There is, of course, no way that I could write this history and not mention my first wife, Helen. She was a big part of my adult life to date and in some respects I feel guilty about not having mentioned her before now. On the other hand, I have not really written about anything beyond the age of 18 yet.
Helen and I met when we were both 21. I had just finished university and was spectacularly failing to find a proper job. She was about to go on work placement as the third year of her degree at Manchester Polytechnic. We were both working in the food department of Marks & Spencer in Leamington in the summer of 1989.
Also working there were three other girls who, like Helen, had been recruited by M&S to work in their Coventry store, only to find that there were no jobs for them. The three others were Paula Dolan (small, dark haired, bubbly, if slightly overweight), Lisa Fanti (tall, slim, half-Italian) and Rachel Atkinson (tall, slender, fair, had a habit of wearing knickers which showed through her cream work dress). I mention these not-so-vital statistics to show that, whilst I fancied all of them in a way, these were the people that I chose Helen over.
At 5’7″, Helen was tall for a Chinese girl. She was slim without being skinny, cheerful, confident and yet also quieter than the other three. I found her intriguing and yet also the hardest to get to know. What I did know was that she had a boyfriend, a situation which lasted into the middle of August, when he very bravely dumped her by letter.
Working in a department full of women – I really was the only male – there was much intrigue over which of the four girls I might want to date. For my part I wanted none of this, especially as I knew that I would be ripped to pieces if any of them said no. In fact, up to the point where Helen was dumped by Rhys, her boyfriend, I wasn’t going to ask any of them out.
Then, one day, I wandered into the delivery bay to find Helen in there, alone, finishing writing up an order. For reasons which are still unclear to me, she was on all fours, kneeling on the ground with the order sheet on the floor in front of her. I said the first thing which came into my head, which was “So, do you want to come out and play tonight?”
Needless to say, it wasn’t quite that easy and it took us a couple of days to organise a night out together. Understandably, we chose Kenilworth, a town pretty much equidistant between Leamington and Coventry. Less understandably – but with a defiance of logic which was to characterise our entire relationship – our arrangements involved me cycling to Coventry, leaving my bike at her old school and her then driving me to Kenilworth.
At this point, I discovered that I was about to start dating someone who was not only a teetotaler, but who was actually allergic to alcohol. Neither of which is good news when your only dating strategy is to get girls so drunk that they kiss you.
Fortunately, the evening went well. We had a drink in a pub called the Queen and Castle, then walked up the road to another pub where, after one drink, we decided we didn’t like it so much and went back to where we started. After which we went for a walk through Abbey Fields, the huge open space that fills the edge of Kenilworth. I have never understood why Helen agreed to walk though a pitch dark, tree-lined, area with someone she didn’t know that well. I can only conclude that the air I was exuding was not so much ‘dangerous sexual predator’ and more like ‘is entirely safe and utterly clueless’.
Even so, nothing at all happened between us that night, or for some time to come. On the other hand, it did take more than sixteen years for it all to go horribly, spectacularly, wrong.