#FirstLove   #Eltham   #MyCulturalMentor

Love at 18

by Robbo Bennetts
first published in the Age, 5 December 2000, under the title "Closing the book on my first love"

It must be safe after 32 years to mention a high school affair of the heart.

For most of my secondary schooling I went to a private school. In an all-boys setting opportunities for romance were limited. The only person attracted to me during that period was my English teacher in Form 3. One day he fondled my chest in full view of the rest of the class.

I completed my secondary schooling at the local high school. There, I fell in love with the most beautiful girl in the whole school. I first noticed Felina (not her real name) doing the splits by the lockers in the corridor. Her family were members of the cultural elite. My family were members of the cultural delete. Her father was a talented academic. My father left school two days after he turned fourteen and went into overdraft manufacturing urinals.

I was fascinated by Felina's wild and unpredictable nature. During a nocturnal excursion with a group of friends, I climbed up after her into a huge wattle tree and heard myself saying, Felina, I think you are beautiful. To my surprise, we started going out. (The only time I can recall actually going out, however, was when I smuggled her into the drive-in in the boot of my Morris Minor.)

For reasons I still can't explain, Felina became my cultural mentor. She introduced me to all of her family friends, all celebrated artists, architects or authors. She led me through her library of art books, and triggered in me an aesthetic stirring. (I was especially taken by Constable's clouds.) At lunchtime, she and I would walk from school to her house. Everybody believed we were making poetry, but really, we were just discussing it.

Then Felina started seeing other, older men - social aviators with whom I could never hope to compete. Torn apart by jealousy, I dumped her. Not straight away, though. For about a month, late on Saturday nights, I would crawl in through her bedroom window and wait for ages while she pashed goodbye to her latest paramour.

One night I heard Felina's mother coming down the passageway. I dove under Felina's bed - only to discover that was precisely where her cats shat. When Felina finally came in, I scared her half to death, crawling from under the bed, groaning, and covered in cat poop.

I went out with Felina for about five months. I nursed my broken heart for about five years. (Can an 18-year-old be so in love?) Later, Felina had babies with a succession of pop stars. Or was it only one? I don't know.

I have seen her but once in all these intervening years. It was some time ago at a luncheon. Felina demanded everyone's attention. She pointed at me and sneered, You know, when he was growing up, his parents never bought him a single book!

I would have replied - as cool as you like - Well, Felina, I still managed to get four more As than you in Matric. But to be honest, I didn't think of that particular retort until fairly recently. Instead, I struggled to remember whether my parents had given Jock of the Bushveldt to me, or to my brother.

Now I wonder if Felina is still the svelte beauty she once was. Somehow, I just can't visualise her at the age of fifty. My thoughts strayed back to her the other night, during my 18-year-old daughter's graduation. The graduation took place in the very same school hall where Felina and I had danced to the beat of Zorba the Greek all those years ago.

Imagine my pride when it was announced that my daughter was the outstanding student of the year. As she slid across the stage, I suddenly felt sure that my parents had given Jock of the Bushveldt to me after all.