Reading Ian McEwan’s account of the writing of the short stories in First Love, Last Rites in the Guardian this morning, I was reminded of my first love, who gave me a copy as a gift. He was a sweet and charming young man, and it wasn’t his choice – he’d asked me what I wanted. I can remember he was somewhat bemused by the stories, and asked if I was sure. Looking back, I wonder if perhaps I might have intended to shock him.
I met Jonathan on the dig at Crickley Hill Iron Age hill fort. I spent a month there in that hot summer, with my friend Terry who had arranged it. We were seventeen and we both fantasised about becoming archaeologists. We’d had a fortnight’s experience the previous summer digging up Roman remains in Peterborough, and we spent alternate weekends digging at Radcliffe Tower, and mostly finding Victorian pottery. We’d been treated like the schoolgirls we were on both those digs – but Crickley Hill was a real chance to grow up. And we took it.
Volunteers lived out at Ullenwood Camp, which had been used as an army hospital in the second world war. The accommodation was basic – we slept on the floor in sleeping bags, and the facilities were primitive. There were only showers in one half – so they alternated by gender and we could only shower every second day. Considering how dirty and smelly we all were after working outdoors in the heatwave, this was not ideal. We got used to it, just as we got used to the callusses developing on our hands.
Digging started at nine. I often walked from the camp to the dig site after breakfast, and then spent all day digging, apart from a couple of breaks. In the early days it was hard physical labour – removing turf, using pick axes. Later it was more delicate – sitting or lying down and scraping away with trowels. My best find was a flint axe head. Later terry and I were taken under the wing of our area supervisor who decided we needed to learn som extra skills. So for an hour or two in the afternoon we were set to recording finds, and to washing and labelling them. He also taught us how to use a theodolite to do site surveys.
We had to take our turn in the kitchen – helping the cooks prepare the food and serving and washing up afterwards. That got us into a trouble a couple of times. The very first time I encountered spaghetti I had to serve it to a long queue of volunteers. And the very first portion went straight onto the shoes of the visiting Professor. Cleaning the kitchen up was a really unpleasant experiences. I found a tray of sausages in the bottom of the oven that had turned to charcoal – they must have been left there for days. And it was filthy. We muttered and complained and found ourselves in serious trouble as the cooks were universally loved regulars, and we were young upstarts. We were ostracised for a while by the popular students – to the point where we walked to the nearest phone box and almost, almost phoned Terry’s father to come and get us and take us home. But we found our courage at the last moment, and instead carried on and faced the music. And days later we were justified when the whole camp came down with a terrible tummy bug and the doctor who visited took one look at the kitchen and insisted it was properly cleaned.
On our day off, Terry and I would go shopping in Cheltenham. Our first port of call was always the public baths, where for a small fee we were allotted a bathroom and lots of hot water where we could soak off the week’s grime. The woman who ran the place used to look at us with disapproval as we were so clearly dirty girls. I think we rather enjoyed not explaining to her just why we were so dirty… Then we would go buy cream cakes and lemonade and eat in a park until it would be time to scour the second hand bookshops. I bought my Greek New Testament, also the Illiad and Beowulf in the original. In those days I was a purist, and Homer was a blind Greek epic poet, not a three fingered, yellow cartoon character.
Jonathan was a local volunteer. So we met during the day, working side by side, grubbing in the dirt. He was standing by laughing at me as I pulled up an old pair of socks that came apart in my hands and said, “These are on their last legs”. He was also laughing as I swung the pick axe and time after time broke the string which marked out our trench, instead of breaking the ground in a neat line. He was there as we had races up spoil heaps with full wheelbarrows. And as we kept each other cool by spraying each other with the water that was supposed to help us distingush between layers in the dried out earth. We were pals.
Then he asked me out. To go see Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And because it would be impossible to get back to Ullenwood Camp, to stay overnight at his home.
Of course I said yes, although I had no idea how much teasing I would be letting myself in for…
We had a lovely evening. The queues for the film were too long and so we went back early to his home. His mother rushed me into the bathroom making me believe it was a treat, not just because I was stinky. I luxuriated in a hot bubble bath while she cooked us all a meal. Then we sat and watched Spartacus on the TV. Jonathan was turfed out of his room and slept on a camp bed in with his brother – and I had a real bed and an excellent night’s sleep.
Then came the bus ride of shame as we travelled back to the dig with the other local volunteers, all of whom spent the journey, and the rest of the time on the dig, teasing me about where I’d spent the night. I probably didn’t help matters by saying in Jonathan’s bed…and he blushed more than I did.
At the end of the dig we exchanged addresses and agreed to write to each other, and I really never thought I’d ever see him again.
We did write. Long letters every week. I was starting in my final year at school, and he was in his first year studying archaeology at Birmingham University. Come half term, he turned up on my doorstep, with his rucksack and sleeping bag – on his way back from walking Hadrian’s Wall.
I was thrilled and embarrassed at the same time. My Gran saw him walking past the window with his beautiful long dark hair, and decided he looked like an old sunday school friend. Janet Hall. She insisted on telling him how much he looked like her, and how much more he’d look like a boy if he had his hair cut. My stepmother rushed him to the bathroom every bit as quickly as his mother had me – and another camp bed was deployed and I was sent to sleep on my Gran’s sitting room.
My dad and stepmother took us out out for a pub meal, and they all ganged up on me, insisting that I should stay in the Oxbridge prep class at school, which I was considering quitting. Of course I did quit… I had plenty of surface reasons to justify a whole heap of fear and inadequacy. But he coped with my family! He was such a lovely boy he even joked along with my Gran, charmed my stepmother, and even my Dad liked him.
The letters continued, and then in the spring he surprised me again. I was at the British Museum on a school trip, and in a long queue to get into the exhibition I heard my name. And there was Jonathan and one of his friends from Uni, who just happened to visit the museum on the same day.
Now that was embarrassing. Miss Morris, our deputy headmistress, who had been heard to say several times “I hate men!” was watching with severe disapproval as I chatted to him. At school, one lunchtime she gave me detention for speaking to my brother, who attended the school across the road. I confess I was worried about the consequences of me speaking to two University students in public – but she didn’t say word. Perhaps she thought my evident embarrassment was punishment enough.
In the end the letters trailed off and we lost touch. It was a very gentle first love for me – we held hands a couple of times, there was just one kiss. But I do have very fond memories of him, and especially how bemused he was, and yet accepting, of my desire for this very strange collection of short stories.
I loaned that copy to a dental student at Liverpool, and it was never returned. I suppose if it had been it would only have been in a box under the house along with lots of my other books. Still, that’s no reason to forgive him, is it?
I still wish I’d had the courage to pursue that interest in archaeology. I really did enjoy revisiting Crickley Hill last year, and following up with the Coursera MOOC Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets, and some of that found its way into the novel I’ve been working on over the past year or so.
Ian McEwan in the Guardian, the 40th anniversary of First Love, Last Rites
Crickley Hill neolothic and iron age hill fort