I blame The Bookseller. He set me off on this doomed path.
Perhaps I might not even have been at this wedding, but for him. (A strange story in itself. The bride was someone I'd met and become friends with at a wedding a few years before. I had introduced her to The Bookseller and they'd had a brief fling. Not so very long afterwards, she'd found 'true love', raced into marriage... and, unfathomably, put The Bookseller on the wedding invitation list. The Bookseller - a man of colossal indiscretion - is not to be trusted around his exes. So, I was obliged to attend to keep him out of mischief.)
The Bookseller's goading words to me, within just minutes of our arrival at the reception, were: "There's only one pretty girl here. And you'll probably monopolise her, like you always do."
For once, his assessment was remarkably astute, almost uncannily predictive. My friend, the bride, was an odd girl, a bit tomboyish, 'one of the lads'. She hardly had any female friends, and what few there were had all got married before her. The groom, recently moved to London from South Africa, didn't seem to have any friends at all. It was, thus, quite a sparsely attended wedding, and the guests were almost exclusively older family members.
There was only one single girl in the entire party. She didn't strike me as particularly pretty at first glance. And she was dangerously young. But she had something about her that drew a second glance, and a third: intelligence, vivacity, spirit.
Her mother was evidently appalled that she was spending so much time with this 'dirty old man' (although I was at this point only just past 30; I was in very good shape, after returning from my round-the-world backpacking year, and could still pass, I think, for early to mid-20s; and I'd just gone back to university to study law, and so was once again acting - and feeling - as if I were 19 or 20). She kept dragging her off to speak to some "nice young man" or other - well, I think there were only two of them, and they both looked to be in their first or second year at university. Evidently, the daughter did not find these nice young men very interesting, because she'd detach herself from them after a few minutes and come and seek me out again.
Very flattering, it was. And, my, yes, we hit it off. We had so much in common. In particular, she was a passionate film enthusiast; she liked Tarantino, and could give detailed arguments why; best of all, she shared my view that Reservoir Dogs is a more satisfying narrative than Pulp Fiction because of its perfect tragic arc, the epitome of Aristotle's conception. I'd been struggling to persuade The Bookseller of this for years; now, here was a young girl who made the case even more excitedly and cogently than I did.
So, I asked her if she'd like to come to the cinema with me some time in the following week (it didn't even feel like asking her on a 'date', the conversation was flowing so easily). And she said she feared she would be too busy. "Tough week at work?" I queried, trying not to appear too crestfallen. "Well, I have to finish a big art project for my A-Level," she said. I tried not to let my jaw sag too obviously. (A-Levels - 'Advanced Level' studies - are the senior high school exams in England. The most dazzling girl I'd met in years, the girl I'd just tried to ask out on a date was still at school - and perhaps as young as 16. She had seemed so mature; I had convinced myself that she must be at least 20, perhaps an undergraduate. The world started to spin around my head when I discovered she was possibly 14 or 15 years younger than me. I began to understand her mother's horror of me rather better.)
Well, it turned out she was only a few weeks shy of her 18th birthday - so my interest in her, our interest in each other, began to seem not quite so indecent. Her mother's guardedness towards me seemed to soften over the course of the afternoon. And the girl eventually managed to obtain her parents' permission to join the small after-party at a pub around the corner in the evening. Now I had her all to myself. I lost track of who else might have been there (even The Bookseller's notorious ineptitude was not going to mess this up for me!). I only had eyes for her.
Then, she realised she'd left something behind at the reception venue, nearly half a mile away - a pair of gloves, I think it was. I offered to walk with her to try to recover them. It had just begun raining, and we didn't have an umbrella. On the way back, the rain became a downpour. We kept on ducking into doorways or telephone kiosks every few yards down the road to try to get some shelter, but we were both absolutely soaked through. And every time we took cover from the rain in some archway or bus shelter or whatever... we kissed, passionately, exquisitely, at great length. Possibly the finest erotic memory of my entire life.
But wait, I hear the imaginary reader cry, that's not a dating disaster, is it? Quite the reverse!
No, indeed - but then, neither really was it a date.
When we did get together for a date, those really didn't go so well. The 'maturity' I'd so admired at the wedding party was evanescent. With make-up and a posh frock and entirely adult company, she'd been able to play the grown-up. But it wasn't yet her natural register. After an afternoon of cushion fights in her 6th Form Common Room, she was goofily juvenile - still quite charmingly vivacious, but not nearly as impressive as she'd been on that first meeting. After a couple of weeks, we reached a mutual decision that it wasn't working out, that the age gap was a bit too much. (We remained friends for a while, though. She sent me some postcards from her gap year; and I saw her again a year later, just after she started at Oxford - a Platonic catching-up-with-each-other 'date'.)
She was the youngest girl I've ever been out with (since I was at school myself, that is), and it was much the biggest age gap I've attempted to span (although a difference of 14 or 15 years seems less improper if the woman is over 30; I suppose it's possible I might set a new record here at some point).
I mention this now because of a very vivid dream I had at the start of this week, a dream in which I found myself attracted to a very young girl (not illegally so, I hasten to add; but still rather shamingly, inappropriately so - much too young for me), and felt myself consumed with guilt over it. But that, I think, is a story for another time and place.