It’s Valentine’s Day and I feel like writing a letter to a younger version of myself, zooming back 25 years. I saw her on the tube the other day, a girl of about 14, shy and mute in among her boyfriend’s friends. She’s dressed in Jeggings and a Puffa gilet, a pair of plimsolls, and the boys surround her with chat and banter, carrying on as if she isn’t there. It is Saturday night. Her Saturday night – how precious that time appears to be now – and she hangs out with them, but says nothing, just sways with their movement and laughs when they laugh. The boys wear tracksuits and Nike trainers, are spotty, awkward, still too young to be concerned with having a good haircut, or following any kind of fashion. I know which one is her boyfriend only by the way he leans into her hand as she supports herself, the way his body is turned to her, but his eyes are everywhere else. When he isn’t looking, the spottiest of his friends stares at her intently, as if he’s imagining what she might be like to kiss, what she looks like naked. She’s a pretty girl, natural, with no make-up, dark red hair and Slavic cheekbones. She stares impassively at the advertisements and her boyfriend puts his hands in his pockets, as he searches for his friends for reassurance.
These were the days when dating meant going out with your boyfriend’s friends. The hours I spent at that age on benches on Highbury Fields with the local petty crims who listened to hip hop and drank Tenants. They’d chat about music and the bikes they’d stolen, the weed they tried to score. Sometimes one of them DJ-ed at the Lord Nelson on Holloway Road, where we danced self-consciously in among the turning lights. This is how I experienced my first boyfriend, fumbling and French kissing on a park bench. That first kiss was often exciting, the tentative days that followed when you weren’t sure if you were boyfriend and girlfriend. But then the boredom soon set in, afternoons spent in his bedroom watching TV, too scared to turn it off in case there was nothing to talk about. There was nothing to talk about, so I dumped him, and he threatened to commit suicide. I sat in my best-friend’s kitchen, heavy with the burden of his extreme emotion, wondering if I should head out onto the cold Islington streets to find him.
What would my letter be? How can I zoom back all that time and tell myself that I shouldn’t have wasted those precious years, that I should have treasured myself, my youth; there were so many other things I could have done, places I could have been. How can I protect my own daughter from these kinds of experiences? I can’t. That’s all.