful final look at Laura, who called what I considered a casual ‘farewell’, really lowering my spirits. But then, came that moment when her mother spoke those mystifying, yet significant words, “Jim, why don’t you stay for tea and then you can keep the girls company?”
Before answering, I looked at the clock on the sideboard. It showed five minutes to five.
Linda across the patio was leaning forward, her lips slightly parted, her brow furrowed.
“You notice anything?” I asked her.
Only a moment’s hesitation before she slowly began to put it together, “You said Hazel had a date.”
“And Grandma had heard her talk about it.”
“Can’t have missed it.”
“So, what happened?”
I had to laugh at her eagerness, wondered whether I should continue with the tease, but thought better of it. ”I stayed for tea.”
God, I even recall the thick slices of ham, the hot buttered scones and the delicious home-baked chocolate cake. Laura and I did exchange a glance over the table, each knowing the situation we were facing. I believe she already knew how shy and withdrawn I could be.
Anyway, dishes were cleared, Hazel left, eager for her date. Laura and I were left in the living room, looking uncertainly at each other. Oh, those brown eyes, that raven hair, that face. Come on, Jim, make the move.
That moment, that was to define the rest of our lives as my voice quivered on the words, “Should we find a film to go to?”
Her agreement was so enthusiastic that I should have guessed then that a miracle was about to overtake us both.
Important? So important that I remember through all those years, the cinema, the Queen’s in the city centre, now a shopping mall. And the film was ‘California’, starring Barbara Stanwick, Ray Milland, with Albert Decker as the villain.
At some point during the action, our hands came together and held. They held again from the bus stop to her front door, where our lips touched and held briefly, and we made a date for the following Tuesday.
Linda, my daughter, was on her feet on the patio, ”Oh, Dad,” she cried delightedly, “That was so romantic. Do you remember what happened next?”
Smiling at her enthusiasm, I nodded, “We went to the Ritz in Wallsend and saw Doris Day in ‘Calamity Jane’”.
“You said a miracle was going to overtake you. What was that?”
I put my hands on her shoulders and kissed her on the cheek, “That is something I can’t describe, but for sure, you, and your two brothers are very much part of that miracle.”
Right now, with my fingers poised on the laptop keyboard, not ten feet from the now white-haired, ever-attractive lady of my life, who sits, solving a word puzzle on her iPad, I feel blessed that the miracle continues.