An early lesson in evidence

Times Online, August 18, 2006

It was a balmy mid-summer’s day and I had spent the day swimming in the calm waters of the sea opposite my parents’ house. I believe that my brother and I may also have taken out a friend’s speedboat, complete with towing rope, which we used to tow not water-skis but surfboards. We were but 17, and, in this sense if nothing else, were iconoclasts: years later the sport of wakeboarding is popular across the UK, but back then, we were the lone rangers of the ocean, in pole position to harvest the admiring looks of the babes on the beach.

By the end of the day, indeed, I had struck up a friendship with a 17-year-old from France. She was called Patricia, and was everything that a 17-year-old male, iconoclastic or otherwise, could dream of. Our friendship progressed with pleasing rapidity, so much so that by early evening we were canoodling in a fishing boat. All too soon, though, it was time for a barbeque, and so we skipped happily back across the road, there to join my mother and father and various of their friends.

An uncommon sense of joie de vivre animated proceedings. Glasses were being clinked so heartily because my father, a prominent local solicitor, had returned from work victorious after a month-long case in Exeter Crown Court. In those days he did much of his own advocacy, and this had been a complex case of theft. He had endured his fair share of sleepless nights, but, at last and to the great joy of his client, had prevailed. A small celebration was felt to be in order.

Patricia and I mingled with the adults like two burglars in a bank vault. We couldn’t wait to get up to mischief, and yet every time it seemed that a liaison would be less than dangerous, a smiling 40-year-old would pop up and say “Lovely weather!” or “So, young man, are you going to follow Dad’s footsteps and go into the law?” I am now 40, and, at gatherings of my friends where teenagers are present, find myself almost deliberately ignoring them, for fear of scuppering their best-laid plans. This probably comes across as ignorance, but I am thinking of their best interests.

My own interests appeared to be in danger of terminal non-fulfilment, but just as Patricia and I were contemplating our escape to the fishing boat, my father wondered up to us and gave me what I took to be the equivalent of £400 when landing on “go.”

“Would your friend like to stay the night?” he said. Now, my mother and father had not reached the stage of allowing female guests to stay overnight in my room, even though there was a spare bed, but this was a remarkable invitation. Patricia smiled her most becoming smile and fluttered her eyelashes in a way that can only have added to my father’s sense that all was well with the world. She made a call to her family, and arrangements were made: she would sleep in the spare room, along the corridor from my parents’ room.

Bedtime crept up on us, with the relevant decree promulgated by my father at just gone midnight. Patricia and I said “goodnight” under the watchful gaze of my parents, at the end of the corridor leading to her room. I made my way upstairs to my room. In today’s world of mobile phones, we would probably have texted or called one another, but then there was nothing but frustration as I gazed out to sea, thinking of my French beauty, alone in her room. Needless to say I decided that, come what may, I had to see her for one last kiss.

I sneaked downstairs, avoiding all the floorboards that creaked, and hovered on the landing. To slink along the corridor, or not? I took a step, a floorboard creaked; I took another, the noise was worse. I heard my parents stir. This would never work. Suddenly, inspiration took hold. I went down the next flight of stairs, opened the back door and found myself in the yard. A light summer’s rain was falling, but no matter: the drainpipe to the window of Patricia’s room was easily scaled. Before long I was tapping at the window, and a pleasantly surprised Patricia had whisked me inside. An hour or so later, I retraced my steps, and went back up to my room feeling very pleased with myself.

The next morning my father’s face was thunderous. Breakfast was eaten in silence, and it was clear that Patricia would not be staying for much longer. I bade her farewell, and hesitantly made my way to the kitchen. There stood my father, a terrifying sight and all the more scary when he announced: “I put it to you that you visited that young lady in her room last night, in express contravention of the rules of this household!” Not so, said I, you’ve got it all wrong. “Have I, now?” he said. He then gestured to the wall outside the kitchen. There, next to the drainpipe, was a series of footprints. The evidence was incontrovertible.

I never saw Patricia again, and sometimes wonder how she is, what sort of life she is living. She was from Rennes, and may not be an avid reader of this column, but if, by some miracle, she happens upon these reflections, I have this to say: Patricia, the drainpipe did for us, and yes, I did follow in my father’s footsteps, but no, I am not sure if I want my sons to follow in mine.