There are many reasons why I didn’t go up to Michelle that night at the school disco and most of them are obvious.
To start with, I wasn’t absolutely sure she felt the same way or if she could even feel the same way, if she was made that way.
Then there were the glaring reasons, the ones that grabbed you by the scruff of the neck and screamed ‘don’t do it!’ right in your face, the fact that I was shy, nervous, geeky and bookish whilst she was beautiful, strawberry blonde, slender, elegant and sadly vacuous.
But more that all those reasons, it was what had gone before that made me hold myself back.
What had happened with Evie made me nervous and what had happened with Jenny made me hesitate.
Evie, with her long blonde hair and long brown legs. Her almost completely flat chest and her pert little nose. I watched Evie on the gymnastics equipment in her Aertex t-shirt and thick navy-blue gym knickers, her pelvis standing proud and the tiny mound in the centre.
Poor Evie who had so little time left.
I doted on her. She had more angles and spiky bits than me, but I adored her, so thin and brittle. I was chunkier, gauche and awkward; she was elegant, a glider, an athlete and a gymnast and I loved her in those thick blue gym knickers, pelvis proud as she did that exercise in gymnastics that I always found impossible, where you lie on your back and push yourself up into a crab shape. I can remember looking at her tiny mound beneath the thick blue cotton.
But she went and died in a car crash and did we get any counselling? Did we hell. Nothing at all, it was simply not considered, not necessary, not on the agenda.
I just wanted to talk to someone, but that sort of thing was scoffed at back then. It was something that Americans did, Americans and their shrinks, so Woody Allen, spending years and fortunes on therapy. Not necessary, we had our stiff upper lips. I didn’t even get to go to the funeral, I wasn’t asked, no closure, although the concept of closure was unknown to us as well. Looking back, I’m quite pleased not to have gone to the funeral. The thought of her tiny, pretty body heading for the flames, the bones going up in smoke… filled me with horror. It still does.
We dealt with it in our own way, on our own. God, how I cried. I can still almost cry now when I think of her running, gawky but fast, in the egg and spoon race. We’d read Betjemen to each other, especially ‘Myfanwy’ and that was all I was left with. Asking the hole where she’d been:
“Were you a hockey girl, tennis or gym?”
We were both tennis girls at heart, although I played hockey for the school and she was the gymnast of course. The memory of her blue knickered crab still haunted me.
I changed schools very soon after Evie’s death and I found Jenny. There she was, walking around the outer edge of the all-weather hockey pitch.
Jenny, tall with long straight blonde hair, my second and soon to be superior ‘Myfanwy’ although I had to tweak the ‘Myfanwy’ stuff because Jenny wasn’t a ‘hockey girl, tennis or gym.’ She was a soccer girl and she was really rather good and not just at playing the ball, she was equally good at playing the man or even the man’s ball. The FA rule banning mixed soccer after the age of eleven saved many a school boy from a severely bruised shin or worse. God she’d got a kick on her.
Jenny’s Dad worked in Africa somewhere and her mom lived out there with him lording it over the natives so Jenny was marooned at the school, lonely and sad whilst everyone else saw their parents at weekends. So when my mother and father arrived to take me to lunch on Sunday I invited Jenny along. I invited her along every subsequent Sunday as well. Those Sundays were fun, we ate real food rather than grey boarding school pap, saw the sights in the area such as they were and Matt misbehaved constantly for no obvious reason. Mom told us ignore him, ‘he was just going through a phase.’
Those Sundays became less fun the closer it came to time to return to school and when we got to the hotel in the hills and my Dad bought us afternoon tea, Jenny and I were close to tears. He tried to cheer us up, two morose schoolgirls, in mufti, jeans and sweatshirts, legwarmers and ballet pumps, sitting side by side, forcing down cream cakes. Matt was still playing up and we watched the clock, dreading when five thirty came around and the drive through the dark winter evening back to school would begin.
Once back at school, there was only supper and homework to look forward to and then a long cold winter night in a long cold dormitory that was filled with the sniffles of those still afflicted by homesickness, the snores of the asthmatics and the cloying scent of twenty pairs of damp woolly tights steaming on the inadequate radiators. I was filled with dreams of kissing Jenny.
It was not until the middle of the summer term that I did kiss her for the first time. The only time. It happening during the school trip to a national park. My sixteenth birthday was looming and I was all sophistication and spots. I sat next to Jenny on the coach.
We sat at the back or as near to it we could, the really naughty girls got the back seat, we didn’t go quite that far. So there we were, two or three rows forward, Jenny and I, laughing and touching, canoodling, a little like Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe but not a lot. The ‘one legged jockey’ would have left us baffled and we couldn’t share each others’ lipstick because we hadn’t got any, we hadn’t even got a handbag with us, not on a field trip, we had to stuff everything into the pockets of our jeans. And there wasn’t much room, because we had to make sure we had a couple of obligatory tampons, whether it was time or not, they were essential for scaring the shit out of the unfortunate male teachers who had been press-ganged onto the trip. How those spotty inadequates ended up teaching in an all girls school is totally beyond me, they never stood a chance. We made their lives miseries by being quick on the draw with the sanitary products.
We had painted our nails together the night before. Jeans and sweats and clunky hiking boots may have been the order of the day as far as clothing was concerned but that didn’t entirely preclude a bit of glamour, so we’d shared nail varnish, mixed and matched colours, held our wet nails in water to allegedly dry them faster. What did preclude a bit of glamour was one of our more humourless teachers, who primly pointed out that the ban on nail adornments applied even on school trip days and insisted we make use of the remover pronto. We were left just with tell tale pale pink stains on our cuticles.
Once in the fresh air we giggled and strolled, allegedly studying the flora and fauna as we walked through the summery hills.
Mid morning and we found ourselves detached from the rest of the group in a cool, lonely spot so I asked her if I could kiss her, she hesitated and I explained, we’d just be practising, so it wouldn’t look like we were completely hopeless when we came to try it with a boy. She agreed. She wasn’t overly enthusiastic but she reluctantly let me kiss her. We started gently I could feel the down on her upper lip and the softness of her lovely mouth. I probably also smelt the unspeakable packed lunch we’d just eaten, rank boiled eggs and bloody margarine. If I did I didn’t notice and gently pushed my tongue between her reluctant, pink lips. She didn’t respond, perhaps a little bit but in truth hardly at all. I think I sensed that she wasn’t really enjoying herself but I delved deeper with my hesitant tongue. She pulled away. I was breathless but only for a second as I quickly remembered myself and my cover story.
“Did I do it right?” We were only supposed to be practising and comparing notes after all. She didn’t say anything.
“Do you want to have another go?”
She looked down and mumbled something. I bent towards her and the tip of our tongues touched. She pulled away and ran up the path. I ran after her, squealing and laughing. We were two gawky schoolgirls in cumbersome hiking boots and too tight jeans stumbling along a rough, uneven track. One of us was bound to fall. It was Jenny. I was always marginally the better athlete. She stumbled and rolled into the long grass at the side of the path. I raced in after her.
“Jenny, are you alright?”
She didn’t reply.
I knelt down and looked at her. She wouldn’t look at me. I crawled in beside her on the damp grass.
“Are you alright?”
“Just grazed my knees that’s all.”
“Kiss me again,” I breathed.
She did, she bloody well did.
There on the side of the path, on a cold and wet typically grey English summer day. We kissed and my hand was soon inside her aertex blouse, seeking out the elusive, budding breast in her over-ambitious bra. She didn’t stop me. My other hand went to her crotch. She didn’t stop me.
It was the scream of ‘rug munchers’ that did.
Two boys from a nasty northern comprehensive school also making a tour of the beautiful Derbyshire landscape to give the kids a break from gritty urban reality and to give the teachers the chance of a doss. The boys stood over us, first formers by the look of them, snotty and jam stained, they merely jeered at us at first but very soon they launched into a far more vicious cacophony:
“Dykes, dykes, dirty fucking dykes.”
They were dancing around and shouting, pointing at us and laughing; “Fucking rug munchers, lesbians, lesbos.”
In normal circumstances, we could have sorted them out, well Jenny definitely could, I might have been the better athlete but she was by far the better boxer, she had a more aggressive streak. But we just ran down the path, it seemed the simplest solution. The boys didn’t follow, we had chosen this secluded spot for, well you know what, they’d chosen it for a crafty fag. They contented themselves with a massive bawl of “Queers” and lit up.
Once we were out of sight I stopped and pulled Jenny up.
Shall we do it again?
Not bloody likely. I’m not risking that again.
Alright, but later, when we get back, somewhere private.
When we get back?
She said nothing and ran off in search of the main party. I didn’t run after her, just sauntered in her wake. Thinking to myself: “When we get back, when we get back, I can’t wait.”
Jenny was late coming into the dining room for supper that night, so we didn’t sit together. She sat far away from me, pensive, refusing to catch my eye. After supper we had to do homework for an hour and a half, so I didn’t get a chance to speak to her and then she went straight to her dorm, a dorm I did not share. She was late getting down to breakfast next morning, so once again we didn’t sit together and she wouldn’t catch my eye. Next it was lessons. At lunchtime I caught her eye and immediately wished I hadn’t, her eyes were black, tired and cautious. They were frightened eyes. She looked down and refused to look up again. Finally after lunch I got her alone, but she managed to get away from me.
She avoided me for the whole of the next week and for much of the one that followed that and that was not easy in our closed community of erupting spots and swinging hormones.
I had to accept that I would have to find another crush. It was not easy, and with my characteristic childish constancy I cried myself to sleep every night for at least a week afterwards. There was one day that was truly hard. It was raining heavily and there were no games that afternoon which didn’t bother me too much because I’d gone off hockey and I never liked lacrosse. Tennis was my sport that year and the courts were being refurbished, like they were every winter, God the trials and tribulations of being a public school-girl. No tennis because the contractors are in. ‘Contractors in’ – Is that a euphemism?
But without an activity to take my mind off Jenny I turned to my library book; ‘Famine’ by Liam O’Flaherty. It’s crushingly sad and just what you need when you’re already inclined to be tearful. I put it down and tried to distract myself from thoughts of Jenny. Soon I was in floods of tears, my chest was heaving and I cried like a child. For a few agonised moments I knew that nothing could make things better and a few moments after that things were better. It’s a tragedy when we lose the ability to cry like a child, the innocent release does you so much good. To paraphrase Picasso, I’ve spent my life learning to cry like a child again.
So for all of the reasons above I hung back, I hesitated and left Michelle sitting across the hall from me, another wallflower like me. It had been so different earlier in the day, we had such a great time together that I thought that maybe we could go beyond mere friendship, I thought that Michelle might return my feelings.
We’d spent the day together, sauntering around the shops in St Malo, laughing as we tried on straw hats, sitting on the quayside gazing contentedly out to sea, drinking a glass of gutrot apiece in a quaint little café and giggling nervously as we shrugged off the attentions of a party of slightly seedy men who were almost old enough to be our fathers and certainly old enough to know that what they were suggesting was totally inappropriate. This shared experience brought us together. I thought I learnt something from my earlier encounters with Evie and Jenny, that I could read the signs, that maybe Michelle was the one. That she wouldn’t reject me.
I was convincing myself of this as I hesitated on the shabby institutional chair in the sports hall. And whilst I hesitated, Michelle was approached by a boy. She smiled at him, she said yes and soon they were on the dance floor together. She fell prey to his wandering hands, corrupted by his acne and cowed by his evolutionary imperatives. He wrapped himself around her, pawed and pressed her. I turned away and let my regrets wrap themselves around me.
I sat there burning up inside, just as I would the next day as I surreptitiously watched Michelle and her beau cavort on the school bus all the way to Caen and back.
I burnt with might have beens, might have been with Evie, might have been with Jenny, might have been with Michelle.
Ian Cassidy asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work