The crisis was a slow train coming, which was also the title of Bob Dylan’s first gospel album, released in 1979. I’d sat in the Big Freezer at Bejam discussing said album with Martin Stiby, who – more open-minded than I – had bought and enjoyed the album. I’d (much) later buy it too, and even enjoy it, but for now I was in full denial of Dylan’s Christian conversion, even though I secretly loved the album’s lead single, “Precious Angel” and wished I could hear it more. That mix of denial and secret desire seemed to sum up my year.
I was in what is now called Year 13, the Upper Sixth, and I was really not doing any work at school. I was spending entire days socialising in the common room, needling my enemies, occasionally hanging out – for respite – with Steven and his nicer pals. I must emphasise: most of the unpleasantness, by now, had its source in me. The January mock exams were coming down the track, and I was about to be found wanting. I was becoming, I know, a massive pain in the arse for all of my long-suffering teachers, including the one who was trying to encourage me to apply to Cambridge, even though I was in fact heading for three U grades.
I rarely get ill, properly ill, but when it did happen, it was always something major that poleaxed me. When I was seven or eight, I got whooping cough, which involved missing a whole term of school. I met someone years later, in the tax office (my first full-time job) who shared with me the theory that I was so skinny because I’d had whooping cough when I was a kid. And the conversation started with the skinniness and the guess that whooping cough was the cause, so maybe. When my metabolism changed in my mid-20s and I started to gain weight, it certainly felt like a switch had been thrown.
Glandular Fever is often called the Kissing Disease, because you can pass it around through saliva. It’s also called Pfeiffer’s Disease or Infectious Mononucleosis or (my favourite, for obvious reasons) mono. I don’t believe my mono was caused by kissing, and I don’t know who started it, but it was almost certainly spread among my friendship group via milk cartons. Every lunchtime, we’d go up to the local shops and buy a pint of milk each. When we had little money, we might share one between us. Sharing a carton of milk with Sean and John is probably how I caught it. Which of us had it first, though? Was it latent in me after that brief kiss with Sarah? Or Fiona? Or did Sean bring his Outside Germs into the circle? Or John via Linda? Or John via some unnamed third party? Who was patient zero?
It was the last thing I needed, really, time off school. School was my refuge, my escape from the horrible atmosphere of home. But I started to get ill, and felt properly, feverishly ill enough one night to go scrabbling through the drawers at home for drugs (something, anything) to take. In the end, in my craziness, I took one of my mum’s old slimming pills, which (because it was basically speed) kept me up all night writing poetry. The next day I stayed off school and went to the doctor, where I met John in the waiting room: he too had had a torrid night and was in for a check-up.
We were both sent for blood tests, and before we left I confessed, sotto voice, to John, that I was concerned my consumption of my mum’s slimming pill amphetamine would show up in the bloods. A woman sitting next to us smiled knowingly, indulgently, as if she’d overheard.
This woman, it turned out, was Interesting Sarah’s mother, a friend and work colleague of my mother. I never did know if she’d reported exactly what I’d said, but my mum certainly mentioned that Mrs Interesting had seen me down at the surgery, which only added to my paranoia.
What month was it? Late November? Early December? It was my birthday around then; I received Springsteen’s latest album The River as my 18th birthday present. Whenever it was, we were told to stay off school. John got very ill: throat so closed that he couldn’t swallow his own spit. Unknown to us, Sean too was ill: so sick that he ended up on a kidney machine. Meanwhile, I certainly had swollen glands and a sore throat, but apart from that I was asymptomatic, and so fit that (although I stayed away from school), I was able to go in to work my shifts in Bejam. I needed the money to feed my album buying habit. I promise I didn’t lick any ice-cream lids.
I was given soluble Co-Codamol to gargle and (my favourite drug ever) a throat spray with novocaine (?) that I could aim at my tonsils to numb them. This spray lasted till well into the new year, and I was sad when it ran out. By then, I’d left home and was living down in Herne Bay with my sister.
So I wasn’t that ill, but I was occasionally feverish. It was after a particularly bad night that my sister woke me up, early in the morning on December 9 1980, with the news that John Lennon had been shot. I remember feeling so out of it that the news seemed like part of the fever dream I’d been having.
That autumn, Lennon had been actively promoting his new (and not very good) record Double Fantasy. He was all over the newspapers, and he’d been giving his first interviews in five years. That day, December 9th, Andy Peebles of Radio 1 broadcast a lot of his interviews with Lennon, and I indulged myself, off school, in listening to the radio built into the all-valve stereogram all day long.
Lennon had also given major interviews to Newsday magazine and Playboy. It was the admission, in the Newsday interview, that he’d ‘lied’ in previous interviews that prompted his assassin to label him a phoney, and decide to murder him.
The more high profile and in-depth interview, though, was in Playboy, and it was my newly minted 18-year old self that steeled himself to buy a copy of that magazine in Martin, the newsagents, on the day that I went to the doctor to get the All Clear from mono.
I was showing very few symptoms then, in late December. The school term was more or less over, but – was there? – one last 6th Form party beckoning, and I wanted to go. I don’t clearly remember, the memory is hazy. This may have a lot to do with the illness (too many feverish nights), but also the increasing difficulties at home and associated emotional fallout. I have flashbulb memories only of that month, the month I left home, and a more detailed and granular memory of this one day.
I got my Dad to drop me in town, and I went to the doctors, alone, to be examined and told that I was more or less okay. Still a few blisters on the tonsils, but no temperature, and I probably wasn’t infectious as long as I didn’t kiss anyone. Then I walked across to the Quadrant and went to Martins to buy Playboy. This was nervewracking, because tame as it was, it still felt like buying porn, carrying the same social stigma.
With the magazine placed discretely in a brown paper bag, I stepped out of Martins into the Quadrant and bumped into – didn’t see this coming – Sarah, whom I hadn’t seen since the night of the party at which we’d briefly danced and kissed. I hadn’t pursued her, couldn’t get my head around the idea that she’d be interested in me, couldn’t get my mind off my other obsessions for long enough to see there was even a possibility. I couldn’t even tell you how long it had been. Time is either compressed or stretched, I don’t know. How long had John and Linda been going out? Sarah was by then 19, still interesting, probably working full-time, but today was her day off – the one she got for working on Saturday. We stopped to pass the time of day. She kind of smirked at the Playboy I was carrying and my protestations that I’d bought it for the articles — or at least one of them. I think we may have separated, but then we saw each other again a bit later on (I was wandering around town) and she suggested I go home with her for a cup of tea.
This was the day I discovered that she had a hinterland, that she was even more interesting than I’d given her credit for.
She lived in a terraced house in Albion Street near the centre of town, which wasn’t very far away from the Quadrant shops – just diagonally across High Street North (which was the Northbound A5, Watling Street). Albion Street was a row of terraced houses dating from the late 19th or early 20th centuries. We walked up the side alleyway and into the back door. I would later live in a house just like it, in Nottingham. There was an ironing board set up in the kitchen – one of her chores while her mother was at work. The house was empty – or was her shift-working Dad upstairs asleep? It seemed there was a need for discretion and quiet, at least. She shifted the ironing out of the way and made a cup of tea. She gently took the Playboy, in its brown bag, off me, and put it on the side in the kitchen: ‘We’ll just leave this… here, shall we?’ she said, softly, smiling.
We went into the back room, the one with the record player in it. The subject of Lennon had opened her up, and she said they had some Beatles records, and they did. The record player was a mono portable ’suitcase’ style one, like the one I’d first used to listen to records. It was under a cupboard, and she pulled it out and the singles collection, and we played a few 45s and drank tea and talked. There were a few Beatles discs, including a couple of rare EPs, plus some other artists like The Small Faces and the Kinks. One of the Beatles EPs had ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ on it, and I remember coveting it. I assume the 45s belonged to her parents or an older sibling, much as the first records I’d adopted had. She was kneeling on the floor, so she could change the records, and I was sitting in an arm chair. She was sweet and kind and close enough to kiss had I leaned into it, but I didn’t. For a start, I didn’t want to give her my glandular fever. That day seems like an oasis now, a moment of still calm in my teenage turmoil, an hour or so spent with someone who seemed content to enjoy the moment without trying to force an issue. I wish I could remember more, but the crux of the conversation was that because we had discovered our mothers were friends, we decided that we could never have a relationship.
It seems silly now, of course, a feeble excuse, just something you might say at first and then get over quite quickly. Maybe if I’d stuck around longer, if we’d seen each other a few more times, that objection might have seemed trivial. But that was it. I made my excuses and left, as they say, and I never spoke to her again. She wasn’t to know that I’d be leaving town just a few days later, and I never tried to get in touch. I did catch sight of her a couple of years later, another place, another time, but we never spoke. It may be that I’m kidding myself: that she really wasn’t interested and that I’m just fantasising about a missed opportunity, but I don’t think so. She’d shown enough interest, and enough perseverance, tolerance even, over time, and she didn’t have to invite me home for tea. And the tea was just tea, which isn’t to say that it couldn’t have been more, but I was genuinely concerned not to pass the mono onto her, so there was no question of kissing. And this matters to me so much, not because I want to wallow in my missed opportunities, but because this brief interlude was one of the few occasions that I climbed out of my self-absorption for long enough to notice anything that was going on around me.
Life back then is a series of blank pages wrapped around unpleasantness. That record playing session with Sarah is a bright spot, the eye of my personal hurricane.
I went home. I remember, briefly, dropping into school just before the end of term. I don’t remember if I ever went to that last sixth form party. The only part of going back to school I remember is climbing the stairs in the sixth form block in a crowd of students. Even then, I was too conscious of the effect I wanted to be having: hey, I’m back. Of course, I was thinking I was the protagonist in my own story, but I was really just a minor character in someone else’s.
Christmas came, Boxing Day, and the final row erupted. On December 27, I left home.