How one fateful night at a youth club, aged 14, meant I was a virgin till I was 26 and didn’t have a serious relationship until I was 48

When I was 14, I made a choice that changed my life. It seemed a small thing at the time, but for years it changed the way I lived and thought. And, looking back, I now believe it robbed me of my chance to meet a partner in time to have my own family.

We can never know the different courses our lives might have taken at different forks. But for decades I’ve wondered what would have happened if I hadn’t been so desperate to meet some boys.

There had been plenty at the primary school on the estate where I grew up. We played together on the adventure playground. We did ‘music and movement’ together in our pants and vests. They were part of the landscape, part of the furniture, like the educational wall charts we walked past and ignored.

They were, or seemed, a normal part of life. Until, that is, the day I set off, in my new school uniform and red felt hat, for Guildford County School for Girls.

I’d been excited to get a place at the local grammar school. I’d thought it would be like Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers. I had vague thoughts of jolly jaunts on a hockey field and pranks with Bunsen burners. But there wasn’t a hockey field, I didn’t like chemistry and the novelty of homework soon wore off.

We can never know the different courses our lives might have taken at different forks. But for decades I’ve wondered what would have happened if I hadn’t been so desperate to meet some boys

Christina Patterson dolled up for a wedding at 26

As I laboured over Latin conjugations, I was distracted by the thought of the mullets and flares I’d seen on Top Of The Pops. I was transfixed by the tartan trousers and anguish on the faces of the Bay City Rollers as they sang Bye Bye Baby and wondered if there was something I was missing. When 10CC sang I’m Not In Love, I thought: nor am I.

I lived with my parents and my older sister and brother, Caroline and Tom, in a red-brick 1960s house in Guildford, Surrey. It was, in many ways, a normal suburban childhood, though my sister had a breakdown when she was 14 and I was nine, and we struggled to cope with her moods.

My best friend, Louise, discovered a book called The Moonspinners by Mary Stewart on her mother’s bookshelf. It was a tale of a young English girl on a Greek island who meets a young man who has witnessed a crime. She’s beautiful. He’s handsome. They have adventures. They fall in love.

Soon, Louise and I were saving up our pocket money to buy more tales of pretty young girls meeting tall men with firm jaws. In our lunch breaks, we dreamt up a hero of our own. He was called Tom Schulenberg. He wore smart suits. He whisked us off — I think we shared him — for candle-lit dinners in Paris or Rome. At home, I studied my sister’s Jackie magazine and pored over the letters on the problem page.

‘Dear Cathy and Claire,’ said one, ‘I don’t know how to kiss’. Nor, I thought, do I. And I certainly wasn’t going to learn if I never met any boys.

So when my brother’s friend, Steve, invited him to his youth club, and said he could bring his sister, I jumped at the chance. Tom said I could invite Louise, too.

In the end, I settled on the Peruvian jumper I’d bought in London’s Carnaby Street and the jeans my mother said were too tight. Louise wore a powder-blue mohair jumper with her jeans and her platform shoes.

When my father dropped us off at the squat block of sand-coloured brick, I felt as if I was about to take an exam. My stomach lurched when I saw a group of boys in leather jackets, chatting as they locked up their motor bikes. It lurched again when I saw them amble up to the front door and walk in.

As the glass door swung shut behind us, Steve waved, marched over and slapped Tom on the shoulder. As Tom introduced Louise, Steve grinned. Moments later, a girl in a cheesecloth smock strode towards us and stuck out her hand.

‘Hi, I’m Jackie,’ she said. She led us to a hatch and counter where a woman called Cath was spooning Maxwell House into mugs. Jackie and Cath seemed very pleased to meet us. They asked us about school. They asked us about our holidays. They asked us what subjects we were planning to do for O-level. They introduced us to Barry and Sam, who also seemed pleased to meet us.

Christina Patterson in her room at Durham on the day she went to university, at 18

Jackie and Cath and Barry and Sam were youth leaders. I smiled as I answered their eager questions, but I couldn’t help looking behind them, at a boy with dimples in an Arran jumper, and a blonde boy in a leather jacket who looked like one of the Botticelli angels in my father’s History of Italian Art. I desperately hoped that someone would introduce us, but nobody did.

When my father picked us up, he asked us about our evening. I tried to sum up what I was feeling: the warmth, the glow, the sense of being important, the flicker of excitement when I saw the boy with dimples look, for a moment, at me.

‘It was,’ I said, and I felt a prickle of heat when I said it, ‘fantastic’.

I hadn’t realised, that first evening, that the youth club was attached to a Baptist church.

We had always gone as a family to our local Anglican church. It was what you had to do to get your roast chicken and apple crumble on Sundays. You sang some hymns, you mumbled some prayers and then you skipped out and were free. When our French teacher introduced us to Camus and Sartre, I decided I was an existentialist and begged to be let off. In the end, my parents agreed.

Church was boring, I’d decided, but it was also ridiculous. It was based on a kind of fairy tale and I was far too old for fairy tales. I was going to be an intellectual who discussed philosophy in cafes in Montmartre. My parents were the kind of Anglicans who never talked about their faith. They were disappointed when I stopped going to church but realised that arguing about it wasn’t going to change my mind.

Tom stopped going at about the same time as me but Caroline carried on. I think it gave her comfort and she liked the routine.

When I look back, I still can’t really understand how the young girl who was so clear about her atheism could have taken the path she took. I don’t know how the brain swings so suddenly from one view to its opposite.

All I know is that Jackie invited me and Louise to a Sunday service, and when I heard the boys in leather jackets were going, I said yes. And when I walked into a big room that was more like a theatre than a church, I felt something like electricity in the air. And when a man in a grey suit with a neat beard walked up to a microphone and started speaking, I couldn’t look away. ‘Welcome to the Lord’s house,’ he said. His voice was like the dark chocolate my mother hid at the back of the larder that I sometimes stole.

Three weeks later, when he stood at the microphone, his voice was quiet. ‘The Lord has spoken to you,’ he said. He was looking out at the congregation, but I felt he was looking at me. ‘He wants you to accept him as your Lord and saviour. Now is the time to invite him into your heart.’

When the service ended, I whispered to Louise that I was now a Christian and she whispered back that she was, too. That was the moment that changed everything.

Christina Patterson’s graduation photo at Durham, at 21

I knew now that my key focus in life was not to find a boyfriend, lose half a stone and come top in my school exams. It was to love and serve the Lord. This meant that I had to think about what He wanted every moment of the day. I had to have a daily ‘quiet time’ for Bible study and prayer. I had to go to Bible study and prayer groups. I went to a weekly class of spiritual teaching for the young people in the church. We were told we should only kiss someone if God had made it clear that he wanted you to marry them and that there should be no more than kissing until you were husband and wife.

I couldn’t, in other words, touch the boys I had joined the youth club to meet.

At a youth weekend, I learnt that the Lord wanted to ‘baptise us in the Holy Spirit’, which meant we would be blessed with spiritual gifts like healing; ‘words of knowledge’, where God gave us insights that would help us in our prayers; and speaking in tongues, which is what happened in the Bible at Pentecost. I first spoke in tongues, or at least in words I didn’t recognise, on a green velvet pouffe. I felt as if I was making the words up, but I was trying to trust the Lord.

At school, Louise and I tried to persuade our friends to come to the youth club. They made it clear they thought we had gone mad. My parents tried to hide their alarm, hoping it was just a phase that would pass. But, one day, my mother told me she thought I had turned into a fanatic. I told her she wasn’t a proper Christian and she was therefore probably going to hell.

I was still struggling with gluttony and often failed to fight the urge to buy a Dayvilles ice cream — there were 32 different flavours! — on my way home from school. I still had a crush on the boy with dimples and bought every Genesis album because when I finally spoke to him, he said he loved them. But one day at Bible study, Barry said that God called some people to be single. When I heard that, I suddenly felt cold.

I didn’t kiss a boy until I was 19, outside Durham University library. I had applied to Jesus College, Oxford, but Jesus — both Jesuses, it seemed — had rejected my application and I had swapped the dreaming spires of my dreams for 1970s blocks.

I met Jonathan through a friend from the Christian Union. He went to a church in an old carpet factory. Giant speakers pumped out music with a thumping bass. People danced as they sang and raised their hands to the Lord.

I admired Jonathan’s commitment to his faith, but I also admired his shoulders and chest. It was a couple of months before he asked me out and a few more weeks before he dumped me. We had only ever kissed and held hands, but it didn’t make my heart hurt less.

I didn’t have another boyfriend until I was 26. That was the year I lost my faith, but to say that is to put it politely. I felt that I had tried so hard to serve the Lord. I had turned down romantic approaches from men who weren’t Christians because the Bible said: ‘do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers’. I was beginning to doubt God’s love for me.

When I was 23, I developed deep, throbbing, purple lumps on my face that turned into suppurating pustules. For months, I didn’t want to leave the house.

Christina Patterson with her parents and brother Tom in Rome when she was 19, just after she had met met ‘Jonathan’

After that, I got crippling pains in my ankles and knees. Soon, I couldn’t stand or walk without pain.

Everyone at church said God wanted to heal me. They prayed for me. Nothing happened. They prayed again. Nothing happened. They carried on praying. I carried on weeping with frustration and pain. In the end, I cracked. In my diary, I wrote: ‘F*** off, God. Go and inflict your poisonous blows on someone else.’ I was 26, unemployed and on benefits in London, watching my friends’ careers and relationships take off.

I stopped going to church. I stopped praying. I had already stopped believing in a benevolent God, and my faith just slowly drained away until one day I realised I didn’t believe in any God at all. It took me a long time to recover. My body was already at war with itself, but my head was in quite a mess, too. I had no idea how to run my life without God.

My parents had been worried about my fundamentalism and now they were worried I was sinking into depression. I had no idea how to conduct a romantic relationship. I had missed out, at a key point, on all that trial and error.

I was relieved to lose my virginity to the man I went out with, briefly, at 26, but it was many years before I had a proper relationship. By the time I did, aged 48, it was too late to even think about having children. I often wonder how different my life would have been if I had.

I’ve had a fascinating career. I did, eventually, meet a wonderful man, eight years ago, when I was 51. I’m healthy. I’m happy. I’ve had breast cancer twice, which makes me even more grateful to be healthy and happy. Cancer certainly didn’t help in my search for romance and hormone treatments might have made it dangerous to conceive, but the key issue is that I didn’t meet the right man at the right time.

I respect anyone’s desire to practise a religious faith, but I’ve learnt that religion can do great harm.

I was brought up in a faith that believed in tolerance and was sucked into one that didn’t. I think the family dramas with my sister’s mental illness — she was diagnosed with schizophrenia — probably made me even more vulnerable, but all teenagers are. Most are searching for certainty while their brains are still developing.

That youth club brought me into contact with adults who should have known better. I feel lucky to have found love in spite of their efforts — but I also feel it’s a strange way to love your neighbour.

Some names have been changed.

Christina Patterson’s memoir: Outside, The Sky Is Blue (£10.99, Tinder Press) is out now.

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