As it's revealed one in five of us yearns to rekindle our first romance… It was joyous to sow wild oats. But I'd never want to make hay with my first love again
09:47 GMT, 29 August 2012
Far from starting with a shy glance across a crowded dancefloor, or a charmingly stuttered invitation to dinner, it was a trip to the supermarket with my father that drove me into the arms of my first love.
I was 19 and had just, inconveniently for my newly separated parents, failed my first-year university exams and moved back home. I think they were both hoping to tie up the messy loose ends of their divorce while I was safely elsewhere flunking my English degree.
No such luck. I returned to find my mother recently decamped to a one-bedroom flat, so my father and I rattled around uncomfortably in our large, five-bedroom family house licking our respective wounds.
Making hay: Shona Sibary tells all about her first big romance, with a farmer who was her landlord
It was only a matter of time before the sorry state of our disintegrating family hit me. And it happened in the frozen food aisle of Tesco as my father furiously threw bumper packets of fish fingers into the trolley and I suddenly thought: 'I can't do this. I have to get away.'
The next day, I scoured the local paper for a room — any room — to rent to escape from being at home. That's when I saw an advert that read: 'Accommodation available on beautiful smallholding surrounded by peace and tranquillity.'
I now know it should also have said: 'Must not mind mud, manure and falling in love with a fickle landlord who will break your heart.' But more of that later.
Looking back, I have no idea what drove me to respond except, perhaps, a feeling that my life couldn't get any worse.
And that's why, 24 hours later, I navigated my battered old Skoda up the bumpy drive of a small farm in the middle of nowhere in West Sussex to meet Robin, my new landlord, and also the first man I ever fell in love with.
A survey last week revealed that one in five Britons long to rekindle romance with their first love. It seems to be a national trait to look back and hanker after 'what might have been', but I wonder how many find their vision blurred by rose-tinted spectacles.
Certainly, when I look back on my
inaugural experience of love, I am reminded that while many aspects of
it were unforgettable, it was also a crash course in the harsh realities
of falling hook, line and sinker for an unsuitable man.
start was inauspicious. When we met, Robin was wearing a brown checked
Millets shirt and some sort of weird moleskin trousers. He was also
carrying half a pig's carcass slung casually over his shoulder.
'It's 55 per week,' he informed me, leaning in through the driver's side window of my car. 'Are you any good at milking a cow'
would have reversed there and then had my tyres not fatefully sunk into
the surrounding quagmire. But something about Robin struck me
instantly. He had filthy fingernails but he was actually quite good
looking, in a Thomas Hardy 'ravish me in the haystack' sort of way.
Happy now: Shona Sibary at home with her daughter Dolly and dogs Juno (black) and Albis
The house, if you can call it that, was another matter altogether. It was a small bungalow in desperate need of modernisation.
Outside was, indeed, beautiful — acres of woods and fields with not another soul in sight. Inside was a mess. There were three bedrooms — one for me, one for Robin and one for a male lodger already in situ — no central heating and an afterthought of a bathroom haphazardly added on to the kitchen with zero insulation.
The property had been left to Robin by his parents and, over the years, he had developed a farm of sorts — although it was more of a sideline to his landscape design business.
Later, over a cup of tea, I discovered he was 42 and his wife of eight years had recently walked out. Surveying the surroundings, it wasn't hard to see why. But there was an underlying sadness in Robin that also appealed. Here, I thought, is a man who needs rescuing.
Afterwards, he told me he had reached the same conclusion about me. Three nights after I moved in, he knocked on my bedroom door and asked if I wanted to join him for a nightcap.
Retrospectively, I can see how it looks. Middle-aged lonely man preys on young female lodger. But it didn't feel this way at the time. Despite doing a good impression of a rugged farmer, Robin was, in fact, highly literate and great company.
That first night we discussed books, divorce and potato planting (at which point, I think, I may have nodded off for a bit). We retired — to separate beds — with nothing more than a kiss on the cheek.
The following day it snowed, heavily. I
opened the front door to an intense glare of white and decided to go
back to bed. Five minutes later, Robin appeared at my door with a
steaming cup of coffee. He wasn't (as I'd secretly hoped) coming to join
me, but rather to haul me outside to help with the animals.
much for romance then. But moments later, perched on a tiny stool in an
eerily quiet barn, Robin's hands were over mine showing me how to
squeeze a cow's udder. Perhaps this was his idea of foreplay — or maybe
he was just testing me. Either way, it worked.
hour later, we were back in bed — farm chores performed — and Robin was
able to give me his undivided attention. It was a revelation. Having
been convent school educated, I had discovered sex quite late in life
while at university.
I'd rather preserve the memory and, from
the vantage point of a happy 13-year marriage, look back on my time with
Robin for what it was — a stepping stone to the real thing.
But Robin was in an entirely different league to my small number of student lovers. He was a man — with muscles, coarse hands and a proper chest. Without wishing to come over all Mills and Boon, I was absolutely smitten. And I'd only been there two days.
Things intensified quickly. The other lodger was hardly ever there and Robin and I had the house largely to ourselves. He'd been starved of female company since his wife left and was clearly making up for lost time. We had sex everywhere — in the paddock, the tractor shed, the greenhouse. He gradually eased me out of my own inhibitions until I felt so relaxed in his company, it was as if we'd known each other for years.
I learnt an awful lot from him, and not just in bed. He taught me how to build a proper fire — an absolute necessity because the kitchen stove was the only source of warmth in the entire house and needed to be lit properly every evening if we had any hope of cooking dinner.
Robin also showed me how to wring a chicken's neck efficiently —not a skill I have had to call upon since, but who knows when it might come in handy again
When the pigs were slaughtered, we would spend whole evenings in the kitchen bagging up pork chops for the freezer. OK, I realise I'm not exactly selling this relationship, but something about the whole Bohemian, back-to-basics nature of it was thrilling.
It was while I was living in this blissful rural bubble that I got a job as a junior reporter on the local newspaper. I loved my double life. I'd leave the house wearing wellies and keep my stilettos on the dashboard. Every evening, I'd spend a couple of hours doing farmyard stuff — the perfect antidote to sitting in parish council meetings taking notes. Needless to say I was, by now, hopelessly in love.
When I wasn't at work, I ran around after Robin, working like a slave for his approval. Looking back, it's clear what he was getting from the relationship — a lodger, a lover and a hard-working farmhand. But I was deliriously happy. I felt adult, alive and valued.
Our relationship lasted exactly a year. During that time I kept my belongings in my own room but slept, every night, in Robin's.
He still, however, continued to charge me rent — a fact that made my father furious. Or perhaps it was the fact that Robin and he were almost the same age.
My mother was more relaxed. But then she, too, had found a new boyfriend and had her mind on other things.
Then, with September approaching and all the potatoes planted, I got a place at journalism college. It was too far to commute every day and Robin and I agreed I should give up my room and just come home at the weekends. I set off with a sense of sadness to be leaving the farm, but nevertheless buoyed by Robin's assurances that he loved me and I was 'The One'.
We spent the last two weeks of August on holiday in France, where he bought me a beautiful pair of antique opera glasses as a going-away present.
There was no doubt in my mind that this was the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with — pig swill and all.
That first weekend home from college, I met the new lodger — the one who was now ensconced in my old bedroom. She was the same age as me but a lot more attractive. What, I wondered furiously, was she doing here
The following day, she fed the geese in a mini-skirt and I felt panic rise like bile in my throat. Robin seemed oblivious to her, but I wasn't so sure. I drove back to college on Sunday evening with a sense of dread in the pit of my stomach.
That week, I couldn't get hold of Robin on the phone. She, however, merrily picked up whenever I called, telling me he was in the field, on the tractor, or in the barn. I had a horrible sense of foreboding.
I wish, looking back, that I'd had the maturity then to understand the relationship was never going to last. Robin knew it. I've no doubt that he loved me — to a point — but the moment I wasn't there on a daily basis milking his cow and massaging his ego he knew it had no future.
I came home the following weekend to find my belongings in a cardboard box on the front doorstep. Robin explained he had fallen in love 'with someone else' and that it was time for me to move on.
It was such a staggeringly cruel way to end our relationship, I can still recall the sensation of standing there, the breath knocked right out of me.
The feeling of disbelief left me reeling. I cried — of course I did. And pleaded. But Robin was scarily detached and unrelenting. He helped me put my stuff in the car boot, kissed me on the cheek and walked away.
I drove back to college, crawled into bed and didn't surface again for another week. It took a further six months for me to wake up in the morning without weeping.
I have had relationships end in the years since but none has been so brutal, or left me as utterly devastated, as this one did.
I never spoke to Robin again. My sense of hurt and outrage at how he dumped me was raw for many years. But I look back now and I am grateful to him. I can finally understand that he wasn't rejecting me — he was letting me go. He knew he was my first love and that first loves must, by the nature of what they are, eventually come to an end.
While last week's survey revealed that as many as 14 per cent of people have got back in touch with an ex hoping to reignite the passion, and one in six men are still secretly in contact with a former partner, I have absolutely no desire to get back in contact with Robin.
I have no idea where he is, whether he's married, or even if he's still living in the same bungalow. But I honestly couldn't care less.
I'd rather preserve the memory and, from the vantage point of a happy 13-year marriage, look back on my time with Robin for what it was — a stepping stone to the real thing.