“And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories?”
Rainer Maria Rilke
I like the idea of freedom. For everybody, of course, but especially when it comes to me. Unfortunately, I’ve reached the conclusion that it’s also not very good for me. I’m not suggesting anything like Rilke: a bright lad he may have been, but he was also a bit of a prick about poets digging going to prison so they can explore their wondrous minds. The sort of lack of freedom I’m suggesting – for me, not everybody else, they’re not as fucking stupid as I am – is broadly analogous to the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction. Or ‘MAD’, ironically enough.
I’ve noticed a couple of themes emerging in my lengthy waffling here, things I didn’t necessarily intend, but nonetheless seem to be evident to me, from a fresher perspective. Principally, the internal struggle between doing what comes naturally and making myself do other things instead.
What I’m going to write about here is – mainly – about an instance when I wasn’t really free to do what would have come naturally, and how I found that ignoring my natural urges worked out far better; yet I still failed to apply that learning on several occasions when I really had no excuse. Having already learned it, I mean. The story begins late 1984.
I remember being a virgin clearly. The main thing I remember about it is how I wanted to not so much lose it as wilfully get rid of it.
I was thirteen when it happened and, mentally, far younger than that. I don’t know if it was typical or not because I made a point of not talking about it with anybody because I’d freaked myself out.
Our English teacher lived in the catchment area for out school. Despite being viewed as a moron, I had still managed to find myself in the top stream, which meant that I was doing English Literature, unlike all the other streams, who weren’t. That being the case, we were also given more homework than the lower streams, especially in English. Mostly reading, which suited me in theory if not in practice. Well, not all the time. To Kill A Mockingbird, which we were given to read one holiday, I loved. I couldn’t put the bastard down, literally. My old man took me in town, which was always good because we liked the same shops, but I opted to stay in the car in order to continue reading: the trial had just begun. We also had to read the BFG, which I wasn’t so keen on, and Cider With Rosie, which remains in the bottom ten books I’ve ever read. I say ‘read’, I didn’t even read all of it and we had to study that for O level.
Anyway, our English teacher – Mrs Cowley – used to put us in small groups with people that we didn’t generally talk to much and set us group homework, which meant we had to hang around with kids we didn’t really know outside of school as well as in it.
One assignment at the start of the third year, as it was then called, was to read reports of the same event in different newspapers and to write an analysis of the various angles from which the story had been written. The story was the Brighton bombing, which we’d already discussed in class to an extent. I realised then that my parents’ attitudes towards this act of violence did not appear to be very similar to anyone else’s. The talk in class was about the assault on democracy and the brutality and how violence solved nothing. My parents’ first reaction to the news was laughter and cheering, followed by disappointment that Thatcher hadn’t actually been killed. When Norman Tebbit was stretchered out of the hotel, covered in dust and looking like some sort of antediluvian creature whose job was to guard the dead, my dad shouted at the telly, “On your fucking bike, Norman,” – a reference to his oft quoted advice to the unemployed. I kept my mouth shut. I went to a pretty middle class school, really. In fact, the parliamentary constituency in which I lived was the one that Alan B’stard’s was based on – highest majority in the house. They’d vote for a pair of wellies as long as they were blue.
So, armed with four or five of that week’s newspapers, I found myself walking to Mrs. Cowley’s house where my homework partner for that week – Suzanne – was babysitting for her. Suzanne lived across the road from her and, as a responsible, well behaved and intelligent youth, she was entrusted with Mrs Cowley’s firstborn. Actually, she wasn’t even Mrs Cowley by that point because she’d divorced Mr Cowley.
Sub Diversion – Mr & Mrs Cowley
Mrs Cowley was very good looking as far as teachers went, which wasn’t all that far at our school. Baggy Brown – the name tells you all you need to know – was Mrs Cowley’s competition in terms of attractive female teachers.
She was ace – my all time favourite teacher – and not even because she was good looking. I suppose she was my favourite because, uniquely among her peers, she rated me as having brains. She was good though. We seemed to spend most of our English lessons discussing things and then writing down how we felt about whatever it was we’d been talking about. It didn’t even seem like work.
She’d tell us bits and pieces about her personal life too. What sticks with me are the strange things she told us which, had I a bit more about me, I would have recognised as cries for help, really. I suppose she just wanted to get things off her chest and telling us lot allowed her to do it with impunity.
She was the first person I’d heard of who walked around her house without wearing any clothes. I knew this was true because Suzanne told me she’d seen her and her husband doing the cleaning in the niff. I found it a bit odd that she was telling a load of twelve year olds about that – she must have known that the lads fancied her, and I wondered about whether she quite enjoyed that idea and if she was giving us a bit of a mental titilation to sustain it. I think I probably know now. I’ll come to it, but I find it a bit odd when women tell you about being naked. Especially if you’re not going out with them. I shared lifts with a woman I worked with many years later and she regularly told me about ‘enjoying the cool of the covers on her naked thighs.’ I didn’t really know what to say about that.
One of the girls – Elaine Patricia Hunt, whom we called Elephant – she wasn’t fat or grey – asked her why she never wore earrings. Mrs Cowley told us that it was because she’d not had her ears pierced. Ellie asked why not and, to my shock, she told us it was because Mr Cowley wouldn’t let her. I can still hear her saying, “He says I can get my ears pierced at the same time as I get my nose pierced,” and she pointed at her septum, “and put a ring through it like a prize bull.”
Later, at university, we were taught about ‘Flashbulb memories”, which are burned indelibly into people’s minds when something momentous happens. Hence, “Where were you when JFK was shot? Or when 9/11 happened?” For me, due to a complicated childhood in which I was constantly trying to work out what the fuck was going on and trying to pay very close attention to everything in order to try to find some causal factors, I’m not sure I have anything but flashbulb memories.
Anyway, I was shocked that a woman such as Mrs Cowley, who was clever, funny and, seemingly, independent and strong would delegate her decisions to her husband. I couldn’t see my mother going along with anything like that. Mind you, my mother didn’t go along with anything much.
With hindsight, Mrs Cowley was having a shit time of it at home and work, tragically, was a bit of a haven for her. She obviously wasn’t made to feel very attractive by her husband, hence telling us lot about walking around her house in the nude – you know, getting some attention wherever she felt she could. The ear piercing thing though? Even then – 1983 – it felt a bit nineteenth century.
One day, she walked into our class with her hair tied back – long and blonde, natch – a pair of earrings glistening in the flickering neon strip lights and we knew exactly what had happened. Even if we didn’t, she soon told us. She’d left Mr Cowley and would now prefer it if we called her Miss Gee, although she wouldn’t be mad at us if we called her Mrs Cowley by accident as that’s how we knew her.
I was pleased for her. She was always kinder to me than she had to be. One parents’ evening, she spent about half an hour with my folks in order to make absolutely sure that my mother understood that I wasn’t a pain in the arse and that she was actually really pleased that I was in her class. My mother, possibly as a result of years of tears at Primary school parents’ evenings, refused to believe her.
After a while, she got together with Garreth Roberts, Hull City’s midfield dynamo of the time, with whom she had children. One morning, he dropped her off outside school in his convertible sports car – I don’t know what sort it was, I don’t know anything about cars – and we stood in awe as they kissed goodbye. Then we got him to sign things. He signed my maths book. I still don’t know I asked him, really. I wasn’t into football and I didn’t go and watch Hull City.
End of sub Diversion
At Miss Gee’s house, the baby was asleep and we got our newspapers out and talked about the Brighton Bombing. I was a committed socialist at that point and had been the lone dissenting voice in a class discussion about the topic of ‘Should people get paid different amounts of money for doing different jobs?’ because I said I thought people should get paid the same, whatever they did. I say I was the lone dissenting voice, Greg Hird, who I played cricket with and against took the same position. Not that it did any good.
“Nobody would bother to be a doctor if you could earn the same amount being a bin man,” was the common complaint.
I said that if the only reason doctors were doctors was for the money, that would be a bit of a shame, wouldn’t it? You’d think that the money might be nice, but really, it would be about helping people, which bin men do too. No bin men: increased diseases from accumulated rubbish. I said I valued everyone the same.
“Pah,” they said.
I’m not even convinced I believed it myself, I think I just mildly enjoyed irritating Sian Stinchcomb – I kid you not. Irritating Sian Stinchcombe was something I’d discovered when we were talking about our grandparents one English lesson. Sian had given us a monologue about how fantastic her grandma had been which culminated in her tearfully showing us that she’d inherited her engagement ring, which she always wore. She wept as she spoke. That wasn’t enough for a twat like me though. When Mrs Cowley asked me to tell us about my grandparents, I told them about my old man’s mother who was the only one left alive by that point. My Grandma had precisely no time for me at all. Once, my mum was in hospital for an operation and my Grandma said to my dad, “Oh, why don’t you come round for your tea when she’s in hospital?”
My dad, somewhat taken aback by this unusually altruistic display, said that would be really nice.
“No problem,” she said, “Just bring a tin of beans and I’ll heat it up for you. you can do your own washing up though.”
My old man’s culinary expertise extended to opening a tin of beans and heating them up himself, so we didn’t bother.
When I told them about this and a couple of other anecdotes about how she didn’t give a shit, Sian burst into fresh tears and told me that I didn’t deserve grandparents if that was how I was going to talk about them, what with mine still being alive and hers being dead.
Still, at Miss Gee’s house, Suzanne and I read the papers to each other and she spoke about how it was an undemocratic event and that it was a bad thing. I confided in her what my parents’ response to it had been and she found it pretty funny. Then she asked me if I felt the same and I said I pretty much did, which she was surprised about for some reason. We didn’t really know each other too well. We’d been to different primary schools. Anyway, we came to some conclusions about different papers’ political allegiances and how they’d framed the same story in relatively subtle and different ways and wrote it up.
It was still pretty early – and a Friday night – so she asked me if I fancied watching a video. Miss Gee had quite a lot of videos. Most of them seemed pretty highbrow to me: quite a lot of Shakespeare adaptations and what have you. I remember her having a video of Breathless, a Jean Luc Godard film that Clare showed me years later, and Jules Et Jim by Truffaut.
With the aim of being a bit posey, we watched Jules Et Jim. I’d not really watched many programmes with subtitles, but I thought it was alright; pretty much what I expected from French films in terms of love triangles and killing yourself about them.
During the film, I had my first ever pizza, which Miss Gee had made for Suzanne and we lightly damaged her drinks cabinet, as is the law for babysitters. Having polished the pizza off and buoyed by booze, we edged nervously towards one another. Knees occasionally touching. Accidentally brushing one another’s hand. Things like that. By the end of the film, we were snogging as Jeanne Moreau ploughed her car over the bridge, killing herself and Jim, leaving Jules to deal with the fallout. We’d barely spoken a word through the film, it was an unspoken thing, which suited me because I had no fucking idea about what to say to girls, believe you me. None.
As the tape reached the end and had begun to rewind itself, we were rolling around on the floor together. Once it reached the start again, we’d lost some quite important items of clothing. Perhaps it was the house that encouraged clothing removal. I guess not, really.
So, by the light of black and white interference on our English teacher’s telly, we followed the instructions from the “Where Babies Come From” booklet we’d received in Biology about special cuddles that mummies and daddies gave each other and merrily screwed on Miss Gee’s sheepskin rug. I say screwed; I did my best, but I had no idea at all. I mean, I could have drawn her a diagram of the internal workings of the female reproductive system and had a reasonable discussion about the menstrual cycle, but as far as doing it for fun – what? She was really kind about it. It was her first time, too. I believed her, she was no better than me, but she was a lot more relaxed about it. I’d not even had a wank by that point.
I can’t honestly say that I was all that relaxed because I wasn’t. I was shitting myself all the way through the whole thing. I don’t know about Suzanne who, by now, I had been encouraged to call ‘Suzie’. I do know that my virgin custard remained unchucked and we just stopped after what seemed like quite a long time, but probably wasn’t.
Setting the standard for many of my future trouserless encounters with nice girls, I didn’t cover myself in glory. I don’t mean I was a crap shag, although I doubtless was, I mean I made my excuses and ran home in such a hurry that I left the papers and my homework behind. I realised halfway home and thought, ‘Fuck it’. My homework was at my English teacher’s house – I could hardly be accused of not handing it in, could I?
I wondered if the fact that I’d not ejaculated had any bearing on my virginity and decided that it probably didn’t, unless it did, which it might have. When I heard about the female orgasm and how it didn’t happen very often, I knew that it had made no difference.
I realised that we’d not used any contraception. I was, again, horrified, then I wasn’t. We were always being given leaflets at school about dying of AIDS or in a nuclear attack and what my brain did – all by itself – was to tell me that the reason I’d not used a condom (apart from not having any) was because yes, I might die of AIDS, but even if I didn’t, I’d be dead about a week into a nuclear winter, so fuck it.
And that’s what my brain’s like: it’s a fucking idiot that shouldn’t be allowed to do anything without close supervision. And yet. And yet…
On Monday at school, Suzie approached me in tutor time with a coy smile and handed over my homework and papers.
“Did you enjoy yourself on Friday, Middlerabbit?” she asked me. Despite my panicked break for it, she was being alright.
I went red and my brain immediately started coming up with ways in which it would be possible to avoid having to ever have any contact with her ever again due to having no idea about how to comport myself around her. It didn’t take long before it realised that wasn’t very feasible, bearing in mind we were in the same classes for everything except PE and we’d even gone out of our way to incorporate a bit of that into our English homework, so there was no getting away. Fortunately for me.
It was fortunate because it forced me not to just ignore it out of embarrassment. Suzie and I went out after that and it wasn’t what I expected going out with someone to be like at all – it was a good laugh, which I never expected. Later, when it eventually sort of fizzled out after a bit less than a year, that turned out alright too. It was nice to have a friend who was a girl and, having done what we’d done, it was a bit like the nuclear deterrent in a warped sort of way. We both could have really dropped the other in it: with parents, with our mates, with future boyfriends and girlfriends. But we didn’t. Maybe that’s why we stayed mates for so long, which is rare for me anyway, but I don’t think it was. Most of my exes have nothing to do with me and I don’t blame them, I was, more often than not, a total idiot. I wouldn’t have minded staying mates with most of them because they were all ace in different ways, but I can dig it. Or, maybe it was mutually assured destruction that kept us friendly at first, but I don’t think it was later. To be honest, I don’t think it was ever that with her but it might have been a bit for me. Neither of us told anybody else about it. Not while we were at school, anyway.
We didn’t keep in touch after I left school and she stayed on at the sixth form and that was alright too. I don’t really know what she got out of it because I was a moron, really, but maybe she didn’t mind that. I know what I got out of it though: I learned that girls could be alright which, shamefully, I was previously convinced of otherwise. Maybe the best thing was that I could relax a bit and not be quite so uptight about talking to girls as some of my mates were – then and later.
I’ve got a lot to be grateful to Suzie Green for. And getting rid of my virginity comes down pretty low on the list, which would surprise the thirteen year old Middlerabbit.
But, and there’s always a but, the pity was that it took me an awfully long time to learn the big lesson from the whole thing which was, of course, ignore my brain because it’s best to stick it out when you feel awkward. Running away from problems – especially ones that I was entirely responsible for – isn’t and wasn’t a very good idea and the fact that I couldn’t have run away from the awkward Suzie situation at the start meant that I (should have) learned that things get better. In fact, they got much better.
Freedom is an important thing. Mrs Cowley didn’t have the freedom to have her ears pierced and – possibly – overcompensated with the display of walking around in the buff in her house. You know, “Check me out. Look at how free I am. Woo!” Trying a bit hard. Mrs Cowley got the freedom she wanted when she dumped Mr Cowley, who didn’t want kids.
And, like the butterfly effect of that controlling, unhappy marriage ending and Miss Gee’s resultant babies being sat by Suzie Green, who unburdened me of my unwanted sexual status and whose every class I was in, was that I lacked the freedom to be the disappearing prick that my brain so desperately wanted me to be.
And that’s what happens when I give my brain free rein to do what it thinks is best.
Starry eyed and laughing, my brain craves the chimes of freedom, but clamps its hands over its metaphorical ears the instant they start to peal.