I knew him as “Joebrown”. One word, like that – and, thanks to a twist of fate 30 years later, I now know he was 28 back then. I was 16, an A-level pupil who couldn’t bring myself to call teachers – especially this one – by their first names, as we were suddenly allowed to do at sixth form. Combining his common-or-garden names provided distance, as well as giving them a distinction that seemed so much more fitting. In the big Edwardian classroom, lined with desks along three sides, I would sit to the side of Joebrown, tucked behind my desk, while he would stand before us all, gently gesticulating, his hirsute and firm bronzed arms capturing my attention as much as the accompanying words of passion, spoken in distinctive tenor tones, for literature and for us, his students, in equal measure.
From my vantage point, my gaze would shift from his soft, masculine face and clear blue, determined eyes all the way down his male frame to the footballer’s gait so pleasingly suggested by the cut of his trousers. Straight ahead of me were large, timber-framed windows looking out on to the playing fields and sky beyond. He was kind, interested and so very encouraging, a heady mix for adolescent girls who spoke of and whispered about him in huddled giggles.
I don’t remember having a one-to-one conversation with Joebrown until my last day, though I may have done, dropping into respectful student mode to make the encounter bearable as well as unmemorable. But during lessons, in my head, he would advance on me, seal my lips with his, and then … nothing much more, actually. It was a repetitive scene that, on my last day, I decided must not remain completely within me. I had a card that told him he was “the best – and the best-looking – teacher” I had had there, a vast understatement that concealed my certainty he would one day rescue me from my desperately humdrum world and carry me off to the – I had no doubt – thrilling and fascinating Joebrownland.
When I reached his classroom, I could see through the glass in the door that it was empty except for Joebrown himself. I dared myself to enter, sure something life-changing was about to happen. He looked up from his desk showing a curious lack of delight at the sight of me, and we exchanged some sickeningly standard words – “good luck” (him), “thank you” (me) – and I shoved the card on to his desk and hurried out.
Thirty-one years later, having had no contact with him since that last day, and just as I was separating from my husband and the father of my two children after 27 years together, he landed, utterly without warning, in my inbox. “Hi Phoebe, just thought I would get in touch after all these years. It’s good that Pete keeps us in touch. Joseph Brown.” Joseph Brown! Joseph Brown!
I messaged Pete, the PE teacher from the secondary school next door, who had orchestrated a fundraising project we had both been involved in via a group email, though I hadn’t, until that moment, spotted his name in the long list of addresses in the “to” field. “Is this my old English teacher?” I asked.
“That’s him, my darling,” said Pete. “Class striker. We played footie together way back when. Good man.” The medley of emotions that had been threatening to erupt began a slow, undulating convulsion that was to dance gloriously and recklessly through me and my life for the next 20 months.
Joseph – as he was now calling himself – and I met two weeks later, after increasingly long and enthusiastic emails back and forth. It was a Monday afternoon and I walked into a coffee shop where we had arranged to meet, scanning the seating, wondering if I would recognise him. I clocked him at the bar alongside the window before he saw me and felt a sharp intake of breath at the receding hairline and thinned neck that age had wreaked. The man waiting for me was, however, unmistakably Joebrown.
I felt a brief impulse to turn around and walk out again, to not sully my dreamed-of past with ravages-of-time reality. But a greater impulse to not be impolite combined with another to continue on with this adventure. Domesticity and a failing marriage had taken its toll, and this was the most excited I had felt about anything for years. I took my fresh mint tea and slid on to the stool beside him. His face, still handsome, was craggy and serious and, as we spoke, he proffered gentle but persistent enquiries, at the same time as leaning forward and gesticulating in the utterly memorable and endearingly embracing manner once extended to a whole class, but now being bestowed on me alone. I felt my world, which amid a long, drawn-out breakup had been so empty and joyless, becoming fascinating – and being invited into his. I mentioned that I had separated from the father of my two children and that we were still living, awkwardly, under the same roof. He said he and his partner were wondering why they were still together. “Let’s do lunch,” he said with disarming assuredness as we stood to leave.
It was high summer when I cycled to the beach in a skimpy dress feeling light years away from the angry, depressed mum whose emotionally absent husband had called it a day 18 months earlier. Joseph – as I was practising calling him – rose to greet me, ushering me into a seat while he queued to get my sparkling water, acts of chivalry that seemed the stuff of a fairytale – only one I was actually in.
He asked about my “spirituality”, something I had felt embarrassed to mention to this formidably intelligent and rational man, but his tenderness in doing so, picking up on things I had said in emails, was replete with respectfulness and an insight that I felt sure reflected my very soul. He suggested a walk along the prom, and we sauntered in the sunshine side by side, light seeming to skip around and between us, punctuating our engrossed conversation. He drew to a halt by railings, asking when we could next meet, and then, to my surprise, leaned to gently kiss my closed lips, before pulling away, pausing to utter to nobody in particular a considered but audible murmur of approval.
Over the following two weeks, his attempts to see me as much as possible buried my anxieties that, at 47, my chances of being desired were over. In fact, I couldn’t remember ever having felt this desirable, so articulate and expressive was he about the aspects of me he found attractive, traits that seemed to bring fully alive, accentuate even, my feelings. He crossed London to meet me on my lunch break, texting afterwards that my “slender firm beauty, dreamy eyes and calm voice” were in his head. I could barely believe it. Nobody had ever called me beautiful before, apart from kind girlfriends.
“You look lovely,” he exclaimed, doing a double take at me in the passenger seat of his car as he drove us to our first evening date, a meal at a country pub where we sat in the lush garden in the warm evening air. We talked animatedly, intensely, and I formed on my lips a question I had been rehearsing: “How would it feel for you to tell me a bit about your relationship with your wife?”
There was the briefest of pauses before he responded: “It would feel fine,” and recounting in detail how they had met 15 years ago, and how his wife had been ill and unhappy in recent years.
“Can you meet me somewhere, anywhere?” he texted a few days later on a Saturday morning. We drove to a local beauty spot and lay in the grass. “Phoebe Ash,” he said, looking at me seriously, a teacher-to-pupil inflection in his tone: “I have fallen in love with you.” Nobody had ever said that to me, either. He texted sweet and tender goodnight messages, lustful thoughts and intelligent and heartfelt comments on world events. I dreamed of us having sex on the school’s playing fields and up against the corridor walls, then pictured myself dancing on the college rooftop, hollering at the girls inside: look what I got!
I had always wondered what falling in love was like. I had loved my husband for sure. We had started dating when I was 19 but, on parting, had acknowledged to one another that we had never had the passionate, “in love” phase. How important was this high-octane beginning to the success of a long-term relationship, had been the unanswered question behind our breakup. My friend Steve said being “in love” was a form of madness driven by biological imperative and my counsellor said it was impossible to give therapy to someone who was in the “in love” phase because they didn’t think rationally. I was certainly working like a hamster on a wheel to think rationally with Joseph. At 47, I felt like an out-of-control teenager as just the sight of the name “Joseph Brown” on my phone, indicating a new message, prompted flushes of extreme delight. The outline of those letters formed a shape so utterly conjoined with pleasure that just their appearance would cause me to lose all concentration on anything else.
It wasn’t just his erudition and charm that made me swoon. He was tender and affectionate in his texts and in person, but, most incredibly of all, it was clear to me that he really did think I was gorgeous and interesting. After years of uncertainty about myself, Joseph was seeing qualities in me nobody else had. His descriptions and expressions of longing seemed wondrous enough, but that this should be happening to me in middle age, when my postpartum belly sagged and my crooked teeth had yellowed, was nothing short of a miracle.
On one occasion, when he was due to meet me after work, I had spent the day glimpsing a tired, harassed-looking older woman in the mirrored bathroom. On the train home, I covered liver spots on my face, tamed unruly wisps of hair, redid my eye makeup and added bright lipstick. But just the imminence of being with him, thinking about his enthusiasm for me, his tenderness, the intensity with which he would look at and listen to me, lifted and brought to the fore something powerful inside me, too. By the time I stepped off the train, flats swopped for heels, I strode along the platform as light and carefree as a 25-year-old.
He exclaimed his delight at my appearance, as he always did, and we sat, huddled in an empty cocktail bar on a Tuesday evening. Back at home, in my own bathroom, I realised I saw a completely different woman in the mirror to the one I had been trying to avoid in the loos at work. I told him this in a message and he replied quoting Lou Reed, his favourite songwriter: “Well, I’ll be your mirror.” I looked up the lyrics: “I’ll be your mirror / Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know / I’ll be the wind, the rain and the sunset / The light on your door to show that you’re home.”
It could be the anthem for our relationship and I asked him to promise to sing it to me one day.Our animated discussions ranged far and wide and deep, from politics and world affairs, to the people and personalities in our lives, the world of work, as well as art, literature and music. But gender and relationships were the most common topics. Was the tendency for women to feel emotionally dependent on men a hangover from a time when women depended on men as breadwinners, for their very survival, I asked rhetorically in the pub one evening. He nodded thoughtfully, our cocooned world seeming to be a key to the wider one.
My adolescent fantasies were another favourite. I teased him about – and really wondered – whether he remembered me at all. It wasn’t just that hundreds of other students had passed through his classroom, it was also that I had been quiet, almost withdrawn, with authority figures growing up. One of the last times we met, I gave him a piece of writing about turning 50 that I had composed to read at a poetry and prose afternoon. He sat across from me in a cafe reading it, then tucked it in his breast pocket, saying that it reminded him of my former self, who would not speak in class until I had perfected what I had to say. As someone who hadn’t spoken until I was four years old and then did so fairly fluently, I knew then that not only did he remember me but that he understood something fundamental about me – and, moreover, had understood it about me 30 years earlier, before I had understood it about myself
We drove to beaches and beauty spots seeking out secluded areas, whiling away a few delicious hours. My battle with high-octane feelings continued but it was complemented by corresponding crashing lows. Every so often, he would drop beneath the radar, either with some brief explanation, or he would simply stop responding to my messages. Trips to the theatre, weekends away, nights together were spoken of but never materialised. And I never heard him play the guitar and sing Velvet Underground songs. I was sure he would leave his wife, and not just because of me. He spoke increasingly about his unhappiness in their relationship and their respective needs to move on. I knew him as a man of self-determination and it was clear their emotional connection was damaged, it seemed irretrievably so.
But he didn’t leave her. Over 20 months, we had long periods of not seeing one another before pinging back together again. He would send a text, sometimes several, and eventually I would respond. In the end, I blocked texts and calls from him to stop myself being tempted back in. “It was a classic rebound relationship,” said my sister with sharp reductionism. It was a classic affair, too. Perhaps mostly because it felt so unique.