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How Normal People brought back memories of our own first loves


Paul Mescal as Connell and Daisy Edgar-Jones as Marianne in Normal People

Paul Mescal as Connell and Daisy Edgar-Jones as Marianne in Normal People

Paul Mescal as Connell and Daisy Edgar-Jones as Marianne in Normal People

The hugely popular TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel captures teenage romance in all its intensity, passion and angst — and has churned up the emotions of some of our best-known writers.

Emma Heatherington: ‘I’ll always remember that feeling of brief heartbreak’

It was the summer of 1989, I was 13 years old and my lack of enthusiasm for our family holiday in Donegal wasn't helped by the lashing rain that kept us indoors for the first full day and night in the little rented semi-detached cottage. The next day was no better.

"Looks like we've company," my mother said, and we looked outside to see a soaking wet, biker jacket-clad, dark-haired teenage boy play football in the deluge: think of a mix of a young Marti Pellow with a rock star Billy Idol-type swagger.

I was instantly smitten - and, soon, so was he.


Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones in Normal People

Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones in Normal People

BBC/Element Pictures/Hulu

Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones in Normal People

After an introduction we stood in the porch of our adjoining cottages for hours chatting and making plans. We walked to the nearby priory together and I remember feeling so awkward and probably blushing a lot with every word I spoke.

We swapped phone numbers after our week in the rain together - good old-fashioned landlines, of course - and began a beautiful friendship that would last for months and months, where I'd sit against the woodchip wallpaper in our hallway, listening to him and hoping that we'd meet again one day soon.

I was convinced he was my true love until he called our house one night a long time later and accidentally asked for a girl by a different name! I cried my eyes out, vowing I'd never be the same again.

Of course I was grand and I soon found a whole new distraction closer to home, but I'll always remember those feelings of hope and brief heartbreak at that very young and tender age.

Normal People, which I binge-watched in one day, is about a much more modern-day, intense and serious teenage love affair, of course. But I identified with it and enjoyed it immensely, recognising traits of pain and awkwardness that come hand-in-hand with young love. I can't recommend it highly enough, but be prepared for an emotional hangover that will stay with you for days.

To me, that's the sign of a really good story.

Ivan Little: ‘We are now divorced, but we’re still very good friends’

My first love, whom I started 'courting' on an April Fool's Day, went on to become my first wife. And that's no joke. Just like Marianne and Connell in the TV series, Joan and I met as 17-year-olds at school, but even though we're now divorced we're still friends, probably making us more Abnormal than Normal People.

We wed as starry-eyed innocents in our early 20s and had our daughter Emma a few years later before breaking up in the Eighties.

And on reflection, Joan astutely observes that as we grew up together, we also grew apart.


Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones in Normal People

Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones in Normal People


Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones in Normal People

The split wasn't easy. But the fact that we'd been penniless romantics as kids, dreaming of a life where everything was possible and nothing, not even divorce, was impossible, undoubtedly eased the angst in maturity.

Bizarrely, with time our friendship has been strengthened by the reality that Siofra, the second Mrs Little and Joan, the first Mrs Little, get on well.

So well, indeed, that we've all been on family holidays together.

And no one batted an eyelid at Siofra's inclusion in a surprise video presentation to mark my 60th birthday, pictures of me and Joan together in our teens under the caption 'Ivan's first love'.

Last year, due to illnesses, Siofra, Joan and I were the only members of a big Little party who were able to go to Glasgow for a concert.

Registering two Mrs Littles in the same hotel at the same time drew some quizzical looks but they were nothing compared to the reaction of lawyers when my first love and I had gone together to the High Court to finalise our divorce...

Heidi McAlpin: ‘When I suspected infidelity, my insecurities poured out’

Prior to my first love, I wafted blissfully through life likening romance to a Nora Ephron rom-com. Man meets woman, man woos woman, they fall in love, there's a little moment of doubt but, hey, they all live happily ever after. None of this straying-away stuff and cheating on your wonderful girlfriend with that other woman you met on holiday last year. Yes, you can see where this is going.

Naturally, when the inevitable happened, my insecurities came out in spades. I morphed into one of those hideous creatures that sifts through boxes of photos and letters (remember them?) looking for the damning evidence to confirm my doubts. Suffice to say, I was one pressure cooker short of a bunny boiler.


Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones in Normal People

Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones in Normal People

Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones in Normal People

No amount of denial from my first love could convince me otherwise and, eventually, our relationship came to its tear-stained conclusion. In my defence, though, he later admitted his infidelity, so I was right all along. More importantly, though, he did me a favour by shattering my Disneyfication of love. Yes, I had become battle-worn, but I now knew life and love wasn't the stuff of movies. Romance is paved with more bumpy roads than sylvan glades.

I had been redirected into a world of reality where men don't necessarily woo women and couples don't necessarily live happily ever after. I say "necessarily" because if you find the right one, the bumps should get smoother and the sylvan glades sunnier. And that, dear reader, is the lesson I learned from my first love.

Malachi O’Doherty: ‘In a Millisle caravan with a Protestant from Rathcoole’

The first girl I loved was Mary. We met about once a month at ceili dances, mostly organised by the Christian Brothers, and though I sat on her knee once and shared a mineral with her we never kissed.

The first kiss was with her friend Patricia who, after first contact was made at the garden gate, heard her mother at the door and fled inside. It was our last kiss. The first time I lay down naked in a bed with a young woman was with a girl I will call Brenda. I was 18. I think she was 16. She was a Protestant from Rathcoole and her father was an Orangeman. We had got the use of a caravan in Millisle along with two other couples who were making the same tentative explorations at the same time.

The touch of another's flesh against my own left an aching imprint that made me simply desperate for further recurrences, which time and circumstance made difficult and irregular.

Normal People's first sex scene seemed unreal to me. No woman has ever said "shall we take our clothes off" to me within minutes of meeting.

When 'Brenda' and I got undressed it was after nosing around the prospect for more than six months. Even after that I wasn't sufficiently prepared to have a condom with me or even to know very clearly what went where.

But, as with the couple in the series, skin-on-skin antics were what it was all about at the expense of really getting to know each other.

Linda Stewart: ‘We were 14 and shy, and were teased mercilessly’

His name was Aidan, he had red hair and we were both incredibly shy 14-year-olds. So much so that I don't ever remember any kind of conversation we had either before or after we got together.

Just like Marianne and Connell from Normal People, we were different. He came from a different religion, went to a different school and I hadn't grown up around him. He wasn't one of the boys I'd known from the day dot who would have pulled your hair, called you names or tried to look up your skirt.

After years of feeling disgusted and irritated by the boys in my year at school it was refreshing to meet someone who was an unknown quantity, with no history to be unlearned, who had the potential to be anything at all.

I always say that one of the surprising things about growing up in Larne in the Eighties was that there were only two youth clubs, both in Presbyterian churches, and that meant everyone went to them, no matter what background they had. Far from the 'across the barricades' stereotype of Protestant and Catholic teenagers who never met, we would all mix and hang out over a Coke, table tennis and perhaps an illicit foray to the Step Inn for chips.

I suppose he must have been one of that vague, undifferentiated crowd and I'm absolutely positive I was too shy ever to exchange a word with him - until my first teenage party.

At some point somebody must have switched the lights out, and so it was that we found ourselves in the darkened living room, kissing passionately on an armchair with two other couples courting away elsewhere in the room. To this day I have a soft spot for Madonna's Live To Tell, the ballad that was playing in the background.

And after I was collected by my parents I dreamed of the terrifying moment I would see him again. But we were 14 and shy, and everybody teased us mercilessly, so that was all that ever happened.

I barely dared to even look at him at youth club after that, and we certainly never exchanged a word again.

Normal People, BBC One, Monday, 9pm; the series is also available to watch on iPlayer

Belfast Telegraph

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