And I must be an acrobat
To talk like this and act like that
And you can dream, so dream out loud
And don’t let the bastards grind you down
(U2, ‘Acrobat’, from the album Achtung Baby (1991). Hewson/Evans/Clayton/Mullen)
Well. It’s time.
Time for my three-part epic about how I got here. Each of the next three posts will be many thousands of words long. Each is intended to inform what comes after. That is to say: Part II will only make sense in the context of Part I, and the final part is only remotely comprehensible if you take full account of what’s already been described in the previous two posts. And however incidental some comments, asides and incidents may seem, they’re all paid off in the end.
I would describe these posts as a biography of my interior life. What was going on underneath the surface, when I presented as different things to different people in my ‘exterior’ life. I guess you’ll only read it if you really care. And it’s been written with that thought in mind. If just a handful of my family and closest friends ever read this, at least they’ll know what the hell was going on. For me, it’s therapy without paying. It’s genuinely cathartic. An enormous weight lifted, now I completely understand why I behaved this way. It’s not about dwelling on the past, though there are times I’ve been guilty of that.
Instead, this mini-odyssey is driven by the belief that we all want to be loved and understood. Everything you need to understand me will be here. It’s a tale with sexuality and violence (of the psychological kind) at its heart. I’m not saying that as a hard sell, just truth. Maximum points to anyone who’s read some of my oblique references to solitude and regret and figured that sex must play a part somewhere. I never pretended to be particularly complex. I possess the same appetites as everyone else, and the human response to unnaturally protracted denial is… as you might expect. So, perhaps minimum points. And only Part I has it as the main focus anyway. Because even human beings who have the same impulses and needs have a million different complications that fuse into a unique whole. There is, in other words, a lot more to it.
Part I in particular deals with things I was too ashamed to admit to people for a very long time. As soon as this post is published, that shame should lift, at least symbolically. Sadly, burying it only made that shame more toxic, and you can see the consequences in Parts II and III.
To one person, this (Part II actually) is as gigantic a fuck you as I can muster, 15 years too late. More importantly, there’s also a message for every woman I’ve ever confused and disappointed, and for the friends I’ve bewildered or exhausted the patience of. And most of all for the family who didn’t deserve to be put through such anguish. There are some things here that may upset you. I hope it’s worth it, to understand. And I’m truly sorry. I’m an idiot. But this is why.
By the way, there are times when even the writer wonders why the hell some of these things are still on his mind after so many years. So, apologies in advance to any readers who feel the same. All I can offer in my defence is: when your behaviour is repeatedly inexplicable to yourself, when it culminates in a breakdown as horrific as mine and when this undermines everything else you’ve achieved, ruining a decade of your life, the historian’s compulsion to examine and understand is irresistible. Because only understanding can lead to meaningful change. Also, for Part I especially, I want to get this down as a first had record before the memory fades. And just so I can say: whatever befell me later in life, this actually happened.
Part I (the sexuality): January to July 1994, with particular focus on 17 March. Prologue showing how I got to January 1994: history of childhood and adolescence (longer than expected, sorry).
Part II (the psychological violence): January 2004 to October 2005. Partly overlaps with Part III, though this section focuses on my interactions with one other person. Starts with a prologue illustrating the same patterns of behaviour observed in Part I, from 1994-2004.
Part III (the impact): June 2004 to December 2005. The broader story leading up to the closing moment of Part II, followed by a particular focus on the last two months before the breakdown.
Well, here goes…
In medias res – January 1994
It is the night of Saturday, 29 January, 1994. I am a final-year History undergraduate. At the present moment, I am face down on the floor of the flat I share with three other men: DJ, SF and JW. Those three, along with a fourth man, DA, are continuing to smoke the marijuana that has completely discombobulated me. I am stoned, but awake enough to hear what they are saying. Some excerpts below:
- “A lot of things have been explained to me tonight” (DA). I’m the quiet one. I appear depressed and distracted too often. DA has noticed this before. This evening I was on the phone to my mum and she asked me to say hello to my great grandma’s dog. Dutiful as ever, I did so. The lads heard it and just laughed at me. DA repeated “Hello Scampy” in a “what the fuck” way. Pretty sure that’s what he’s referring to here. He thinks I’m a mother’s boy with no balls. He’s already watched me dancing and said “no soul”. The night after, we’d see an indie band and he came out and said “Sort it out… have a word.”
- “You sound ill” (SF). This is a reference to my husky speaking voice, which I’ve carried around with me since childhood, even after it broke. Some people comment on it without any consideration at all. SF is not one of those people. I have not been mocked for it since childhood, but a former housemate said he almost pitied me because I was “shy and had a dodgy voice.” He didn’t pity me though, because I’m “not ugly”.
- “It’d be amazing if he died, wouldn’t it?” (DA). DA was always the most likely to break taboos and say the most outrageous thing. This comment was received with a great deal of transgressive laughter. He continued: “we’d be on the news pissing ourselves”. More laughter. I’ve known these people long enough to think they probably don’t mean it, but there’s a nasty edge to this I’ve not heard before. It’s the most hurtful thing I’ve heard anyone say about me since starting university.
I have such a profound memory of this moment that I can recall my stream of consciousness:
Well, that’s it then. Even your friends hate you. No, it’s just contempt, because you’re not living. You’re not true to yourself. Look, this isn’t you. Drugs isn’t you. This isn’t what you want. It may be what they want, it’s not you. It’s not what your family want either. It’s not what you dreamed of when you worked so hard to get here. So what are you going to do about it? Get up off your knees. Literally, right now. But metaphorically as well. Get up. Show them. GET UP. Show them this doesn’t hurt. Show them what you can actually do. You’re better than this mess. GET UP!
I got up. I can’t remember what I said, but it was vaguely defiant not emotional, and I think I went to the kitchen for some water. I heard DA say “oh god we’ve got to explain all that now”, and it was passed off as piss-taking.
The worst week
This moment came right in the middle of the worst week of my university life. I kept a diary and, some time in late January, felt so depressed that I decided to see a doctor. My appointment was on the Monday before the drug stupor. I remember wondering aloud if I was “schizophrenic” – after being reassured this was not the case I was put in touch with the university counselling service. The first counselling session was set for Thursday 10th February.
The morning after: Sunday 30th January. Probably the absolute nadir. I crouched down near the gas fire in our flat, to pick up some magazines I think. I smelled burning. Fabric. Without even looking to make sure, I suspected my jumper had caught fire. I walked into the kitchen where DJ was washing up and said “I think I’m on fire”. He took one look and emptied the bowl all over me. Apparently the fire had already risen to my shoulder. The jumper was obviously ruined. SF nicknamed me “Towering” (inferno) that day and, years later, DJ used the story in SF’s best man speech. Hilarious as they all found it, I was extremely lucky that DJ had a full washing up bowl. I escaped with a minor burn on my back. But of course it reinforced this image of me as a powerless victim. JW repeatedly described me as an idiot for getting that close to the gas fire at all. I had to replace part of the carpet near the appliance. I think they were surprised I did such a good job of it.
On the Monday, my coat (including debit card) was stolen from the university library cloakroom. I reported it to the police. Even then I was saying “lost” on the phone and my flatmates were reminding me to say “STOLEN”. The card was recovered, but not before another undergrad had been on a little spending spree, forging my signature. All transactions were blocked, thankfully.
I’d begun to wonder if I was terminally unlucky. But somewhere inside I knew I wasn’t, I just hadn’t been kind to myself and made the most of my obvious advantages. DJ recited a story about a truly unlucky man and elicited laughter when he said “Are you related?” I actually said out loud “I don’t think I’m that unlucky.” There was an element, even at my lowest, of “right, we’ll see how lucky I actually am, shall we?”
Around this time I went to see two female nurses about the burn. I asked if the treatment would stop me exercising. I meant the gym. They clearly thought I was referring to sex. I remember telling DJ this story. He lost his virginity at 14 and, at 19, fathered a child with a married woman in her early 30s. He knew I was reading this right. He once described JW as “so fucking unaware” (of female sexuality). I knew I wasn’t. I knew I had something to offer; I just needed confidence and a break.
I knew where this would go from the start. Yes, as Green Day famously said, it was lack of sex that was bringing me down. My counsellor was a gentle guy in his early 30s, who didn’t lose his virginity until he was 23. This made him easy to talk to about my issues. As soon as he said “Do you have a girlfriend?” and I said no, I knew we’d be exploring why. And so I’ll use this as a convenient springboard to look at my childhood and adolescence, just as we did then.
NOTE: this was intended as a digression but there is so much material that it’s several thousand words long by itself. I need to write it down so the reader can appreciate how much of a weight was lifted by the counselling in 1994. Also, it’s worth mentioning that all this stuff only bothered me until the age of 21. It’s what I did or didn’t do then, and what happened afterwards, that really constitutes Part I of the breakdown.
I am the eldest child of working class parents. I am the first person in our family to attend university. I have always been a bit shy. I am self-conscious about my speaking voice. I was always the cleverest child in the class, particularly in maths. I had an IQ test at the age of 9 and scored 140. At junior school (7-11) I was treated as “special” by one teacher in particular and given maths work two years ahead of the rest. In case this sounds overly swotty, I was also pretty good at football (if one-footed!), cricket and swimming. I loved sport and acting. I loved making girls laugh.
To a large extent, this school was a paradise. Other than art and craft subjects, I looked forward to every day. In my first year I got into football and met the special teacher. In my second year I discovered a talent for writing stories, represented the school in a swimming gala and was in a school play at the local church. In the third year I got into the football team, compered the comedy section of our third year concert and made two very clever and beautiful girls laugh every day. The fourth year… that deserves its own section later.
It was a paradise partly because it was an escape from a difficult home life. From my father.
Over the years I’ve referred to him as ‘dad’, ‘my father’, ‘[his first name]’ and ‘my biological father’. At the age of 36 I finally changed my surname from his to my maternal grandfather’s, about 20 years after I wanted to. I’m not sure how much this psychological distancing helps in the end. He was a good and loving man once – that has been made clear to me since. He took my brother and I to football for a while and played a major part in us getting into sport. No-one is all good or bad.
Unfortunately, at precisely the time when a child becomes aware of the world around him, he was unpredictable, temperamental and psychologically devastating. He was never physically violent or abusive. However, below are some examples of his behaviour which had a profound effect on me:
- hearing him in the middle of the night shouting at my mother “I shall fucking swear if I want to fucking swear”
- when my mother was sleeping in the same room as my brother and I, he put his head through the door and said “you’ll all be dead in the morning”. (many years later, this was the one that made my best mate’s jaw collapse and almost caused him to drop his pint)
- cruelly mocking my mother for having too much to drink
- putting her Christmas present in the bin
- trying to get me (aged about 8) to fight him with a boxing glove which I never wanted
- insisting on getting out of the car when on the way to a family holiday, and wandering off for ages without speaking to anyone. We didn’t go on holiday with him after 1981.
- lots of arguing and rows: he had an incredibly loud voice, which I can never have
I don’t know what the triggers for this behaviour were, and obviously I now know adults are complex and the impact events can have on mental health. I guess his being made unemployed in the early 80s had much to do with it. My maternal grandfather found him another job, at his pit, eventually. However he continued to deteriorate.
Early in my third year at junior school, around my 10th birthday, he was admitted to this place. Later, as a teenager, the name of this hospital became a comic byword if I wanted to refer to someone’s “mad” behaviour (you prefer Never The Twain to ‘Allo ‘Allo, you belong in the Pastures!). But this was itself an escape valve. My only visit I recall as deeply haunting, with a horrendous sense of wasted life and inexplicable, invisible torment. In other words, exactly what it was like many years later when I ended up somewhere similar.
From then on, I wanted as little as possible to do with him. There seemed to be an ongoing cycle of him coming out of hospital, promising to be different and then relapsing. He’d roll up Rizlas and smoke cigarettes, stroke my head in bed and then a few days later, more nightmarish shouting (my fervent antipathy to smoking dates back to this period). No wonder I just wanted to make girls laugh at school.
There are two incidents which sum up this period better than anything. First, when I think he was due to go back to the Pastures and screamed like a wounded animal. I saw him try to bite the top of the front door. I’m telling this as matter of factly as possible. I don’t generally regard my childhood as terrible. I could not have asked for a better family. I spent a lot of time with my cousins on my father’s side (he had five siblings, my mother had one and her sister had no children). Until this time – late 1982/early 1983 – I still thought our lives were broadly “normal”.
The second incident is, until my own breakdown, the single most traumatic thing I’ve experienced or witnessed. I’ve since read about it in a letter my mother wrote to an agony aunt when in the depths of despair. I remember it happening, but I think I’d buried it until seeing this letter. He ran at my mother with a knife, screaming “DEATH!” No-one was hurt. At least, not physically.
Shortly after (I think) came something I was only told about later: that he’d told his sister he wanted to kill my mother when he next came out. I never wanted to see him again by then. In a way I’m surprised these events didn’t have even more effect on me than they did. I had some psychosomatic illnesses such as earache, and I was definitely shy and suspicious of people outside organised play. For example, I continued to take part in football, running, performing etc, but at breaktime I’d stand on my own and wait to be approached. I’d also be perfectionist and very sensitive to criticism, particularly if a man raised his voice (e.g. when I wouldn’t do a forward roll in PE and the teacher lost his patience).
Inevitably, my mother filed for divorce. This wasn’t completed until 1984, although my father wasn’t really part of my life at all after mid-1983. I remember him commenting that we’d been on holiday without him in August of that year, although by then I couldn’t possibly have envisaged doing so. My maternal grandad took over the fathering role, particularly with sport and swimming (he was a former lifeguard). However this would lead to some family friction further down the line, as he clearly favoured me over my younger brother.
The fourth year at Junior School
This is really the preamble to the story of the most special relationship of my childhood – the one I spent whole hours talking about in counselling. It’s been described by my mum as a “turnaround”. I regarded it more as a culmination of all the things I’d already one at school, which finally enabled my dearest wish to come true.
The football didn’t really work out. I was substituted in my first two games and remained a fringe player for the rest of the year. The highlight was scoring from a corner in a 7-0 win. We didn’t have a cricket team. The piano lessons continued, although I started to lose interest as the year drew on. I wrote some football stories with a friend in my spare time. Most importantly, with my father-related trauma behind me, I felt ‘free’.
The one thing that really mattered (apart from academic work) was the first school play in three years, Toad of Toad Hall. Our year would provide the principal roles. I wanted to be Mole from the start and it must have showed, because I was (type!) cast. My best friend Ratty would be played by (real name for once) Sarah. Sarah was, quite simply, the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. She was also the cleverest. I thought she was a bit posh and didn’t like me though. She was one of the two I made laugh a lot in the third year, but I thought I’d get on better with her friend Helen. We’d acted together before but not this closely.
As rehearsals continued, I started to develop feelings for her. I felt sorry for her when her ‘boyfriend’ (my friend Chris) treated her badly. I couldn’t quite believe how well we got on, and there was actual chemistry on stage. She insisted on hugging me during the scene where I’m lost in the Wild Wood. I pretended not to want to. By the time of the final performances, I was besotted with her. I’d write about her in school books and say how much I loved acting with her, or pretend to be angry when people said she was my girlfriend. Because I couldn’t allow myself to believe she might want to be.
Toad was the best thing I’d ever done at school and I was upset when it finished. I was most upset that Sarah and I would not be as close any more. A few weeks later we were on the bus back from a school trip and she beckoned me to sit next to her. We talked about missing Toad and not spending as much time together. What followed is nothing less than the psychological fulcrum of my childhood and adolescence. I may be paraphrasing slightly, but this is the essence of what she said:
“I wanted to know why you’re shy and get upset when men shout. My Dad knows your Grandad and said it has a lot to do with your D-A-D.”
(she did spell it out like that)
In that moment I fell in (whatever passes for) love (as an 11-year-old) with her. I told her about some of the things I’ve written above, including The Pastures. She said she liked me already and now she loved me. I, er, pretended not to like and love her as much as I did. Over the next 10 days I was in a state of complete amazement that this was actually happening. She was kissing me at breaktime, kissing me goodbye after school… On the 10th day we attended a disco for everyone involved in Toad. I joined in some of the dancing, which was highly unusual for me. She was a brilliant dancer and won a competition arranged that night. Still not daring to believe, it took several people surrounding me asking if I wanted to be her boyfriend before I said yes.
The relationship lasted almost two years. It felt longer, because its impact on me was massive. It can be split into three distinct sections:
- “The Year of the Rat” (1984)
- “Future Perfect” (Jan-Aug 1985)
- “Present Imperfect” (Aug 1985-Mar 1986)
Part 1 started with the last two months at Junior School. This was just sheer daily bliss. We had our first kisses (as opposed to her just kissing me). We had Maths and English tests prior to changing schools: she actually beat me by 2 points in English and finished joint top with me in Maths. In spite of my doing advanced work all year and making two careless errors, I didn’t mind at all: in fact I loved telling her and loved watching her reaction. She was worried about having to wear glasses permanently: I reassured her it didn’t matter to me. I went on holiday to the Isle of Wight with my family and bought her a little bunny rabbit with an ‘I Love You’ badge; also sent her a postcard with ‘PS I Love You’ at the bottom.
The night before we left, there was a leavers’ disco and another dancing competition. She won again. I distinctly remember cheering for her like nothing else mattered in the world. Then I got quite tearful, about leaving a school which had done so much to make me so happy. She said it hadn’t really sunk in for her until then. We were both upset about leaving the following day: she gave me a massive hug after the leavers’ service. Sarah and I were to be in the same form at secondary school – this was unusual for two of the three cleverest pupils in our school year. It was said that an exception was being made.
Some quick background is necessary here: during the period between my IQ test and the third year of Junior School, there was serious discussion about a) going to secondary school a year early due to academic promise or b) going to this independent school at the age of 11 instead, as a scholarship boy. Teachers recommended against the first on the grounds of me not being ready socially (I’ve seen the letter). The fourth year made a big difference to that. My mum and I agreed that Nottingham High School was too much of a change and that I might be subject to snobbery which I really didn’t need. The ever more important presence of Sarah in my life pretty much nailed the case shut.
We didn’t see each other all that much in the summer holidays, but at the new school we remained inseparable. As someone more naturally extrovert, she made new friends easier than I did. She went to Ibiza on a family holiday for two weeks in early October (different times when you could be out of school with no issues!). I’d never missed anyone or anything as much as I did then. She sent me a postcard with ‘PS I Love You’ at the bottom. Hers had a topless woman on the front, stood up in the sea. I’d just turned 12: she’d be 12 in a fortnight’s time…
Different times again maybe: Page 3 was something you took for granted, for instance. But it’s important to make this point – she and I had “dirty minds”, a naughty shared sense of humour and were totally relaxed about this subject. At almost the same time, my mum had the facts of life conversation with me. Some of it was in the context of the relationship that was already happening. For example my mum said that her dad would “kill me if I made her pregnant”. I was a normal 12 year-old boy and really very excited about the prospect of this new world, and feeling incredibly lucky to have a girlfriend I loved. There was no way either of us would do anything silly or premature.
What really characterises the rest of this period is the bonding. We’d buy each other birthday and Christmas presents, go to each other’s houses, get to know each other’s families. I attended a bonfire/12th birthday party at her uncle’s; she became close to my mum as they bonded over a love of animals in particular. By the turn of the year we seemed to have a huge shared history full of in-jokes and back-references, couldn’t have been closer as friends and were still working hard at school. There was every reason to be happy and optimistic. The last thing I did in 1984 (the Chinese Year of the Rat, and my Year of Ratty) was thank God for making it the happiest year of my life and hope 1985 was just as good.
Part 2 is the bit which really matters. “Future Perfect” is my shorthand for the plans we made and the happy, developing relationship we envisaged. It was unquestionably the peak for us and easily the happiest period of my childhood. But it also carries with it the seeds of our eventual decline.
My memories are so strong because I started keeping a diary in 1985. Just bullet points really, rather than an Adrian Mole style thing. I date the start of this period to something which didn’t involve Sarah. In the second week of the year I accompanied my mother to a meeting with (I think) a child psychologist. I’m still not sure why anyone thought I needed one at this stage. Regardless, the meeting became much more about her and her troubles coping as a single mother with two young lads. She was in tears several times. This is where I lost my innocent belief that everything would be wonderful after my father left.
My abiding memory of the appointment is one I must have buried for many years – it didn’t even come up in counselling in 1994 or 2005. In fact it only emerged just as my mental state started to collapse completely in late 2005. However, it was certainly something I mentioned to Sarah as soon as I could. My mother, in tears, said to the psychologist:
And I worry so much because he [i.e. me] reminds me of his Dad.
I may be paraphrasing, but the essence is what’s important. Someone I worshipped thought I reminded her of my own worst nightmare. I had no idea why or how this was possible. I was shy and he’d apparently been shy as a younger man. But I knew little of the younger man: to me this was “change your behaviour/personality or you too could end up depressed, temperamental, attacking people with knives.” I told Sarah, who understood a lot about my father and his impact on me (see above). She said reassuring things and it never came up again. However, for a few days the following week I had an unexplained abdominal pain. I always thought this was the first psychosomatic reaction I’d had since he left. Others wondered about appendicitis, but it never became more severe and has never recurred.
At the same time, in the week after the appointment, Sarah started telling stories about our lives together if we were married with a child called Kelly. This is “Future Perfect” in a nutshell. I cannot overstate the effect this had on my psychology. It was as if the world unfolded before me and everything suddenly made perfect sense. To be the father my Dad wasn’t, and to have a happy, constructive, mutually supportive relationship with an adult woman; these were the purposes of my life. Without these I could not be fulfilled.
I emphasise “at the same time” because of the juxtaposition or contrast between someone thinking I might end up like my dad, and someone else thinking I had the potential to be a wonderful husband and father. When I first wrote about in the diary, my mum read it and asked me questions about the detail of Sarah’s stories. I resented this immediately: these dreams were ours. And I tried not to write about it again, even though she kept the stories up for several months. This is my earliest memory of resenting my mother for anything. It would not have been so keenly felt had she not said what she said to the psychologist. I began to think she didn’t have the faith in me that Sarah did, and I couldn’t understand why. Years later, if I was happy and fulfilled I’d see it as ‘Sarah winning’ and if not, my dad was ‘winning’.
But anyway: about that detail. There was a lot of sex in these stories. A lot. Sarah had read, or was reading, Lace and The Thorn Birds, and quoted their sex scenes frequently. She’d tell me about moments when she’d heard her mum say to her dad “that was wonderful”. We’d be in a story where we had a dirty weekend at the Savoy Hotel, “and a tantalising night takes place”, and then go home and pick up ‘Kelly’ from her mum and dad’s. She’d ask what age I thought I would start masturbating and work it into a story where (as her husband) I tell her I was thinking about her when I first did so. She’d make jokes about not injuring important parts of my body by climbing over gates; later she’d ask me how it was growing. We’d talk about contraception, baby girls’ names. She told me when she started having periods (that April).
And I saw nothing unnatural in any of this. I never regarded her as “slutty” or “forward”, but instead was endlessly fascinated by female sexuality. In fact I was so thrilled by it all I almost wanted to skip my teens just to get there. I should add that we were actually doing nothing remotely adult, of course. We kissed a lot; she would always initiate it. In the evenings after school we’d go down a jitty to kiss privately. I absolutely loved this but a couple of girls in the year above started noticing and shouting “whoo hoo” on our walks home, which made me very self-conscious.
By spring, when we celebrated our first anniversary, we genuinely couldn’t imagine ever not being together and expected to get married. Sarah believed this was possible if we passed three “missions”, which were as follows:
- For me to make it clear to her that I shared the same wishes and beliefs as her regarding our future together.
- For me to behave as such when with her, privately.
- For me to behave as such when we were in company, at school, socialising etc.
The first “mission” took the form of a quiz, which she gave me on the Friday morning before an overnight drive to Newquay for a family holiday. It included questions such as “do you think we might get married?”, “what does x think of our relationship”, “are they right or wrong and why” etc (x might be a parent or friend). Anyway I passed with flying colours and gave her my diary to fill in while I was away. This was our longest time apart since she’d been to Ibiza. The day of the quiz was, in retrospect, the peak of the relationship.
After coming back from the holiday, I saw her at the local carnival. I felt incredibly excited but pretended I hadn’t seen her, and she commented in the diary that I needed to be more positive in company “as we will soon be in the third mission!” She was happy to pass the second one pretty much straight away.
And so to Part 3, “Present Imperfect”. I’ve said above this started in August, but there are a few indications of an imperfect present before that.
- we had our first proper argument in March, which ended with her sending me a card to say sorry. She wrote “it’s already obvious that ours is not a here-today, gone-tomorrow sort of relationship”. Later she said she was the only one who apologised properly.
- we were given a special project on ‘Lord of the Flies’ by our English teacher. Sarah completed this much more quickly than I did. She was also catching me up in Maths and this school wasn’t giving me extra work, so I was effectively repeating two years. This made me quite unhappy and resentful.
- her school report had 13 As and mine only five: for all of my academic subjects I received A for attainment but B for effort. There were several mentions of my reluctance to contribute orally to lessons, a consequence of self-consciousness about my voice.
But far and away the most significant negative was a conversation between me and my male head of year, which proved to be a harbinger of the last six months of my relationship with Sarah. It was recorded in my diary as an attempt to split us up. He took me out of a lesson to ask me about my closeness to her and whether it inhibited me making friends with others. At one stage he actually said “are you going to marry her?” Whatever dreams we shared between ourselves, and however tempted I was to offer a defiant “yes”, this seemed insensitive and rude.
I didn’t grasp it at the time, but this would not be a one-off intervention. The summer was fine, although Sarah stopped telling the stories and I started spending more time with her younger brother when I visited. I even deliberately missed an appointment to meet her one Saturday. It’s really clear to me that I was acting out after what the head of year said, and needed to talk to someone. My feelings for her hadn’t changed at all. But I was beginning to think I was no longer good enough because I was introverted.
In the second year at senior school, we all turn 13 and peer pressure really kicks in. Some girls regard me as “boring” because I don’t go out as much as others – Sarah still disagrees because I’m funny and handsome and clever and all the things she liked in the first place. Some lads regard Sarah as ugly because of her glasses – sometimes I don’t fancy her as much as I used to but when I overhear that sort of thing I know I still love her. And my 1986 diary describes her as a “bespectacled beauty”, which is perfect. And true.
Peer pressure is hard enough. What I had to deal with on top of it was something I still resent to this day, and something which clouded the rest of my adolescence and early adulthood. In my second year at university, a housemate said to me that everyone in our shared house (including him) was “a case”. He summed my case up as: “needing to know that shyness isn’t a disease“. Well Steve, you were spot on, but this is where it started.
By now my mum had a social worker who would introduce her to other divorced single parents. She was also being encouraged to get me to socialise more. Lacking confidence in her own abilities (which I never doubted) she seemed to take this to heart and it started to become a big deal. Of far greater significance, though, was the attitude of my form tutor, a shrewish and bitter woman who had taught my mother at school. Over a period of several weeks, this woman repeatedly made an issue of my shyness and quietness. She would also contrast me with Sarah, leaving no doubt as to whose personality she preferred and who was most likely to succeed. The worst example was when Sarah signed a petition and I hesitated about it, when she shouted: “you’re a second year now, not at infants’ school” and reduced me to tears. I was completely confused as to why a part of my personality was now something I should be ashamed of.
The relatively mild concern expressed by my head of year had now become a recurrent focus of attention for authority figures. Only an intervention from my mum’s social worker brought this phase to a close. Some of her letter to the form tutor is burned into my brain, including:
“I understand why it is frustrating to see a bright child with obvious potential not forging ahead with confidence as he should… The family has always been an inward-looking one… it is natural that he should be attracted to the more extrovert personality of Sarah and that their relationship should have something to offer to both of them… Time and maturity may help bring about a better balance.”
I could never find anything to disagree with in this letter, particularly its conclusion. If only that had been heeded. But now it felt like I was “marked” and there was a capital-P Problem. It’s not as if I didn’t think people had the semblance of a point, but there was no encouragement or reinforcement of confidence in the way any of them went about it. Except Sarah, at least for now. It was all humiliation and undermining, and it had precisely the opposite effect to that intended.
About this time, Sarah started to mention snogging. It was an obvious staging post on the way to what I wanted. I still loved kissing her. But I was now acting well below my years when she visited, wanting to spend more time with my younger brother and the even younger children whose mum had bought my piano. I can see I was frightened of getting it (snogging) wrong, and kept putting her off so as not to let her down on something so important. One night I accidentally rubbed against her and apologised: she said, jokingly, “I know all about your sexual advances” and I said “I don’t have any”. Her “I know” in response was the definition of rueful. Another time she got angry with me, saying we were like brother and sister when we didn’t kiss enough. She dressed quite provocatively for a 13 year-old sometimes (e.g. fishnet tights). I mean, I thought she looked delicious, but I didn’t tell her and I didn’t behave as if I had such thoughts about her. I’m not sure my balls dropped until after we split up, which is one of the curses of my adolescence (see below).
Some of my older female relatives started to describe Sarah as “forward”, a somewhat outmoded euphemism for more obviously pejorative words. I was told not to do anything we shouldn’t. Just as during the facts of life conversation, I thought this was unnecessary advice: we were literally the most sensible and intelligent boy and girl in the whole year, with life prospects well beyond most of our peers. I remember it because I never had any advice from men: my grandad was my only elder male relative. After being very actively involved in sport and swimming, he had nothing to say about puberty or girls. He was surprisingly passive in general compared to the women in the family, actually. In fact the only thing I remember him saying on this subject during my whole adolescence was in relation to being shy, after Sarah, and was something like “doesn’t he know how to get on with girls yet?” Which made me feel inadequate for needing advice, and so it went on.
And there was an obvious contrast here: Sarah’s male relatives, particularly her dad. He was a very attractive man and very relaxed about this subject. At her 13th birthday party I accidentally turned the light off in her kitchen, which led to a number of knowing jokes between him and Sarah’s uncle about teenage boys and girls. He never embarrassed me but it was increasingly obvious how much more extrovert her family were, and how much difference men could make to how sons felt. Indeed he was well aware of this and said a number of encouraging things about me coming out of my shell when we went out after the party. You could hardly imagine a nicer bloke to be your girlfriend’s dad and “future father in law”.
So basically, everything was nice and normal except family and Sarah wanted me to go out more, and Sarah wanted me to kiss her a lot more. And I felt wary of the former because of my voice, and nervous about the latter because I desperately didn’t want to get it wrong and be laughed at. Or to get carried away and do something we shouldn’t. Eventually (January ’86) I was persuaded to go to an under-16s disco with Sarah. Too self-conscious to dance but we had a good time and a lot of conversation. She rested her leg on mine all night but I was still afraid of being watched or judged if we kissed properly. Wrote in my diary that others were “getting to grips with each other” and she said she wouldn’t have minded getting to grips. I know how ridiculous this reads now. Just you wait till we get up to date again…
Things became more strained as she tried to get me to come to the disco again and I resisted, feeling pressured and wondering why it was necessary if she loved me as much as she said. Arguments became more frequent. Others in class got involved, asking me why I wouldn’t kiss her in public. I wondered why they thought it was any of their business. I started doubting and second-guessing myself in class, as if I didn’t even have confidence about my own intelligence, confusing her even more. I also started looking back more – for example we did a presentation on hobbies and I chose to talk about Toad of Toad Hall even though it was nearly two years ago.
It’s quite horrible to recall all this. Natural development seemingly arrested by a self-consciousness so acute as to be actively damaging, not helped by some of the people around me. I kept testing Sarah to make sure she still did think highly of me, because I’d started to doubt even that.
And then, much sooner than I’d anticipated, came the day my mother warned me about: Sarah decided she’d had enough. A month after Valentine’s Day, when she was on her way to meet friends, she gave me an ultimatum: either I start socialising with her more, or our relationship was over. My diary entry – one of the few I remember word for word – says it all:
I kept my dignity until after she’d gone, after which I burst into tears. Why did I have to have a ‘Dad’ like mine? Why?
Everything was still framed in that context because of what she’d said to me nearly two years earlier. If I was shy it was because of him. Why did this not matter to her any more? And if people thought I had a capital-P Problem it was because they were afraid I’d turn out like him. But that could never happen. I wouldn’t allow it.
As it happens, he hadn’t gone away completely. The previous September (a Friday 13th, in fact) he’d come to the house asking if we believed in God, and told us he was now a Jehovah’s Witness. He showed us a lot of literature and talked about the relationship between God and humanity. We listened politely, though I was still frightened of him. And then the old nightmares returned; he raised his voice, started talking about nuclear war and God’s punishment and scared the living shit out of me for the first time in more than two years. I had an antipathy towards religion from that day on. This becomes very important at the very end of Part III.
Over the weekend, my mum and I had a long talk about not using my dad as an excuse and the importance of trying to compromise with Sarah. I didn’t need to do everything she wanted to make her happy, but I couldn’t carry on as I was. When seeing how much I upset Sarah by hesitating on the Monday, it really hit home and I vowed to change. She was delighted and sent me a lovely letter on her way to youth club, thanking my mum in particular.
I really meant it. I went to youth club with her for the first time the following Monday. We sneaked away to kiss properly – one of the other girls shouted “keep it in, [Ben]”. I stopped just as my tongue and hers connected: she looked pissed off with me for most of the night afterwards. [Honestly I’m not surprised, writing this] The next morning she asked if I’d be “in the mood” at the disco on Saturday. Because the family had booked Return of the Jedi to watch on video, I didn’t want to go. I told her I wasn’t going. I didn’t explain why. Another dumb test. But this time she said “it would seem you haven’t changed, so I’m packing you.” And she really meant it.
In the immediate aftermath:
- I laughed while my longest-standing male friend (P) looked shocked (by the force of her reaction) and appalled (by how casual mine was).
- I never tried to go after her to explain. If she didn’t love me any more how could I change her mind?
- I wrote that I was “relieved” because of the pressure to kiss when I wasn’t ready.
- She and her sister looked daggers at me at school the following day.
- I heard she was extremely upset at home that day and her dad tried to console her with “it wasn’t meant to be”.
- I didn’t cry at all, but I didn’t want to talk about it either.
- I immediately transferred my affections to the other girl I used to make laugh a lot at Junior School (Helen). These remained unspoken and unrequited, and would explode inside a few days a couple of years later (see below).
- Three days later she came to the house, talked to my mum and then wanted to talk to me. I stayed behind my bedroom door, refusing to see her. Was persuaded to come down eventually, but by that time she had gone.
- I didn’t speak to her again until three weeks later. I had to pluck up courage just to do so. Already I felt “inferior” to her. She was good-looking, she was intelligent, she was funny. And I was all those things too. But she was extrovert and I was introvert. And now, it seemed, that was all that really mattered.
The reason I’ve dwelled so long on Sarah is to highlight the contrast with what teenage life was like afterwards. It fell embarrassingly short of what we had and what I’d dreamed of having.
The first hint that something wasn’t right came after only two months, i.e. what would have been our second anniversary. I was looking back in my diary at how happy we’d been and wondering what went wrong, and concluded “although I didn’t think so at the time, I now know I wasn’t as big as I thought in not shedding any tears.” I stopped going to youth club with P: it had been for her so what was the point now? We didn’t go swimming any more. I became obsessed with pop music, to the extent of writing the charts down, listening to Radio 1, and buying the Guinness Book of British Hit Singles and even making up my own charts. I still had male friends but if anything became more introverted.
This was clearly illustrated over the summer of ’86. I went to London on a school trip and thought I’d had a really good time, laughing with 3-4 other boys. Then two of them, separately, said I’d seemed depressed: one (Chris) said “we thought rigor mortis had set in”. I’m 13 at this point, by the way. The other (RB) went further: he speculated as to why I was unhappy and thought I hadn’t been happy since “the twilight days with Sarah”. Chris was coming to my house a lot but stopped in August: having been friends for years we were never close again after that summer. And the family went to the Isle of Wight again in July. I came home to find my school report – it was much better, lots of As for effort and praise for coming out of my shell. Sarah had passed it on and written my French test result on the envelope along with some instructions about the London trip. I started crying that afternoon for what seemed to be no reason at all. I put it down to coming back from holiday but that had never affected me before. I know exactly what an outsider would conclude, reading this. But I wouldn’t admit that to myself for nearly two years.
Later that year Sarah started to behave in a more overtly sexual way towards boys. Her hair had grown lank, she still wore glasses and my friend J and I described her as “foul”. In December a story went round where she’d got off with someone at a party and had ended up almost naked. She made a point of asking me how I’d got to hear about it and said it wasn’t true, as she “wasn’t like that”. I found it quite plausible. Then I overheard Chris say to her “you packed [Ben] because he was boring, and now [N] gets off with you and you won’t…”. At this point I described her as a “slut” in my diary. It didn’t last long. I was just jealous, basically. It was happening for her and not for me. In the January, she did something or other with her hair and, for the first time since we split up, I thought she was stunningly beautiful.
1987 was the year when I did start masturbating. It was a softcore porn mag rather than Sarah. Outside porn mags, my most common fantasy figures were Madonna and Helen from school. But Sarah crept in there increasingly often: I could barely even admit it to myself.
My mum made me cry on my 14th birthday by saying (judgmentally, not encouragingly) it was about time I socialised more, as if all my hard work at school didn’t count for much. I should add here that, by now, the social worker had been putting her in touch with other divorced women. She worked hard and had two boys to bring up, there was no man around and she had very little confidence in making friends. Many years later, in the midst of post-breakdown horror, I would point this out as if to suggest that she was being hypocritical asking me to be more confident socially. She literally told me to fuck off. It was exactly the response I wanted to hear. It was what I’d wanted to say when I was 14 or 15. But I wouldn’t, because I put her on such a pedestal – if she was saying this over and over again, there really was something wrong with me. It’s only as an adult that I see how much her own lack of confidence was contributing to the situation. No-one grasps that as a 14-year-old boy.
At the time it hurt a lot because I thought she understood me perfectly. I’d seen a long letter she’d written to the staff at Junior School just before I left. One of her many insights was addressed to the teacher in charge of the football team, semi-apologising for me not having made great progress that year. She said that I “take criticism to heart, especially from men”. Now she seemed hyper-critical, as if that had been forgotten.
I remember my maths teacher making me stand up in class because I was chatting to P. He mentioned a social event we were going to (where I drank wine for the first time) and said my mum would rather I stayed in doing my homework. I was so sure he was wrong about that, I almost back-chatted him. In late 1987 I stole some chocolate mints from my great grandma’s spare room and gave them to school mates. Later my mum said she knew why I’d done it and described me as “socially retarded”. That was the phrase that crystallised everything and stayed in my head as a self-defining, internalised label until I was 21. Not shy any more. Socially retarded now. I lost my temper with her a couple of times, basically feeling as if no-one valued me for what I was any more. If Sarah didn’t, and even my mother didn’t, there wasn’t a lot of hope that any other girl would.
It was, I can see now, people-pleasing behaviour of the type no-one really respects. A few months later (early ’88) P and some other lads offered me a sweet from a bag. I chose a gum: P said I should try the chocolate. And, just to please people, I did. It was a chocolate laxative. The practical joke ended with me losing 6lb in weight. Through failing to assert myself, and trying to please others instead.
The other main development of 1987 was my father returning to our lives, playing cricket with and buying equipment for myself and my brother. He definitely seemed nicer, but I only lasted a few months before the God stuff became too much. My brother, three years younger and without my powerful memories, kept visiting him, which led to growing friction between him and my mum during 1988.
Sarah was on the same bus as me one weekend in March 1988. And I finally admitted it to myself: I missed her deeply. I thought about everything we once had and blamed myself for losing her and no longer being good enough for her. I had dreams of “winning her back” which would never amount to anything. She blossomed spectacularly that year. Not only every red-blooded lad at school, but 17-18 year olds, wanted her now. P and I talked about her incessantly and in depth. He said I could have had sex with her if we’d stayed together and, while feigning naivety, I knew what she was like and didn’t really doubt it. Others I confessed to (RB for instance) ripped the piss mercilessly for years. In fact P even made up some story about her fancying me and “wanting me to make the first move”, just so he could watch me humiliate myself by phoning her up. I didn’t – but he still got the satisfaction of watchimg me fall for it for a few weeks.
Then things got really weird. P said he was bisexual and wanted to suck my cock. He thought I could pretend it was Sarah. I had no interest in this at all – we stayed friends but I’m not sure we were ever quite the same. By now we were obtaining a lot of soft porn and not really talking to girls at all. A massive crash came in May, when I realised how depressed I was and how I couldn’t really see a way out if I was so “socially retarded”. Soon after, we were given the topic “Strong Feelings” for a timed essay in GCSE English and I decided to write about my past and present feelings for Sarah. By some warped coincidence, I was seated directly opposite her during the essay, but it didn’t stop me producing an excellent piece of work. The teacher, one of the two best in my whole five years at that school, was intrigued by the identity of the subject and so enthused by my command of emotions and language that she produced a huge reading list for me. It’s quite possible that my move away from Maths and towards arts subjects began right here.
The essay itself is my best summary of what Sarah meant. Its conclusion is sad to read, but extremely revealing of where my mind was by now.
I still love her but realise that she’s far more socially adept than I am… However inside I am always crying. I wish the tears would stop.
During the fifth year (88-89), a lad I knew through friends said to me: “why don’t you get in with some 4th year girls, they think you’re a lush guy.” By this time I was no longer even able to take compliments about my attractiveness: I behaved as if I didn’t believe him. Why? Because of things like this:
- My favourite of Sarah’s friends in our form, JH, came up to me one day and said “Sarah just told me you never kissed her properly and you were just good friends. That’s not true is it?” I just replied: “if that’s what she said”. Even though the kissing thing was unfortunately true, to hear that she now regarded us as JGF not boyfriend and girlfriend was hurtful.
- Far worse: a lad who knew us at Junior School reminded Sarah of how she’d spend breaktimes with me back then: Sarah said, laughing, ” don’t try and depress me!”
- According to one of my friends, R, Sarah and Helen discussed me in my absence and said I was “boring” and “had no mates” (apart from P, who was nerdy and a subject of derisive laughter).
- Some girls were actually aggressive towards me, one of them thumping me very hard on the back when she was pissed off about something. When one of the lads was making a joke about me having toothpaste on my jumper, saying it was spunk, the same girl said it couldn’t be because “I bet [Ben] can’t even come.”
- A group of girls once came up to R, P and me. R is fat and always was. P is a bit nerdy. They said “R” in a nice way, P in a neutral way and my name in a disappointed way. I used to be Sarah’s boyfriend. Now I’m below even those two.
This kind of rejection, going all the way back to Sarah’s, felt completely personal. It seemed fundamental rather than something which could be moved on from, in the way healthy people move on. To be brutally honest I now felt as if my strongest feelings didn’t matter at all. Whether that was love, or sexual desire, or anger, or justifiable pride in my academic work. I just buried them and probably came across as dull or disengaged: indeed my brother started calling me “cardboard man”. I was so unassertive, so lacking in self-expression, that I carried on wearing school uniform for months after it was no longer compulsory. I could still have a laugh with people, but the sort of comments made by RB and Chris back in ’86 became more frequent. I put off homework until the night before it was due, sometimes even staying up until 2am to write essays. Not because I had such a busy life, but because it’s all there was, and it got me down to face it.
These days it’s quite easy to imagine me being diagnosed with clinical depression with these symptoms and behaviours, even at that age. In the late 80s, that never occurred to anyone, even in light of my family history. It was my fault. And I knew how much I had going for me, which made it worse. Motivation to work hard was never a problem though, because I always knew university was a potential saviour.
But eventually things got so miserable that, on the basis of one conversation with one lad who thought I might have a chance with her, I turned my affections towards E for eighteen months. E was the other cleverest girl at Junior School. She wasn’t as attractive as Sarah but I had a distant memory of dancing with her at the start of a school play when we were first years, and she’d kissed me at her 8th birthday party. 8th. I was 16 and a half by now. This was such a sad episode that R took the piss out of me for years about it, and my brother was horrified that I should think so little of myself.
Events, dear boy
By then other events had overtaken my own misery. My mum began seeing the man she’s now married to, my stepdad. He was a local plumber, which led to even more piss-taking at school. He was and is a lovely man and I never had any problems with him. I was also very happy for my mum. Unfortunately this development seemed to compound the growing rift between my mum and brother over him visiting his dad. He visited more and more often and went to live with him in December. After coming back for Christmas, he went back in January 1989. And this time it was permanent.
This was completely inexplicable to me and horrifying for everyone else. Certainly until I had my breakdown, I have never seen my mum so downtrodden and unhappy. Based on the words that later emerged from his own mouth “I AM GOING TO DESTROY YOU!!”, I believe it was part of his deliberate effort to split our family. It was then I first had the idea of changing my surname.
I missed Sarah a lot then, inevitably – she understood the background and none of my other friends did. But here’s a curveball: I’m not sure I could have talked to her about it anyway. Her parents had split up after her mum had an affair. Just after my mum started seeing my stepdad, Sarah’s dad came to see my mum a couple of times and asked her out. I’ve always suspected it was far more serious than the phrase “asked out” implies. For example Sarah said she’d be “perfect” for him, and judging from one or two of her facial expressions at school I think she was surprised my mum said no. Years later, when Sarah’s dad tragically died in his 50s, my mum said “it could have been us dealing with that”. Yes, of course it was more serious.
But I missed my brother far more. One time, during a family holiday, I almost burst into tears just thinking about him. I had to bury it a long way down in order to get through A-Levels, where my move away from Maths towards English and History was confirmed. He approached me on my way home from college one Thursday evening: the day Mrs. Thatcher resigned in fact. He hadn’t understood what kind of man my father really was, and he wanted to come back home. It was an incredibly moving moment when he and my mum were reconciled. It also – I thought – symbolised the breaking of the final hold my father had over any aspect of our lives.
Emotionally, it was, I suppose… but he and his solicitors continued to make demands for years afterwards, and he kept writing letters with “Care of [address]” before he finally blew himself out.
Also in late 1990: I found a tape recorded in late 1985 which featured me, my brother, the boy and girl who took my piano, and Sarah. Absolute, incontrovertible proof of two things: how well we got on, and how immature a boyfriend I was. Upon hearing it I completely forgot about E (who I’d barely talked to anyway). Eight months later I saw Sarah for what remains the last time. For those intervening eight months I just admired her from afar, having abandoned all dreams of getting her back and stopped trying to kid myself that I fancied other girls. Or rather, I did, but never thought I had a chance because of all the things I’ve discussed above.
I applied to Cambridge but was kind of relieved to be rejected. I was so nervous about moving away that vast differences in social background would probably have made it even harder to adjust. University was already being described as my “second chance”, which seemed harsh given that I was only 18. The lack of a social life had become a millstone whose importance still seemed over-stated by others. I didn’t think I was that unusual or strange a person. I overheard my mum say it must be a nerve-wracking change “especially when you’re as shy as he is.” And I didn’t really think I was that shy, just that I’d been made to feel like it was a huge fault and had disappeared into myself even more as a result. My mission at university would be to build a life that would allow me to stop feeling like this. It was as important as my degree. It was probably more important.
On the day my A-Level results came out I was too worried to go to college and pick them up. So I found out I’d got in via my mother opening the envelope the following Monday and, instead of saying congratulations, berating me for not going to college the previous Thursday. I know I worried others and wound them up, but this was the proudest thing I’d done and the first time anyone in my family had gone to university. Somehow it felt like I’d disappointed people again. I felt similarly when I gave her my grades (AAC). The C in Maths was because I never grasped Mechanics but aced Pure and Stats. It didn’t bother me: it was all I needed and I was an arts student now. But she could remember me being miles ahead of everyone at school. A couple of weeks before leaving I said “I’m sorry if I’m a disappointment to everyone”. Of course I was reassured, but said “I am to me” because of the social situation.
I was in tears on the drive up to the hall. Apparently my mum was in tears on the way home after leaving me. At the hall, I was already displaying signs of chronic nerves. Then I allowed my mum to introduce me to a lad (DR), saying “This is [Ben] and he’s just as shy as you are.” I cringe just writing that down. I honestly, truly felt capable of doing it myself and just had to tell her to leave me and I’d be fine. Instead… I just felt like I’d got off on the wrong foot.
DR and I turned out to be mates for 12 years, and we lived together twice: as part of a 5-man house share in the second year, and briefly when I lodged at the house he shared with his girlfriend between finals and just after graduation. So things actually did start well. I stuck with a group of 5-8 lads most of the week. I still wasn’t very confident approaching people, and I’d still over-analyse most of my social behaviour. Also I would go home at weekends. I’d begged for a shared room so it would be easier to make friends, but ended up with a very extrovert lad from a private school who threw himself into the Ents committee and stood for the JCR election after a few weeks. I couldn’t quite understand how people could be that confident after such a short time.
Already I was feeling lonely and thinking it would be difficult. I drank beer, did quizzes and didn’t talk to girls. I saw one or two looking at me when they caught me laughing, but then if I went to the refectory at the wrong time I could be sitting on my own. I struggled to talk to people on my course as well: one time I remember sitting near a girl at a lecture and she gave me a really nice smile but I didn’t open my mouth. I had almost no self-confidence as a social or sexual being at all, and the world’s least justified inferiority complex, purely on the grounds of thinking shyness was a disease.
Joined the orienteering club but only went a couple of times. Joined cricket but stopped when I realised how far ahead the private school kids were. By the second term I wasn’t going home every weekend, but the lads had started commenting on things like me never talking about my mates or girls. I had a nervous nose-bleed; too often I’d have tearful conversations with my mum. The social side of life was so important to me I couldn’t relax about it at all. Sex seemed a very long way away. Five of us managed to arrange the house share for the second year, which was a relief. But apart from DR they were all big drinkers and I wondered how well we’d actually get on.
At the end of the second term my room-mate and I were separated, which I think suited us both. I wanted to change my course from History to English Lit but wasn’t allowed: can hardly believe how much this bothered me at the time. Passed my driving test. Probably even less confident socially than I was in first term, to the extent that I wouldn’t approach some of the lads I knew if my future housemates weren’t there as well. Found a summer job at a local supermarket, where I (finally) rediscovered the joy of making girls laugh and the confidence boost from admiring looks.
Within two weeks of living in the shared house I was at my lowest ebb. Felt like I was fucking everything up. I never doubted I’d get my degree, but everything else that was so important seemed a struggle. Socially, halls made it a lot easier and I no longer had that outlet. The drinkers and I had little in common: one of them (Steve) said “poor [Ben], he’s ended up with the dregs”. He was also the guy that made the “shyness is not a disease” comment. Now I was on the History course full time, I started to notice the same people in a lot of classes and lectures. Three of them were SF, JW and SD. I thought maybe I could approach their little group and we might get on.
Things definitely began to improve from here. I’d just got into Prince and played the Purple Rain album incessantly. Took inspiration from ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ especially, notably this lyric:
We’re all excited/we don’t know why/maybe it’s ’cause/we’re all gonna die/and when we do/what’s it all for/You better live now before the grim reaper comes knockin’ on your door
I had put weight on when drinking in the first year, and started going to the gym three times per week. Not discouraged by laddish piss-taking, I kept it up. The biggest breakthrough, though, was Pyjama Jump 1992. Went out with DR and, once I’d stripped down to my ladies’ underwear, felt completely at home. We got into a club and – for the first time since the age of 11 – I joined in some dancing. To Madness’s ‘Baggy Trousers’. Some guy applauded me after the song finished. From then on I was a dancer. Perhaps not a great one, but I had fun and didn’t feel self-conscious any more. Most of the time.
In December, after spending most of the term telling myself to talk to SF, JW and SD, SF approached me after a lecture and we had a coffee. We got on very well – days later I met JW. Early in ’93 it turned out they shared a flat and were looking for a new housemate for the third year. DR and I were intending to share, but he had a serious girlfriend by then and it was always likely he’d prefer to live with her. So I went for this new lease of life. Met the other guy (DJ) in February and signed up soon after. SF, JW, SD and I were good mates by then. There was a History field trip in March where I wanted to come out of my shell more than I did, especially with girls. I heard one of the girls say “you know [Ben]…” as if judging me for something (probably social) and was disheartened.
I started writing a diary in January ’93, which lasted until October ’05 (see Parts II and III). Joined Rag and Film Unit. Even though I’d made new friends I still had this feeling about myself that I needed to join societies in order to become less shy, and keep forcing myself to do it even though I didn’t really have a strong affinity with them. Certainly felt embarrassed when dressed in Rag fancy dress in front of my future housemates. I joined Conservation Volunteers and went to one meeting, feeling completely out of my depth and out of place. But I also wrote my first film review for the student newspaper, which I really did enjoy and felt I had some talent for.
In December ’92, DR’s girlfriend Claire brought her mate Rachel over for a night out. It was just the four of us. She was an attractive brunette. We danced together and chatted quite a bit. Didn’t think there was any major rapport and neither of us made any move. But a few days later Claire asked me if I’d liked Rachel – I said yes and she looked a bit surprised. DR had made a few remarks about fixing me up, which I never took seriously. And Steve said “I’m pretty sure she [Claire] brought her here to set you up… you could have fucked her… it’s not difficult.” I assumed it needed more before I could kiss her. Perhaps I was wrong.
In summer term we had 2nd year exams and I met the lads from the flat below SF’s, including DK. SF, JW, DJ, DK, the aforementioned DA (who I was yet to meet) and I would go on to be friends for well over a decade. On the night after our last exam, I was out with the History lads and DK – the latter introduced me to a girl and then had to encourage me to “follow it on” as I was still shy and self-conscious about my voice. Later he asked me about girls and sex and said “is it just something for other people?”. I kind of assented: that’s how it felt. I’d already lied to the lads that I lost my virginity to my long-term girlfriend (a proxy Sarah) but hadn’t been with anyone since as it didn’t go well.
In June JW, SD and I went to the cricket at Old Trafford. A week later I was introduced to marijuana by SF, DJ and JW (yes you can see we’re nearing the point at which this post started). Later that month JW and I went to Glastonbury – I was obsessed with Suede. My music taste changed a lot in these six months: more indie, more dance, more black/rap.
However, once term had finished I crashed to earth again. The summer job at home was no longer available. I spent 6-8 weeks not working and not going out, and trying to fill time doing my dissertation research, going to the gym and watching England get hammered in the Ashes series. I vowed that I would never come back to live in my home town after this miserable summer, and went to the university flat three weeks early. I also had a morale-boosting chat with my grandad about making the most of my final year.
Due to the work situation over summer, I had to find a part-time job during term time. I joined a few dozen other students working behind the student union bars, a job I would end up doing for four and a half years. More on that soon. My memories of the first month living with SF, JW and DJ are, however, completely dominated by marijuana, beer, The Beatles’ White Album and a card game called Spite and Malice (which is still the best card game I’ve ever played, by the way). I had no idea, before living with them, just how into drugs they were. With his drug contacts and relentlessly dirty sense of humour, DA became the unofficial fifth member of the flat very quickly. Really, he got on better with the others than I did, and certainly had a much higher tolerance for drugs and alcohol.
The pecking order established itself very quickly. SF was always second banana to DJ, whose sexual energy and early fatherhood marked him out as the “alpha male” (see Part II for a much shitter example of the form). DA was probably the most loud and extrovert man I’d ever met. JW was the least physically imposing, but always the one I got on best with and still much less quiet and more outwardly confident than I was. JW and I got so wrecked on Thunderbird and gear at a party in November we were walking into parked cars on the way home, much to the amusement of the other three.
It wasn’t me. I knew within weeks. I enjoyed the drugs to begin with but it was night after night, and weekends were hardcore, especially if DA was round. The bar job sometimes needed me to work late Friday and Saturday nights (until 2am), and this put me at one remove from some of their weekend activities. Some weekends they’d catch up with me in the bar and I’d be able to join them at the Friday dance club night (Shack). I caught DA staring at me on one of our early nights out in September, asked him “what?” and he said “nothing… nothing, perhaps it’s just me.” Already he’d observed that I was depressed and not really into what was going on. This is something I’d hoped to escape when I left the big drinkers behind.
SF was much more of a “man’s man” than I’d previously thought, as well. That said, and in contrast to the impression given by the first story at the top of this post, they were actually quite sensitive people. SF told me that JW had cried in front of him and DJ the previous year but he was a lot more confident now. I always thought he was hinting that they knew something was wrong and that I could tell them. Years later, at his wedding reception (2001), SF would say “we love you [Ben], you’re a tremendous bloke, you can tell us anything.” I still held it in.
The bar job’s impact on my social life sometimes pissed me off. The late nights and smoke weren’t great. But hey, I was 21, very lithe and fit. I didn’t complain. The best bit was the huge number of women working there. It was so easy to start conversations. In October I spent all night talking to BH: we got on well and I really made her laugh with some stories. Then I said I was going to Shack (to join the lads). She said “I’m going”… and I didn’t pick up on this now rather obvious signal. I mean, I did: I knew I could have gone with her, but over-rode that because I thought it was arrogant and presumptuous. I saw her later and she looked subdued and wouldn’t make eye contact with me.
Another girl, JS, was very pretty and quite flirtatious. She said she needed a “big” man to help with a pump, I said I was “tall, not big” and she said “no, big”. I walked 20 minutes home with her one night and politely said goodnight. A few weeks later she caught me staring out at the crowd and thought I was looking at a bloke: she said “you could ask him out”. I said “I don’t want to ask blokes out, do I?” and she looked quite surprised. I began to wonder if all this politeness and no open display of sexual interest was actually making women think I was gay.
One night late at Shack I was alone at the (quiet) bar and a cute blonde in a short skirt came up to my side and said “can you buy me a drink?” I did so, but made only polite conversation, as if it was just a favour or obligation and not a really obvious approach. She kept smiling, looked expectantly at me, and I just thought it was too presumptuous or selfish to try and make her laugh or even chat more openly. To be quite honest, when I returned to whoever I was with, she looked bemused.
So, all of the above history was the stuff I talked to my counsellor about in February 1994, with a view to unblocking my life and achieving fulfilment. Which, at least for now, meant expressing my sexuality.
And, to bring us right up to date, I need to introduce the ‘Toad of Toad Hall’ of my third year at university:
The Civil Rights Movement in the United States, 1940-72
This was my chosen ‘special subject’ for the third year. Two seminars per week: Monday morning essay papers on a specific topic, written by one member of the group and discussed by all; Thursday afternoon primary source document analysis on the same topic. I’d never looked forward to or enjoyed History more. It ended up being one of the two Firsts in my degree, and it inspired me to continue my studies with an American History MA afterwards.
Also, not incidentally, there were eight girls in a class of 12.
And every single one of them was fanciable to some degree.
Top of the class was DK, an insanely pretty, posh head-girl English rose type brunette. In a preliminary meeting the previous June (attended by only DK, LR and me) she’d smiled and made very clear eye contact. I mean, even I couldn’t misinterpret it. And in the first seminar, she sat next to me when she could have sat anywhere. I didn’t follow it up even though I really wanted to. Just thought she was “above me” by background and was so attractive some sporty guy would snap her up anyway. A couple of months into term, I was paired with her for document work and had the most uncontrollable erection the whole time. Much later, during finals, she greeted me flirtatiously in the library. Four years after graduation I saw her from a distance in a nightclub. Didn’t approach as she was with blokes. SF told me she kept looking over towards our group. If it weren’t for the stories I’m actually here to tell, this would rank very high on my list of regrets. God she was beautiful.
LR was her best friend in the class, a smaller blonde, a quietly sexy type who might be dismissed as mousy by less enlightened men. At one stage (when I was looking for MA accommodation) she suggested I move in to her house. Always got on very well: she described me as “naturally sickeningly intelligent” on 17th March 1994 (the day we’re here to talk about).
NW was a redhead and the first one I actually spoke to outside class: again we got on well though I never fancied her much. DM was a classic blonde and the most aloof. JS did American Studies and had a serious boyfriend. Again I got on quite well with her. She was actually the first to praise my writing, saying my first seminar paper was “really good”. I said “tell me what you really think”, which was a perfect example of excessive self-deprecation and false modesty.
But most of my contact with JS was via the other three girls, all of whom also did American Studies. Ladies, gentlemen and all those I’ve bored with this potted autobiography, it’s finally time to meet the women at the centre of the story.
KLL: The Pre-Amble
The three initials I used in my diary many times during 1994 and afterwards. K is for KB, a small, curly-haired blonde with a mind as naughty as mine. L1 is for LD1, a tall, leggy, busty brunette who shared a house with KB. And L2 is for LD2, a green-eyed, reddish brunette of medium height, friend to both and may have shared the same house or lived next door.
Preoccupied with DK, I didn’t really notice them during first term. Well, tell a lie. At the first seminar, and having resolved to be more assertive in class, I was first to volunteer for a future essay. All three of these girls looked up at me with an expression that said “wow, who are you then?”. I can blow my own trumpet briefly here: the gym had worked, I was the fittest I’d ever been, 6’3″, tall, dark and handsome, absolutely full of energy. They had no reason to see or suspect all the crap inside.
There was a loud, politically active guy in the group. He was on a march in December – I said something like “I bet he shouted louder than anyone else” and they found it very funny. Now, another guy (MR) in the class was very witty and made the women laugh a lot. I was happy not to try and compete: just kept working hard and being myself. So I was surprised by this reaction. KB then came up to me and snuggled her head under my arm, like a cat would. She gave me some interesting looks in the pub later as well. I’d already heard her say she had a boyfriend, so thought nothing of it.
Diary: February-March 1994
I’m now going to tell the story, exactly as it happened, leading up to 17th March 1994. If Sarah was the psychological fulcrum of my childhood, that date was definitely the fulcrum of my adulthood.
Reminder: late January I went to the doctor’s about depression; Saturday 29 January is the drug episode where the story began; Sunday 30 January I set myself on fire; Monday 31 January my coat was stolen; Wednesday 2 February it was found.
Oh and, you know, fuck it: let’s use their real names instead of initials.
Thursday 3 February: I went to the police station to pick up my coat and walked to a Civil Rights seminar. Quite exhilarated when I came in. Kathy passed me her essay paper for the following week; made a point of smiling and thanking her. Said I was only just in time. Louise 2 asked me where I’d been, I said the police station, she was mock-shocked and I explained the story. Then she said: “What are you doing on Tuesday?” Trying not to show my amazement, I said something about possibly working. Louise said that she and Louise 1 were celebrating their joint birthday that night and asked if I wanted to come. Obviously I said I would if not working behind the bar. That night I told the lads in the flat and their jaws dropped a bit. DJ was the most encouraging: “don’t do anything I wouldn’t do” sort of thing. SF was quietest. In the same seminar I caught Kathy smiling at me in a way every man would love to be smiled at. When I caught her she just gave me an even bigger smile. Felt a bit dopey actually.
Tuesday 8 February: After my shift I went to the club where Louises 1 and 2 were. Kathy hadn’t been able to make it. When I talked to Louise 2 (just politely, I thought) she angled her head as if she thought I was chatting her up and she wasn’t in the mood. Louise 1 approached me with a big smile but we only had a brief conversation. I walked home cursing myself for getting my hopes up and was disappointed to tell my flatmates nothing happened. Thought perhaps it was a fluke.
Thursday 10 February: First counselling session. Also a Civil Rights seminar. Walked to the library with Kathy, Louise 1 and JH, a male American Studies student a few years older than us. Kathy said “[Ben]’s a Shack lad, aren’t you?” I said “not by choice” and Kathy and Louise laughed out loud. Kathy said “Girls fling themselves at you, do they?” “I didn’t say that” “They do though.” Then I said I preferred Shack to Fahrenheit (Tuesday’s club night). JH said: “You’re guaranteed a shag at Shack?”
People clearly had a perception of me which was at odds with reality. As another example from around this time, a mate of DA’s (GT) said I should “go on the game mate, you’ll make a fortune”. And yet… I’d been working for this. The gym. Reading Clive James’s memoirs, taking on board his insights about young men and women. Listening to Prince so much, realising that you could be entirely comfortable with a playful, anti-macho kind of sexuality and intuiting this would suit me so much better than trying to behave with masculine arrogance. Reading women’s magazines to understand what it was I missed, what I needed to do to be more confident without – and this is crucial – pretending to be something I wasn’t. I’d said nothing about sex, just been a nice hard-working guy with a sense of humour, looked after myself and built up my confidence in an entirely genuine way. And a week or so earlier I was literally and metaphorically on the floor.
I’m not exaggerating. Over the last 18 months to two years, I had devoted a large proportion of my considerable brain to mastering this, to pulling off the transition to confidence without being false. Because I knew how important it was to future happiness, and I’d already lost enough time. I’ll go further: at the age of only 20, when SD shared his Beatles albums with me, I was already listening to ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and sensing primal fear that I could end up lonely and dying unmourned. 20. University. Prime of life, and thinking like that. And even further: in late 1993 I got into the Smiths and related way too much to some of Morrissey’s lyrics. In particular, ‘How Soon Is Now’, and the line which reminded me whose loins I’d come from, and what my mum said to that psychologist years earlier:
“I am the son and the heir of a shyness which is criminally vulgar.”
And now I could just about sense my escape from this interior life. The escape any red-blooded male would choose. This was me, drugs weren’t. This was my time. If Kathy, Louise and JH thought that, let them. It was too important not to take the chance.
Friday 11 February: I spent lunchtime with one of SD’s housemates, BT, who I’d met a few times before. He was in his final year as a Maths undergrad and was expecting to do a PhD. He’d just split up with his girlfriend. BT was a very good bridge player. Even though it was very ‘uncool’, trying to understand the game appealed to the mathematical side of my brain. And that’s what we spent most of the lunch hour talking about. Over the next couple of weeks I spent an increasing amount of time with BT and we began making sketchy plans for an American road trip that summer. I’d recently been accepted on the University’s MA in American History (subject to a II.1). So this road trip was another exciting new development which reminded me how much there was to look forward to in life. (I have no idea, in retrospect, where the money was supposed to come from…)
Joined the lads in Shack after my evening bar shift. I hadn’t been in long when SF was apparently hit by a random lad. Didn’t see the incident, but DA, JW and another History student, Jim, were gathered around him and talking about finding the culprit. At this point Louise 1 came up to me, said my name and lightly touched my chest. She looked luscious (short denim skirt, black tights). Louise said she was there with “my bitch” (Kathy), who joined us soon after. I explained to Louise what had happened with SF and said we were staying with him. “Oh, that’s Shack for you”, she said. Kathy then said: “Why don’t you come and bond?” I knew what was going on and over-rode my instincts in order to stay with SF. They reluctantly let me be. Louise looked especially bewildered, and did so again when she caught my eye later – I still wasn’t approaching them long after SF said he was fine. Actually, she looked quite pissed off.
Saturday 12 and Sunday 13 February: I was home with parents and family all weekend. My great grandma had suffered a fall and we visited her in hospital. I remember feeling newly confident all weekend. Then I learned from my stepdad that my mum had been reading my diary and found out about me smoking drugs. Although I was annoyed at the betrayal of confidence, he said I should consider how she felt. I assured him that I had stopped smoking gear, which (since late January) was true. I also told him I’d been doing it with increasing reluctance and other things were far more important to me. Told him about what happened in Shack and he said “those women could have changed your life”.
Monday 14 February: After the Civil Rights seminar, I met Louise 2 in the bank. She invited me to the bar to join “my posse”. Her posse, inevitably, consisted of Kathy and Louise 1. It is on this Monday lunchtime that what I thought might be happening was confirmed – to all but the most obtuse. In the bank I’d made her laugh with one of those comments I didn’t even think was that funny – a reference to our tutor buying me a Valentine’s card because I was the hardest worker. Then, during what I saw at the time as just a friendly getting to know you chat between me and three very attractive women:
- Said something overly cheeky to Louise 2, she said “fuck off”, immediately apologised and defused it, very relaxed afterwards.
- Kathy brought up Friday night in Shack, I said sorry for not talking to them for long. Louise 2 said “you could have kissed [SF] better”. I said “I don’t want to kiss a 23-year-old bloke…”. Before I finished the sentence she said “Oh Louise, [Ben] said he wouldn’t kiss a 23-year-old. We’re 23…”. I emphasised “bloke”, obviously. Louise 1 looked mock-shocked and then tapped my knee a few times after I said “bloke”. After Friday, confirmation for her that I wasn’t gay. Look, it wouldn’t occur to me that she needed confirmation, but then again JS from the bar had assumed it when I didn’t make a move with her…
- Both Louises were wearing black leggings. Louise 2 moved hers slightly in the groin area as if they were uncomfortable. Louise 1 said “they do tend to go up the fanny, don’t they?” Kathy said they might have embarrassed me: I said I wasn’t at all and they should just carry on.
- So, they talked very openly about men and sex and I loved it; didn’t feel awkward at all. One of their housemates was seeing a British middle distance athlete: when I asked Kathy what that was like she just said “they have a lot of sex”. Louise 1 talked about a female friend who “would always be a virgin” and mocked her saying “ooh it hurts, it hurts”. They talked about men’s tight bums and some men they knew. I pretended to be outraged at their frankness and indecency, and said “my mother wouldn’t approve of me spending time with girls who talk like this”. Louise 2 said “I’m sure she would” and tapped my thigh a few times.
- Then Louise 2 said “What about ‘Tart’?” Kathy said “Tart’s going to marry me”. Louise 1 said “He’s too tall for you.” Kathy said “no he’s not”, Louise 1 said “anyway, he looks like might get really fat when he’s older” and Kathy said “no he won’t”. It was only months later, after I’d seen them all for the very last time, I realised that ‘Tart’ was more than likely me. If you read the rest of this story and disagree, fair enough. But I was dressed as a tart when Louise 2 saw me at a Pyjama Jump night party in November; Kathy… well we’ll soon see; I’m 6’3″; I wasn’t fat but didn’t have a completely flat stomach and I’d been self-conscious about my slight double chin for several years.
- When we parted, heading for the library, I did my usual self-conscious remark about being too quiet while they talked about men they know. Louise 2 said “thank you for your contribution”, Louise 1 said “bye [Ben]” and Kathy smiled in similar fashion to February 3rd.
Tuesday 15 February: I met Kathy in the library to pass on a Civil Rights book. Had a slight cold. She said “you’d better stop snogging.” I said “I haven’t even started.” Some switch flipped in my brain as I realised how well we obviously got on and what some of those smiles and remarks probably meant. We talked about the Civil Rights tutor: she said she liked him but didn’t respect him. I said she sounded like Chris Eubank (whose Spitting Image puppet often said “I don’t respect it”).
Kathy: “I punch like Chris Eubank so you’d better watch out.”
Me: “I wouldn’t say no.”
I was simultaneously delighted with myself for being so blatantly sexual, and completely respectful in case I’d crossed the line with someone who had a boyfriend. I just knew, instinctively, how to be both. Immediately said “Oops, I’d better retreat in case I get myself into some very deep water” and we parted soon afterwards. She was still smiling though. The next time I saw her, at the start of Thursday’s seminar, she greeted me with a very knowing smile. She didn’t mind being flirted with but hey, as far as I knew she still had a boyfriend.
Thursday 17 February: Spent lunch with BT again. Noticed Louise 2 with Jane, yet another attractive American Studies student (same height as Louise 2, blonde, not doing Civil Rights though). Louise 2 was noticing me several times during my conversation with BT. I didn’t necessarily think there was anything to it, as ever. Then she and Jane got up to leave. As she passed my chair, behind me, she ran her index finger all the way down my back. Turned round immediately to see her laughing in delightful, girlish fashion and Jane saying “hello [Ben]”. I said something completely asexual about it being her turn to present the seminar next week. It’s about now where I’m conscious that I’m probably allowed to misbehave as much as I want, but perhaps I’d gone too far with Kathy and I still didn’t feel relaxed about initiating touch.
These were the sort of things I’d discuss with Joe, my counsellor. The second session was today. We also discussed my mum reading the diary, and he said I should be assertive and tell her how I felt. He recommended this book, not so much for the overly earnest philosophy, but as a framework of how to understand maturity and masculinity after the difficulties experienced with my own father. And to that extent, at this time in my life, I did find it very useful. He also said that my husky/croaky voice was “a symptom of repressed anger and nervous tension“, which made a lot of sense. I was consciously repressing a lot of anger, particularly at the way I’d been treated and labelled since becoming a teenager. And I was still nervous socially, if less so than before.
When I look back, I can see how counselling was invaluable as a brain dump and a way of releasing emotional baggage. But the really important stuff was happening all the time, in external reality. KLL didn’t know or care about any of the baggage, they just saw me as an attractive young man with huge potential.
Late February: The story of me and KLL slows down here. There are no instances of mutual flirting and I start to wonder if perhaps I did push it too far (‘no’ is the answer, by the way). I spend more time with BT, SD and their friends from the bridge club, and less with SF, JW, DJ and DA. On Friday 25th I went to the formal ball with “the bridgers”. One of the women, N, gave me a few looks and smiles but I never read much into it. I continued with counselling and Joe continued to encourage me. Challenged mum about the diary and it went really well; she was obviously upset about the drugs and I was able to say that other good things were starting to happen now.
Sunday 27 February: There was a girl behind the bar, AV, who was a really good-looking, confident brunette. She was the sort who would notice, and visibly not appreciate, lack of confidence in men. This evening we were on the same till. Some sporty lads chatted her up and she referred to “sexy blokes”. She asked for help with something: whatever it was she kind of dismissed me as under-confident and not useful. I thought this was a legacy of December/January, when I would have been much more docile. Decided to test her out when we were on adjacent pumps; pretended she’d got in my way and later said, playfully, she should “stop nagging”. She actually flushed at this mild cheekiness and was much more smiley for the rest of the evening. In a stroke of luck, Kathy was at the bar when I was being cheeky with AV and said “behave yourself, [Ben]”, which did me no harm. The next time I was on a shift with her, I walked into the staff room where she was sat and she gave me a big smile and open hello. This was just an isolated incident which illustrated how I could change female minds. Another little confidence boost on the way to 17th March.
Early March: Visited SD/BT at their house and was walked through a hand of bridge. One of their mates was quite snide with me, but otherwise a nice evening. BT said I’d grown out of living with SF, JW and DJ. I still liked them and disagreed. What I wanted was to be in control of my own life and make my own decisions socially instead of going along with the lads all the time.
Sometime this week, or possibly late February, DA and I went to see the new Three Musketeers film, which was rank. I then volunteered to write the review for the student newspaper.
On Monday 7th, I used the word “heterogeneous” in a Civil Rights seminar. The tutor opened up the discussion and said “[Ben] used the word ‘heterogeneous'”. I said “sorry” and both Louises immediately laughed and smiled to themselves in a way I now recognised as really obvious. Kathy smiled similarly but didn’t laugh.
Thursday 10 March: Finished my seminar paper on Richard Nixon and the Civil Rights Movement and handed it out to the class. The concluding line was written in a spirit of playfulness and sheer delight. I re-used it here.
The policies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson had been in many ways a breath of fresh air for the civil rights movement in the United States. By contrast, the election of Richard Nixon was like being cornered at a bad party by someone with severe halitosis.
Saturday 12 and Sunday 13 March: I was with the family again. Really felt like everything was looking up. Had a chat with my younger brother which has always stayed with me. And here I finally begin to explain the title of this post.
If ever I wish to relive the second term of my final year (January to March) I would listen to the following music:
- Loaded, by Primal Scream (full 7-minute version). Played a lot on the jukebox when I worked behind the bar. Went on to be my favourite track to dance to at the Leadmill. Still inspires instant euphoria and optimism.
- The Joshua Tree, by U2. Especially ‘Red Hill Mining Town’.
- Revolver, by the Beatles. Now my all-time favourite album.
- And above all, the album I played most often: Achtung Baby by U2. This pretty much stands alone now as the only one of my top twenty or thirty 90s albums not recorded by a typical NME/Melody Maker/Select/Glastonbury/Reading type act. It’s my favourite U2 album. It’s probably still one of my top ten albums of all-time. The songs are great, yes, but the main reason for my enduring emotional attachment lies in some of the lyrics. They captured exactly how I felt about the changes taking place over these 7 or 8 weeks: regaining confidence, developing mental strength, burying the past, meeting new people, envisaging a future in academia, seeing the effect I could have on other people, especially intelligent young women.
Some examples, in tracklist order:
- ‘I’m ready for what’s next… Ready to say I’m glad to be alive’ (Zoo Station)
- ‘ONE LIFE, YOU GOT TO DO WHAT YOU SHOULD‘ (One). You’ll see why this is in bold and capitals in Part III.
- ‘You miss too much these days if you stop to think’ (Until The End Of The World)
- ‘It doesn’t matter to you, it matters to me’ (So Cruel)
- ‘There’s a lot of things if I could I’d rearrange’ (The Fly)
- ‘She sees the man inside the child’ (Mysterious Ways)
- ‘And love it won’t be long’ (Ultra Violet (Light My Way))
But for one track, it wasn’t just a single lyric. It was most of the song. It was nothing less than a personal manifesto. It is, of course, the one I quoted at the top of this post – Track 11, ‘Acrobat‘. Full lyrics here. “You can dream, so dream out loud.” That’s what I was doing, in a little way every day. Counselling, new friends, female attention, witty closing lines in essays, writing a film review. It felt instinctively like my time was coming round. I had found my own way out. The tide was turning round. I don’t really care how trite this sounds now: it meant everything to me at the time, having found myself so low in January.
And if “in dreams begin responsibilities”, then one of those responsibilities was to pass on my newly found confidence and wisdom. It happened organically, talking to my brother on a car journey. I explained about the drugs and depression, and how I’d found something meaningful in this lyric. He already loved U2 and had done for years. He’d always been overshadowed academically, though possessing great practical and native intelligence. And I’ve already mentioned my grandad’s favouritism. He was overweight, didn’t have a girlfriend and didn’t have my outlets at university. It seemed like he needed a role model, and this moment was one of the few times where I felt like I’d made a real connection. I don’t know if he even remembers it, but I do. I felt like a potential father. Which is, as I said from the start, all I ever really wanted.
It was just another little moment in which confidence grew, happiness seemed possible and joy seemed infectious.
Monday 14 March: Before the seminar on Nixon, NW and MR (Michael) praised my closing line. MR was the witty one, so that was gratifying. When I walked in, both LR and Kathy stared straight at me for a long time. It was a look that told me they were impressed. I kind of threw away the line, almost embarrassed, when introducing the seminar, but people laughed anyway and it had already worked its magic on the page.
Tuesday 15 and Wednesday 16 March: The flat bought a birthday card for DA, who was 22 on Friday 18th. This one was right up his alley (DJ’s line, which I borrowed to write in the card). I ended up sending Callahan‘s cards on birthdays for a couple of years afterwards. On Wednesday I had an appointment with the Civil Rights tutor. JS (Jodi) was outside when I arrived. She greeted me quite effusively, but that was nothing compared to the woman who came out a few minutes later. Kathy (for ’twas she) almost swooned, saying “Oooh, it’s my favourite.” I asked if she’d “finished with” the tutor: she obviously took this as a dirty joke and playfully admonished me. I said “No, I meant giving him some stick, giving him a punch” (a callback to 15 February). That night, I went to bed having a sexual fantasy about all three of them (Kathy and the Louises).
And my film review was published. DA was especially delighted by it and shook my hand saying “that is the film we saw”. Strictly speaking, this was on DA’s birthday, but I’m jumping the gun because Thursday is when everything changed. And I want to show the review at this point, because it’s the first appearance on this blog of my real name. I will be using it throughout the entry for Thursday 17th March, because no way is “Ben” taking credit for that.
And finally, I spoke to my mum on the phone on Wednesday night. After all the horrible, self-critical, sometimes tearful, calls in the first year; after the nightmare of that Saturday in January and the discussions of drugs.. all I could do was talk about how happy I was and the many reasons why. She said it made her “want to jump over the moon”.
Thursday 17th March 1994
This is quite poignant to recall in full, but it’s all burned into my brain and soul. You might not believe it happened, or you might think I’m embellishing. If so, there’s no point you staying with this blog post.
It really begins with me walking into the Civil Rights document class on air, with a huge smile and hello. Kathy’s “hi Arron” went beyond being pleased to see someone and into the realms of awe. She commented on my good mood, I said it was because we were near the end of term.
The class was actually an overview of the Civil Rights Movement. I was quiet. Listened attentively to stories from the American Studies girls, including Louise 1 referring to black people still sitting at the back of buses when K&L were on their year abroad at Syracuse. Finally Dr. Cook (the tutor) said that we should hear from Arron. At that point, KLL, DK (Debbie), Jodi, LR (Lisa) and NW (Nina) all looked at me, at least half of them in obvious admiration. Kathy just said my name as if amazed, and then “go on Arron”. I made a somewhat pessimistic assessment of the CRM’s achievements and referred directly to Louise’s story. At that point Louise smiled to herself.
After the class I went to the computer room to see if I could persuade my mate Pete to come to the pub (the West End). Kathy, Louise 1, Lisa and Nina saw me heading in the opposite direction and shouted my name. Kathy said “Are you coming to the pub?” and I explained I’d be there later. Dr. Cook, having seen this, said to me “You’re obviously a big star, Arron.”
When I walked in with Pete, I knew Kathy had clocked my arrival. I shared a cheeky joke with him. When she saw me laughing, she looked at me in stunned delight. Then Louise 1 turned round and looked as well. Then she turned back to Kathy and they smiled conspiratorially at each other. A look that was becoming increasingly familiar, one which I thought I understood the meaning of but was waiting for incontrovertible proof due to inexperience. A few minutes later I heard Kathy say to Louise “You’ve been standing too close to Arron.” Had Louise just said she felt horny or wet? You might think this presumptuous. Read on.
JW from the flat arrived. Nina left early. Lisa left, though not before describing me to Pete as “naturally sickeningly intelligent”. Louise 2 was chatting to Dr. Cook. Eventually I ended up talking to Kathy and Louise 1. They were frowning at a man’s big arse and unflattering clothes. Kathy said “we’re piggy-spotting”. I said that the man looked a bit like JW (the loud political guy from class). Kathy astonished me by saying that she thought JW looked “moist-lipped and aroused”. Blimey, I thought, if she can get excited by that, she must be in one hell of a randy mood. And then…
- Louise: “Arron’s got quite a pert backside, hasn’t he?” Kathy: “It fits snugly into Levi’s… oh we’ve embarrassed Arron now”. I said they hadn’t, I was flattered (and delighted). Kathy immediately did her cat-like snuggle again, and Louise started feeling my arse. Evidently this was a green light. Well of course it was. They continued like this for several minutes, while we carried on talking.
- Kathy: “Have you got a girlfriend, Arron? Have you got a woman?” I said “not at the moment”.
- Kathy: “Have you noticed that JH (Jack)’s a bit frosty with you sometimes?” I had, I put it down to him being older and seeing me as immature. Kathy: “No, it’s because he sees you as a threat.”
- Kathy: “Do you think Michael fancies Jodi?” I thought it was blatant and said so. At this point JW said “it’s like being back at school”. I was just enjoying it as I didn’t have this kind of attention at school after Sarah, of course. I said that Jodi had a boyfriend. Kathy said “So have I, Arron. I’ve had a boyfriend for the last five years.” Louise said: “Yes, you’ve had a boyfriend for the last five years, you slapper.” This was the first point at which I felt awkward and disappointed. Perhaps it was just a tease. But then she snuggled up again, and…
- Louise (apparently single) was now feeling my belly and thighs. She said to Kathy “have you noticed when you touch a man on his leg he gets this fixed expression in his eyes that says ‘I’m tensing, I’m tensing’.” I said “you see right through me”. I was drinking bitter and Kathy said “where do you put it?” I told them I worked out at the gym 3 times per week. Louise, impressed and perhaps surprised, said “You work out at the gym?” and then felt a bit more. She moved to my chest: “Has Arron got pectorals? Ooh yes he has.” Ever literal, I said “haven’t all men got pecs?” and she said “not really”.
- Louise: “it’s a myth that women prefer bastards. No-one wants anyone who’s wet, but its good to have a gentleman.” I asked her who would be wet and she indicated Dr. Cook “in a relationship”. Then she said she wanted “someone who’s genuinely nice and all man, like yourself.”
- There was some small talk, e.g. about what bands I was into, but 90% of the conervsation was sexual. Kathy described her and Louise (from Coventry and Corby) as “red-blooded women from the Midlands”
- At one point we were talking about bondage. Kathy asked if I’d be into it, and I said “I’ll try anything once.” She smiled at the prospect. I jokingly suggested that Dr. Cook would: they shook their heads. Later I told Dr. Cook that Kathy was into the idea: she said “no, don’t”. Apologised for embarrassing her, she said “all those compliments I’ve been giving you and this is how you pay me back”. Said sorry again and she said “only a snog would make me feel better”.
- [At this point it should be clear that I’m not acting on extremely obvious signals. I want to. I have no reason not to other than inexperience and Kathy having a boyfriend. These are not good enough reasons for me to play dumb. I have analysed this so many times: I had sexual desire for both of them, no moral objection at all, and the idea of losing my virginity in a threesome was a dream come true.]
- Kathy, obviously ironically: “I’m very frigid”. And then “I like wankers”. Laughed and asked her what she meant. “You know, men who are a bit of a challenge, who play hard to get.” (Of course I was aware that she probably thought I was just playing hard to get.)
- Kathy, to me, word for word: “Louise is dying for it as well”. I said “Is she?”, then turned to Louise and said “Are you?” Louise nodded.
- [Yes, it really was that blatant by now, and my behaviour really was that mock-obtuse. I still can’t believe it.]
- I went to the bar while Louise was in the ladies. Kathy said “I’m sure she’d love a Bailey’s.” When I gave Louise her drink she eyed me suspiciously: referred back to her drinking Bailey’s on her birthday and her mood changed instantly. She put her arm back round my waist, started feeling my lower body again, and said “not everyone would remember”.
- I heard Louise 2 and Dr. Cook talking about my “fan club” and asked Louise about this development. She said: “It’s a 3-way thing [meaning her, Kathy and Louise 2]. Jane’s quite keen as well. But Jane said she’d sleep with Dr. Cook – she’s the only woman I know who’d sleep with Dr. Cook.” And I said: “Oh, you’re being filthy.” Louise raised her eyebrows slightly.
- [I know, I know. What I was saying in no way reflected how I actually felt. I had missed this sort of conversation for 8 years and I delighted in it. It’s what I needed every day. Nothing on this earth beats an intelligent, attractive, highly sexual woman. So what the hell were you waiting for – hadn’t you waited long enough already?]
- And they got even hornier. Something in me said it couldn’t be true, it couldn’t actually be happening like this, not to a virgin who hadn’t even kissed a girl for 8 years. So I said things like “you don’t mean it” or “you’re taking the piss”. To which Kathy said the defining line of the night, and of the rest of this post:
- “You are a sexual being. You have to come to terms with the effect you have on these women.”
- [Everyone is a “sexual being” – that’s my starting point. I have never begrudged anyone or judged anyone. But JW laughed at this, a lot. Kathy even noticed, and she’d never met the man before. Pete just said “It’s about time, mate!” which is the sort of encouragement I wanted. I remember feeling simultaneously thrilled that I’d definitely arrived in this new world, and quite hurt that one of my best friends found it funny. Actually I was fucking angry, though not showing it – more of that later. Of course I was over-sensitive, and all my attention should have been on the women. But we will come to that as well.]
- I said “Tonight you’ll laugh with each other about what you just said to me”. Kathy: “No, you’ll be in our dreams tonight.”
- Kathy: “You’re always a centre of attention. We scream when you come in.” “I’ve never heard you screaming.” Kathy: “We scream inwardly.”
- Kathy: “I bet you’re a wonder in bed, aren’t you?” There was no way anyone could misinterpret this. Pete laughed a bit, saying “I wonder [what to do]”, but I was familiar with Cosmopolitan and what women wanted. I knew they could see that in me. I just doubted my ability to live up to it.
- And perhaps the greatest compliment of all – they even said they found my husky voice sexy. The thing I’d been most self-conscious about for longest, and it turned them on. Louise asked me if I could shout, I talked about it always being like this. And Kathy gave me a line I should have used for years after: “It sounds like ‘I’ve just come in after all night banging.'”
- But perhaps the most salient memory is the most painful one: as Kathy and Louise were literally all over me and I was protesting far too much, I caught the expressions of Dr. Cook and Louise 2, looking straight at me. The former was puzzled by my inaction. Louise 2 was absolutely astounded.
- Towards the end of the night, as it became clear I wasn’t responding in the way a red-blooded man of the Midlands should, Kathy gave me her number. Louise 2 asked me who I’d fancied most in Civil Rights. JW said “it’s like being at school” again, which pissed me off a bit now. She asked the obvious: “Debbie?” I said yes, she said “I get that, English rose.” Then I said “Kathy towards the end of first term.” “What about second term?” she asked. I wouldn’t say. She kept encouraging me “come on, you can say” and I chickened out. The truth was: Kathy and the Louises, and Louise 1 most of all.
- So I had learned of a three-way fan club, two of whom had put sex on a plate for me all night, the feeling was entirely mutual… and I couldn’t even tell the third one I fancied them all, let alone go home with them and do what should come naturally.
- Kathy, Louise and Louise left the West End, though not before Louise 1 had felt me up again. She was in complete disbelief when I said/waved goodnight to them, without even a kiss, and they took their taxi home. On our way out, I said to JW “I don’t half fancy them all.” And he looked at me in total disbelief. I wrote about it in my diary, as if it was just an incidental story “oh, that happened, it was wonderful” and not the night I should have lost my virginity. This is the second time I’ve written it all out. I look at my younger self in utter disbelief.
- I’m still haunted. I partly despise myself for not changing my life that night, and probably always will.
After 17 March – KLL (especially K)
The first thing to say is that, after 17 March, none of the things I’d talked to my counsellor about so far ever mattered again. Not Sarah, not the residual sense of social or sexual inadequacy as a teenager, not shyness. The past was over and done. The weight had been lifted, and now I had to make my way in the new world I’d looked forward to for years.
I’d still hesitated and I didn’t really know why. And this was a new problem. Thus far, my story was just one of being a “late developer”. I knew it was important, knew what I had to do, and I’d done it. I’d never had the “confidence of youth”, but as long as I got there at university things would be fine. And now here I was, with definitive proof that women liked me. So what was stopping me now?
In the first few days after 17th March, several things happened which suggested that my issues were more deep-rooted than I’d assumed.
- JW and I went home separately that night (I can’t recall why – perhaps I had a bar shift). The following day he said my flatmates had been laughing and taking the piss when he told the story. I thought they’d be pleased for me and was a) hurt and b) asking myself what was so fucking funny about a man in the prime of his life receiving sexual come-ons from women. Perhaps I wasn’t worthy of this attention after all? But that was bollocks. What was their problem? I endured their contempt for ending up on the floor after the drugs, now they couldn’t even be pleased for me after I sorted myself out?
- When I next met SF, some of the things he said didn’t really fall into the category of general piss-taking. There was no encouragement, just something resembling spite. The whole thing seemed to rest on my being called a “sexual being”. As I said above, I believe everyone is and said so. But SF said “they should come here, we’ll soon disabuse them of that notion”. I was wearing my pyjamas and he said “you don’t look much like a sexual being in those” (as if I’d wear pyjamas in bed with a woman – I’ve slept naked ever since by the way). He and his friend M had laughed at the pyjamas back in January when M visited the flat. There was almost none of the back-slapping I expected, although DJ was closest.
- I think I know what was going on: DJ was sexually active, the others weren’t, and it was simple jealousy, exacerbated by their previous assumption that I couldn’t pull. Kathy even said as much when I mentioned it to her in a phone call in May. But it’s characteristic of me not to think negatively about others, and to turn it on myself. I started doubting whether I’d really “earned” it, and found it hard to give myself credit. I felt bad for JW not getting any attention on the Thursday night, for example.
- SF made further, similar remarks. For example “you must have been doing things“, as if being myself couldn’t have been enough. He even asked me “do you think they were taking the piss?” at one stage. Due to my own inexperience I’d behaved on the day as if they might be. But I knew it was real. I didn’t have the total self-confidence to say that, to be defiant. Instead I let these comments get under my skin.
- JW and I talked in the library cloakroom about Kathy and Louise being at the Leadmill for a dance night on the Friday, and whether I should go even though it wasn’t my kind of music. A woman we didn’t know overheard the conversation and gave me something of a pitying look, like “why are you even thinking about this?”
- Friday was the end of term, and I went back to the parental home for a couple of weeks before returning early to complete essays in advance of summer term and finals revision. During my time back at home, two things really stand out. The first was when I walked past a bench during school lunch hour. There were maybe four girls sat there, 15-16 (5th year as was, Year 11 now). At least one of them wolf-whistled me as I passed. I didn’t stop to talk or even turn around. Something I wished had happened while I was at school, and now here I was as a 21-year-old with schoolgirls finding me sexy. There was a second, louder wolf-whistle and I carried on walking. It was great for the ego but I was consciously over-riding what I wanted to do. I wanted to talk to them and see what happened. I made all sorts of excuses to myself about my voice (even though I had Kathy’s line in the bank), or being too old for them.
- Secondly, I went out with the only friend from school I still saw regularly, R. The overweight lad I mentioned briefly thousands of words ago. We never had a lot in common – he had a very old family while mine were much younger and this was reflected in our attitudes. He wasn’t academic and was training as a chef. He didn’t exercise and wasn’t sporty. The fact we were still close was a reflection of my lack of confidence with people I liked more and got on better with. This evening, on the way home, he was asking questions about what I’d do after my degree and borderline boasting about his own career path. I was committed to my MA, very proud to have gone to university and knew I had a potential career as an academic. I said something like “It sounds like you think university is a waste of time” and he smiled smugly as if that’s what he’d been getting at. I completely lost my shit, told him that if that’s what he thought he didn’t know me at all and I had no interest in continuing the conversation. Left him stood outside. It’s just about the only time I’ve ever asserted myself when he tested my patience. We didn’t talk for months afterwards, and I sent him a rather snide birthday card in June. Eventually we reconciled, but throughout the 10 years covered by these three posts, he was always the one to initiate contact.
- On the flip side, I told him about Kathy and Louise, and felt completely empty when having to admit there was no sex at the end of it.
I didn’t understand myself. And this is what I mean by being an acrobat. How could I talk like this and act like that? How could I know my time had come round, yet behave as if I wasn’t permitted to capitalise?
Summer term, before finals – late April to early June
On the first day back, there was a Friday club night in The Park (where Fahrenheit was held; Shack was in the Octagon Centre). JW and I were walking through the bar in the afternoon when Kathy caught my eye and I slowed down to talk to her. I hadn’t phoned her since 17th March. I’d only seen her once, in the library, when she smiled to herself after seeing me. Anyway, JW sighed and left us to it when he realised who it was, and I felt slightly guilty. I mean, fuck knows why, right? Everyone wants sex as a young man, right? Again this tendency to put others before myself was emerging.
Kathy was with Louise. She asked if I was going to the club night. At the time I didn’t think we were. I also said I wasn’t working, and she said “Who will we have to ogle behind the bar?” And I came out with “I’m sure there are lots of other ogleworthy men”. I mean FFS. The level and nature of female attention I’d always wanted, and instead of revelling in it, I was deflecting it for the sake of someone else’s feelings. JW, or Kathy’s boyfriend, were more important than my own needs.
Later, we decided to go. In the pub, DJ said “what about those girls who called you a sex being, are they going?” I said yes, and he did a very theatrical eyebrow wiggle and said “go on my son!”. He also said that, if it happened to him, he’d think “is it my birthday?” and would definitely “succumb to temptation”. It would seem like a weird thing to say given our levels of experience (which is why I never said it), but DJ was the member of the flat I could most easily relate to. The sole difference was self-doubt. I remember him, years later, saying he didn’t have a large penis but was “very into female sexuality”. That’s exactly how I saw myself, and I knew intelligent women could recognise it. But I held it back even so.
SF was less effusive, but he did say that “we think SD is a sexual inadequate”. This seemed like a way of acknowledging that I wasn’t, and being inclusive rather than exclusive. The overwhelming majority of what SF said to me in our 13 years of good friendship was inclusive. He’d probably say it was my problem if I focused too much on other moments. His only other comments that term were “I’d shag me if I were a woman”, which was a sort of self-consolation. And “you shouldn’t pretend to be something you’re not, because you get found out”. Pete actually said the same to me after KLL left the pub on 17th March. Because Pete had already said that, I thought SF’s remark was kind of a subtweet: something that referred to me without directly addressing me. The irony was, my only fakery was pretending not to be a sexual being. And that was actually doing my head in.
Back to the day itself. On arrival, we passed Kathy in a corridor and she said “oh it’s sexual being Arron!”. I said something about us honestly having decided to go at the last minute and she cheekily disbelieved me. But I never approached her or Louise, and later she came over to say “you’re ignoring us”. It wasn’t my intention, it was just this over-ride again. It clearly went beyond first time nerves into self-sabotaging behaviour.
That night JW and I were talking to JE, one of the extrovert middle-class lads I sort of knew through Pete. JE said he thought I was “really dirty on the quiet” and had loads of women but didn’t talk about it. In other words, exactly what I wanted to be. He then added “I talk to women and mention “Arron who does History” and they say “oh he’s lovely.”” I was pleased to hear this, as it confirmed I was admired for a genuine quality and not for any shallow pretence. But JW seemed to wither slightly, and again I felt bad for him.
Counselling and “the fear”
Of course I had a big story for Joe in my counselling session of 28th April. He said that Kathy and Louise were giving “green lights” and said “what are you waiting for?” He also said I should start joking about sex and coming across as more relaxed. He certainly couldn’t understand why I was sitting on her phone number. But towards the end he asked the important question: “is there something else that’s making you hesitate?” And I told him, yes there was. And here I have to discuss something I haven’t even hinted at in my 22,000 words so far.
In 1991, when I was still living at home, very shy and under-confident with no experience of even flirting with girls since Sarah, R came to see me with a problem page. A young man had written to Dr Hilary Jones concerned about a bend in his erection. The doctor thought it might be something called Peyronie’s Disease, which could be corrected with surgery but the penis would be permanently shorter. R found this hilarious. I didn’t, because my penis bent upwards and slightly to the right. Not having a girlfriend, and therefore not knowing whether this would cause a problem, I started to worry. In late 1992 I was bothered enough to go to the university doctor about it, and was referred to a urologist. The specialist wasn’t convinced that surgical intervention was at all necessary, but didn’t rule it out. Rather than proceed, I admitted that I wasn’t sexually active and that I would only consider surgery if it caused a problem with any future girlfriend.
As sensible as this was, it was always lurking at the back of my mind that I wouldn’t be good enough, or my penis would be laughed at by a more experienced woman. Which the age of 21 was virtually all of them, and certainly Kathy and Louise. Joe was really helpful here: he understood how important it was for young men to be what he called “cock sure”, and that any self-doubt in this area would cause mental strain. He asked me to draw the erection. I did so and he said “it shouldn’t be a problem”. He was the first of many to say exactly that, and some of them were precisely the sort of experienced women I referred to above.
I have to be brutally honest with myself though: rather than find out, I would use this fear as an excuse many times as a young man. And yes it did cause mental strain. I would describe it as a gradual separation between mind and body, between sexual thoughts and sexual action. Incredibly unhealthy. And even though I knew it was very important to me to have a fulfilling sex life, I would continue to deny myself on such spurious grounds, in denial of what close friends and (eventually) family were telling me about bedroom reality. As you will see, the behaviour pattern became so ingrained that there had to be something psychological underpinning it. The actual “issue” with the bend was nowhere near serious enough to justify my chronic lack of sexual response.
Phone call #1 to Kathy (30 April)
On Saturday 30 April, I finally worked up the courage to call Kathy. I left the flat and used a phone box down the road. She was absolutely delighted to hear from me. Every inhibition I had just fell away – it was one of the best conversations with a woman I’ve ever had. Everything funny worked, we seemed to be of the same mind, there were no lulls, we were just the right side of cheeky and flirtatious. She said she’d been to the gym and some men had been perving, but “they weren’t gods Arron, not like yourself.” But when she mentioned “all those hot women” at Shack and I said “it never happens to me”, she said “I don’t believe that, Arron.” Then she said “are you playing mind games with me?” as if I might be feigning interest or pretending not to know what she wanted. At no point did I suggest meeting up; for some inexplicable reason I thought it would be impolite or presumptuous. Also I was still thinking about Kathy having a boyfriend and hoping Louise didn’t think I wasn’t interested in her. So the next time we met up was actually in the library.
Finals began in the third week of May and ended on 3rd June, so I was in the library all day every day. Kathy would come up to me almost every day, sometimes more than once. She told me she was going to step aerobics and said “do you want to come?” I said I was going to the gym instead and she said “oh, you’re perfect as you are, Arron.” She caught me admiring her breasts in a black top and smiled, not minding at all. She made a lustful kissing motion with her mouth, looking directly at me. She’d look at me and say “huge brain”. I had lots of perfectly normal erections and wrote about her in my diary nearly every day. I was caught between not wanting the distraction during finals and wondering if sex would clear my mind and make finals a lot easier anyway. I bet I know what most red-blooded men would say to that “dilemma”. But I never talked to DJ, or SF, or JW, about how important it was.
I’d then respond more emotionally to other events, notably Jimmy White losing his best ever chance of winning the World Snooker Championship by missing an easy black. This is still the most heartbroken I’ve ever been about sport, but the metaphor for my own miss with Kathy is so screamingly obvious it’s difficult not to conclude there was more to it. Just as with the crying over holidays/Sarah back in 1986.
Last counselling session, last Civil Rights seminar and “mother him”
Perhaps the most telling moment came on 12th May. In the morning I had my last counselling session with Joe. In the afternoon the last Civil Rights seminar before final exams. Before counselling, I met Louise 2 in the library. She didn’t often stop to chat, but today she gave me a huge smile and hello and we were talking away for several minutes. She described Dr. Cook as “afraid of women” and said he couldn’t flirt. This was nice and inclusive, as good as telling me I could. See, I still needed that kind of reassurance in spite of 17th March (now 8 weeks ago). Her eyes were so deep and green, I could have spent all day looking into them.
This is how the key part of the conversation went, after a reference to my three-way fan club:
Louise: ‘[Dr. Cook] was asking [on 17 March] “why is Arron so popular?” and I said “We all want to mother him.”‘
Me: ‘Oh… I’m crushed.’
Louise (noticing that I wasn’t joking): ‘Why? You shouldn’t be offended if women like us want to mother you.’
Now, it’s obvious that “women like us” means highly-sexed and brainy: see the entry for 14 February. It’s obvious from 17 March and subsequent meetings that they fancy my arse off and don’t just want to “mother me”. And I know all this. But it triggered all the insecurity I felt about what SF said, about my eight years without a girlfriend, about being a virginal sex being. It made me angry inside. To me it meant I couldn’t be taken seriously as a sexual partner. Instead I could expect to be talked down to, patronised, nagged, picked on for shyness, undervalued. I loved my mother and wouldn’t swap her for the world. But she’d been too dominant in my life for too long, and I really wanted something very different from a girlfriend. Then Kathy arrived and the conversation continued.
Louise: ‘Kathy… Arron says he’s crushed that we want to mother him. I’m saying he should be pleased.’
Kathy: ‘Yes, Arron, you’re very hugworthy.’
It’s clearly coming from the same place as “he’s lovely”. In the last counselling session, I spoke to Joe about it and he said it was basically the jackpot. They were obviously sexually interested but they also wanted to treat you like a special man – they knew you were genuine, they felt safe with you, they wouldn’t hurt you. It proved I had a “little boy charm” which was very appealing to some women. As if to prove him right, this film came out literally the following day. Soon afterwards I read something about Marc Bolan (from whom I take my middle name, by the way) which said this was the secret of his sex appeal: women wanted to shag him and mother him.
One of the concepts in ‘Iron John’ which Joe and I discussed was the idea of “stealing the key from under the mother’s pillow”. Basically becoming assertive and manly in order to be seen as a husband and father, rather than thinking that your primary purpose was to please your mother. The obvious point here is that doing the former would please my mother more than anything else in existence. He said that, given my obvious success in turning things round since February, he felt he could go no further and the rest was up to me.
In the last Civil Rights seminar, Louise 2 gave me a puzzled look when she saw I was still subdued about “mother him”. Louise 1 burst out laughing when I said something unexpectedly cheeky to Dr. Cook. I was doing group work with Kathy and Debbie. Debbie was talking a lot in very headmistressy fashion and I couldn’t get a word in, so I put my hand up and said “please Miss”. Kathy found it hilarious and Debbie blushed and stopped. There you go: the little boy charm. At the end of the seminar Kathy watched me go with that joy on her face again.
Phone call #2 to Kathy (21 May)
Called her from the flat this time. After the conversation, SF commented that we seemed to get on really well. Which was obvious. You see, he was being encouraging now. Kathy invited me to go out with the American Studies girls and JH – I was going to “sit with JH and ogle the women”. I couldn’t go because I was working late behind the bar. What sticks in my mind is her speculation about what she was going to do after graduation. She was looking to work in personnel. She talked about various opportunities in the abstract and then said “I could live with you while you do your MA.”
I still catch my breath when I read that back. Whether or not she had a boyfriend any more, this was a serious proposition. However, I’d already signed up to live with in SD’s old house with DJ (doing an LPC course after his Law degree) and Andy from the flat below. I told her that, but I don’t think I conveyed how remorseful I was and how I would much rather have lived with an attractive woman. I really don’t know if she ever grasped how much I liked her. I didn’t want to marry her, but as a first, fully adult and sexual girlfriend she’d have been amazing.
And this was part of the problem. Rather than just enjoying what life was throwing at me, I was thinking about our different perspectives. She clearly saw me as a “Shack lad” who she could settle down with, when I was actually a virgin. If we did get together, I wouldn’t want to be with her forever and that might upset her. I didn’t want to upset anyone, or break anyone’s heart. One childhood memory springs to mind. When I was about 12, a woman on our street commented to my mum that I “would break a few hearts when [I] was older.” Even at the time I didn’t like the idea. For a start, I was with Sarah and it was peak “future perfect” so I couldn’t imagine being with anyone else. But mainly, “breaking hearts” meant hurting women. And, after seeing how much my mum had gone through with my dad, I didn’t want to do that.
The other moment from the call that sticks is this one. I referred back to being mocked for her “sexual being” remark, as if it was somehow unbelievable to my mates. She said “They’re just jealous.” Something I instinctively knew but wouldn’t let myself admit, and something I didn’t want to deal with.
June – finals day and after
Just before our penultimate exam, Kathy said I looked really tired and stressed. Inevitably, I’d wound myself up about her, and my sexual paralysis, to the extent that it was stressing me out as much as the exams themselves. One of the set texts for Civil Rights was this biography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Towards the end there’s a quote which explains the title:
“the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear.”
On the eve of finals day, I wrote a few lines in my diary about the last 18 months or so, starting with the crucial lyric in Prince’s ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ (you better live now, before the grim reaper comes knocking on your door) and culminating in this wonderful turnaround since January 29th. I concluded with “wear that crown, mate. You deserve it.”
The next line was “Oh well, suppose I’ve got to write this. Alone again.”
At the end of our last exam (Civil Rights essays), Kathy – sitting right behind me – said “It’s all over now, Arron, you can relax.” I wanted to turn to her, talk to her, laugh with her, celebrate with her. JW came up to me and I over-rode my own needs and desires again, and left the exam room with him. I have a vivid memory of sitting in the West End with a group of all-male History graduates while this Test was on the TV, and just thinking “I love these guys, but I don’t want to be here. Why aren’t I with Kathy?” But even though she was on my mind literally all night, I never approached her. I just drank far too much and pretended to be happy. I saw Louise 1 briefly: she shot me a look which was much darker than any I’d seen from the ‘3-way fan club’ before. This was now beyond ridiculous.
I got myself together to call her over the weekend. But it was immediately obvious from the tone of her voice that the penny had dropped. There wasn’t so much laughter, or flirting: she brought the conversation to an end more quickly. I mean, I instinctively knew I’d blown it, but still clung to the idea that an attraction so strong couldn’t just blow itself out because I was too shy to reciprocate.
I worked behind the bar on Tuesday. Kathy was there. Her look now had more pity in it than lust. Later I was emptying ashtrays and collecting glasses and she was in conversation with someone – she looked away from her conversation towards me and it was as if she thought “why? why is someone with your brain and looks settling for this?”
The rest of the month passed in a daze, really. I met up with my old housemate DR and arranged to live with him and his girlfriend over summer. The three of us planned to do a Duke of Edinburgh award. It wasn’t what I really wanted from life – I’d denied myself that. Instead it came from a part of my psychology that told me I needed to “develop” before I would deserve happiness. I remember telling DA about the plans and he said, sarcastically, “yeah, great”. There was an unspoken “why?” in his expression which reflected exactly how I felt about it.
The World Cup was on and I barely remember it. The Test series continued and I don’t remember that either. Hell, even the Fred West story passed me by until a work colleague mentioned it on a break. I was still working behind the bar, and DR’s girlfriend arranged a summer job for me in Bradford, which started one week before the end of term. So I would be working two jobs that week.
BT (remember him!) had reconciled with his girlfriend and they were planning the American road trip together. He and I knew that our friendship had been partly about misdirected affection on his part after their break-up. I’d spent a weekend with him in Solihull over Easter and realised how vastly different our backgrounds were. He was so middle-class: enormous house, classical music over dinner, painstaking and precise table settings. I felt very self-conscious and out of place. The last time I saw him was when he drove me home in July and came in to use our bathroom. He looked just as conscious of his own affluent background for the few minutes he was in our house.
On Friday 10th, a week after finals, the Louises were in the bar while I was on my shift. Louise 1 said hello, but it was just polite really. I felt bad that she was the one I fancied most (physically at least) but everything had been about Kathy. Then I started blushing. She noticed and smiled. She’d ordered a gin and tonic. After I blushed she asked if she could have a cherry in it, and smiled knowingly again. In all my bar shifts over four and a half years, no-one else ever asked for a cherry with their G&T. I knew exactly what “cherry” meant, of course. They knew. They couldn’t possibly not know by now. Later I saw both Louises looking directly at me, with a similar expression to Kathy’s on the Tuesday. Or maybe Louise 2 when she was amazed at my lack of response on 17 March. It was more puzzlement than pity – I think they still liked me. But again, “why?”
As if I needed proof, JH joined them later. When he came to the bar he was very jovial, much more so than he’d ever been with me in 30-odd seminars. Remember how he was “frosty because he saw me as a threat”? Well now he could relax around me, because he knew his female friends lusted after me and got nothing back, and he knew why. JH was a nice guy. He ended up marrying someone on his course (not one of the five I’ve mentioned). Ten years later I’d meet someone with the same attitude towards me who was a genuinely nasty piece of work – see Part II.
The same night, a very attractive brunette I didn’t recognise came up to me out of the blue and asked if I was the man who’d written the ‘Three Musketeers’ review back in March. I don’t know how she knew my name, and it was pretty amazing to learn that people recognised my writing from three months earlier. She said she’d “killed herself laughing” at it. Again I behaved as if it wasn’t my place to take advantage of the opportunity.
The following Friday was results day. I got my II.1, which meant I would be returning for an MA in September. Pretty much everyone I knew also ended up with a II.1. Except Louise 1, who I saw crying outside Dr. Cook’s office. When I saw her later outside the History department, I said it had taken the edge off the day seeing someone so upset. She was disarmed and very appreciative. Kathy and Louise 2 were there as well, and I had nice conversations with both – the latter approached me. Pete kept saying “Are they your birds? Fucking hell, look at the tits on that. Get in there mate!” After I returned to SD and his mates, they looked genuinely awestruck at how well I got on with the women and how much they enjoyed talking to me.
Although I suspected the moment had passed, I tried to salvage something with Kathy and asked if she was around to go out. What I should have done in April and May of course. She said she was away until the following Wednesday.
Later that night was the History ball, for 1st, 2nd and 3rd years. JW, SF, DA and Jim were all there and we were on the same table. I only remember two things. First, queueing up for food – two small brunettes (not from our year) were in front of me. One looked at me, then tapped her friend on the shoulder. Her friend turned around to look at me, then turned back and said “very nice”.
And I thought it was too selfish or arrogant to start chatting them up on the basis of that.
Second, after we’d all got drunk, the lads from the flat started dancing with their trouser legs rolled up. I wanted to talk to those girls, but joined in with the dancing instead. They watched us. God knows what they thought, but it wouldn’t have been “very nice”. More like “why?” I asked myself: why are you copying behaviour which just isn’t you, when you get on so well with women?
On 21st June, I was behind the bar at Fahrenheit and saw Kathy again. She said she was away “from Wednesday”. I thought she’d said “until Wednesday”. Louise 1 shot me a reproachful look later. I began to think the mistake over Wednesday was intentional, and they were dropping strong hints that I needed to move on. I’d already missed two chances to do just that, of course. Somehow I felt like going with someone else would be “unfaithful” even though it should have been clear Kathy was no longer interested sexually. Or, as she put it in a dream I had, “you no longer make my earth move”.
She was indeed away from Wednesday: at Glastonbury. On Monday 27th I started my job in Bradford. On Tuesday 28th I was working Fahrenheit again. She came to the bar and said hi, much more exuberantly than at any time since finals. She asked me to call her the following day around 7pm. I (stupidly, in retrospect) got excited about it. Called from DR’s house at 7 on the dot. When she picked up the phone I could tell she was amused by my punctuality. On more than one occasion there were hints of laughing at rather than with me (including background voices). She invited me out but I was doing two jobs and couldn’t go. At one point I mentioned that I’d been to Glastonbury last year – told her the same story I’d told BH back in October and got a big laugh. Then we got on to my housemates doing drugs, and I mentioned that I’d indulged for a while. Here’s the key part of the last real conversation we ever had:
A: ‘They do lots of gear, they can’t get enough.’
K: ‘Bit like sex really.’
A: ‘What about it?’ [awkward pause where Kathy clearly thinks I’m propositioning her until I clarify]
K: ‘I thought you wouldn’t do drugs with your voice.’
A: ‘Well I don’t any more… I’ve got to live with it I suppose.’
K: ‘It’s sexy.’
A: ‘Oh yes, like “I’ve just come in after all night banging.”‘
K: (laughter) ‘You love it.’
A (faux-naif) ‘I’d love it if I knew what it was.’
K: ‘Oh you’re so forlorn aren’t you, Arron? [here I got angry with myself for fucking it up and whatever I actually said I would have sounded stroppy]… Are you trying to be macho?’
A: ‘No I’m nice, I just – ‘
K: ‘Oh dear.’
This actually broke me. From “sexual being” to “so forlorn” in three months is pretty lousy going, and it was my fault. Even in that conversation I’d over-ridden my own instincts to pretend I didn’t understand flirtation, and walked straight into what would now be called the friend zone. Or something worse: the pity zone. And yet… I went to see BT at Meadowhall afterwards. While waiting to cross the road, a girl wound the window down in a passing car and shouted “Get your fucking kit off!”
There were possibilities everywhere. I knew when I arrived with Claire in Bradford that girls from the factory were looking at me. And instead of being confident as I should, after all these years waiting, I still felt guilty or embarrassed about having so many advantages. Then I’d get angry with myself and so the cycle continued.
July – before graduation
When I was behind the bar at the last Friday event of term, Kathy saw me speaking to another girl. She was obviously very drunk and said “chatting someone else up when you know you’re mine” and made two kiss motions towards me. That, however, was the last time we ever spoke. At the end of our phone call the previous Wednesday, she’d given me her address. I spent a lot of time composing a letter to her in July. It was intended to be very light-hearted, with hints of the sexuality she’d seen in me before. I made jokes about DR and Claire enduring “premature domestication”. But there was too much genuine self-deprecation as well – e.g. that she’d seen something in me that “made Caligula look like Dr. Cook”. It spoke, very clearly, of a young man who hadn’t “come to terms with the effect you have on these women”. I hated myself for writing like that when I just wanted to free my own sexuality.
The conclusion said it all:
Finally, if you hadn’t told me you had a boyfriend… But it was great. All of it. All three of you. Love you loads.
After I’d sent it I kept cringing at myself. It was like going back to being 17 or 18. Instead of losing your virginity you’d written a diary and now this asexual shit with an undercurrent of “don’t fancy me, I’m not good enough”? I read Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and tortured myself with lines like these:
‘O, pity,’ ‘gan she cry, ‘flint-hearted boy!
‘Tis but a kiss I beg; why art thou coy?
Look in mine eye-balls, there thy beauty lies;
Then why not lips on lips, since eyes in eyes?
‘Art thou ashamed to kiss?
The tender spring upon thy tempting lip
Shows thee unripe; yet mayst thou well be tasted:
Make use of time, let not advantage slip;
Beauty within itself should not be wasted:
Fair flowers that are not gather’d in their prime
Rot and consume themselves in little time.
One day brings all of these feelings back. Claire wasn’t able to drive me to Bradford, and I was rising at 4:15am and using trains. This particular day I may not have had enough money for the fare, but for whatever reason I caught the bus and had to get off in Barnsley rather than Sheffield. I thought I could walk the 10-12 miles to DR’s house. Somewhere between Junction 36 and Chapeltown I was in absolute floods of tears. I couldn’t understand how I’d allowed myself to continue being so lonely.
To be desexualised is, effectively, to be dehumanised. Yes, I think it’s that important, and yes I struggle to relate to people who downplay its importance. I felt like I’d been desexualised by other people for years, but now I’d got over that, it seemed like I was doing it to myself.
On Friday I ended up smoking drugs again with DJ, SF, JW and DA. Even though I wrote: “DRUGS ARE SHIT!” in my diary. When it comes to sex, drugs and rock n’ roll I’m mentally about 63:1:36, yet I behaved like I was 0:40:60. That’s an acrobat for you.
Saturday should naturally have been the proudest day of my life. I kept smiling for my family, who were all there: my brother (18), my mum and stepdad (40), my auntie (38), my grandad (62) and my late grandma (62) and great-grandma (91). But all I could really think about was completely blowing it with KLL. I thought my mortar board was coming off when I was presented with my degree and, on returning to my seat, asked DA how bad it looked. He gestured as if to tell me to stop beating myself up. KLL were on the row behind and I wouldn’t even face them. I desperately hadn’t wanted to graduate a virgin, yet here I was.
There was a gathering at the History department afterwards. I saw Louise 2 – she looked horrified at the tormented expression on my face. I passed Louise 1 and said a very meek hello; she gave me a nice “hello Arron” but that was it. JS (Jodi) asked me how I was and I said “still shaking”: she turned away immediately and didn’t continue the conversation. Kathy wasn’t even there. I still think it’s possible that she stayed away because she didn’t even want to see me like that. But just afterwards, Dr. Cook introduced me to RW, a girl who was one of only five Firsts in the department – I smiled and said “Oh I’m not worthy of being in your company” and her delighted reaction showed I could turn on the charm even when hurting horribly inside. Louise 2 and a guy were touching each other and even then she occasionally glanced towards me.
After a lovely meal with my family, the rest of the day was just drunkenness and celebration. All the time I was pretending it was enough. It wasn’t. It couldn’t be. I never saw, or heard from, Kathy or the Louises again.
From left: JW, me, SF, Jim: Graduation day, 23 July 1994, The West End, Sheffield
Sunday’s diary began like this:
Hangover. Doubly so. The emotional one was infinitely worse. I woke up feeling like I’d fallen off the edge of the world.
I think, until my breakdown, this was the worst day of my life. After being left alone in the flat I had an overwhelming sense of emptiness. Joe would say this was “putting the key back under the mother’s pillow”, but I needed to talk to someone. My flatmates had gone, without me telling them how much their friendship meant, and I was too embarrassed to cry in front of them. I’d told DA the story of the last few months (without getting upset) the night before graduation. He’d obviously been amazed, but I had no good explanation for my hesitation. And perhaps I was still convincing myself there could be a happy ending. Now there was no such consolation.
I went to the same phone box where I’d called Kathy nearly three months earlier, and called home. Broke down in tears within a minute. I couldn’t understand my own behaviour at all and was in absolute despair. They picked me up later and I spent Sunday with them instead of DR and Claire. Tried telling my stepdad about the bend but he dismissed it. I made him promise not to tell my mum, but he did. For her part, my mum wrote me several pages about what women like and want, including anatomical matters. I knew it already. I told my stepdad this and he said “bloody hell, Arron”. Another part of her letter referred to women enjoying kissing without desiring sex. All I can say is that this was emphatically not the kind of women KLL were, and nor did it describe the kind of women I met and got on best with for the next decade or more. However, as we’ll see in Part II, it does describe the only one I let myself actually sleep with.
Also overheard my mum say to my stepdad that “it’s difficult for a shy young man”. This struck me as something relevant to the years preceding 1994. I no longer felt or behaved like “a shy young man” in any way other than physical initiation or response. That wasn’t shyness: it was horrible self-consciousness about inexperience and fear of not being good enough.
They were several steps behind me, basically. I’d learned all of this from theory and practice, and then stopped myself acting on it in spite of the most blatant come-ons. And it was that no-one could explain or, seemingly, help with. We were talking about someone too selfless to lose his own virginity. And something DJ said earlier in term came back to me. As with SF’s comment, it felt like he was referring to me without directly addressing me:
“If you’re too selfless you have no life”
And lo, it came to pass. Six months earlier I’d been on the floor, I’d done everything necessary to turn my life around, and then… stopped at the point where I could have made myself happy.
The Remains of the Day
Back in January, DA and I had been to see the film The Remains of the Day. Those of you familiar with the plot will instantly understand the parallel. In short: a man represses feelings for a more extrovert woman even though they’re reciprocated, and he ends up lonely and wracked with remorse. At the time, DA said: “I don’t know how anyone could be that selfless”. I wrote in my diary: “God knows I can… I come pretty close myself.” And this was before Kathy, Louise and Louise. I went on to buy the novel.
That morning, alone in the flat, it was that novel I reached for. I read one particular section where Stevens writes down his thoughts after his final meeting with Miss Kenton, and crumbled completely. That’s my strongest memory of the morning after graduation.
Some have argued that Stevens is a portrait of a schizoid man. Again, I can see frightening parallels between some of his observations and my own (thankfully banished) tendency to diarise instead of live more ebulliently. There’s also an inescapable parallel between his first-person narrative and this very post. And, way back at the start of this story, I found myself asking a doctor if I was schizophrenic. I think the word “schizoid” would have been more valid and accurate.
A couple of weeks later, I read a copy of Cosmopolitan. By that time I was very used to their characterisations of certain types of man, but this particular article sticks in my mind because it discussed a category I’d never seen before:
Ladies, we present the Schizoid Man. Outwardly charming, he will flirt and encourage attention and you’ll respond. Only for him to cry off as if he’s impotent.
It described exactly how I came across to KLL. With that, the episode was finally buried.
“Why Mr. Stevens, why why why do you always have to pretend?”
So if I’m socially capable, but turn in on myself when confronted with opportunities to be socially and sexually fulfilled, the question is why? Why do you pretend this isn’t what you want? Why do you end up coming across like this instead?
I wanted to understand this for most of my adult life. I desperately wanted to be different, “normal”, but couldn’t. I came up with some very wrong answers to the question and lost my mind as a direct result. Parts II and III show how this happened.
But for now, this is what I have come to understand. These are the factors that underpin the patterns of behaviour you can see in Parts II and III.
- Fear of letting girls and women down. This is probably number one. This is the one that operates at a conscious level. Usually it manifested itself in the most obvious sexual self-handicap, i.e. fear of my erection not working because of the bend. It works fine. There was no way this was just cause by itself. But if there’s a deeper psychological reason, it would make some sense. And for me, that goes all the way back to my mum and dad, and Sarah. I so desperately don’t want women to be unhappy, and so desperately want to be a good husband and father, that I won’t countenance anything which jeopardises this. Sadly – desperately sadly – as we have seen, this has meant not kissing and not sleeping with women because you’re terrified of getting it wrong.
- Fear of hurting women. Very similar origins, but this one kicks in when I am confident. It’s the part of me that doesn’t want to “break hearts”, that doesn’t want to love someone and leave them, that knew he preferred Louise to Kathy physically but pursued Kathy because she was keenest, that felt “loyal” to Kathy even when other women were clearly interested in June, that would inhibit myself with any woman (not just Kathy) who had a boyfriend. The biggest difference between DJ and every “player”, and me. The part I know I have, but suppress completely because it’s “bad”. NB: not a bastard. Still nice. But, if suppressed like this, far too nice.
- Fear of male hostility. This was completely subconscious, but incredibly powerful. It probably plays a part in me holding back when Kathy tells me she has a boyfriend. But I only really became aware of it when SF made his spiteful remarks in the aftermath of 17th March. If expressing my sexuality can provoke anger in other men, or lead to conflict, it almost becomes preferable to repress it. If some men are going to be cruel to me, it seems safer to be cruel to myself than provoke them. Even if that becomes actively damaging to my own interests, needs, desires, wishes. Even if I end up hating my own cowardice. I’ve stood up to men on other things, but it seems the one thing I find most difficult is competing for women, even in situations like the one described above. Of course, SF was my friend for a long time and (especially after he met his future wife) only wanted the best for me. What I’m talking about here is much more relevant to Part II. We’ll see where this tendency leads in the next post. Nowhere good. If the destination is grim, the origin is really obvious: it’s fear of my father.
- Finally and most complex, fear of male envy. This is what happens when you do give yourself just credit for what you are and what you’ve achieved. When women love your writing. When they admire your dancing. When they go for your sense of humour and intelligence. When they recognise your handsomeness and fitness. In my daily reality, I have been far too modest far too often. There are plenty of examples above, all the way from Jodi praising my first seminar paper to being incapable of taking yes for an answer and turning it into no. But underneath: yes I have exactly the right amount of confidence-cum-arrogance to make the most of my abilities. As is true of every man who ever amounted to anything in this world. And, as and when you do, you open yourself up to envy. I’m very good at spotting it, but I wait for other people (e.g. Kathy, re JH or SF) to point it out before admitting it. I am however so bad at dealing with it, and so fearful of it curdling into actual hostility, that I will handicap myself in order to defuse tension.
There are various reasons for that last one. The fear of envy triggering open hostility is obviously father-related. But there are two main factors in the envy itself. The first is school: I stood out so much for intelligence, shyness and my “dodgy voice” that I started trying to hide and deflect attention. Also, I have a vivid memory of one episode from when I was only 10. The teacher was playing a word game and said “Arron is a clue for this”. He emphasised the syllables as I’ve done, and for that reason I knew he meant the word “arrogant”. But I stayed silent and listened to several seconds of other kids saying things like “bighead”. At the time I hated false modesty. During adolescence I played small as a defence mechanism to such an extent I started believing it, and coming across as such. That had brought me to the low of January and drugs, and to my surprise and frustration it kicked in again after 17th March.
The other factor is my brother. I love him dearly, deeply. But he suffered from my grandad clearly favouring me, and my mum has referred to him growing up “in my shadow”. Though it’s not something we’ve ever properly discussed, it’s easy to imagine him growing up with a sense of inferiority and lack of attention, and this being a factor in his choosing to live with his father in 1988. For my part, I feel lonely not having other people in the family who’ve done what I’ve done. At the same time I feel proud. And at the same time I’m reluctant to outshine people too much. I never used to be like that. Not at Junior School. The six months discussed here are really the first time I was in the full grip of my confidence since Sarah. And I was becoming what my family thought I was capable of, and what an adult equivalent of Sarah would want from her man. But there was definite fear of being envied when I played down KLL in front of JW. And when I laughed at myself re “sexual being” instead of embracing it like a red-blooded 21-year-old should.
The dreadful irony is that, throughout all of my best years (21-32), I don’t think I ever made as strong a connection with my brother as I did the weekend immediately before 17th March. When I went through the U2 lyric to ‘Acrobat’ and told him you could dream out loud and never let the bastards grind you down. And that connection was born of genuine self-confidence. I think he recognised it. It’s what he needed from me. It’s what a son or daughter would need from me. And because you stepped back instead of making the leap into manhood, you lost it. And with it, the dreams of fatherhood you’d nurtured since the age of 12.
In Part I, I dreamed out loud and then silenced myself.
In Part II, I let a bastard grind me down.
I’m sorry A.
Graduation day, 23 July 1994, The West End, Sheffield
Top (L-R): David ‘Dirty Dave’ Abrahams, Shaun ‘Faz’ Farrington, James ‘Jim’ Wirth
(DA, SF, Jim)
Bottom (L-R): Duncan ‘Dunc’ Jackson, Jonathan ‘Jon’ Wharton, Arron ‘Big A’ Ellis
(aka ‘The Acrobat’)
(DJ, JW, me)
Main picture for this page is an edited version of the earlier graduation day photo outside The West End, Sheffield, showing just the History students from Flat J: Jon, myself, Shaun. You have no idea how much I miss you, Dunc, Dave and Dav.
2 thoughts on “H7: ANATOMY OF A BREAKDOWN, PART I: “AND I MUST BE AN ACROBAT””
So well written. Need to see whether next installment published.
Thank you Sara for the continued encouragement. The next instalment will be completed after the West Highland Way section is published. Parts II and III are harder to write, hence the long gaps between posts.