The day before my fifteenth birthday, I’m on the bank of a river, attempting to have sex with a boy I hardly know. He’s a year older and would be the first person who came to mind if I heard the name Rumpelstiltskin. This is partly to do with his gnomish qualities – the shortness of his body as compared to the largeness of his head and features – but also to do with a sense of trickery.
Though, of course, we’re both drunk; we both had agendas at the party that night.
A mixture of noises from the house party fill the background so that the river seems to flow without a sound – a ghost. The night is dark, but the moon comes through the trees, laying silver beads on the ground around me, which twist and spin in my drunkenness. I’m trying to take my trousers off without having removed my boots – a stupidity that makes proper sex tricky.
Proper sex. What is that?
Certainly not something I know the answer to at age fourteen. Yet, here I am, yanking at my trousers, aided by a boy I’ve spoken to only a handful of times, wriggling and laughing with him on top of me.
It was the summer holidays. I’d arrived at the party late, coming into the garden on my own. A bonfire blazed – dozens of kids, sitting round with their faces shimmering orange. I was in my favourite purple jeans, Doc Martens boots.
I suppose I still see these two items of clothing in my mind because they featured highly that night. I don’t remember what else I was wearing, only that I stole someone’s top later in the evening, mortified, desperate to cover myself with as many extra layers as possible.
I approach the fire. There, with his arm around another girl, was my supposed boyfriend. He’d chased me only weeks before, finally persuading me to go out with him. But then the school holidays had come.
How stupid I feel to have thought we’d both remain faithful. I want to run, but the only thing I can do is keep moving forward.
As people make way for me to sit, my boyfriend looks up and sees me. There, above the flames, our eyes meet, with the fact of this other girl between us: a girl who is delicately boned – deeply pretty in that feminine way. She is a fairy and I suddenly feel like a mule.
My boyfriend’s arm remains on her shoulders. There isn’t even a flicker in his features – in fact, he looks presumptuous, smiling to me about his predicament. His expression says: go on, do the same, with someone else. As well as that, his face contains an element of self-admiration. Aren’t I fair? his chin says, rising up high above his neck.
What can I do with this pain, sliding into my heart, needle-like, yet accompanied by a very powerful instinct to act like I don’t care?
I sit down and wait until someone says something funny, and then I laugh as loud as I can.
And now, I’m talking to a boy. He seems to like me, and I can’t quite believe my luck, so I decide to ignore the fact he looks like a gnome.
This was twenty years ago, before the internet, facebook, twitter. Today, school kids’ most tender experiences can be broadcast to the world before they’ve had a chance to process them and realise that they do still like themselves, despite their mistakes.
I found it hard enough imagining what Rumpelstiltskin would say to his mates about what occurred on the river bank – what if I’d been able to read the conversation online; the words or phrases they used to describe me?
I walked away from the water, back to the house – or perhaps I ran, because I do remember how I was hit by a sudden understanding as I lay on that damp, river bank. I passed no one. The house was empty, desolate almost – with the whole party still going on outside in the dark. Screams and laughter. People coupling up and slinking off together. My now ex-boyfriend with his new girl.
I stood in the sitting room, with only the furniture around me and wondered what I was going to do. I already felt as if everybody knew. A weight of shame, that was surely beyond my own, was bearing down on me.
If this had happened now – this weekend – instead of writing this blog post, I might be scrolling through photos on someone’s facebook page. There’s my drunken body in the darkness with a boy I hardly know, the two of us, running away with ourselves – no idea of responsibility, of what comes next.
I spent most of my time at school, fearful that people would know my deepest embarrassments: they were often so crippling it was hard to believe they weren’t visible to the world. But what if I was certain the whole world could know them, simply by clicking on a link? This story might have been criticized while I was still vulnerable, not strong enough to take the opinions of others, which are often soaked with their infinite agendas.
Last week, I was at a funk and soul festival. As I lay on the grass, listening to the music, I was struck by the bravery of all those artists, standing up on stage. It was a contrast to the week before when I’d been working with a group of teenagers. I watched these fragile school kids. I read their inner lives through their movements, the sound of their voices, and I tried to create enough safety so that, for a moment, they could open themselves up and experience what it is to let your soul grow large.
The headline act at the festival was Candi Staton. Suddenly, a tune I know so well started playing.
I was thinking of Romeo and Juliet – Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, fighting above everything to be together; fighting so hard they kill themselves, so strong is their desire.
I’m not that wayward fourteen year old anymore, but I haven’t forgotten what it is to feel your heart so powerfully that you do whatever it says, with no room for thought of the cost. I suspect poor Rumpelstiltskin was just as mortified as I was, although I wasn’t level-headed enough back then to consider that.
I’m always inspired by how unbound youth can be, but I also remember that it’s hard to be young. Growing up, I felt I was the only one going through what I was going through. I didn’t know how to talk – there were no words to match my feelings.
Through my travelling and writing, I have reached a point of contentment. I love the opportunities I get to teach people some of the little I know – honoured that my amazing students value what I say. But, I wish I could give everybody a magical charm that could help.
This weekend, I suddenly realised something. Towards the end of Candi’s set, she finally sang You’ve got the love.
I felt passion, rising up through my legs, strong in my chest and then finally the lightest, blissful feeling in my cheeks. After the song, the band continued with the melody and Candi began to talk over the music. Tears were running out of my eyes.
She knew what it was to be deep in difficult times, and her answer was simple: you’ve got the love.
We all have the capacity to care for ourselves – to be the best friend we’ve always wanted. Strange that we find it so hard. We’re too busy being hard on ourselves, I guess!
I was guilty of this – walking away from that boy on the river bank, hurrying towards the house to find some privacy.
I had allowed the sight of my boyfriend with his arm around another girl to make me hate myself – I wasn’t pretty enough to keep me safe from pain. So, I embraced the opportunity to sneak away from the fire with Rumpelstiltskin. When he asked me if I wanted to have sex, it felt wrong through my insides, but I couldn’t express myself in words. The alcohol was running through me so that I wasn’t there, it wasn’t really me.
I don’t want BABIES! I managed to say, giggling.
But it was okay, Rumpelstiltskin had a condom.
There my excuse went, floating down the river, leaving me with nothing else that I could articulate. My confidence was so shattered that a simple, no thanks never even occurred to me.
After I finally decided that yanking at my trousers, and having him struggling on top of me, was beginning to be a total pain, I stood up.
This is lame, I said, doing up my belt and turning to go.
Hey, Rumpelstiltskin shouted. What about me?
Do it yourself, I told him and walked away.
But as I went, I thought: he’ll tell people I can’t satisfy a man. And already I was blaming myself for the truth of that.
I wasn’t able to see I shouldn’t have been there in the first place – that actually I’d done the right thing, which is whatever you have to do look after yourself, to be yourself. And when you make that choice, life suddenly goes the right way.
There I am, standing in the house, trying to find something warm to wear, picking up a hooded top, wrapping it around me, thinking: how can I have enough layers to cover up this awful feeling? And then I hear a noise in the gravel driveway outside.
I move to the window and the security light comes, shining on the figure of a boy I’d known since I was three – a wonderful, honorary brother. He’s in a pair of wellington boots, an old smoking jacket of his father’s, and a pair of crumpled boxer shorts.
I run outside.
What are you doing here? I squeak.
He tells me he heard the music from his bedroom and finally decided to check it out.
I got stopped by the police the first time, he says. So, I went back to the house and waited half an hour and set off again.
I can see his eagerness at arriving, how he looks over my shoulder, attempting to catch a glimpse of something – forever curious.
What’s happening? he asks, about to swing himself off the bike.
I touch him on the arm.
Listen, I say.
Nothing, but…can you take me home?
As his eyes meet mine I glance away, still too raw to be looked into.
Sure, he says. Let’s go.
A big shout out this week to Vincenzo who has been trawling through my blog posts with admirable dedication. In his words: ‘The beauty of an imaginative soul is the power to visualize vitality even when reality is insipid and cold.’
For those of you interested in what I wrote about the Mostly Jazz, Funk and Soul last year – when I was lucky enough to have an actual conversation with the main man himself, Monsieur Craig Charles – click ici.
And a final standing ovation for Johnny at The Boathouse Pub in Tewkesbury for his winning seabass, well worth the trip for anyone in the area.