Last week I found someone else’s first love. I was clearing a house of books, in my part time job as a second hand bookseller. This house had 26,00 books, half true crime and half joke books. I was boxing up a set of titles on murderers in different geographical regions, when a letter fell out. Four sheets of blue parchment paper, folded to make a small book, each page covered in neat, round, blue handwriting with a fountain pen.
The letter lamented the first love that had gone. It apologised for not valuing it enough. It explained how its own anger had been the problem, how beautiful this love had been, how the writer would do anything to make things right. It spoke so strongly to its addressee it took me a moment to remember they must never have seen it. It had been written, perhaps in several drafts until it was just right, copied out again onto these blue pages, then hidden away inside Murderers of West Sussex.
Until now and me, stood on top of a ladder, dismantling this family library, four years after the father had died. I finished the letter, slid it back into its envelope, and wondered where to put it: maybe hide it behind a complete run of True Crime magazine, which we would not be removing. I placed it on an empty shelf. Later, I saw another bookseller hand it to the housekeeper who came in to check how we were doing.
Oh, said the housekeeper, looking at the handwritten envelope. That must be X. I’ll give it to her later, and she put it on the desk by the library door.
An hour later X and her boyfriend arrived on an unexpected visit. X seemed surprised and disturbed to find her dad’s library being put into boxes and wandered up and down the aisles looking sullen and upset. X picked out a few titles to keep, but the manager of the bookshop complained he had bought all the books and she was taking his profit. She would, he said, have to buy them.
When X had left, I came down the ladder and saw the envelope had gone from the desk. I wondered if the boyfriend with X was the one in the letter. It was good to feel such writing had its intended effect, regardless of whether it was sent or hidden.
As a teenager, I was forever tricking myself in to love. It’s a simple and common act, and one that any adolescent boy who has ever seen a film or heard a song will admit to. The girl I loved in my parents’ car, the girl I loved while frantically tidying my kitchen and the girl I loved while sitting very quietly on my bed – these, in hindsight, were not my first loves at all.
The most poignant example of this came when I was 17. It was about five in the morning and I was sitting on a park bench with my girlfriend of the time - a girl from France, who had been studying in London. We got on well, shared the same tastes and found each other attractive – everything I thought, at the time, that you needed to qualify for love - but up until that point I was never really sure how I felt about her.
She had just told me that she was moving away for good, and I was about to reply with all the godillmissyous and neverforgetmes that my breath would allow when suddenly my face exploded in a burst of nervous red. Blood gushed and poured from my nostrils, soaking my sleeves and flooding our feet as we sat in silent panic. In the end I had to take off my socks and use them as handkerchiefs, until the bleeding finally stopped and my heart went back to providing fuel for my fingertips or whatever it is that hearts do when we’re not thinking about them.
When we had finished saying our goodbyes she got up and walked away, out of the park and into the rest of her life. I walked home with bare feet and a face covered in blood, and somehow I mistook this for love.
The truth is that this wasn’t any sort of true love at all – we never spoke again and I have very rarely thought of her since, except to tell this story. The problem is that it is too easy to confuse dramatic and interesting stories with stories of love, when all anyone really wants is someone to hold their hand, watch their favourite films and assure them that everything is going to be ok.