The secret to surviving love at first sight
Happily married with three kids, Helena was shocked by her reaction to a chance meeting with her long lost teenage flame
When I was 16 I fell madly in love with a handsome rascal called Willie Harcourt-Cooze. I remember the first time I saw him. It was at a pizzeria on the King’s Road. He was standing at the bar and I thought he was the most beautiful man I had ever seen. I was a goner. From that moment on, and for the next, I hate to admit it, five or so years I thought of little else but Willie.
Part of the reason I am now sure that I thought of little else is that he thought very little of me. We were more than friends, but only on one occasion did we come tantalisingly close to being an official couple.
Of course none of this put me off.
I adored him, I wanted him, I couldn’t bear to live without him, except that I could, and I did. Once I went to university, we lost touch. Soon after uni I met my gorgeous husband, fell in love (properly this time, and with someone who liked me too) got married, and had three children. Willie, the rascal, became a dim and distant memory. Until three years ago when I went to a dinner party in Abu Dhabi, where I live.
The dinner was hosted by a friend of my husband and his Venezuelan wife. We were just moving onto coffee and chocolate when the host said: “Try this, it’s made by my best friend Willie.” I almost fell off my chair. I had of course vaguely kept up with Willie and his chocolate adventures. This was after the Channel 4 documentary about him and his dream to bring real chocolate to the masses, so I knew immediately it was him. As did my husband.
“Oh, Chocolate Willie, he’s an old friend of my wife’s,” my husband said.
“How amazing,” his friend said, “we’ve known him for years, he’s one of my very best friends.”
They proceeded to bring out photographs of them with Willie, taken mainly at his finca in Venezuela. There he was, my first love, grinning at me next to these two relative strangers in some faraway land. The whole thing was surreal, at one stage I had to go to the bathroom to gather my thoughts.
For some reason I couldn’t stop thinking about how odd it was to have come across him again. They told me he was married and that he had three children. Then a few weeks after the dinner party, they said he was coming to town.
“You must both come to dinner again,” the wife said. “It will be fun.”
On the night of the dinner Stevie Wonder was in town and my husband already had tickets to that, so I went off to meet my first love alone. I felt ridiculous. I had butterflies, like some idiotic 16 year old. I couldn’t decide what to wear and half dreaded the whole thing. But I couldn’t keep away.
When I got there he was upstairs.
I nervously gulped down a cocktail and tried to come across as terribly nonchalant. Then suddenly he was in front of me, telling me how good I looked. The whole room and everyone in it except for him seemed to vanish and I was catapulted back 20-odd years to a bar on the King’s Road.
At that moment I honestly felt like nothing had changed. I was the silly little girl I was back then.
Happily I made it home, alone, without rekindling anything with Willie, not that he offered. But what remained was the feeling that this first love thing is so strong and so powerful that I wanted to write a book about it.
I felt sure there must be lots of other women who feel the same way I did.
Joan Didion, the American writer, once said: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking.” I most definitely do the same, and I write to get things out of my system. I should have written a novel about first love years ago, it has been an utter revelation.
In my book, The Ex-Factor, Marina is a journalist who writes a column about first love and through that gets in touch with her version of Willie, a photographer called Tom. She writes about how we imprint on our first loves, and that is one of the reasons they are so compelling. I am thrilled that I didn’t end up marrying Willie. I would have been obese for a start with all that chocolate to taste and we really have nothing in common apart from a shared youth. I have been extremely happily married for almost 15 years and my husband is still my best friend.
But that didn’t stop me feeling like a lovesick teenager at the first sight of Willie. And there’s another reason that first love is so powerful; I don’t think women ever tire of feeling like teenagers. We love the frisson and the excitement of those feelings, the near hysteria and the intensity. However happy a marriage is, we don’t often experience that sort of intensity, and this is one reason that people have affairs, because it makes you feel alive. Seeing Willie again took me back to those teenage days, when feelings are so much more intense than they ever are again, partly because they are so immature and instinctive, and real life has yet to dilute your feelings.
I won’t ruin the story by telling you what happens to Marina and Tom, but personally I have finally come full circle. I was shocked by the powerful feelings Willie was still capable of engendering, so shocked that I wrote a book about them. Now I have done that, I am cured. I saw him at a recent literary festival and for the first time ever he left me utterly cold. It was nice to see him, in that it’s comforting to see someone from your dim and distant past. But there was no frisson, no excitement and certainly no butterflies. Which was a relief, if a tad less exciting.
The Ex-Factor by Helena Frith Powell, Gibson Square Books, £7.99. Available from The Times Bookshop for £7.59 (free P&P); 0845 2712134, thetimes.co.uk/bookshop
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