Two Hearts

I’ve been happily married for over twenty years, but we were both fortunate enough to have had previous lives, before we met. With my ex-girlfriends, to split was ultimately the right solution, even though I maybe didn’t think so at the time. Not really any regrets.

One person I do have regrets about was Sue. Deliberately, that’s not her real name – she had quite an unusual name and I wouldn’t want her to be identifyable, or even suspectable, from this post.

It must have been 1987, I was nineteen going on twenty, in my second year at university- so was she – so it was an early relationship for both of us. From the days back when we believed in thunderbolts!

When I met her, Sue was on the rebound from a relationship which had been sufficiently serious that she’d been engaged, even at that tender age. But she assured me that it was over, and I was young enough to take that at face value – as I got older, I learned to be wary of “rebound” women.

A whirlwind romance. We were both penniless students, so how could it be anything else? We didn’t actually go anywhere, except to the local pub (bar).

It was not long after the start of the academic year, and we met quite accidentally. I had been drinking in the student union (another bar!) with her housemate, who I knew. We parted company at the end of the night, and on my way out I saw Sue. It would have been late, back then, things usually closed at 2am, so being the gallant chap that I am, I offered to walk her home – it was on the way to my place anyway. We got back to her place, and she gave me a kiss goodnight. A nice, long kiss, if you know what I mean. Use your imagination! I was elated – this gorgeous girl had given me a long, intimate kiss goodnight, so went home on a high.

A short while later I saw this friend on another night, and Sue was again present. As she apologised for being so drunk last time, she made it quite clear that she had no clear memory of what had happened, so I didn’t push it. We all make silly, drunken mistakes. The night ended again, and again Sue and I walked home together. Of course, one of her questions was to ask what had happened the last time, so I told her, including the kiss! She claimed embarrassment, so I was surprised when, on reaching her apartment, it happened again! There was no mistake this time, I don’t think either of us could have claimed drunkenness as an excuse. So, we arranged a date.

From that point on, we became inseparable, did everything together. I found out about her failed relationship – real grown-up things! She had become pregnant, and at such a young age, he’d suggested an abortion. At that age, I’d have been scared witless too and would maybe have jumped the same way. But it wasn’t me. She’d decided that she was not going to carry on with the pregnamcy if the father wasn’t supportive, but also to kick this guy into touch. She didn’t want to be with someone who’d be an unsupportive father. This had all happened just a couple of months before I met her, but as I said, as far as I was concerned it was just history.

Our relationship just got stronger. It was very concentrated, we became this “I love You” / “You Love Me” item over just a couple of months. Love? I was nineteen, what clue did I have about love?

Christmas holidays. I went back to my family, she to her’s. But we wrote to each other (on notepaper, we pushed the pieces into envelopes and stuck stamps on them. How quaint!) at least every other day, and we probably called each other as often. I still have those letters. Life was good. Had I really met “the one” at only nineteen? She had arranged to go back to her apartment just after New Year’s, and invited me to spend the week with her, before university started up again. How could I refuse?

We met up again during that first week of January. We’d only been apart for two or three weeks, but something had changed between us. For me, it was still plain sailing, but she was clearly troubled.

Toward the end of the week, I eventually received my explanation. At home at New Year’s, she had seen her ex- again. He’d begged her for another chance. I think she’d been with this guy from ever since, and she was conscious of walking away from that so she agreed to a tentative trial back with him. On the outside, I was rational throughout – what had happened had happened, and if she still wanted to be with him, more fool her. It was, however, immensely uncomfortable, especially as she kept me informed of the upcoming weekend with this guy. In the days following the weekend, I received the note that I had been dreading, that she wanted to try and make a go of things with him. All told, we had only been together around three months, a drop in the ocean. Crucially, not long enough for me to discover her faults.

What could I do? As far as I was concerned, I had been reasonable until the end, although the breakup came with sleepless nights for most of the next year. Everywhere I went, I just wanted to be someplace else. But at the time, I didn’t particularly fight. If she’d wanted me over him, or vice versa, she just had to think it through, it was all just logic. In fact, I saw Sue at various times – we were amongst a large student population, but students have their habits and our paths were bound to cross every now and again. I happened to see her when we graduated, but I was with somebody else by then, I’ve no idea of her circumstances. After we left university, we went our separate ways and we never kept in touch – it would have been too painful to re-open old wounds.

But, you know, I was nineteen, and life is all about learning. Plus, with hindsight, I know that the reason she was so perfect was just that I hadn’t known her long enough to discover the imperfections. I can look back at this and smile – I hope Sue is happy now and has done well for herself. Regrets? Well, I regret that the relationship never reached its full potential, but looking at how my own life worked out subsequently, I can hardly complain. There are even reasons to be thankful – I have been with the perfect partner (how rare is that?), who’d also been head over heels for me (how rare was that? 😀 ) For a few months, at least!

I shall end this post with our song.

As clear as if it were yesterday.

Pre-ordained

Following on from my post about school the other day, I wanted to talk a bit about qualifications.

I got into high school based on an interview, not an exam. Furthermore, it was my parents who were interviewed – I mostly sat quietly in the corner. As a result of that, my first competitive exams were my ‘O’ (Ordinary) levels, aged sixteen. They’ve had a few names since, and different countries have different setups, but most every schoolchild sits some form of exam aged sixteen.

These exams were nerve-racking. With hindsight that’s because I didn’t know what to expect. So, I revised and revised, and in the end I got good grades, the exams were a lot easier than I thought they’d be. They were good enough to allow me to study for the next level.

The next level of study was ‘A’ (Advanced) levels. Maths and Physics. These were two-year courses, from sixteen to eighteen. In my case, I just carried on at school, although a lot of people went to specialist sixth-form colleges. These were the most difficult exams by far that I ever sat, in terms of both content and stakes. Plus, of course, at that age, there were external distractions such as girls and booze. These exams really made the difference between going on to university, and staying home and finding a job. In my day, B and C grades were good enough to get into all but the very best universities, onto all but the most popular courses, although nowadays children routinely need As and beyond. Does that mean that the university intake is better now? You decide!

On to university. At this point, exams stopped being competitive. Your grades would be mentioned in conjunction with the name of the university. If you got a first from Oxford, you were likely onto a winner. I was at the University of Wales – an okay reputation, probably one of the better places to be.

At university, there was only a limited trust of ‘A’ level grades. After the first year at university, we took another set of exams. These again were pass/fail – if you failed, you had the opportunity to resit, if you failed again you were out. I passed, but again knowing that failure meant being kicked out, was tough.

From that point, things got a little easier. It was pretty-much accepted that everybody would get a degree of some kind, the only thing up for grabs was the actual grade. There were exams at the end of the second year, their results counted towards the final result, but even if you scored 0% (I probably wasn’t far off that!) you would sit a third year. It’d be fair to say that my foot was off the gas that year! I think second year counted around 30% toward the final grade. Not enough to make the difference between a pass and a fail, but certainly enough to fine tune between grades.

A lot of my third year was spent in the library. I suppose I was lucky in that I was in a stable relationship this year – the previous year I’d been a bit messed up. I knew exactly how important my final exams were, didn’t see girlfriend for a month, and I was a model student. In the end, I scored very highly in the exams, but left with just a 2:1 degree. Disappointing in the context of the third-year exams but given my laxity in my second year, I couldn’t really complain.

For me, then, the world of academia was over. I had opportunities to stay on and do both a one-year master’s degree, or a three-year PhD, but I was fed up of having no money. With hindsight, I should probably have stayed on as long as possible, gathered as many letter after my name as I could, simply because university was a “time of life” thing. Having been there once, it never really felt appropriate to go back.

Finally, a word about some exams I didn’t take. In my final year, in particular, I worked with several people who subsequently earned PhDs. This was simply a case of staying power. After three yeas at university, I was ready to go out into the world, but they chose the other option and stuck around. Even after three years, a lot of people didn’t really know what they wanted to do in life, so staying on to earn a doctorate was a rational choice (although I myself chose to go into the science research industry). Many PhD students had worse degree grades than I eventually received, so this wasn’t an academic split. The same was true of post-doctorate students. I have a lot of respect for somebody who has earned a PhD, or even become a medical doctor, but the respect is because of the time they spent education, rather than any kind of inferiority complex.