Why does a happily married mother turn to jelly on seeing her first love?
Helena Frith Powell’s new novel, The Ex-Factor, is about first love
There’s something so powerful about first love. As Bob Dylan put it so beautifully: ‘The future for me is already a thing of the past – you were my first love and you will be my last.’
Now, I wouldn’t go that far – I’m happily married, thank you very much – but I was still so floored by my reaction to meeting my first love after years apart that I ended up writing a book about it.
So, who was the man who reignited all my dormant feelings?
Some of you, in fact, may know him already – Willie Harcourt-Cooze, the chocolate maker who had his own Channel 4 series. But I knew him long before he was winning hearts and whipping up artisan chocolates onscreen.
Helena Frith Powell was besotted with Willie Harcourt-Cooze as a teenager, despite the feelings not being mutual – and was astonished by her reaction to meeting him again years later
I was 17 when I first clapped eyes on him. It was 1983 and we were in a pizza restaurant in the King’s Road in London. Willie was at the bar when I walked in with my friend Marco Pierre White, later to become the Michelin-starred bad boy of the culinary world.
It might sound like a cliche to say that Willie was tall, dark and handsome, but back then, there were no cliches. As soon as our eyes met I was a goner.
I remember feeling starstruck as Marco, a friend of Willie’s, introduced us with five words still scored on my mind.
‘This is Willie,’ said Marco. ‘Meet Helena.’
Willie had, and I think to some extent still has, the ability to make whoever he is talking to feel like the centre of the universe. We chatted for only five minutes, but it was enough for me to fall hopelessly, desperately in love.
To me, he was the most gorgeous, amusing, clever and sexy person I had set eyes on. That night, I fixated on him, like a mindless newborn chick attaching itself to the first thing it sees.
For the next five years, I followed Willie around and could think of little else. Needless to say, Willie did not feel the same way. He really could not have cared less about me. Eventually, we did spend one night together, but it was only because I happened to be in the right place at the right time, rather than Cupid finally hitting the mark.
Willie Harcourt-Cooze, Chocolatier and entrepreneur, was the object of Helena’s affection as a teenager
I was too nervous to breathe for what felt like the entire evening, so the whole experience was rather desperate. I cringe to think of it now and, unsurprisingly, it didn’t kickstart a proper romance.
But, silly goose that I was, the more Willie rejected me, the more I wanted him. No evening was complete unless Willie was there. In those days, I spent a lot of time in London nightclubs and I would constantly scan the partying crowds to see if I could spot him.
I would feel indescribably happy when I found him, only to be plunged into the deepest despair when I would invariably discover that he’d already left the club with another girl.
Looking back at such behaviour, I feel utterly ridiculous. Yes, I was young – but still, what kind of a masochistic moron throws so much energy at a relationship that doesn’t exist and a man who doesn’t want her?
My blushes are soothed only by the thought that I’m not alone – nearly every woman in the country has been in my position. That’s what puppy love is – you’re soppy, sentimental and thoroughly immature.
Helena Frith Powell with her children, from left, Bea, Leo and Olivia, on holiday in France
Still, though, I was perhaps sillier than most women. My head well and truly in the clouds, I had dropped out of school at 16 and, at the peak of my Willie-infatuation, was running a market stall in Camden selling tie-dye clothes. Moping around after a man who didn’t want me, and in a dead-end job, it was an intolerable situation.
Eventually, my patience snapped – after years of following Willie around, I was no closer to snaring him, and my ‘career’ was a joke. I longed to become a writer and, somehow, managed to shake myself out of my Willie-obsession.
Despite being happily married since 1998, Helena still turned to jelly when she bumped into her first love years later
I abandoned the London clubbing scene, and my Camden market stall, and moved back to Oxford where my parents lived to do my A-levels. Inevitably, despite the feverishness of my passion, Willie and I lost touch. I had the odd update on him via Marco, but that was it.
After a few months, I heard he had gone travelling in South America – which led to him founding his own ethical chocolate bar company. He ended up having a television programme made about him, Willie’s Wonky Chocolate Factory, which aired in 2008.
I watched, it avidly. He was just the same but, with my teenage infatuation echoing in my head, I couldn’t help but think his wife seemed rather bossy.
After my A-levels, I went to Durham University to study English, meeting Rupert, my gorgeous husband, now 51, the only man who ever eclipsed Willie.
We went on to have three children: Leo, now nine, Bea, 12 and Olivia 13. My first love became a dim memory.
Until about three years ago, that is, when he showed up in Abu Dhabi, where I moved five years ago when Rupert’s company opened an office in the city. By an incredible quirk of fate, Willie is a close friend of a friend of ours there. And it was at his house I saw my first love again.
It took just one look for me to realise that while first love might eventually die, it is very easily revived. Willie walked into the room and I developed tunnel vision. Everyone instantly vanished. He came forward to kiss me hello, then took a step back.
‘Wow, looking good…’
He was just the same. The easy grin, the flirty manner, the sexy voice. I was suddenly catapulted back almost 30 years and realised with some dismay that he had the very same effect on me.
In my defence, it might have been different if my husband had been there, but he was at a concert.
It also probably didn’t help that Willie, as Willie does, flirted with me mercilessly. But whatever the reason, I was once again a love-struck teenager, a reaction that horrified me – even though it was also wildly exciting. Thank heavens, I managed to extricate myself from his company, quickly moving to safer ground.
How is it possible a very contented married mother-of-three turns into a quivering wreck when confronted by someone who is not right for her on every level?
Psychotherapist Floss Knight says first love is so compelling in part because we idealise it: ‘It is a romantic early dawn, which often has an effect on us for the rest of our lives, because some people cannot move on from that idealisation’
I find the easiest way to get to the bottom of things is to write about them, and this is what I did. I channelled all those intense emotions into a novel. I created a heroine and told the story of how an encounter with her old flame leads her to question everything in her life.
As I wrote, I exorcised the shadow of Willie. It was cathartic. By speaking to lots of people about first love, I realised there isn’t a person alive who doesn’t relate to the hurt you feel when someone you feel deeply for has moved on, while you are left, wondering what might have been.
As part of my research, I spoke to psychotherapist Floss Knight. She says first love is so compelling in part because we idealise it. ‘It is a romantic early dawn, which often has an effect on us for the rest of our lives, because some people cannot move on from that idealisation.’
Knight says there are several reasons first love has such a dramatic impact. ‘First love often happens at a time when we’re young and beautiful and life is not that complicated, so why wouldn’t you harbour a strong desire to be back in that place?
There is a chemical reaction when we experience attraction and the first time that happens it is especially powerful – so we look to get that ‘hit’ again
‘In addition, there is a chemical reaction when we experience attraction and the first time that happens it is especially powerful, so we look to get that “hit” again.’
But just why are these feelings so enduring? I delved deeper into the world of first loves to find out.
Thomas, an engineer, told me has been in love with Julie since he was 16. They were together for just a year when they were teenagers. He is now 31, and thinks about her every day. ‘She caught my eye and we started talking and that was it,’ he says. ‘But we drifted apart because our lives were so very different.
‘I met the lady I married, but never really got Julie out of my system. And I know that’s not fair to my wife or our son, but I can’t help it.
‘If I’m perfectly honest I would have to say that I still love Julie, she is and always was the one for me.’
Two years ago Thomas received a Facebook message from Julie. They met and began an affair. ‘I don’t know what will happen,’ he says. ‘I feel terrible and I’m living a double life, but I can’t seem to make the break.’
Floss Knight would argue that should he run off with Julie, Thomas might be disappointed.
‘First love never dies because in most cases it doesn’t have a chance to grow old,’ she says. ‘It is forever idealised. If you actually go back and deconstruct your first love, how realistic was it? How special was this person really? How much of the feelings you have are linked to nostalgia for what you perceive as a magical past?’
But surely if you have been enamoured of someone for as long as Thomas has been about Julie there must be some basis to it?
‘Very possibly,’ says Knight. ‘But in many cases it serves to avoid a real relationship. Obviously people don’t do this consciously, but if they are trying to avoid a mature, realistic relationship for whatever reason, be it fear or the fact that their parental relationship was so perfect no one can replace the mother or father, then first love serves as an extremely convenient excuse.
‘Added to which, for people without a lot going on in their lives these things can take on a huge symbolic existence, as can seemingly harmless flirting on Facebook or via emails.’
So the chances of Thomas’s story ending happily are slim – whether it’s he, his family or Julie who get hurt. Knight reiterates how damaging it can be to dredge up the past.
‘First love never dies because in most cases it doesn’t have a chance to grow old – it is forever idealised, but if you actually go back and deconstruct your first love, how realistic was it?’
‘Where you have a powerful first love idealisation it can quite destructive in that future partners can never live up to the imagined past. The idealisation can destroy the current relationship and fuel resentment and regret.’
The death of a spouse or partner can also be a reason to seek out one’s first love, as was the case with Ellen, a retired maternity nurse, who I also spoke to.
‘He got in touch after my husband died,’ she says of her first love. ‘We met up and got on really well, we had a few dates and a bit of a fling, but of course he was married and after a few months I had to say goodbye.
Several people I spoke to had started searching for their first loves as a kind of escape from their everyday lives. This can be extremely dangerous
‘So I had to cope with the loss of two loves in less than a year, it was the worst time of my life and taught me that some of those intense feelings we harbour for so long for, especially as we get older, can be extremely damaging.’
Several people I spoke to had started searching for their first loves as a kind of escape from their everyday lives. This can be extremely dangerous.
As Knight says: ‘In some cases, the mundane reality of married life has hit people searching for their first loves in the hope of recapturing a moment frozen in the past. This of course can destroy current relationships and families.’
She adds: ‘The reality is that the first love didn’t work out in the first place for a reason.’
Happily, my first love is no longer flawless. I have finally seen through the illusion. Funnily enough, just a few weeks ago Marco asked me if I wanted to know why Willie didn’t like me all those years ago. Of course I did.
‘You were too thin,’ he said.
I pondered how easy it might have been, with the help of a few doughnuts, to change the course of my life. And how happy I am that I don’t like doughnuts.
Helena Frith Powell is the author of The Ex-Factor published by Gibson Square Books at £7.99, out now.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019