I usual post this story on St Valentines day, sorry a wee bit on the slow side these days.
It has often been said young love is the purest form of love. In 1951, Sheila and I at the tender age of thirteen would have agreed with those sentiments. We truly believed our love would last forever. We lived on a beautiful island nestled in the blue waters of the Solent. The English Channel lapped at the golden sandy beaches. The Isle of Wight was our home. We lived in the same row of houses facing the rolling Downs. Those green and lush hills were a high point of the island. They swept down almost to our doorsteps in the picturesque village of Brighstone. A tiny village made up of a few thatched cottages a tea garden, general store, church and primary school. Sheila and I had finished primary and now attended a Secondary Modern school in Freshwater.
Often we sat together on the bus taking us to and from school. Sundays we walked together to Sunday school and church. Occasionally on weekends if we had money we’d visit the local cinema in Newport. Many hours were spent walking hand in hand on the hills above the village. Sometimes stopping to shyly embrace and kiss, safe from the prying eyes of adults.
In summer we spent much of our time on the beaches. We cycled the narrow traffic free country lanes exploring hedgerows for bird nests and such. All was right with our world. We were happy, carefree and in love. I never imagined it was about to come to an abrupt and sudden end
The events that brought me to the island and Sheila began with my birth on the 15th January1939. I was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland the sixth and last member of our family. I had two brothers and three sisters. When I was just eleven months old my mother died. The Second World War was just four months old. I was placed in the care of my eldest sister Lily and her husband Ben. He was serving in the Royal Navy. Over the next few years we traveled across England attempting to be near his homeport.
My early childhood was as normal as could be expected living in a world at war. However, with the end of war we continued to move frequently as Ben looked for a work. That was how in 1949 I arrived on the Isle of Wight. I first met Sheila when I started at the local primary school. We became good friends almost at once. When in school or outside playing life was good and I was happy. Unfortunately the same could not be said about my life at home.
Constantly moving and changing schools was having a detrimental effect on my life. I was becoming obsessed with a desire to return home to my family in Ireland.
The situation between Lily and I was not going well. She was losing control as I openly resisted her authority. I was completely unaware of the change about to take place.
To my utter surprise early one Sunday morning in August my father and brother arrived to take me home. It was a flying visit forcing me to make a quick decision. Should I stay or go? With little time to think I was packed and bundled into the back seat of an old Morris. We said brief good byes amidst hugs and tears then I was on my way. Alone in the back seat of the car I slowly collected my thoughts. I felt my heart break as I came to the realization I hadn’t said goodbye to Sheila. Now it was too late and there was nothing I could do. My heart ached as each mile carried me further away. I had lost Sheila forever.
Nine years would pass before I’d see her again. I returned to Brighstone one Saturday afternoon in 1960. At the time I was stationed in Portsmouth on the submarine HMS Amphion. Outside the dockyard gate and adjacent to HMS Victory is an area known as ‘The Hard’. It is where the main London train-line ends and the Isle of Wight ferry begins. Walking through the gate I stood in bright sunshine gazing across the Solent to the island. A compelling urge moved me forward toward the ferry terminal. Outwardly unconscious of why, I found myself buying a ticket and boarding the ferry. Deep within I was harbouring a hope of seeing Sheila again. On the ferry and later riding the bus across the island I lost myself in memories of my school days. When I stepped off the bus in Brighstone a sudden wave of nostalgia swept over me.
I stood motionless for what seemed an eternity uncertain what to do next. I look up and then down the road at familiar sights hoping to spot a friendly face. It was the height of the tourist season yet the village seemed empty. Nothing had changed, I recognized the
places where I’d spent so much of my boyhood. The old church and primary school stood in solemn silence. I was re-visiting my past yet somehow I was a stranger. I had given little thought to why I had come back. Perhaps I expected to see my school chums laughing and waving as they rode their bikes to the beach
Making an effort to shake off a growing depression I turned and began walking toward the Wilberforce Hall. Passing Coopers general store I was stopped dead in my tracks. Sheila was coming out of the store carrying a shopping bag. She had grown into a beautiful young woman who I recognized instantly. For a moment we stood in stunned silence staring at each other. A smile slowly spread across her face as she realized who I was. I wanted to rush up and take her in my arms but hesitated because of the shopping bag.
Wonderful memories flood my mind as I stood smiling in awkward embarrassment. Then in the same instant we both burst forth with a thousand questions.
I stopped and allowed Sheila to go first. “What have you been doing since you left the island? Are you married? When did you join the navy? Where are Lily Ben and Roy? Oh it really is so good to see you again. Are you still living in Ireland? Do you remember Julie? She is engaged and getting married next month. Is Roy still in school? Jean left last year and is working in Newport. I bet you wouldn’t hardly recognize her now she is all grown up”.
Finally Sheila paused to catch her breath while I explained my adventures over the last nine years. Then it was my turn to ask questions.
Sheila had left school a few years ago but couldn’t find a decent job on the island. She decided to go to the mainland and join the WRNS. Whilst she was in the women’s naval service she met a nice boy and they had married three months ago. The possibility she might be married had never entered my head. The news shattered all feelings of elation our brief reunion had earlier kindled.
I immediately felt a depression creeping back into my mood. I was bemused and hurt. I struggled to reconcile my awful disappointment. Was I perhaps in love with Sheila after all? I didn’t know for sure. I had been so very happy to see her again. Now all I was sure of was a terrible empty feeling in the pit of my stomach. Visiting Brighstone had lost its appeal and was replaced with an urgent need to leave. My emotions were running wild, confusion, sadness and a dreadful feeling of loss.
My emotions no longer mattered Sheila was married nothing could change that. Lost in my own misery I almost missed hearing Sheila invite me to stay over. There was a dance that evening at the village hall. Sheila and her husband were going. I could probably go with her younger sister Jean if I wanted to. I declined using the excuse I was on duty the following day. Sheila didn’t press the matter and we walked to the end of the lane making small talk. Stopping at her front gate we stood for a moment in another awkward silence. Finally Sheila said she had to go. I made no attempt to kiss or hug her. With one last wave she disappeared into the house. A surge of pain pierced my heart. I remained standing there unable or unwilling to move. Was I perhaps hoping she would re-appear?
I thought of the many times we’d stood on this exact spot holding hands, smiling, making promises and shyly kissing.
With an enormous effort I turned and began walking back toward the village. With each step carrying me further away came the realization I’d seen Sheila for the last time. I was engulfed in a terrible sadness. There had been a time, now long passed, when she’d been my sweetheart. A sweet and beautiful young girl who I’d loved and shared a first kiss. On that unhappy Saturday afternoon I had attempted to re-live the past and failed. Life was cruel yet nothing could be changed. I had to move on. Waiting at the bus stop I gazed at the thatched cottages, the village church and school. Everything remained unchanged and familiar. Yet nothing looked the same in that moment before the bus arrived. Maybe I was trying to relive my boyhood. Yet it was all just a memory? Children change, grow up, move on and sometimes marry.
Since that day I have often reflected on those wonderful and extraordinary times. In those days we were carefree and happy playing on the beaches or in the schoolyard. We shyly winked and made eyes at girls. The world was a very different place in1951. We were naïve and innocent, there was no magazines, television or cinema to corrupt our minds. In the many years that have passed since then I still retain those wondrous memories.
The day our lips touched in that first warm and wonderful kiss. Always, I return to the question. What if?