The first time I saw Christine Ellwood she was getting on the bus that was taking us to the annual ‘Inter-school Camp’ in a little complex of ex-Army huts near Loch Morlich. She was tall, a bit gangly, with frizzy fair hair and blue eyes. She was wearing khaki shorts. She sat with a friend a few seats in front of me. I watched her. She was animated –laughing and gesturing as she talked. Colin Robertson gave me a caramel. As I chewed, I rolled the sweetie paper into a ball then threw it and hit Christine on the back of the head. She turned, frowning, then saw me and, half-smiling, mouthed, ‘Was that you?’ I nodded imperceptibly.
‘You’re in there,’ said Colin.
Christine and I went to different schools but I soon found out she lived just across the Spey at Carron where her father was an excise officer. She was gentle and funny. I was besotted. We were soon inseparable, held hands. We lagged behind the walking group or surged ahead and reappeared from behind rocks or clumps of trees. By the end of the week at the camp we were an object of amusement and kissing a lot.
At the end of June, we began the long holiday before we were to start at the University in October. We were both going to Aberdeen. I was to going to do Arts; Chris was to train as a Primary Teacher. We wanted to spend as much of those three months together as we could. It was easy to meet. Twenty minutes by bike, down the hill from the manse, was the bridge over the Spey. About the same distance for Christine. Sometimes we lay watching the river for hours; sometimes we biked slowly together along shady tracks; sometimes we dumped the bikes and went exploring for private spots in the woods of birch and beech and oak that clothe the bank of the river there. A couple of times we took our bathing things and swam in a pool in the Spey. I was in a state of permanent excitement. This was something new. I’d never had a girlfriend. I’d never liked any girl as I liked Christine, nor known any girl who liked me at all. And Christine liked me a lot. She liked my jokes, she liked my company, she liked kissing me. She was romantic and shy and bold and impulsive. Every meeting was an adventure. She stroked my arm when we met, hugged me close and looked at me intently with a look that I didn’t quite understand.
We arranged to meet from day to day. One day, when something occurred to prevent my going to the bridge – a relative turning up unexpectedly, or something like that – I called Christine’s house. Her younger brother answered the phone. I asked for Christine. I heard voices. Christine’s ‘Hello?’
‘Can’t make it tomorrow. See you Thursday.’ I put the phone down.
I heard on Thursday that her fourteen-year-old brother had made enormous play of this phone-call from an unknown voice. Chris had a boyfriend. It seemed terribly important to keep our relationship a secret. One day, we arranged to go to Aberdeen together on a shopping trip to buy books we needed for October and to look around. We got on the train at different stations, found an empty compartment and spent the three-hour journey marvelling at each other. Hand in hand, we walked around the city that was going to be our home for the next three years. It was hot. The granite sparkled in the sun. We found shade under trees, sat in cafes, bought a few books and arrived home around ten o’clock.
Our near-daily meetings became more intense, emotionally and physically. We breathed each other’s breath, touched and fondled, undid buttons and zips and hooks, stroked each other’s flesh. We lusted after each other and spoke of love and of the future.
Then Christine went on holiday with her family. They were going to a cottage on Tiree, with an aunt and uncle and two cousins. A male cousin, a year older than us, was already at University. My jealousy was boundless, and I baited Christine mercilessly. She kissed me over and over and told me again and again that she loved me.
It was a difficult fortnight. I mooned about the house, was crotchety and offhand with my parents. I had to go out daily in order to maintain the pattern of behaviour that I’d established. I missed Christine terribly. Then, she returned from Tiree, and everything was good again. She talked intimately of her holiday, wanting to share her experiences with me. How often she’d wished I was there, how she’d longed to show me things. She mentioned Gavin: he had been part of the fun, but it was clear from her shining honesty that he was just an older cousin she’d known since she was a baby.
Then it was time for my family to go on our annual holiday to a hotel in Perthshire. It was a large concern with a cinema, a swimming pool, tennis courts and golf course. I promised my heart to Christine, gave assurances where none were sought. She trusted me. She loved me. The time would fly past.
In our second week in Crieff, I met Amanda. She was a pleasant, friendly girl of about my age. She was dark, buxom, rather sultry in appearance. In the course of the week, we played tennis a couple of times, had two or three games of putting. On the last Friday, I asked her if she wanted to go to the cinema to see The Maltese Falcon, but she was going out with her parents to visit friends.
On returning home, I did inexplicable things. On Monday, I did not go to the bridge to meet Christine as we had agreed. Nor did I go on the Tuesday, nor on any day again. Instead, I composed a letter to Christine that I posted to her at home on the Thursday. It was a work of complete fiction and of mindless sadism. I was sorry, I said, I could see Christine no more. I had met another woman on holiday. I had been swept off my feet. I had been unfaithful – more than once. I was sure that she understood. I hoped that we might meet up in Aberdeen in October. We could still be friends, I hoped.
Now, fifteen years later, I cringe and swear aloud at the image of Christine going to the bridge, day after day, looking and waiting for me, and at the thought of her opening that letter in her home that Friday morning. I had no shame at the time, of course. I was a man. It was time to move on.
We did meet in Aberdeen. About three times in three years, in pubs, always by accident, always in the company of others. We barely acknowledged each other. The third time she was in the company of an older student I knew slightly. He was a medic. On these occasions I said silly things, made a fool of myself, saw Chris frown.
I saw her a couple of times since then. Once, about eight years ago, I was seeing my parents off on a flight to Malta. I’d watched them through the gate to the departure lounge when I saw a couple approaching: tall, laughing. The woman looked up at her partner. It was Christine. Our eyes met. She flickered a moment and passed on without acknowledging me. The man was her medical friend from university days.
A few years later, I was sitting on the train in Aberdeen when Christine sat down opposite me. She disposed her luggage, noted my presence and settled to read. Straight-backed, slim, honey-coloured, straight, shoulder-length hair. She was beautiful.
She looked quizzically at me. ‘Oh, gosh. It’s you.’
We exchanged a few words. She was going to visit her folks for a few days. Her father was picking her up at the station. She asked after my parents.
‘Yes. In St Andrews.’
She didn’t ask what I was doing. She made it clear she wanted to be left to read. I tried to read too but spent much of the journey looking out of the window and watching Christine’s reflection in the glass. She wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. What was there to talk about? We had nothing in common, except for those five or six weeks so many years ago. What did it mean, that little sunlit bubble of living that had enclosed the two of us? Christine read on, but, as the carriages rolled and swayed through the grey countryside that afternoon, I recalled, sharply, that railway journey we’d made together to Aberdeen, back then, Christine and I, riding high on our dreams and desires and our delight in being together. Then, as the fields slowed down, we passed into rain, and the reflections began to fracture and dissolve. We said goodbye as we left the train.