Have you ever had that feeling? Those days that stretch out, when you believe that you won’t be able to breathe if you don’t see someone or at least hear their voice or smell their scent on a book, a jumper, a discarded cigarette end?
At some point, looking back, you wonder how it could possibly have lasted that long, why you didn’t just grow tired from the relentless hopelessness. But when you do, it means you’ve forgotten, or chosen not to remember those brief moments of joy – that touch, a kind word, the secret kiss – that made the dull passage of waiting seem like nothing at all.
I was fourteen when our mothers, who were friends, arranged for us to meet so I could ask him about the reality of working as an actor. He was everything that I was not. His ease with his own body, his relaxed flirtation, his absolute confidence were all things I admired. But I had not been prepared for the way Gerry could look at me and make me see all those attributes in myself. It wasn’t his actor’s physicality, not at first. That came later. But after our first meeting, just an innocent coffee in a snack bar in town, something in my very being seemed to burn. I carried the books he’d loaned me, a Chekhov play and someone on voice production, everywhere. They smelled faintly of nicotine and another indistinct but undeniable scent which I thought of simply as him. He smoked. No one in my family smoked; bad girls at school smoked behind the toilets at break time. I was never one of them, but the attraction of the forbidden was palpable.
So this was how it began: in a little cafe where he recited Shakespeare to me, gave me books – the most beloved of things to gift me – and left me with a conscious tingling on my cheek where his lips had touched, so very briefly, in goodbye.
I did not see him again for seven weeks. Even now, thirty years later, I remember that. And it is true that towards the end of that first anticipatory time, the enchantment had started to fade. The books sat on my bedside table; I even forgot to put them in my school satchel a couple of times. I had stopped rereading the Chekhov so I could learn a new speech: Portia’s in The Merchant of Venice, but not the quality of mercy one which everyone I knew was doing or had done.
My mother telephoned him. In all the years that followed she would blame herself again and again for that one simple act. She asked if he would help me prepare for my drama exam.
‘I was just about to call and offer,’ he said. ‘Do you know if she liked The Cherry Orchard?’
And so it really did begin.
My bedroom was brown and cream, with a thick shag pile carpet in chocolate that matched one wall. There was a big combined wardrobe and dressing table unit that was full to bursting and a desk that was always strewn with something or other, but which I loved because my dad had found it in a market and stained and varnished it for me. Before Gerry was due to come I stayed in my room, responding to my mum’s calls from downstairs by saying that I had homework to do, that I wanted to be all done before he came. In truth I just wanted to be alone. I sat on the edge of my bed and sniffed his books, wondering if he would take them with him. I imagined him in my room, but couldn’t quite see it. My skin glowed and I tried four different dresses before settling on my most grown-up, which was black and tight-fitting but which my mother made me change.
‘For God’s sake, Annie, the poor man is here to help you, not to get into trouble. Put on something more appropriate.’
So I wore a denim dress with buttons down the front and closed them all demurely, although I wondered as I did so what it might be like if he undid them, one by one. I didn’t really think he would, just wondered how it might be, could be, if I was older or at least more glamorous. He was late. I came downstairs to sit with mum and dad and wait for his knock. We couldn’t put on the telly because my parents thought it the height of bad manners to have a television on when a visitor arrived. My dad smoked his pipe in his armchair and looked at a gardening book. My mum fussed over the lip gloss I was wearing and worried about the cakes she’d bought.
‘Do you think he’ll like chocolate? Perhaps I should have bought the meringues. Everyone likes meringues. You will behave, won’t you, Annie? It’s very good of him to come out from Glasgow like this.’
I thought too that it was a long way to come, almost an hour on the train to help a schoolgirl for a drama test, but I had seen his eyes over coffee, had caught them lingering on my breasts; I thought I might know why he was making the trip. I suggested the cake that Gran had bought as an alternative to the chocolate tart, and mum vanished into the kitchen to add some slices to her serving plate.
Then he arrived, wet, his hair curled tight from the light drizzle of rain, not straight like mine was at even a hint of dampness. Black hair, blue eyes, all the clichés – like Bassanio, who was much on my mind, or Albrecht so that I could be as mad as Giselle in the ballet, and just as shameless.
He was Catholic, too. It was a first for our house, I think, having a Catholic for tea like that, but though his gold crucifix glinted beneath the plastic ceiling light, no one seemed to mind. Again, the allure of the forbidden. He suggested that he and I go somewhere to work and my mum said, yes, Annie’s room, adding that she hoped I hadn’t managed to muck it up in the hour before he came. I hated her then, briefly but fiercely. I wanted to be seen as an adult. But he smiled at me, caught my eye in a look of such complicity that I willed her to admonish me once more so I could find myself like that again, protected in a moment of empathy.
We climbed the stairs. I was just ahead of him, felt the brush of his hand on the bannister as I held mine a fraction too long behind me. When we closed my bedroom door and lit the bedside lamp – he said he wanted atmosphere for my practice – my room became a place of promise. He sat cross-legged on the floor and I tried to be Portia.
‘I pray you, tarry: pause a day or two. Before your hazard –’
‘I was afraid,’ he said afterwards, ‘afraid I’d come and you’d have no talent and I’d have to pretend you were good. But I shouldn’t have worried at all.’
I couldn’t speak. I could barely breathe. My body hummed, my skin pulled, straining towards this person in the half-light, imbuing his nicotine into my pores and through my long hair, taut and craving. It was a feeling I would come to know well, but then, that first night, in my own room where my childhood toys lay discarded on a chair by the desk, it was new and I felt that I would explode if he didn’t touch me. But he did. He took my hands in each of his and looked at me. ‘Darling, you’re very good, but much, much too young. I’m more than twice your age.’ And then, as if he couldn’t help himself, he swayed towards me and we kissed. So gently, but my consciousness sighed with the relief of it. An expectation was met, a reciprocity realised. It was soft, lips on mouth for no more than a second, and I was amazed by the fleshy gentility of his mouth, his cigarette breath. He pulled away with a sigh and for a minute, I became the grown-up.
‘It’s all right, really, I wanted it too. Please –’ But youth and inexperience stopped the words and I broke off. I was lost in my own inadequacies and inabilities, the girl who spoke to everyone, all the time, silenced by a kiss, muted by emotion. Then he kissed me again. More urgently. I felt his tongue push between my lips and they opened. I mimicked him, ran my tongue over his gums, over the soft inside of his cheek. And it seemed that this was something, after all, that I was good at, expert even, for that was how he made me feel.
When he pulled back he looked unashamedly at my breasts, stared at the place where the top two buttons opened (I had undone them as we climbed the stairs). If he had touched them I would have been happy, but he did not, just took my hand and kissed it. His mouth was soft, but my palm was marked indelibly and invisibly at the point where my heart line and my life line intersected, in the space that he had touched.
There was only one long kiss that evening. But I came to know the meaning of Portia’s beseeching speech to Bassanio: ‘I could teach you how to choose right but then I am forsworn’.
Portia longs for Bassanio, is tempted to tell him which casket to choose in order to marry her, but does not. While choosing her family’s honour she concedes: ‘One half of me is yours, the other half yours, / Mine own, I would say, but if mine, then yours and so all yours’.
Gerry worked me hard. He was unfazed by a kiss that had turned me inside out. ‘Again,’ he urged, ‘Speak to me. Make me want you, make me see the risk that you are considering, the strength that you need not to do it.’ Then, finally: ‘Very convincing. Now I believe you.’
Before we went downstairs to my parents I hesitated, expecting another kiss that didn’t come, although I saw that he thought about it. He did place his hand on my thigh, curled around its shape, and granted me a last complicit smile before tea and mum’s chocolate tart.
There was no email, back then. It was the eighties, and I wonder now how my madness would have been had it existed. Much worse, I think. I would have been unable to do anything for the tension of waiting, the constant expectation of a message or a text, words to unravel me. As it was, he visited me at home the following week, kissed me again, twice, and gave me a slip of pale blue paper with his phone number written on it.
‘My parents,’ I said. ‘They’re always at home when I am.’ Dad worked shifts and mum worked days.
‘What about a payphone at lunch time? I could call you straight back. It would be so good to hear your voice.’
It was my first real endearment from him, the first sign that he missed me when I wasn’t there, and such a simple request. I shored up ten-pence pieces like they were made of gold. At lunch time I rushed from my classes to the payphones, dialled his number, holding my breath in case he was out or had forgotten, but he was always there when he said he would be. At first the calls were short. I’d speak till the pips for my 10p went and then he’d call me back on the payphone number and speak for ten minutes about literary things. Did I like the Shaw? He had given me Shaw’s Saint Joan to read. Yes, I loved it. How was our cat? My schoolwork? But then on the third phone call: What was I wearing? I described my school uniform skirt with its dark grey pleats, white blouse, blue blazer. He asked: Was I alone? Could anyone see me in my red phone booth? Was the street busy? It wasn’t. The payphones, three in a row, were on a side street, and the only people who went down it were people who wanted to use them. Did I miss him? Of course I did. Did I think about our kiss? And then I had to describe how I felt, how my nipples were hard, and after two more weeks of lunch time talks, how just the sound of his voice on the line made me wet and aching.
I wanted to know when he might visit again. He seemed adamant that he could not. The calls obsessed me, yet seemed insubstantial, tantalising. I wanted another kiss. My fifteenth birthday came and went and I felt older, wiser, ready. But he waited still. The conversations grew more explicit. I sensed him pleasuring himself while I watched the rain or the weak autumn sunlight through the red framed panes of the phone box. He didn’t ask me about what I was reading, or the cat, or my schoolwork, just about what I wore and how I felt, and after three months, if I had a boyfriend. I ended up close to tears.
‘Of course not, how could I? Don’t you know that I love you?’ And there it was. I had said it although he never had to me.
‘If you loved me then you might . . . ’ It was the mantra I came to hear most often. If I loved him, I might have a boyfriend and let that boyfriend touch me, just so I could tell him. And so I did. Sadly, furtively, I let a tall lanky boy with ginger hair touch my breasts behind the school toilets. And the hurting and the dirty feeling didn’t go till the next lunchtime phone call where the telling of the act, which after all had been an act of love, expurgated me, made me ready to do it again. I wonder now why I did not think to lie, weave stories about ardent adolescent suitors and tell him how they longed for me and how I gave a little but not too much, but I didn’t have it in me. I was lying to everyone I knew, but not to him.
There were rules to the game. I could not lose my virginity and I had to be careful not to let a boy go further than I wanted to. I thought this meant he loved me. But he was worried I’d get into trouble, was keeping my virginity for himself, till I was sixteen and legal. I looked in books for something about my situation. Portia seemed a long time ago and I had made a different choice, been forsworn. I found Nabokov’s Lolita, carried it with me everywhere, so that it gained an almost talismanic significance, only to tear it up when Gerry shouted at me after I confessed how much I loved it. The rage in his voice made the distance between my handset and his vibrate with fury. Was that what I thought of him, that he was some fucking seedy pervert?
I was lost. I called him every lunchtime for three days but as soon as he heard my voice he hung up. So I stayed off school and took a train to the south side of Glasgow where I knew his flat was. I stood outside in my uniform, ankle deep in marzipan coloured slush, the aftermath of early snow, looking up at the six windows of his block of flats. I didn’t know exactly which one it was, and in any case would have been too afraid to knock. The next day I called again. He answered, said, ‘I saw you yesterday. You looked beautiful. Why didn’t you come to my door?’
I told him I didn’t know which flat it was. But in the relief of conversation I did not realise until he had gone that he hadn’t volunteered the information. In my maths class that afternoon I felt bereaved. He had seen me but had not come out. It was beyond my imagination. All the brightness that I thought I might have had from knowing him was gone, swiftly and surely. At my desk, I broke down and sobbed. Calculus equations that I could never fathom were obscured further by smudges of blue ink, and my bewildered maths teacher led me out of the lesson, away from the jeering students, to the common room where he made me sugary tea.
I didn’t tell him what was wrong, and to his credit, that shambling man from Inverness didn’t push me, just called for my mum to come and collect me, telling her I didn’t seem well.
By that point, my grades had begun the inevitable slide that comes with the inability to focus on anything beyond the object of one’s emotions. I was too thin, too intense, and had no friends. While I felt invincible, even beautiful, I was in fact withdrawn, angular and nervous. My parents blamed me as much as him when I explained, but soothed me with their kindness, and I made a temporary return to the childhood state I had abandoned at least two years before I met him. We told no one. I stopped phoning and, after a few months, stopped waiting for him to come for me. A year later, unexpectedly, he called. I have never known why, perhaps because of my forthcoming sixteenth birthday. My mother answered. She was quiet, then angry, but also embarrassed. I heard her say,
‘Well, she was little more than a child, you know.’ Then, ‘Perhaps it’s her you should apologise to, not me.’
But I refused the phone when she offered it, was afraid, I think, that in spite of everything, I might again fall helplessly under the enchantment of yearning that had stolen a year of my life. She placed the handset on the receiver and said, ‘Well, good riddance to bad rubbish. The last we’ll hear of him, I think.’ And it was.
Photograph courtesy of Walt Jabsco