Updated: Nov 25, 2018
When we're young, I think most of us wonder what love is, whether we'll fall in love, what it'll be like, if the person we love will love us back. When I was at school, there was a tragic case of a girl, always described as 'not the prettiest', who fell in love with a lad and they started going out together, as we used to say. Dating. Going to the local dance at the weekends. The pictures. Walks in the park. He, by all accounts, was a fairly ordinary young man, nice looking, fancied himself as a bit of a ladies' man, liked a beer with the boys. The girl was besotted with him. After a couple of months, he began a side relationship with another girl. Naturally, as everyone involved was a young teenager, gossip got back pretty quickly to the first girl. She confronted the illicit couple at the dance but instead of him looking a bit shamefaced and coming back to her, he laughed. As did everyone else. Look at the homely girl thinking a lad like that was serious about her, making a scene, silly cow. The new, pretty girlfriend clung to the lad's arm. The first girl fled, that laughter no doubt ringing in her ears as she wept.
That night, her parents were out. She took all her mother's sleeping tablets and drank her father's whisky. Then in her nightgown, she staggered to the boy's house, which wasn't far. She no doubt intended knocking on the door so he would come out, save her, and realise how much he loved her, and it would all be OK. But no one in his house heard her increasingly weak knocking. They found her dead on the doorstep the next morning. She died alone, not much more than a child, for love.
The thing is, you can love someone as much as you like, to distraction, to the point of insanity, but you cannot make them love you back. And more commonly, you cannot make them love you as you love them.
As the weeks passed and we settled into 166, I began to have an inkling that X was far, far more complex a character than I had even imagined. At first, he regaled me with stories of his idyllic childhood in a delightful village founded by Quakers in sleepy, tree filled Buckinghamshire. It was all about the long, golden summers, family holidays in Cornwall or Wales, that crazy time they all piled into a camper van and set off round Europe and the mad scrapes and adventures they had. I was so envious. I either went on holiday with my parents to a small hotel in Jersey, then as soon as possible, Majorca, where I was left to my own devices while my mother sunbathed non-stop, dripping with her famous olive oil and lemon juice mix like a side of pork. Dada and Ma drank the night away in bourgeois glory with similarly roasted couples, while I sat on the swing seat by the pool and looked at the stars or fell straight asleep after dinner, sun dazed. After I was 12, they just left me at home with my maternal grandmother and went by themselves. There were no jolly japes or crazy adventures with the family for me. I was expected to be autonomous and invisible.
However. My summers were not uneventful. I had fallen for a a boy of 16 when I was 12 and started dating him. Yes, that's as bad as it sounds. Our 'dates' comprised walking in the surrounding countryside and snogging heavily. This was not an innocent, non-sexual crush - at least on his part. Or sometimes we went to his arty, literary parent's house to do paintings and sift through the huge piles of second hand books his father dealt in. The musty, old paper smell of used books always reminds me of Hamish, as I'll call him. Hamish was a tall, bony, tow-headed boy, with a handsome, slightly battered looking face and the thing I coveted most, a WW2 sheepskin flying jacket that smelt like heaven of leather and Hamish. He lent it to me and I slept with it like a teddy bear, inhaling that divine incense.
In case anyone at this point is picturing my just turning 13 year old self as a precocious Lolita, all pouts, lip gloss and posturing, I wasn't. I was a tall, sturdy girl with long, thick brown hair, grey-green eyes and a deep tan from lying on the flat roof of the garage in an old blue gingham bikini of my cousin's, reading Lord Of The Rings on repeat. I wore faded Capri pants, sleeveless cotton blouses and went barefoot wherever possible as a doctor had once recommended I do this, since my legs were twisted inwards from birth and I'd had years of physio, built up shoes and threats of calipers to straighten them. They thought walking barefoot might help correct the defect. Later I was told the same thing about Yorkshire clogs. I had spots, I was shy, I had a semi-eidetic memory, wrote poetry and drew, made felt and sequin mermaids and dreamed of travelling to exotic places, usually the Pacific. I loved Hamish as much as a neglected, bullied girl could. Which was a lot.
No one in either of our families seemed bothered by this suburban Romeo and Juliet tale. I think my father once told me to tell Hamish not to come round at night and climb up onto the porch roof to talk to and kiss me as I leant yearning out of my bedroom window. On my 13th birthday, his mother gave me a darling little gold Victorian bar brooch set with an amethyst and tiny seed pearls. I always remember how worried she looked, as if she wanted to say something important but couldn't. I kept the brooch for years then sold it to fund the band. During this romance, no one questioned what was going on. Though I didn't realise it at the time, it added to my sense of being invisible, of no interest to anyone, worthless.
Then of course, one day he came round and finished with me, on the grounds he'd found an older girl who he could fuck. Not of course, that he used that word but that was what he meant. She 'let him go the whole way'. She was a 'real woman'. It was just a teen broken heart, but it sowed a dark seed, cultivated by my family background. I wasn't a real girl. I wasn't a proper girl you took seriously. No one cared what happened to me. No one cared.
So my envy of X's delightful The Durrells style childhood was genuine. I loved his descriptions of his upper middle class family of 5 brilliantly clever siblings and an adopted cousin, his highly intellectual and spiritual parents who wrote and did good works, his dear old pets, the rambling, wisteria covered house in an historic village. People like that, I thought, wouldn't be like the parents and families of the other boys I'd dated who rejected me from the off and made sure I knew it. They'd accept me as an artist and a poet. I saw in my mind the charming pot luck family dinners round a long table full of smiling faces and X explaining those silly family jokes, afterwards the clever talk in front of the open fire. I was excited and anticipated meeting them with a mixture of nerves in case I made a dick of myself, and the hope I might have found a family.
It was not to be. My first meeting with his family terrified the crap out of me. All the stuff about the arty old book filled house, the mass of siblings, intellectual parents etc., was all true. But any hopes I had of being accepted were immediately dashed. The look of horror mixed with disgust at my Punk appearence on his mother's face was echoed by a similar one on his handsome, patrician father's. His mother, who I'll call A, was a Quaker, his father, O, was indeed a poet and writer, and a leader in a small, but influential and wealthy religious movement called Subud, that follow the spiritual teachings of an Indonesian mystic called Bapak Muhammad Subuh Sumohadiwidjojo, or Bapak for short. Which for many years I actually believed was 'Backpack', forgive my ignorance. Seriously, Google Subud if you want the full gen, but basically it's a mixture of early Christian and Muslim mysticism. With very good intentions, I'm sure, like all these things. In practice the Subuds I met were massive snobs who were all upper middle class intellectuals who'd nowadays be on a strict kale and turmeric smoothie diet. Because in both X's family and apparently, Subud from what I could see, Thin Was In and Fat was very definately Out.
Being naturally tall, well built and broad in the beam, this alone would have brought tuts of disapproval. A was particularly given to to this form of Intellectual Anorexia - being thin was a marker of restraint, self discipline, a disinterest in the physical self, a kind of pious spirituality of the same sort you so often see in posh yoga circles featuring chiselled blonde women in pale lavender leggings and an organic sage coloured tshirt with 'yogini' on the front in fake 'Hindu' lettering. A would occasionally make remarks to X in my presence about him getting a bit chubby, when there was literally not an ounce of spare on him. He was so bony it was painful to sleep with him - if his elbows didn't get you his knobbly spine would.
There were dinners round the long table as I'd imagined, but that was where the fantasy ended. They were a free for all with a babble of competing voices and no attempt whatsoever to include a stranger. I sat bemused and tried to eat the truly dreadful food A served up. Perhaps burning everything or leaving it lumpy and raw were ways of putting her kids off food in the hopes they'd never - god forbid! - get past a respectable size zero.
X's myriad siblings were also terrifying and equally disapproving. One of the older brothers was a lawyer. Frankly I'd have confessed to a double homicide with a straight to jail plea to avoid being in a courtroom with him, he was that scary. Very good-looking and cold as a polar bear's arse. Those chilling eyes swept me from head to foot and dismissed me entierly as vulgar beyond belief. I don't think I ever managed an actual conversation with him.
The ray of light though, and she was a proper dizzy, fantastical, funny star, was X's younger sister who I'll call Rose. Because she's like a lovely long stemmed golden rose, and she welcomed me without question. People who just assume everyone automatically likes them and wants them around, like X does, have no idea what it's like when socially awkward, shy you - and yes, I am - meets a person whose kind heart and complete acceptance makes your screwed up heart relax. Rose, with her mass of long wheat coloured hair, her high bridged nose, killer cheekbones, eyes fixed on the far, far away and her chattering magpie love of glamour and glitz was a trial to her austere family and the best 'sister in law' you could ask for. I am forever in her debt.
X's father though, was as my Welsh Nana used to say, a proper case. In looks O was a more refined, smoother, silvery version of his dark son X. He looked every inch the aristocratic priest, and moved in a cloud of superior disinterest and a higher spiritual piousness. At first, because I'd heard he was a poet and had knocked around, if a man like that ever knocked around, with Robert Graves and that poety crew, I looked forward, albeit a bit nervously, to meeting him. When we were introduced, X sounding nervy himself and a bit rough round the edges, mentioned I was a poet. O gazed at me with the look of a visiting bishop being introduced to the local prostitute. Ah, he said. Hmm. Oh, he murmured. Indeed. He steepled his fingers contemplatively. I, ah, read a fascinating book of poetry the other day, he said. Eager to impress, I brightly asked who it was by. I, um, have it here, yes, here it is, said O and pulling a book from his bookcase held it out to me. I went to take it and in one of those long, terrible, drawn out moments of social embarrassment, he took it back, looked at it and put it back on the shelf. No, on second thoughts, O said mildly as if mentioning the weather was turning warmer, I doubt you'd understand it.
It really was one of those occasions where you wish you could flip open your communicator and say, beam me the fuck up, Scotty. I felt the blood rush to my face and my thigh muscles shake. I genuinely had no idea what to say. O sat there, his noble face looking serene and untroubled. Now I realise it was very probably him just pissing on his territory like a poet version of a tom cat, then I was simply a mortally embarrassed young woman who'd been shamed by a guy old enough to a) be my father and b) know better and have better manners.
As I didn't know what to do, I did nothing, standing in silence like a veritable pillar of red faced salt. The day ground on excruciatingly. X pretended it wasn't that awful, O was so absent minded, it was a family joke he was so bad he never knew what his kids were called and went through all the names until he hit lucky! What a card! He could be so funny and amusing too - his Christmas plays for the kiddies were a complete hoot! I'm sure that was true. But I never saw that side of him. I saw him despise the common girl X was misguidedly involved with, who in time he'd doubtless tire of, and then take up with a suitable Annie, Daisy or Saffron. O never relented towards me, nor I imagine spared me a second thought. When he died, I attended the funeral and did the flowers in the Friends Meeting House where the service was held as my contribution to the day. I knew he'd have hated that. But my sorrow was not for him, it was for X, who loved his father deeply, all the more because the man barely noticed him, and admired him to the point of hero worship. It's not the dead that need our sympathy, it's those they leave behind.
As the story of X's childhood unravelled during our non-stop conversation, I saw the golden dream dissolve. The truth was when he was born, he was given over immediately to a German au pair girl to raise whilst A got on with her good works - and give her her due she did a huge amount of useful work for others - and running the household. X's mother was de facto the German girl. He bonded with her as babies do with their primary carer, the same as little ducks. I'm sure she cared about the tiny baby. I say tiny, because X was an extremely small baby and little boy, with a shock of white blond hair, who didn't get his growth until quite late, unlike giant beanstalk me.
Then as is the way with hired help, one day, a few years after his birth, the German girl went home. No one bothered to talk to little X about this. No one counselled him about the devastating loss of his 'mother'. No child psychiatrists or helpful chats. Nothing. I'm sure A was bracing about it and life carried on as per usual. Then X was sent away to a prestigious prep school, The Dragon School, as a boarder. On his first night, aged 7 or 8, he was beaten for a minor infringement of rules he couldn't possibly have known about.
The idyllic childhood was one of terrible loss, abandonment and lack of secure attachment. Any 'complaints' would not have been taken seriously or dealt with in any way. Any 'scenes' would have been rigourously quashed. Little X was taught that pain, love, fear, anger - any strong personal emotion - must be pushed down hard and locked away forever. There would be no one coming to cuddle him or wipe his eyes and kiss him goodnight in that dormitory of lost boys. There was only himself. A sharp, painful pity for that child mixed into the love I felt for X. I knew how it felt to be abandoned, not in a physical sense, but by parents far too caught up in their own concerns to deal with a sensitive, artistic child.
Just like me, in fact, but via a different route. Did that abandonment by those meant to care for us bring us so closely together? If it did we didn't know as we were both highly trained to never speak of it and to accept it as normal. The adults in this protected themselves by indoctrinating us and all children like us, to believe we were at fault if we questioned. That we were weak and childish if we cried. That they always knew best and we were at their disposal.
I once had a really brilliant counsellor. He said to me there's an unspoken contract between a child and its parents. The parents create the child then the promise is they won't abandon them in the dark forest to be eaten by wolves. If parents break that contract, and don't protect and nurture the child, the broken promise haunts the child for the rest of it's life, because if your own mother and father leave you in the dark alone to suffer, how can you ever trust anyone ever again?
So X and I hid our secrets and huddled together on our mattress on the floor in the mouldy glory of 166, the web that bound us together growing thicker and stronger in its strange darkness every day and every long, talk filled, full moon night. The house rapidly began to fill up with poets, singers, firebrands, ranters, ragamuffin Punks, New Romantics, Vivienne Westwood drag queens, comedians, chancers, thieves and wanderers, the flotsam of a savage generation, the flies in Thatcher's ointment, the makers, the shakers, the get-down destroyers.
Life was just beginning.