I remember 1989 clearly. It was the year I started at University (the place that E and I would meet the following year) and danced the nights away to Ride on Time and Like A Prayer in the Student Union. It was my gap year and I was lucky enough to live in Paris for a few months, where I drank Beaujolais, worked as an au pair, roamed the avenues and gardens and sat in cafes eating baguettes and writing endless letters to friends at home. Once back in the UK, I had two jobs; one for an insurance company, which remains one of the most deadly, soul-destroyingly-boring, jobs I have ever had, and one for a company that sold plasterboard, where I made a good friend and we made even better use of the nearby pub. It was the year that we watched in horror as students were massacred in Tienanmen Square and in cautious joy as the Berlin Wall fell. It was the year that the last episode of Black Adder IV made us all cry. It was the year I turned 20.
It was also the year that P was born.
I discovered this a month or so ago. Oldest Daughter needed to get some information to prove to the Student Loan Company that her father didn’t live with us anymore and one of the documents she managed to procure was E and P’s Marriage certificate.
Looking at her date of birth in black and white was an odd thing. My first thought was “oh, my God, she’s only nine years older than Oldest Daughter” (I texted this thought to Oldest Daughter and her response was a horrified “please, Mum, I’m trying to live my best life here…”). My second thought was “she’s just a kid”, or at least she was when she started seeing E three or four years ago, she was probably even younger when she first met him as his student a couple of years before that. I know she’s 29 now, and that’s more than grown up enough to be accountable for her actions, but her youth compared to his age felt more than a little bit creepy.
It’s not the 20 year age gap per se that made me gasp. I have friends in relationships with large age gaps that are very happy together, and I know of plenty of brilliant and successful relationships where there is a big age gap. I also know of many relationships with no real age gap to speak of that have failed (including my own). But all of these relationships started with a meeting of equals. E’s relationship with P began when she was his student, and that’s what made me uncomfortable – there’s an imbalance there. If Oldest Daughter (now nearly 20) came home from University this Christmas and introduced me to her 40 year old tutor, who was married, with four children, alarm bells would be ringing all over the place. If she then married him without telling his kids or any of his family, I would be out of my mind with concern for her and what she was being told.
Discovering P’s age was strangely liberating. For some reason, despite the fact she looks very young in the pictures that I’ve seen, I’d assumed that she was in her mid-30s. I’d assumed she was a woman with a bit of experience under her belt and had had time to work out what she wanted out of life, and was still child free and attractive. I felt that, therefore, by comparison I must have seemed dull, boring and unattractive. Finding out that she was young enough to be my daughter shifted my perception of the relationship from one that was vaguely threatening to my self-esteem to one that was just vaguely ludicrous. I’m not a jealous person, but women in their 30s remind me of everything that I was and am probably not now, whereas women in their 20s are simply a different generation – I could no more compare myself to someone 20 years younger than me, that I could compare myself to my daughter’s friends. Or at least, if I do, it would be with a wry smile and a fond memory of being that young.
I’m not suggesting for one minute that P was somehow groomed, or that she didn’t know what she was getting into – after all she was in her early to mid-twenties when she met him – but it does throw a slightly different light on everything. When I was in my 20s, I was relatively naive and if a man, who I knew only as a popular tutor, who commanded a room full of 100 students and was admired by all of them, singled me out for attention and told me, with deep sincerity, that he was in a bad relationship, but only for the sake of his kids and that meeting me was the first time he’d ever been truly in love, and that he couldn’t help his feelings for me, a mixture of youthful vanity and personal admiration, together with the romantic tinge of a forbidden love would have meant I would have believed every word he said.
Of course, P might not be as naive as I was, and might have known exactly what she was doing, but that just makes the relationship even more strange – what kind of person deliberately remains involved with someone they know is lying to them?
It’s funny, I’ve often said to Oldest Daughter that I’m more inclined to forgive bad behaviours in people her age, than I am in people of my own, because I feel that people in their teens and early twenties have got time to learn from their mistakes and change, whereas in people of my age, those behaviours have hardened into their normal way of being. So, even if P did suspect that E was a liar but still thought she was important enough to devastate the lives of five people for, maybe – just maybe – the fallout caused by her and E’s actions might mean that, unlike E, she’ll learn from it.
At least P’s actions and feelings can be explained by the ‘crush on the teacher’ phenomenon and her relative youth. By contrast E’s behaviour just seems even more creepy and desperate. If he hadn’t had all of the previous relationships and attempted relationships, I might be inclined to believe he’d fallen in love, but the evidence from the last decade or so suggests a man out to flatter his monstrous ego with anyone who will oblige. P is just the one who fell for it hardest, and I suspect is the one who will suffer for her relationship with him the most. When I met E, the year after P was born, we were young and had a future, a future that we tried to build together. When P met E he was approaching 50, with his career unlikely to go much further and with an absolute mountain of debt tied to personal loans and credit cards. His behaviour with money has hardened into a deeply ingrained habit that will never change. I suspect that his behaviour in matters of fidelity is similarly set.
When I was 29, I was blissfully happy. I’d just had our first baby, and I was living with E, my partner and my best friend, in our first ever house. We were surrounded by friends and both of our families and I felt that my life wwas pretty perfect. I want that happiness like that for my children. I’m sure P’s Mum wants it for her daughter. If I was P’s Mum, and lets face it, I’m old enough to be just that, I’d be worried sick.