I loved him. I went to bed thinking about him and I woke up the next morning thinking about him. No one had ever made me feel like that before. What was that, if not love?
His voice, with its Liverpudlian twang which reminded me of my Beatles heartthrob Paul McCartney, his athleticism (he would leap from lab desk to lab desk in an attempt to gain our attention, rather than throw chalk at us like the other teachers), his sense of humour, all sang to the tune of my fourteen-year-old hormones.
Sir was the one and only male teacher in our convent school. A real man, not a brother or a father or an uncle, they didn’t count. All the other teachers were nuns, spiteful spinsters, or Second World War widows. At that time, schools were desperate to replace staff who never came back from the war, and when Sir arrived, barely 22 years old, the Chemistry lab grew as hot with passion as the flames in a Bunsen burner.
I loved school, I loved Science, and most of all I loved Chemistry. How could anybody fail to be interested in what makes up our universe? The days we did experiments were the best. We made elephant toothpaste, ‘volcanic’ eruptions, hot ‘ice’, and slime. Every practical lesson had me wide-eyed with anticipation. I even asked my parents for a Chemistry set for Christmas. And when Sir arrived, my heart migrated to my throat with teenage passion. Sir was the icing on the chemical cake.
I and my best school friend, Helen, were inseparable. We cycled to and from school, shopped on a Saturday, and went on long rides in the country every Sunday after church. Sometimes, unknown to our mothers, we skipped church and instead carried straight on to our next destination – the coast. I knew Sir lived somewhere in that area – a chance meeting would have made my day. We would sit on the ancient sandstone wall overlooking the silted-up estuary, once a busy port in Roman times, looking over to the Welsh hills as we ate local ice cream.
Perhaps as a result of my overenthusiastic monologues, Helen began to realise that she, too, had a thing for Sir. It was OK with me – I wasn’t jealous. I decided that, rather than compete for his attention, it would be fun for Helen and me to share our mutual feelings. From then on, our conversations revolved around how to maximise time with the man of our dreams, and Helen soon hit on a winner.
We would grow crystals in the Chemistry lab in our spare time.
It all started well. Unaccompanied visits to the lab slipped under the health and safety net in those days, but Sir gave up half his lunchtimes to supervise us (proof that the love was mutual, we decided). Every day we went through the ritual of preparing solutions and painstakingly sandpapering the surfaces of our growing crystals before re-immersing them, hanging from cotton thread, into the freshly-made liquids.
Sir’s presence furnished the air with a pheromone tang of L’eau d’amour, and provoked much discussion after school, down to the tiniest detail. What colour suit he was wearing, what was the pattern on his tie, what he said to us, what mood he was in, what newspaper he read in the staffroom, when he’d had his hair cut. Sometimes he brushed past us in the crowded corridors, the physical contact sending an orgasmic shudder through us as powerful as the shock of an electric eel. An exchange of looks that lingered longer than normal made us blush like scarlet roses, and an accidental touch of fingers while adjusting a Bunsen burner would render us incoherent and sweaty-palmed. Hearts a-quiver, we would leave the lab in a state of visceral longing that nourished our night-time fantasies, carrying us along on a dreamboat of desire yet to be consummated.
A year later, when we were sixteen, sweet sixteen, lust joined love as our adolescent minds acquired sexual confidence and our adolescent bodies demanded physical consummation. The local grammar school boys had begun to hang around outside the school, panting like dogs, but they could never compete with a proper man. Who would he make a pass at first, we wondered? We were convinced that Sir was about to make his move.
It was a sixth-form Chemistry student who shattered our deluded daydreams with one short sentence.
‘Did Sir tell you he’s getting married this summer?’ she whispered to us one day with conspiratorial glee. Then she stepped back and watched our reactions to her sadistic exposé.
I felt my heart hit the ground like a missile. Our world was shattered beyond redemption. How could we not have known about this? Why did he betray us when we had not yet experienced the consummation of physical love? Now we would never snog him or play out any of the erotic fantasies we had only read about. Whoever his fiancée was, she did not deserve him, this female Casanova, this Cleopatra amongst women. Sir’s deception, as we saw it, was calm, calculated and callous. He was not the person we thought he was.
From then on, our carefully nurtured crystals failed to thrive. The radiant blue of our copper sulphate became rough and anaemic, and the calcite lost its sparkle. Gone was the eager enthusiasm with which we raced up to the Chemistry lab on the top floor, gone were our excited observations of Sir’s appearance; gone, too, was the frisson which came from his glances. Naively we had interpreted these as intimations of love. Now, when he looked at us, we realized that it was a look of simple communication and no more.
Sir married his Cleopatra that summer. Helen and I stood outside the church and watched the confetti fall with our hearts and hopes. We would have to cope with the pain of our first love.
It was the hardest lesson we ever had to learn.