It’s true what they say, you never forget your first love.
Antonio burst into my life like dazzling sunlight in a cold grey world. Tall and slim, with hair black and shiny as a raven’s wing and blue eyes you could drown in, he was a dream come true.
His parents owned a hotel on the sea-front. I was seventeen, he was twenty. We spent a magical summer, hearts pressed together close as two coats of paint. Weekends we went swimming, surfing or sailing and at night he’d take me to the hottest night spots, clubs and bars. Sometimes we’d drive up to the hills and lay in the grass just looking at the sky. He said he loved me. He seduced me with his glamour and sophistication like a pair of sizzling red stilettos, fabulous to look at and a joy to own. He made me feel bold and reckless, like I’d never felt before. I fell in love.
I recall it vividly, the warm spicy smell of him, his hot breath on my face, butterflies in my stomach as he whirled me around the dance floor happy to be in his arms. I never wanted it to end. You never feel the pain while you’re dancing, lost in the thrill and excitement, the beat of the music, the frenzy of the dancers, intoxicated by the sheer exhilaration of being part of it. It’s only afterwards, on the long walk home with blistered feet and aching back, barefoot in the cold and rain, you regret your choices.
My heart broke in two when he left to go to America. I ached for him. He said he’d write and he did, many times, but I’d found out I was pregnant by then and my world turned upside down.
There was no happy ending for single mothers in the steeped in tradition, old fashioned as spats, village where I lived. The permissive society had passed my parents by. To them I was on the fast lane to hell. Their bitter disappointment will stay with me forever. They said I couldn’t keep it, not and stay living at home. I’d never felt so alone. I burned with shame and couldn’t write back, what would have been the point? America was as distant as the moon and stars.
Bill rescued me. Warm, soft hearted, easy-going Bill. Like strong, reliable working boots, he was sturdy but unexciting. We worked together in the local factory and used to sit on the wall in the yard at lunch-time to eat our sandwiches. He’d bring me chocolate bars or fruit. He was twice my age but good fun and he made me laugh.
‘What’s up pet?’ he asked as we sat on the wall. ‘You could get arrested for having a face like that.’
I should have laughed, but I exploded into a thunderstorm of tears and whole sorry story came tumbling out.
Bill put his arm around me. ‘Don’t worry pet, I’ll marry you,’ he said.
Just like that. He said he’d always had his eye on me and he’d be chuffed as a chimney to make an honest woman of me. My father approved: my mother cried: I was saved and he was smitten.
We moved in with this widowed mother, her of the sensible shoes and ubiquitous cardigans. We rubbed along together well enough, like a comfortable pair of slippers, each moulding ourselves to fit the other. I’ll always be grateful to him; he gave me the one thing I craved most in the world – respectability.
Kirsty grabbed our hearts the moment she was born. She was the softest kid leather baby shoes, a priceless treasure warm and pink. Her startling blue eyes lit up the world around her. Bill and I both glowed with love for her. As she grew up, she blossomed from baby bootees to ballet shoes. School shoes, gym shoes, roller skates and riding boots soon gave way to dainty kitten heels, dancing shoes and stylish high-heeled ankle boots. She was strappy sandals, lively and unrestricted. Bill adored her.
She’d inherited her father’s looks, not Bill’s thinning ginger hair clinging in quiet desperation to his head, but Antonio’s lustrous, coal-black tresses and eyes that sparkled like faceted sapphires. Bill never met him, so he was spared the agony that assailed me when I caught a sudden glance that conjured up his face and left me breathless. If he felt the tugging of his heartstrings it was her loving grace that enthralled him, nothing more.
There couldn’t have been prouder parents than we were when she won a place at University. That’s when Bill’s illness began. It ate away at him. Bill was the most generous man in the world – he wanted to be honest and let her know the truth. He thought she deserved that, but I said, ‘You’re her Dad and you always will be.’
Shortly before he died Bill took my hand in his. ‘Job done,’ he said with a grin. ‘Job done’. I think he was telling me he’d done all he could for Kirsty and me. I couldn’t have asked for a better more loving husband. When he died it was like losing the faithful old welly-boots that I’d depended on to protect me from the storms, the ones I thought would always be there. He left a huge hole in my heart.
Away at University Kirsty was popular, headstrong and independent. She’d tell me about her boyfriends and bring them home. I guess I worried like any parent would. One day I was watching her looking in the mirror getting ready to meet her latest beau when, without thinking, I said, ‘You have your father’s eyes.’
She looked at me and then it all came out. I told her about Antonio. I don’t think she was surprised, what with her being so different to Bill. A thousand questions hung in the air but she never said anything.
It was Christmas when she told me about Steve. I knew it was serious by the casual way she dropped his name into the conversation while she was showing me her flashy new knee-high boots, scarlet with a white fur trim and ridiculously high heels. Impossible for walking in the snow and ice, but what can you tell at nineteen-year old?
‘I’ve met someone,’ she said. The way she talked about him you’d think he walked on water. I was happy for her, I knew what it was like to be young and in love.
When Kirsty told me they were getting married I missed Bill more than ever. No one would have been prouder than him to walk her down the aisle. I wasn’t surprised at what she did – I guess she always wanted to know, but it shook me for a moment.
She asked me to go over to check on some last minute details for the wedding.
I saw him as soon as she opened the door. My heart faltered. I couldn’t breathe. The years spun away, I was seventeen again.
I recognised him at once the way you recognise a favourite pair of shoes, long ago discarded by still beguiling: the fabulous red stilettos you never forget.
The years had been kind to him, he’d hardly changed at all, neither it seemed had my feelings for him. Rockets exploded inside me as I spotted the same gemstone eyes, raven’s wing hair and dazzling charm.
‘I hope you don’t mind Mum,’ Kirsty said. ‘But I had to know. I found him on the Internet.’
‘I’m glad she did,’ Antonio said. A huge rush of emotion threatened to engulf me. He took a step towards me and stared straight into my eyes. ‘You should have told me,’ he said. ‘I’d have come back for you.’ I saw in his eyes the misery of regret for the years he’d missed.
‘I’ll always think of Bill as my dad but I want Antonio to walk me down the aisle,’ Kirsty said.
‘I’d be honoured,’ he said, still holding my gaze. ‘I hope it’s not too late for me to make amends.’ He smiled and my heart caught fire.
‘It’s never too late,’ I said. The adoring look on his face told me he hadn’t forgotten his first love either.
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