Remember that Gwyneth Paltrow film ‘Sliding Doors’? It’s a classic ‘if only’ story. Helen, played by Paltrow, hurries to catch her Underground train – only to find boyfriend Gerry in bed with someone else when she gets home. If only she’d arrived on the platform a split second too late for that train! Writer Peter Howitt explores this alternative scenario too – Helen misses the train and gets back after the girlfriend has gone, so she has no idea Gerry has been unfaithful.
Catching that train, or missing it, was a turning point in both versions of Helen’s life.
Do you have a Sliding Doors moment, when you look back and say, “If only I hadn’t…made that phone call, missed that plane, driven down that street?”
My moment happened on a chilly Saturday evening in November 1967. I was nearly 15. I’d fought with Mum and Dad all week. I wanted to go to the church youth club in Salisbury, but they didn’t approve. How else was I ever going to meet people? (‘People’ as in ‘boys’.)
“Jennie’s allowed to go,” I grumbled. “It’s not fair.” Eventually, they gave in.
Pop music boomed out of the church hall as Jen and I walked up the hill from the bus stop. Troggs? Traffic? Whistling Jack Smith? I was nervous, wearing my new brown and white dress. I’d bought it from Impact, Salisbury’s first boutique. “That fabric’s so thin, you could shoot peas through it,” Mum said, but I didn’t care. The dress wasn’t quite big enough, but I covered the gaping front with a scarf from Jaeger, the entire ensemble swamped by my new black cape.
“Let’s have a ciggie before we go in,” Jen suggested, digging a squashed packet of Number Six out of her bag. So instead of going into the youth club, we walked round the block and smoked our cigarettes, turning round when a couple of boys about our age, or a year or two older, caught up with us and started chatting us up.
Sliding Doors. We could’ve let them walk past us. We could’ve chucked our cigarettes into the gutter and strutted nonchalantly into the youth club. But we didn’t.
It was all pretty innocent, really. Graham paired off with Jen, and Dave paired off with me. We walked, we talked, we snogged under the streetlights. We met up again the next day and the following Saturday, but then the thought of telling my parents I’d got a boyfriend put the fear of God into me. Next time the four of us were meant to meet up, I got Jennie to tell Dave I couldn’t go out with him anymore – I knew I couldn’t have told him myself. (Such a coward!)
As soon as I’d dumped Dave, I knew I’d made a mistake. So began an obsession that lasted until I left school. I didn’t stalk him, I didn’t phone him up in the middle of the night, I didn’t write him letters. I simply knew I’d thrown away my only chance of everlasting love. Dave and I were made for each other, I was sure.
I daydreamed my way through school, skimping on homework and revision. The headmistress called me into her office. I’d taken eight mock O-Levels and completely blown three of them – including Latin, which I thought I’d need to do an English degree. “You showed such promise,” she lamented, as I gazed out across the playing fields, for once wishing I was out there too, lacrosse stick at the ready. “But what are you going to be studying now? Four subjects – and art.”
So I scraped through five O-Levels (including Art) – still in love with this boy I’d dated THREE TIMES. I didn’t want to go to university, didn’t want to teach. “You like reading, don’t you?” the careers teacher said. “Why not be a librarian?”
I needed O-Level Maths or a science for most library schools. After failing Maths on my second attempt, my options were strictly limited. I applied to North London Poly, and to Birmingham. North London Poly liked my ‘philosophical approach to things’, and Birmingham didn’t get back to me. So North London Poly and Islington it was, where I met my soul mate and began my career. No regrets.
See, if it hadn’t been for that quick Number Six outside the youth club, November 1967…
As for Sliding Doors – Helen catching that train meant she discovered Gerry’s infidelity – but then she walked out on him and into a much better life. It only takes a moment.