An unexpected kindness

A short while ago, I related the story of Aileen, the girl who had teased me as a young lad in the spring of my years and schooldays, and on whom I had such a boyish crush, an affection that has lasted all my life. I was to discover just lately, with sadness, that she had passed away at a young age, before she had reached the summer of her own.

I learned all this from Aileen, her namesake and sister-in-law. At the time of my story, I did not mention Aileen’s full name, for reasons I don’t need to relate but were right at the time. Now, since many will have surmised it already, it’s good to be able to let her have her own full name at last : Aileen Cygan.

Yesterday, a big envelope landed on my doormat. I knew what it should be, since Aileen, Vincent’s wife, had told me she’d sent me a souvenir brochure of the Golden Jubilee of my old school, Notre Dame de Lourdes, celebrated in 2007 half a century after its founding in 1957. Aileen thought I might recognise former teachers in some of the photographs from my time there.

They say you never forget a good teacher, and I was blessed in having so many fine teachers there, men who have influenced my life ever since, and women who were the flower of Scottish spinsterhood (since they were so often spinsters dedicated to a vocation). ‘Big Jim’ Murray, the best English master in history, ‘Wee Willie’ Kerr, of Music, ‘Snolky’ Collins of History, ‘Wee Johnny Bone’ Scullion of Mathematics, and John McVey, our headmaster.

However, there was something extra. Unknown to me, Aileen had anticipated something I had so dearly wanted to ask for, but dared not presume to on such a short acquaintance. She never said it, but inside the envelope, with the school brochure, was a small fold of paper, and inside it, a photograph.

It was Aileen.

This is the girl who stole my sixteen-year-old heart. The picture was taken during a holiday in Poland, some time after she had left school. Yet it is her, just as I have always remembered her, and that impish look I talked of is still there, perfectly captured here.

I had to sit down suddenly. I stared and looked, and looked and stared, and a rush of memories came flooding back. Aileen frisking me at the bus stop. Aileen jumping on the bus after me and sitting beside me and flirting until I was flushed cherry red. Aileen so close that I nearly kissed her then stopped, not because of the slapped face that would have followed, but because she might stop flirting with me.

Time puts unbridgeable distances between us, and moments such as these. Would I have been slapped? Very likely. Though in my idler moments, I have imagined, too, a wry, stern look that added, ‘But I forgive you…’ And if time can never be bridged, at least memory keeps such moments forever vibrant.

Thank you, Aileen. Both.