I had thought of changing her name, for the telling of this story, but in truth she deserves her own name, even though it’s not necessary to mention it in full here. All that is important to say for this story is that her full name was unusual enough for it to have been very rare in Scotland.
I was a shy lad at school (these were, of course, the days before I became the role model that Sean Connery was to base his whole career on), and my senior school days were spent in a Roman Catholic secondary school in the south side of Glasgow, Notre Dame de Lourdes, under the headmastership of a quietly spoken but astute and delightful man, John McVey, principal of the English department.
Being thrown in to a broad academically cosmopolitan secondary from the relative cocooning of my little primary school, in the parish of St Conval’s, was quite an awakening, and adjustment took a long time. At least, six months to a year seems a long time when you have not yet reached your first teen year. These were the days of the Eleven-Plus, or ‘Quali’, which determined your entire academic career from the age of eleven. I had been allocated to the class 1A Boys, which was the academic stream, in a school where boys were segregated from girls until about third year ; at which time classes became smaller as pupils began to take academic streaming options, and the boys’ and girls’ classes merged.
That was an adventure. Boys and girls in the same class, how easy it became to be distracted from lessons, by sneaking a peek at Antionette Wynne, the incredibly beautiful girl with the dark hair and white hair band in Latin class, or Stenia Stelmach, the tall and fair-haired Polish girl who breezed through Chemistry and turned all the boys’ heads, or the McElroy twins, Anne and Marie, who distracted me from my French verb conjugations. Mathematics was a tough call, for Alice Dolan and Cathy McDaid continually had me turning at obtuse angles to throw tangential glances at them. Physics was no better, for there on the front bench were Edith Pratt and Mary Roach. As for English, Lord knows how I managed to pass an exam, seated behind Mary Reid, and two rows away from The Trio, three girls who were always found together : Margaret McCartan, tall and dark-haired, Clare McGonigal, a doe-eyed girl with a shining rosy complexion, and Aileen. Aileen was tall, slim, with bright blue eyes, short bob-style fair hair, strikingly pretty, and an impish smile. In or out of school, Margaret, Clare and Aileen were always together.
Being a relatively shy boy, they naturally homed in on me. They had discovered that I blushed rather easily, and became tongue-tied, so they would come to me in the street, perhaps waiting for the bus home, and tease me mercilessly, but it was always good-humoured. And in truth, seeing them approach would always quicken my pulse a little. I always knew when Aileen was in teasing mode, for then, she always called me “Alexander”, with a musical trill in her voice accenting the third syllable, and I would blush furiously again. Yet for all their relentless teasing, I adored them. I was just sixteen years old, and I adored them in that perfectly innocent way that, once lost, never returns. Once, I remember, standing at the bus stop to take the bus home, and The Trio spotted me. “Alexander!” said Aileen as they crowded round me, “How are you?” And then she frisked me. She went through my pockets, and pulled out the spiral notebook I kept for jotting down ideas about what to write for English essays. And she had a good read through. What did I care? I was a boy of sixteen, and I had been frisked by Aileen!
I had daydreams, in which the four of us would wander through sunlit meadows, and then they’d smother me in kisses while I resisted with every intention of failing.
Those schooldays, which seemed long at the time, were suddenly short. Before I knew it, six years had gone, and so had they. The McElroy twins had married, so too had Stenia Stelmach, Alice and Cathie, and Edith.
Years passed. Schooldays became a thing of the past, and classmates crept imperceptibly into the history of decades gone by.
Occasionally, I’d wonder what became of those people with whom I’d shared my schooldays. For the most part, it became just an idle curiosity, and there were few with whom I’d kept in touch. Frankie Hart had gone to university to study mathematics, Mike Donnelly entered the world of economics and politics and became adviser to the Scottish First Minister, Frank Berry became a teacher in the same school, but beyond that, I knew little. And my own career was to take me out of Glasgow and, eventually, out of Scotland.
But these memories are precious. They become part of us, part of our history, part of what shapes us, and every now and then, they burst in on the conscious self. So it was, one evening recently, when I found myself reflecting on schooldays in NDL, and my boyhood, and The Trio, those whimsical, mischievous girls, and being frisked at the bus stop in Paisley Road by Aileen. Where were they? How had life treated them? Would they remember me?
I had no way for sure of ever finding out, certainly not for Margaret, or Clare. Girls marry, and they change their names. In any case, what had stayed in my mind, and had become part of my history, might have been forgotten in a fortnight to them.
One day not long ago, reflecting on these days, I thought to see if I might find any trace of Aileen. I had nothing to go on, save an unusual name, that itself would have been no clue had she married. My intention had been simple and uncomplicated : only to see if I could find out what had become of her, and whether she remembered me, and might smile at the recollection. Nothing else.
What I hadn’t expected, on searching for her name, unusual as it was, was finding it within minutes. There, was Aileen. The only name of its kind.
It is very awkward to write to someone you have not seen for many decades. How do you explain why you are writing? What had seemed so obvious, what had seemed would be so fluent before I began to set it down, suddenly left me as tongue-tied as I had been all those years ago. Yet there are few regrets as harsh as those of moments not taken, so I wrote.
I wrote to say who I was, how I had remembered her, how we had spent schooldays together, how she, and Margaret, and Clare, had teased me as a young lad, made me blush, and how, in uncomplicated youthful innocence, I had adored all three of them. In truth, I did not expect a reply.
Aileen replied within minutes. What I had not calculated on, was that this would not be the same Aileen. It was her sister-in-law, who by chance had the same first name, and had married Aileen’s brother.
She told me, with kindness and patience towards a stranger, that the Aileen I sought had died many years ago, in her thirties. She had barely reached half of her three score years and ten.
In that moment, my remembrances of the lovely fair-haired girl with the bright blue eyes and singing voice, changed into an indescribable sadness. Memories I thought I might renew on the re-telling, suddenly became locked in the past, unchangeable, known only to me.
Aileen was kind. She answered all my questions, told me how Aileen had become a teacher, had taught at the school where my own youngest brother had been a pupil, and how she had become overcome by the illness that took her from this world too early.
For all this news was sad, and I wish it had been otherwise, I am glad that after all these years, I found out. I have, as most will know, had my one true love in this life, but Aileen has always had a special place in my memory, and always will.
Tonight, at my accustomed time of nine o’clock for these things, I will fill my glass with my finest malt, and raise it to Aileen, and as I raise it, I will hear her say my name once more : “Alexander!”