So who was the dark-haired beauty at the Redworth bus stop?
This was not the most important of the questions that gnawed away at me for several weeks of 1966. There was another that needed answering first: how to meet her. And this, the need to meet her, was easier said than done
I would see the girl on weekday mornings as I was driven to my dreary dead-end job in the offices of Cummins Engine Company on the outskirts of Darlington.
My companion was Mike, easily distinguishable from me because he was not only 10 years or so older but actually knew and cared about the things that were being made at the factory. He could be said to be Doing Well in his job. The arrangement was that for an appropriate weekly sum - which, in keeping with the early traditions of these reminiscences, I can no longer recall - he would pick me up and drive me to work, though rarely home again at the end of the day.
Mike did not much like inconvenience, and stipulated that I should walk down Byerley Road and pass to the southern side of the Shildon railway crossings, where I was to wait for him. He did not want to risk being held up as shunters ambled to and from the wagon works.
Redworth is a small village roughly a quarter of the way into the eight-mile journey from Shildon to Darlington. And there without fail, as we passed each morning in Mike's sensible Hillman Imp, would stand the girl, satchel on her back, waiting for her bus to school. I was 17, and I guessed her to be about the same, but clearly bright enough to have stayed on for her A levels.
The uniform was a little unfamiliar. She was going not to Bishop Auckland Grammar School but, if my memory is correct at least on this point, to Spennymoor which also had a good grammar.
Standing at the northbound bus stop, a younger boy I took to be her brother by her side, she looked divine, with the prettiest of faces, a trim figure and that long hair tumbling down her back. And to cap it all, she fancied me to bits. Of that there could be no doubt. Why else would her face fill with a warm smile and her right arm rise in an exuberant wave each time we drove past her stop heading in the other direction? Not just a quick hand gesture, but a wave that continued, with me looking back at the bus stop, until we were out of sight of each other.
Mike said nothing about this daily ritual, and may not even have been aware of it. He was pretty much wrapped up in his own world as a young, go-ahead engineer with a relatively new wife and a relatively promising career. But it was the moment of each day that his passenger lived for.
How, then, would I take the logical step of meeting the girl and taking her out? I had to ask her first, of course, but the one thing that was clear in my mind was that the answer could only be yes. The phrase "body language" hadn't been invented for all I knew, but everything about hers told me there was a real spark.
I decided on a plan. Mike took me to work on only four mornings a week. On Thursdays, I would catch the bus in the opposite direction for my day release course, which was intended to lead to the Ordinary National Certificate in business studies, at Bishop Auckland Technical College.
What harm could possibly be done by missing out, for just one Thursday, on those mind-numbingly tedious classes in commercial geography, the principles of accounts and commerce? It was tricky, but everyone else took time off sick now and then; so, I resolved, would I, but in the noble cause of romance.
The essential element was not to be caught. The last thing I wanted was for Mike to realise what I was up to, even if it was highly unlikely that his mind would wander sufficiently during his drive to work to notice a third person at the Redworth bus stop. It was also by no means certain that he'd tell anyone even if he did, though there would be no doubting his disapproval of such a frivolous attitude to work and study. Taking no chances, I dressed down for the occasion and wore my Parka, which had a hood I could quickly pull up at the first sign of an approaching Hillman. The slightly bohemian appearance, I calculated, would not only keep me out of trouble at work but do me no harm in my quest; the girl would surely love this hint of her admirer's free spirit and see that he was a cut above the other lads.
Sure as I was of the girl's reciprocal interest in this boy who returned her wave each morning, I felt inevitable pangs of nervousness as the No 1 double-decker left Shildon and passed Johnny Bess Beck, the pond where the rougher local characters were said to dump their rubbish and unwanted litters of kittens. But as we neared Redworth, I sternly reminded myself that I had made my plan and would simply have to stick to it. For all I knew, I would never again be handed such a glorious opportunity to find so beautiful a girlfriend.
After messing up one or two earlier chances, once by choosing Shildon Essoldo as just the kind of night out a girl would appreciate and once by being rather too quick (namely on the second date) to attempt a little light petting, I told myself that this time, I must really raise my game. I'd blow a week's pay on treating her to something nice, and I'd take it slowly. I was, almost certainly, still too unsophisticated to be thinking in terms of a meal out together, and that wasn't in any case the sort of thing 17-year-olds then did on a date. But at least I'd suggest somewhere more enticing than Shildon, maybe the Odeon at Bishop or even the one at Darlington.
As we reached the dip in the road where the bus stop stood, I glanced out of the window and saw that today, as on every day, she was there. So was the boy, but that did not matter. He wouldn't care what his big sister was up to. Now came the real test. Forgetting the faint risk of being seen by Mike as he drove to work, though quaking inwardly at the very thought of my mission, I crossed the road and walked slowly towards her.
Now was not the time to waver. As I reached the stop, I forced myself to smile and offer a cheery hello. She was every bit as stunning close up as she had seemed at a few yards' distance from Mike's car. I hoped she would see, as I had, that there could be no more natural consequence of our morning exchanges than for me to be standing there before her.
Yet there was nothing in her response to indicate that she even recognised me. After an awkward silence of the very kind I had ordered myself to avoid, I began babbling about the car, the wave, the big broad smile. "I'm that boy," I exclaimed.
"Oh," she replied, not unkindly but also not remotely impressed. "I wave at everyone that goes by."
And those were the only words we ever spoke. Her bus came. I knew it was hopeless, and couldn't face the humiliation of boarding it with her and trying - in vain as I knew, in my defeatist way, it would be - to chat her up in front of the other passengers, or sloping off to a seat away from hers. So I pretended I was actually intending to continue in the other direction, towards Darlington, smiled thinly and silently at her and walked away, only to return when she had gone and wait in abject misery for the next bus after hers to Bishop. With a bit of luck, I still wouldn't be late for the principles of accounts.
My campaign to win the girl was over without me so much as learning her name. And the morning waves, or rather those between us, came to an immediate end. I even stopped looking up as we passed her stop, though that had more to do with embarrassment than anything else.
Yet all was not quite as gloomy as I had feared in my moment of rejection. My love life was about to start looking up a little, and it would happen before I gratefully brought my time at Cummins Engine Company to a conclusion. It just wasn't going to happen at the Redworth bus stop.
* Read about Ann, who was both the first girl to captivate me, and the first to remain beyond my reach, at Angels of the North (1)