Today is Coming Out day (in the US, tomorrow in the UK). I’ve been out, very out, since I was sixteen. I don’t even think about it anymore, I just assume I have Dyke tattooed on my forehead. But it wasn’t always like this. Coming out for the first time was one of the most difficult things I ever did. Here’s a long exerpt from my memoir, And Now We Are Going to Have a Party: Liner notes to a writer’s early life. I’ve left in all the extraneous bits so that you can see the context–because coming out is never just about sex, it’s about everything. It’s about coming into oneself. It starts at age thirteen. (You need to know that I lived in Leeds, Yorkshire. I had four sisters, including Carolyn (seven years older, living with a woman called Jackie) and Helena (three and a half years younger), and attended a Catholic convent (day) school from age 10 to 17.)
(As I’ve said, it’s long, so if you prefer to read on your ereader, there’s a handy PDF conversion button at the end.)
Coming Out, Coming Into Myself
My life became less and less easy to understand. I began to drift away from the world. My life felt like a cool-edged dream, like being at sea with everything draped in mist, the sky and water indistinguishable and the shore invisible. Nothing felt real. Everyone around me was getting crushes on teen idols (boys, of course) and listening to terrible music (Donny Osmond and David Cassidy) and for me it was like looking at the universe as a reflection in a spoon: weirdly distorted, small, and upside down. My school reports of this time mention over and over that I am “reticent” in class, “too quiet.” I had withdrawn, shocked by the real world and the knowledge that, for me, it was several degrees off kilter.
I didn’t have friends. I spent all my lunchtimes playing netball (winter) or tennis (summer) for the school teams–the only one in my class to do so. I was smart but utterly uncommunicative. I became weird. Then I became very weird. I didn’t know what was happening.
I don’t have coherent memories of this phase of my life, just brightly-coloured snapshots. I remember getting off the bus one day in autumn and walking towards my house, and seeing the ivy growing on the stone walls, all russet and gold and orange. It was beautiful. I stopped dead on the pavement, and wondered why I felt so moved. And I thought: Oh, I’m bored, and Oh, I’m lost, and Oh, I don’t belong here. I didn’t know what I meant by any of it. I had just turned thirteen.
Not long after that, I started getting friendly–if you can describe cool and distant and ambivalent as friendly–with a girl called Anne Dale. She had an English face with cut-glass features, blonde hair and blue eyes. Somehow we agreed we would go to the theatre together (the theatre?) to see Godspell (Godspell?!) and I would stay at her house afterwards.
I wore my sister Julie’s skirt–a beautiful cut-on-the-bias thing in wide, jewel-coloured stripes–and sat next to Anne in a nosebleed seat at Leeds Grand Theatre and spent the entire performance trying not to give into the unexpected compulsion to throw myself off the balcony and into thin air. We shared some chocolates (though I’ve no idea who bought them). Then we went to her house. Then we went to bed.
Two beds, touching each other. Perhaps we talked. Anne fell asleep, blissfully, innocently (or so I assume), and I lay there sweating, wanting desperately and with dreadful specificity to reach out and undo her nightie and touch her breast. I yearned to touch her. I needed it more than I’d consciously needed anything in my life to that point.
I did nothing.
The next day we had a polite breakfast, and I went home. A little while later she asked me if I’d like to come sailing one weekend, and I said no.
I had seen what happened to Carolyn when she discovered she liked girls at the age of fifteen: my parents had tried to make her a ward of court; they got her girlfriend fired; and Carolyn left home and went crazy and tried to kill herself. I was two years younger than Carolyn had been and my parents were already prepped, primed, and practised. I knew, without having to put it into words, that no hint of how I felt must be allowed to escape my event horizon–not to Anne, not to Helena, not to anyone at any time in any way. Not until I reached sixteen and my legal minority.
I’ve never been a poker face; I’d never had to learn. But here I was, suddenly, appallingly, viscerally and unmistakeably interested in girls, at a Catholic all-girl’s school where I did a lot of sports and took a lot of showers with my naked team mates.
I started to drink. I drank to not think and to not feel, to not give myself away.
I drank a lot. I drank every day: stolen stuff when I had to, stuff bought from the local off-licence when I could: pints of cream sherry (disgusting stuff, but it did the trick) and bottles of Clan Dew, a fortified wine like Thunderbird (but worse). Every day–sometimes just to take the edge off, sometimes to the point of falling down.
I was wild for escape. Now more than ever I fell into books. I rediscovered science fiction, this time the epic series: EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensman series, the glory of Foundation by Isaac Asimov and, of course, Frank Herbert’s Dune. But it still wasn’t enough. So now I listened to music, too, on an obsolete transistor radio. The pop music of the time, like all pop music, was vapid, but I did develop a fondness for glam rock: Gary Glitter, Sweet, T. Rex, Bowie. Then my parents bought a huge wooden cabinetted stereogram, and I found the music of their youth–Glen Miller, Frank Sinatra–some educational classical medleys (which I hated; they always seemed to stop before they really got started), and The Sound of Music soundtrack. I listened to that one a lot.
I started smoking when I was thirteen, too–on my own, at night, standing between the open window and the closed curtains. This I couldn’t keep secret from Helena, so soon we were sharing cigarettes.
The summer before I was fourteen, Julie (who was nineteen) and I went to Scotland for two weeks, to stay with Auntie Pat and Uncle Arnold in Bishopbriggs, a suburb of Glasgow. Julie was depressed and needed a break. I was to look after her: make sure we got the right trains, make sure nothing bad happened, and so on.
Auntie Pat was a perfect host, but with nothing to drink I was terribly restless. One night Julie and I went to a university disco. I was admitted without difficulty, but the doorkeepers told Julie she was too young. I explained to them that she was with me. They let her in. We got picked up by two students almost immediately, and I made mine buy me cup after paper cup of vodka, after which I kissed him with perfect indifference.
One day Arnold, a specialist paint salesman, took me on his sales rounds. It was an awful day–silence in the car, a terrible thirst, boring scenery–until we went to a power station. “Why are we here?” I asked. And he explained in tedious detail about paint. Somewhere in his lengthy technical explanation about emulsion and toxicity and molecular size I grasped the general idea: he was selling them special paint to coat the pipes that carried away the water used to cool the towers, and then decanted the warm effluent into fish tanks. It was a pretty mind-boggling idea, this notion of recycling resources, doing something useful with a waste product.
Something in the back of my brain woke up. I spent the next week or so terribly alert, hardly drinking, enjoying the Highlands and my very first Aberdeen Angus steak (with an invitation to feel free to smoke afterwards–smoking in front of grown-ups!).
When I got back to school and turned fourteen, I kept drinking but I felt…better. I enjoyed my lessons more. I was more engaged. I began to get a particular kick from physics and chemistry; after the paint and power station, I could see the point, dimly.
As a joint Christmas present that year, Carolyn and Jackie gave me and Helena their cast-off record player. They also took me to a second-hand music shop in Headingley, and I never looked back.
I fell in love with music that my contemporaries (and family, except Helena) found bizarre and suspect: Bowie’s first few albums, Led Zeppelin, very early Pink Floyd. Others’ suspicion puzzled me. How can you not like a track called “Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict” or something that consists entirely of screams called “Careful with That Axe, Eugene”? How could Donny and Marie Osmond singing “Paper Roses” be better to listen to than “Dazed and Confused”? I shook my head and turned the music up, suddenly clear about my taste. The music freed me in a way the books didn’t, because it gave me a kind of ballast. The music was real, it could literally move objects (if I played it loud enough); it existed by any objective criteria. It was not just in my head.
Feeling safe in terms of my musical taste gave me the freedom to experiment in other arenas. I read Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (I recognised the confusion, but little else), and Asterix (in English to start, then French when I ran out of translations). I watched Monty Python and Hammer House of Horror films with equal glee and felt most sophisticated when my mother recoiled in disgust. There again, I also liked Benny Hill.
By the time I was fifteen I’d begun to feel very much myself, a self that had been dissolved in a hormone storm and was growing back differently. Growing back as me, not a personality based on other people’s expectations.
While I was more certain inside, I don’t believe I appeared any less strange to my contemporaries. Now, though, the secret knowledge that I liked girls gave me a kind of armour. I felt invincible: I wasn’t who or what Catholic World wanted, so I didn’t have to bother trying.
I dreamt my way through classes, occasionally popping back to reality to answer a direct question, or when a phrase or a notion caught my interest. The puzzled tone of my teachers is evident in my end-of-term reports: “Did so much better than expected,” “This mark is a disgrace,” “Has evident gifts but must try harder,” “Nicola must apply herself equally to all her subjects.” I simply didn’t care, and I was perfectly at ease not caring. I felt astonishingly free.
One day in English class, Mrs Squires (Mrs Stern taught the younger girls) was trying to talk to us of the importance of our exams. She was having a hard time persuading us they mattered. She stopped mid-sentence, came around from behind her desk and said earnestly, “What do you want to be doing in ten years?” The class answered one by one: wife and mother, masters degree in education, actress, and so on. I listened with dispassionate interest. I realised everyone was looking at me. “…you, Nicola?” Mrs Squires was saying. “You’re the only one who hasn’t answered.”
“I want to live in a cave all on my own.”
“You do not!” Debbie said, horrified.
“I do. I want to live in a cave in a forest clearing by a lake, and do nothing except watch deer eat grass and the clouds move across the sky.”
“I don’t believe you,” Debbie said.
“It’s what I want. I don’t have to defend it.”
“Yes, you do!” Lots of nods.
I folded my arms. People started shouting.
“No,” Mrs Squires said. “Nicola is right. I asked her, she answered. Now let’s open Macbeth, at Act Two…”
At that point I decided I liked Mrs Squires and I might do her the honour of paying attention in her class. Sometimes.
So I began to pay attention in English classes, sometimes. In the literature classes, to Shakespeare (though I ignored everything else). In language classes, to creative writing. After one of my exercises, a particularly dreamy description of a liquid-metal forest, was read out in class with Mrs Squires’ comments, “The best descriptive writing I’ve ever read,” everyone around me began to assume I would one day become a writer. I knew this because they told me; people were talking to me again, and I to them.
Perhaps this was because although I was still strange, they now had a pigeonhole to slot me into: I was a writer, and everyone knows writers are weird. Perhaps it was that I was drinking a little less and taking some interest in the world. I was happier, and happy people attract others. I became friends with a girl called Louise, and Una-and-Christina (an inseparable pair), all B students of the arts and humanities and subjects mysterious to me such as economics, and shorthand and typing.
They introduced me to the notion of a social life. I introduced them to drinking. They were fastidious, though; they wouldn’t drink the methylated spirits used to clean the blackboards (“Eeew. It’s purple!”) or Clan Dew. No, we actually pooled money and bought bottles of Blue Nun (wine, not much of a kick but dreadfully sophisticated) or drank malt liquor (Colt 45) liberated from Una’s parents. I felt almost normal.
At this point, I started also making friends with Gillian and Sarah, another inseparable pair, though this time A students in mathematics, physics, chemistry. They were acknowledged geeks.
My two sets of friends were like oil and water. In the UK, in those days, at age fourteen schoolchildren were required to start specialising, picking ‘O’ level subjects. Certain subjects–English language, maths, religion, French–were mandatory. Then we were supposed to pick another two to six subjects from a laundry list of things like Latin, physics, economics, geography… It was assumed we would select–and the syllabus was arranged to facilitate–one of two major paths, arts or sciences. I picked ten subjects, including English literature, Latin, and all the sciences. Several teachers were cross: the geography teacher, the music teacher, and so on. They found a way to call me to their desk at the end of class, “Oh, Nicola, there appears to be some mistake, you’re not on my list for next year…” Career counsellors had their shot at me, too. Arts or sciences, they said. Pick a pond and get used to it. But I was adamant: I wasn’t going to choose.
So, like ducks and swans, my friends were not destined to mix. But I paddled blithely in both ponds and gradually we found commonalities: Elvis Presley, for one thing. That is, Una (and therefore Christina) and Gillian (and therefore Sarah) liked Elvis. I felt nostalgic, because of Juliette and Catherine, and so went along good-humouredly. It also seemed that Gillian and Sarah thought Led Zeppelin was pretty spiffy. From these tentative beginnings we forged a seriously unlikely group.
Louise and I were a de facto pair but we were very unlike each other. It’s actually a mystery to me how we became friends. I don’t remember it happening, I just remember being fifteen and having the desk next to hers in our form room (a kind of home room). Our lockers were next to each other. Then she somehow acquired a boyfriend, whose name I forget (though his nickname was Oddball because, ah, well, you know…), who had a friend called Martin. One night Louise phoned and asked me if I wanted to double date.
Clearly the true answer was No, but for some mysterious teenage reason I went. One thing led to another, and a few weeks later, Louise and I and Martin and Martin’s friend, Miles, found ourselves on an archaelogical dig near Helmsley, Yorkshire, in summer during a terrible heatwave.
I liked Martin. He was sixteen, but amazingly mature and generous. He’d travelled all over the world, spoke Italian, was self-assured and calm for a sixteen year-old.
So there we were, doing hard manual labour six days a week in very primitive conditions. Digging is hard work; it was none of that dental pick, soft brush nonsense for us. We were grunts. We swung the axes, shovelled the dirt, hauled the stones, trundled the wheelbarrows. Brutal, but very satisfying. Martin and I would dig all day in the heat with pickaxes, walk two miles to the pub, drink a few pints, talk while we walked back in the silent, velvety warm night. We occasionally (illegally) scaled the walls of Helmsley Castle, where we sat on the dry grass and talked, or had sex then talked.
It was clear that I really liked sex but didn’t much care for lingering over his body. It distressed him.
“Are you a lesbian?” he asked me one night.
“Eh?” I said, shocked and flustered.
“Are you a lesbian?”
“I don’t know,” I said cautiously.
“I just thought that, y’know, you might be.”
“I might,” I said. And that was that. Our teenage brains wouldn’t let us slice-and-dice the issue any more clearly. But at two in the morning, while Martin slept beside me, and the crow-guns shot at intervals across the fields, I pondered what he’d said.
Lesbian, I whispered. Lesbian. I think it was the first time I’d allowed myself to say the word.
The next day, the woman I was pickaxing with seemed extra-luscious. I kept edging closer. Eventually she said, “That Martin. He’s your boyfriend, right?”
“I suppose,” I said.
She nodded emphatically to herself, and thereafter made sure we were several feet from each other at all times. I dreamt about her once or twice. Sometimes she morphed into Una.
When the dig closed down, I went back to Leeds, to the world of indoor plumbing, hot food, wall-to-wall carpeting, sharing a bedroom with Helena. I was as lithe and muscled as a panther, and tanned a deep brown, and I felt utterly caged. I promptly got sick.
In England it’s called glandular fever. In the US, mononucleosis, or Epstein-Barr. The worst part was the swollen glands in my throat. I couldn’t even swallow my own spit without so much pain it didn’t seem worthwhile. I was threatened with hospitalisation and IV rehydration unless I started drinking water. But it hurt too much. So my mother called Martin, who arrived with a quart of orange juice and an absolute determination to stay until I’d finished the lot.
I was furious with my mother–Martin, in my life, in my house!–and I hated orange juice. (You just don’t want to put anything acidic on a raw throat. It’s stupid. He was stupid. My mother was stupid.) I told him to bring me tea, and water, and chicken soup, and then I womanfully swallowed and swallowed until he went away.
I lay on the sofa, and listened to Frank Sinatra, and thought about Una. She was sensible and practical. She wouldn’t have given me stupid orange juice. She liked Frank.
I started daydreaming about talking to her about everything, about my conversation with Martin (lesbian, lesbian…), about love and what it was. About kissing her. And somehow, in the space of a week or so, I understood what I should have known all along: I was in love with Una.
But I still wasn’t sixteen. So when I recovered enough to get off the sofa and to get out of the house, and saw Una, I settled for sitting close to her and smiling a lot.
I still saw Martin, of course.
By this time Louise was more interested in Miles than Oddball, so she suggested we fix Oddball up with Una. One sunny afternoon, Una and Louise and I met Martin and Oddball and Miles in the grounds of the flat Martin shared with his mother. (Beautiful, parklike grounds–she was the warden of the local YWCA.) It was a disaster. I couldn’t keep my eyes off Una. When we all moved indoors, I couldn’t keep away from her. Martin sulked. We rowed. Una and I strolled outside. Martin shouted. I shouted back. Martin pulled out his air rifle (BB gun) and shot at us. Well, not at us, exactly, but near us, and one pellet ricocheted from the pavement and hit Una’s arm. It was mostly spent, but I knew it would leave a bruise. I was livid.
We left. Two weeks later we were back at school. Two weeks after that it was my sixteenth birthday. Two weeks after that, I told Martin it was over. I was probably less gentle than I could have been, but I had no experience of breaking up with anyone, and I had never spent much time talking about this kind of thing with friends. I was clueless–possibly even cruel, though I didn’t mean to be.
After my ‘O’ level results in the summer, I’d picked my ‘A’ levels: biology, chemistry, and physics. General studies was mandatory. Once back at school I was soon deep in organic chemistry, marine biology, and partial differential equations. When I paid attention, the work pleased me. Most of the time, though, I either ignored it or didn’t bother to show up.
I started to write poetry for Una (partially cribbed from Emily Dickinson–I remember some horrors about souls on fire and angel wings, but I didn’t start saving work until I was in my twenties, so I no longer have any of it). I didn’t give her the poetry. I had been in hiding so long I didn’t know how to come out.
I was in hiding in other ways, too. At school assembly one morning Sister Anne announced that the annual theatre production would be an operetta, The Mikado. The people in charge would be the music teacher, Miss Turner, and Mrs Stern, my old English teacher. “You should do that,” Una said. “No,” I said. “Oh, no.”
But Una usually got when she wanted. On the day of the auditions, she made sure that she and I and Christina (Christina was glued to her side during school hours, just as in home hours Helena was glued to mine) just happened to be strolling down a corridor after lunch. Una stopped outside the music room, and beckoned to me. “Listen. Here, put your ear to the door.” I leaned in obediently. She threw open the door, shoved me in, and clapped the door shut behind me.
Miss Turner, at the piano, looked at me. Mrs Stern looked at me. “Nicola,” she said. “What are you doing here?”
“Would you like to audition?”
“Well,” said Miss Turner, “pick a song. Come along, come along now. We haven’t all day.”
Mrs Stern handed me a book of songs. I opened it at random, realised I knew the song, and swallowed.
“All right?” Mrs Stern asked. I nodded.
Miss Turner said, “Well, which song is it? Come along now!”
And so I told her–though I don’t remember what it was, some old standard, some semi-religious, semi-patriotic battle anthem–and she crashed into the intro, and I sang, and I butchered it. At least the first few bars. But singing filled me with power and life and bravery, and I sang the rest with a deep and reckless joy. And then it was over, and they were staring at me as though I were a pink frog.
Miss Turner cleared her throat. “Well. Yes. Very good. Thank you. Assignments will be announced at assembly in one week.”
I don’t remember what I said to Una later, but at the assembly, my name was read out as an understudy role. Una was thrilled. I was pissed off. An understudy? An understudy?!
But with Una nagging and prodding I went to the first rehearsal, sucked it up and learnt the role of Koko along with the girl who was really going to play him. I went to the next rehearsal, and the next. And then at the first orchestra rehearsal, the girl playing Koko wasn’t there. “Nicola,” said Miss Turner. “Come and sing the part for the orchestra, help them get it right.”
So I did. Singing with a full orchestra, even with the screechy, clueless school violinists, was like a look behind the veil. I sang with utter unselfconsiousness, aware only of the living flow of music. I finished. And the entire room was silent afterwards, for about five seconds. Then Miss Turner exploded in rage. “I’ve never heard such rubbish in my life! You’re not paying attention!” She was shouting at the orchestra, I realised, not me. “There’s Nicola, singing her heart out, and you’re not giving her, or me, or anyone else in this room the courtesy of your full attention. Get out, the lot of you. Out, out, out. Except you, Nicola. You stay. Now sing me that again…”
The next day I was pulled out of class, told my netball schedule was being severely cut back (I was on the very competitive school team–we always won our regional division), and that I was to report three times a week for rehearsal in the role of Yum-Yum.
Yum-Yum. A girl’s part. How mortifying. Una, naturally, was delighted. By an alchemy I didn’t understand, she was now proprietary of me and all my doings; this apparently was her triumph as much as mine.
Christmas approached. I had no money, but I wanted to give Una something nice. What would she like? She said, “Sing my favourite song just for me.”
Singing from the perspective of a Japanese schoolgirl was one thing; it was acting, which to me at the time was just another form of hiding. Singing to a girl I loved about, well, love, was another thing entirely. No hiding possible. In an agony of anxiety, I managed to buy new batteries for my Phillips cassette recorder, to get Helena to leave the bedroom, and then to the little grille microphone to sing Sinatra’s “Softly.” I wrapped the cassette and gave it to Una for Christmas.
On Tuesday nights we started going to the Catholic Youth Club but, once there, shunning company. (Christina was unshunnable, but on Tuesday nights, she had clarinet lessons). We sat on the wall outside in the bitter cold and smoked, and drank bottles of Blackthorn cider. We talked. I told her as best I could of my stay in Scotland, and how things had changed for me. She misunderstood. I gathered–dimly, through the hormones and anxiety and alcohol–that she thought I was trying to tell her I’d woken up in a bed in Scotland with a man on one side and a woman on the other. Perhaps I meant her to think so. Perhaps I just plain lied, or perhaps I confused my dreams for reality. More likely I simply couldn’t articulate all the thoughts and feelings surfacing like krakens in my poor muddled brain. She did understand that I liked her, that I wanted to be much much more than friends.
As winter began to shade to spring, Una was waiting; it had somehow become my job to speak the words, to make the move.
I was terrified. By February we’d got only as far as holding hands while pretending we weren’t, and springing apart any time anyone came anywhere near.
At about this time it was announced, again at assembly, that this year’s half-term school trip would be to Greece. Without actually saying anything, Una and I communicated to one another that we would both like to go to Greece because then we’d be together at night. We pestered our parents until they gave in and ponied up. Ann Dale was going to go, and Christina.
Now we just had to wait.
The Mikado was scheduled. I could do the songs alright, at least most of the time, but I was hopeless at remembering my speaking lines. Rote learning was not my forte. I began to dread the first performance. As the date crept closer, I drank more. By the time the dress rehearsal rolled around, I was wasted. The orchestra started the overture, I waited–in a beautiful wedding kimono (borrowed from the mother of one of the Japanese children at Mum’s nursery school)–in the wings. People did things, sang things, my cue…
…and I didn’t move, couldn’t move. Someone in the chorus gave me a good shove and I catapulted onto the stage and opened my mouth, and the song just fell out. The rest of the show is hazy.
Thinking about Una drove me to the limits of endurance. To stay sane, I thought about something I’d never thought of before: the future. Perhaps I wanted to study medicine. Yes. But I’d probably need mathematics for that. Also, while I was at it, I should add English; I missed the arts. The fact that ‘A’ levels are a two-year course of study and I’d already lost almost a year would make it difficult to persuade the Powers That Be.
I started negotiating. At that age, this meant a statement of intent from me followed by silence. No, they said eventually, I couldn’t fit six ‘A’ levels into my schedule, it was materially impossible. Especially as I’d be critically behind on two of the subjects. My silence became mulish.
Well, they said, perhaps if I could persuade the relevant teachers to help me catch up through private tutoring?
I nodded fractionally. Mrs Squires would help me out, I knew.
And perhaps I could drop one of my other subjects?
Physics, I said. I hated those partial differential equations. (Executive brain function is notoriously absent in teenagers. Why I thought it would easier to study calculus full-time as pure mathematics, than part time as physics, is beyond me.)
And so my schedule expanded: five ‘A’ levels, team tennis, private tutoring, and increasing franticness about the approaching Greek trip with Una, and my inability to actually say anything to her about it. On top of all that, I was worried about Helena.
She was shoplifting. She stole chocolate for the thrill. I was horrified: what if she got caught? Every day she brought home bags of swag. I disapproved, but I ate it.
She expanded her horizons. Stole more and more, travelling all over town to break new territory. There was no need for the things she took, no rhyme or reason. It was just stuff. And there was a lot of it: chocolate, books, art supplies, guitar strings. It began to pile up. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t stop her, but I wasn’t going to inform on her, either. And I knew, given her disregard for planning and preparation, she would get caught sooner rather than later. “We have to get rid of it,” I said, and found a hiding place between the joists, under the eaves of our massive house.
One day, munching chocolate, reading an expensive, stolen art book, listening to Helena tune the new strings on her guitar, I said, “People would pay for this.”
And that’s how I began my brief career as a criminal mastermind. To make sure she wasn’t caught, I’d case the shop: security person looks like this, cameras are here, mirrors here, expensive books on that side are watched, on this side, not. Then I’d go to school and casually ask around who needed oil paints or new clarinet reeds or some glossy text book. I’d give Helena the list–verbal, of course, nothing written down–then send her to one of the previously cased shops. My reasoning was that she was going to steal anyway, and if I helped she was less likely to get caught. Plus we’d profit.
This worked well for a few weeks. But as the weather warmed and the first coo-hoot of returning wood pigeons echoed in the woods, heavy coats became more obvious and the game more risky.
At the beginning of May, I got off the bus and was walking down Shaw Lane smiling at the summery wood pigeon song, when Mum and Dad’s car swept by. This was very unusual. The only time Mum and Dad were ever in a car together in the daytime during the week was to rush to hospital to tend to another accident (me or Helena) or suicide attempt (Carolyn) or sudden illness (Julie–Anne never seemed to be seriously ill).
The car screeched to a halt. I dropped my bag and ran back to it. “Is it Helena?” I said. “Is she all right?”
“It’s Helena,” Mum said, with her I’ve-been-sucking-lemons face. “We’re on our way to the police station.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Go home, Nicola,” Dad said.
They were both so angry it was hard to tell if they knew of my complicity or not. “Right,” I said. “Home. I’ll start tea.”
I got to Grove Road and thundered up the servants’ stairs. I sanitised our room in five minutes flat, dragging piles of stuff under the eaves, replacing the hatch access with care so as not to disturb the dust in the cracks and crevices. I collected the chocolate wrappers, the discarded book bands, the art supply packaging. I brushed at the carpet so no one would see drag marks leading to the hatch. I threw the rubbish away, replaced the bin liners and put a few cold butts and crumpled bits of paper in so they didn’t look suspiciously clean, smoked nervously, remembered I’d said I’d start tea.
I ran back down the steps to the kitchen. Fried onions, made sausage patties, browned braising steak, got it all simmering. Cut potatoes for mash. Chopped cabbage. Started to pace. Helena was thirteen. She wouldn’t get any serious punishment. I was sixteen. The consequences could be very bad indeed–if she told anyone.
The front door banged open.
Coming up the stairs Mum and Dad looked humiliated, livid, and betrayed. Helena looked…like Helena.
“So,” I said, “tea’s on.”
Dad gave me a look I couldn’t interpret. “In the lounge,” he said.
In the lounge, Helena and I sat next to each other on the settee. Mum and Dad took their chairs on either side of the fireplace. I studied Helena’s face but learnt nothing.
“Now then, Nicola,” Dad said. “Did you know about this shoplifting?”
No help whatsoever from Helena’s expression.
“No,” I said.
Silence. Then he nodded. “I’m very glad to hear it. And now we’re going upstairs to take a good look.”
That night, Helena told me she’d got an official caution, “I promised not to do it again,” she said, and shrugged, and while I nearly threw up on the carpet with stress she lit herself a cigarette, looked around, and said, “So where’d you put the chocolate?” And a month later she was stealing again. But I washed my hands of it and I told her she could never, ever bring home the goods, that anything I thought was stolen I would throw away. She agreed, but it was clear: she simply didn’t care if she got caught. What was also clear was her contempt at the fact that I did care.
A week before half-term and the trip to Greece I said to Una, come out for a drink, there’s a, a thing I want to talk to you about.
So we went to the pub, and I couldn’t say anything. We drank steadily.
It started to rain. Nonetheless, we wordlessly chose to walk the three miles home rather than taking a bus. It would give us, me, more time to pluck up the courage to say the Thing.
We walked. We brushed hands. My heart thumped like a trapped rabbit. We passed some of the shops Helena stole from. We passed Kentucky Fried Chicken.
“Hungry?” Una said.
I nodded. I wasn’t, but if we ate, I’d have ten more minutes to get the words out of my mouth.
We ordered a bucket of something. We stood outside in the rain and ate.
“So,” I said. “So.”
“This thing I wanted to say.”
She nodded again. When she saw I was stalled, she said, “Is this something to do with Scotland?”
“No! Yes. Well, maybe.”
Silence. “Okay,” she said. “Can you name the subject at least?”
I tried. I simply couldn’t. I’d forced myself to be silent for three years, and my walls were as unbreachable as those bricks around Fortunato. For the love of god, Montressor…
Rain filled her eyes, or maybe it was tears. She began to turn away.
“Wait,” I said. “Wait. It’s, the subject, it’s… It begins with–” But I couldn’t even say It begins with L. But I had to. I had to find a loophole, a chink in the wall.
“It’s… Thirteen!” I blurted. “It begins with the thirteenth letter of the alphabet.”
“Thirteen?” She counted, frowned. “L?” she said, frowning some more. “It begins with L?”
I stared at my bucket of soggy chicken pieces and nodded miserably.
“Nicola,” she said. “Nicola. It’s, that’s…” I looked up. Her face was shining. “I feel that way too!”
We held hands all the way to her house. “We’re going to Greece,” I said at one point.
“I wish we were there now!”
We went to Greece. We shared a room with Christina. On the first night we all drank and drank and drank, we drank Christina unconscious, and then Una and I lay down next to each other.
Greece was the first foreign country I visited. It marked many firsts. Kissing a girl. Knocking a man down (I was smoking outside a disco, sitting on a wall, he came outside and sat next to me; he wore a white silk catsuit, professed to love the music of “pin floynd”, and insisted that because he was joining the army tomorrow we had to kiss; I pushed him backwards off the wall). Smoking inside an historical monument (the Parthenon, and yes, it was amazing to sit on a broken column and look out over the city with my girl by my side and a fat bumble bee buzzing by my foot).
At Athens airport, on the plane, on the coach from London to Leeds, Una and I held hands beneath our blankets or under newspapers or bags. After a whole week of being together every minute of every hour, breathing her smell, watching the fall of her long black hair, lighting her cigarettes, feeling the curve of her smile as my own, we were heading back to the real world, where we’d be expected to see each other only at school, in front of everyone else.
We still didn’t talk about it.
At the Leicester motorway service station, the bus stopped so everyone could use the bathroom and buy tea. Una and I sneaked away, walked right through the kitchens, found ourselves on the back step of the service entrance. It stank of garbage. Wasps buzzed. But no one could see us. We kissed like starving people. When we got back on the bus, we got told off by everyone: we’d made them wait.
When the bus pulled into the school car park, we all headed for our parents’ cars. Una turned briefly before she climbed into hers. “Bye,” she said, “see you Monday.”
If you’ve ever contemplated what it’s like for a bee when it pulls itself away from a hive attacker she’s just stung, then you know how I felt. Disembowelled. What if, on Monday (two whole days away), everything had changed? What if she didn’t mean it? What if I never, ever got to kiss her again?
But I did get to kiss Una again, a lot, as anyone who has watched this video before already knows:
So, if you’re ready, come out. If you come out: Congratulations! Welcome to the rest of your life! If you’re not ready, don’t beat yourself up about it. There’s a time for everything.