FIRST HAND . . . but a 12-year age gap doesn't make us a strange couple, says Mandy
PETER and I first met at school when he was 17 and I was 29. I'd like to point out that I was not his teacher, in case anyone gets any funny ideas, but I did direct him in a play I was doing. I was teaching drama and looking for sixth-form boys to take on some lead roles. One of the English teachers brought in three or four, including him. When we met, we got on so well. We're talking about kindred spirits here.

I always had a strong rapport with students and Peter and I became very friendly. The relationship was platonic for the first year and a half and it benefitted from the school aspect. I was still a teacher and he was still a pupil. There might well have been some suggestive sniggerings in the staffroom but I certainly didn't hear them.

However, the next year, when he was in the Upper Sixth, he was very disillusioned with school. At Easter, he dropped out and made plans to go off to Canada. At that stage we were very close although we hadn't become serious in any way, and I helped him a lot . . . I took him down to the embassy and got his flights booked for him. We never dreamed that there might be any future in our relationship. But when he'd been out there seven days, I got a telephone call to say he was coming back. Everyone said he was coming back for me, which made me reassess the whole situation because I didn't know if that was what I wanted.

Then it all starts to sound very romantic. When I met him at the airport he said he wanted to move to Bristol with me and try to start a life together. I didn't think it could possibly work. We went to a friend's house to stay for a while because we needed time to think. My Mum and Dad didn't know we were together and I just couldn't begin to see how they could understand. As it happened, they were more concerned that I would be hurt.

I never got into the situation consciously or deliberately. God, no, it just happened. I always seemed to go out with blokes who were younger than me. When I was 19 at college, I went out with someone who was 16 and I thought that was the most radical thing I'd ever done. But although Peter was only 17, he had more common sense and thoughtfulness about him than anybody I had ever known of my own age.

I think the only question about age being a problem was posed by other people who have negative attitudes. If it was the other way round and Peter was older than me by 10 or 12 years, people would keep quiet.

I do think that people should shut their mouths. If they don't know us, they don't know our relationship, they don't know how close we are. I very much resent this image that I'm a woman who cannot get anyone my own age so I have to resort to going out with someone much younger. That's rubbish!

There have only been three times when people have really insulted us about the difference in our ages and said things to him such as "Are you paying for this or is your mother?"

Once was in a hairdresser's. The only reason I didn't pull him out of there was because half his head was shaved and he would have looked a bit stupid in the street. It happened again in a bookshop and then in a bank when we were trying to open an account. I did pull him out that time and refused to use the bank again.

These attitudes are born out of stupidity rather than malice, and I suppose people might be jealous that I'm going out with a good-looking and much younger man. He's very fit, about 5ft 8ins, with short dark hair. I even know exactly how much he weighs. But it's not been a relationship built on lust or looks or anything like that, although our sexual peaks did coincide when we started getting serious because of the age gap.

I know that he needs time to grow up still and I need to give him time and space to do that. It requires a great conscious effort on my part. I'm always avoiding this mothering image, which I hate. I have to be very careful not to smother him.

But the relationship has worked. I'm 35 now and he's 23. I'm very volatile and he's very constant. And that makes us a winning team.

Interview by Matthew Brace